Dutch Design Heroes: Gert Dumbar

By Graham Sturt
Creative Director at VBAT

Gert Dumbar in conversation with Graham Sturt. Image: Tijs Kramer

Introduction –
For the second in the series of Dutch Design Heroes I travelled to The Hague with Tijs Kramer, one of our design interns, to meet with Gert Dumbar, founder of
Studio Dumbar. I admit to feeling a little nervous in the run up to this one as, of all the big names on my list, Dumbar’s work had been the biggest influence on me during my graphic design studies at University in Hull. These worries were soon set aside though by a perfect example of Dutch directness. On arrival at The Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, where Gert Dumbar has been teaching since 2003, we approached the reception desk to announce our arrival for the interview. Expecting some sort of special treatment as the guest of a famous person my bubble was metaphorically burst when the unenthusiastic young receptionist looked at me blankly and replied ‘And?’
Fortunately I had already texted Dumbar ahead of our arrival and I saw him approaching whilst the world weary receptionist returned to his key duties of looking out of the window at the rain.

On meeting Gert Dumbar my previous nerves were diminished as he is an incredibly amiable and charming man in person. On our short walk from reception to the student canteen to grab a coffee before the interview we passed several students. Mostly all of these greeted Gert with genuine warmth which he reciprocated in kind.

Over our coffee, and as a way to get an initial introduction to his playful thought process, Gert explained to me some of his unorthodox teaching methods at the Royal Academy. These came in the form of two projects — ‘Ants’ and ‘Elves’ — he sets his students. Without going into too much detail early on (you will hear more about the ‘Elves’ project later in the interview) I could see there and then why the students were so enthusiastic about this man and that this would be an interesting conversation.

With our introductions over and our coffee finished, Gert led us to the grand splendor of the Gipsen Zaal (Plaster Room) where the interview was to be held.

Opening –

GS: You must have been interviewed many, many times. 
What’s the question everyone asks you, are you bored of being asked it and do you have a stock answer prepared for it?

GD: No, I don’t have a stock answer prepared for it. I try to be as unique as possible and, of course, certain questions I must answer in the same way but I was particularly interested in the next question.

GS: Is there a question which is never asked which you think should be? 
If so, what is that question and your answer to it?

GD: Well my hobby, and I have different hobbies, is fighting a crusade, for over 20 years now, against marketing driven design. Nobody ever asked me about this subject and my answer is that marketing driven design, in my opinion, kills all the spontaneity of a good creative idea by a talented designer. There is always this filter of marketing people who suddenly behave as the experts on Graphic Design. I’m talking specifically about Graphic Design here. They bring in alterations or comments, not to satisfy themselves but only to satisfy their clients or the board of directors of a company, to make them sure that they are on the right track because it has gone through a filter of marketing people. That is one thing and secondly marketing people, in general, present themselves and their profession as scientific. It has never been a scientific profession because simply it’s not possible. It’s too dumb and simple in my opinion that it could be a scientific profession which you can study at universities. For me it is American capitalistic rubbish, simple as that. Mind you, it’s my personal opinion and I’ve seen it happening in Holland but before that I saw it happening in England. In England there are a lot of very talented designers whose ideas got killed by marketing people. I could see that during my period as president of the D&AD. I was already confronted there by the upcoming wave of marketing, which was not the case here in Holland, so I warned them to look out that there was a possibility that your original ideas will be crushed by marketing. This happened by the way. Thank you very much for asking that question!

Dutch Design –

GS: We’re talking today as the second of a series of creative conversations I’m conducting with industry figures I consider to be Dutch Design Heroes. 
As a young Graphic Design degree student at Humberside Polytechnic between 1990–1993 the work you were creating for clients such as PTT, The Dutch Police, Holland Festival and many others ignited a significant curiosity in me for Dutch Design which, in turn, led me to move here many years later. As such it’s a great honour to meet with you this afternoon.

PTT identity by Studio Dumbar. Source: Indexgrafik.fr
Dutch Police Identity by Studio Dumbar. Source: studiodumbar.com
Poster for Holland Festival 1987. Source: Designobserver.com

I didn’t realise this before researching you but you famously claim to be the originator of the term ‘Dutch Design’ through the touring exhibitions you created in the early seventies for the Ministry of Culture. Tell me more about these exhibitions and the motivations for creating them. Ultimately how did they succeed in their objective of bringing Design created in The Netherlands to a wider, global audience?

GD: In those days I was aware that there was something happening in Holland which was rather new and that was design for the public sector. The only important previous example was in the twenties for the PTT by Jean François van Royen. He was aware of the design of the forms, the interiors and the furniture for some PTT officials. He was a book printer himself so he also had this extra sense of aesthetics.

Print of the engraving for the summer stamp, Netherlands, 1947, Jean Francois van Royen. Source: geheugenvannederland.nl
Sketches for stamp 1934, Crisis Comité, Jean Francois van Royen. Source: geheugenvannederland.nl

After coming back from RCA I got immediately involved in Tel Design which was then the second studio in Holland after Total Design. Both did similar work at the beginning with the exception that Total Design got some finances set up from the Zwart brothers and Tel Design had nothing. We built it up from scratch. It was originally an industrial design studio but they asked me to join them and start a graphic design unit. We were lucky that in the competition with Total Design we got the job for the corporate identity of the Dutch railways. That was in those days something completely new.

A young Gert Dumbar taking photos of the NS corporate identity. Source: Studiodumbar.com

The public was shocked and the employees of the railways too. The train drivers didn’t want to drive a yellow train, calling it a ‘canary bird’ or ‘the banana’. Those extremely bureaucratic things were actually very good for your publicity. In fact, that is the beginning of the birth of a thing which became very popular in Holland — design for the public sector. The Dutch public sector started to be aware that to talk to the Dutch public you need design. In this case visual design or graphic design and so the climate was very good for that. 
Here and there I noticed there were small city councils starting with corporate identity and the PTT already nominated a very important figure who was Hein van Haaren, then the head of their Aesthetic Department.

Hein van Haaren. Source: rkd.nl

They started doing wonderful things because he had an incredible budget to give jobs to artists, architects, landscape architects, furniture designers, industrial designers and graphic designers. They at that moment became the biggest client for all of these creative professions in Holland. And then Hein van Haaren initiated the idea that it might be interesting to put these things together in an exhibition. I said “Yes of course Hein, we should go to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs”. Being in The Hague I knew Cultural Affairs was always fighting with Foreign Affairs and as you know when you want to move bureaucrats and politicians you must set them up against each other. I went there and got a fantastic budget to start assembling with some people who were also in the committee. We were the curators of this exhibition. I made the Ministry of Culture aware that Dutch Design was an excellent exhibition which should travel to all the cultural attaches of the Dutch government. I also found out that these cultural attaches always loved to show those stupid Delft blue tiles or the very well known prints of Rembrandt. I thought it was about time that we got rid of that and show a new aspect of the Dutch culture. I called the exhibition ‘Dutch Design’ in big letters on the poster. It was at the same time the programme because I always liked to work cheaply for the client. When you folded the programme and opened it on the backside it was the poster. It was a big success I must say.

Dutch Design for the public sector. Source: Indexgrafik.fr

It travelled across Europe to all the embassies, on the initiative of the cultural attaches. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs were not amused however and they approached me a few years later to start a new exhibition on Dutch Design which went worldwide. They had more money and they could finger their nose to the Ministry of Culture. That’s the way you have to treat politicians! That exhibition travelled literally to all corners of the world. I designed it, the first and second one, in such a way that it was very cheap to build. Two men could erect the whole thing in one day. I designed it out of very flexible elements which makes it part of a ‘Dutch Design’ — practicality. The exhibition caused very interesting reactions because when it was in Denmark the Danish Post Master decided to step in and also do something with design. In Indonesia it triggered off corporate identity for the Indonesian Railways and it was an inspiration for the officials and politicians in different countries who were interested in design for the public sector. They got this feeling or this glimpse of inspiration or spark to make them think ‘let’s do a similar thing in our own country’. That’s why you can say it was a success.

GS: What impact do you think Dutch Design has had internationally and is it still as relevant today?

GD: There is a secret in Dutch Design but it applies more in graphics and not so much in three dimensional design. The Dutch, by nature, have no respect for authority and you can hide that easier in graphic design than in furniture say. By that I must think on the words of a man I admired my whole life, the Austrian Philosopher Otto Neurath. He said the magic words — ‘Words divide and images unite’. If you apply that to Graphic Design you can easily show that a lot of Dutch Graphic Designers, especially from a younger generation, still have no respect for authority. I think this is one of the flexible things which makes Dutch Design still very fresh. It has been adopted by a lot of people though who suddenly say ‘I’m Dutch Design’. Carpet makers or even third hand furniture manufacturers use the term now and it’s become more of a cliché. So on the point, please don’t use those words anymore! I don’t think there is much modesty in my answers as I’ve suddenly got all pompous!

GS: Are there any contemporary design agencies currently working in the Netherlands that epitomise your view of Dutch Design?

GD: No, no, not anymore. All the agencies are gone. There are small design groups which you can find if you look with a magnifying glass with the spirit of Dutch Design which I had. But not only me but others like Gerard Hadders who had this same optimism about Dutch Design. In Dutch Design there is also some wittiness but there are not any agencies as far as I know. Some students that finish here I regard as very talented have it, but they just disappear because there is no work for them. Don’t forget that we are living in another time and while we were working there was enough work. There was not an international financial crisis and everything was possible more or less.

But still there are young Dutch designers who can ‘put their back straight’ — that’s a Dutch expression which means working out of some idealism. 
This idealism means that the fun is more important than making lots of money. Therefore they are prepared to sacrifice luxury life or life with a lot of money. Those are the real ones.

Early life –

GS: You were born in Indonesia, and spent three years of your early life in a Japanese concentration camp. What particular memories do you have of this time?

GD: Due to the fact that my mother was able to smuggle a radio into the camp and we had electricity she was able to hear the news coming from Radio Australia. She could follow the successes of the Americans and Russians against the Germans and that allowed her to share the news with inmates in the camp. We were totally cut off from any other information. This meant she had a very positive attitude to help other people with this really good news and she could also convey this optimism to my sister and I. I don’t have very bad feelings about my stay in the Japanese concentration camp.

GS: Do you still maintain connections with Indonesia? If so, in what way?

GD: I spent in total 11 years living in Indonesia and later on I came back. I was born and raised in Bandung and not far from where we used to live is the best university which is where I taught. The academy (ITB) is linked with the University of Bandung.

GS: Tell me about your early life and the choices you made that led you to follow a creative education.

GD: At high school I was always obsessed by painting and drawing. At around the age of 15 I was very interested in the history of modern art, starting with the early impressionists, expressionism and then the years of the 1920’s. Also my grandmother was a very good amateur painter so I started painting in her art studio. I was always involved in painting and I started at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague after leaving high school but then a year later I decided to change to graphic design which became my main goal.

GS: Who were your design heroes?

I already mentioned Otto Neurath, who worked together with Gerd Arntz. Later on I became good friends with Gerd Arntz who did a project with me in my studio. Those two were my heroes, especially Otto Neurath.
Another hero was Paul Schuitema who was teaching at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague when I was there. He is one of the founders, together with Piet Zwart, the Russian Constructivists and the Bauhaus, of modern graphic design. Another hero when I was at The Royal College of Art was Anthony Froshaug. Also I was very much influenced by Jock Kinneir who was the man responsible for the British road signs with Margaret Calvert. 
The person who really influenced me up until today was Piet Mondrian. He had a very big collection here at The Hague Museum of Art and I visited it when I was 15. I was flabbergasted. Even though I didn’t understand anything I was really attracted to it and it was very important for me.

GS: I understand you were quite rebellious in your youth and spent a great deal of your education not listening to your tutors at the Royal Academy of Arts here in The Hague. Can you tell me about this period of your early life?

GD: It has a lot to do with my tropical background because I was involved in two wars. The first was the war with the Japanese (World War 2) and the second was to do with the Indonesian freedom fighters and that meant I was always prepared to be mobile. I think I also had a mobile mind but in the tropics you have to be more mobile than here in Europe so it was also a question of improvisation. I think that influenced me in a way that was not rebellious but I was very independent.

GS: Did this rebellious streak manifest itself in your later life as a graphic designer? If so, how?

GD: In a way this did when clients came in. Most clients come in with this big brief and my designers and I would read this brief and then very quickly we would debrief the client in the way or direction we wanted to work which they really appreciated. In fact you could call this rebellious but it’s not really the case. I was not interested in marketing as I told you before. It was more the fun of designing and this energy which was rather important for our success. I must say I had wonderful clients here in Holland and outside. Sometimes I mention in interviews it’s not important to build a statue for Graphic Designers and that it’s actually far more important to make one for the Dutch client.

GS: You’ve been a tutor at the Royal Academy in The Hague since 2003. How has the method of teaching changed here since you were a student and how do you yourself deal with rebellious students?

GD: Things changed incredibly due to new media and everything that is possible now. What I try to do is stimulate the idea of engagement more in my students so this generation becomes far more aware of the aspects which we are all confronted with like the environment and sustainability. I also try to bring in some humour in my teaching programmes and that’s sometimes difficult.

It’s knowledge, engagement and humour — those are the three principles behind my lessons here in The Hague. I also say ‘don’t listen to the teachers’ of course. Oh and another thing is don’t use Helvetica please!

GS: From the Royal Academy you went on to study at the Royal College of Art in London. How did you find studying in England? What were the major differences culturally?

GD: In England at Royal College of Art the level was far higher and there was an incredible dynamic. It was recently nominated as the best design school in the world. The fact that there were very famous people giving lectures from all over the world was for me very exciting and instead of two years we had to do three years. English society in those days was very different to Dutch society and I really liked the English way of living and the standard of illustration there. England still produces the best illustrators in the world in my opinion. Illustration was a very important way of communication at the Royal College of Art which is not the case at the Royal Academy in The Hague. And, of course, the famous British humour which I was very attracted to. We had a lot of Scottish and English eccentrics in our year — they were my best friends! 
Peter Blake was my photo model and David Hockney was around so it was an exciting time to be there.

GS: What did you see as the major differences between Dutch vs British Design?

GD: The Dutch were very simple and straightforward and the British had more sense of elegance, more decoration in a good sense of the word. In a positive way, it was more decadent. Holland has been throughout the centuries a libertine country and also a diverse ethnic mix of people. I think due to this, one can say Dutch design has been eclectic, trans-historical and inventive, with a lack of respect for authority. In Holland it’s also always been more social minded. If you were an avante-garde graphic designer in Holland you had to be politically left, which I still am by the way. In Britain it was not so important, there was not so much politics involved. For Dutch and British design I was very enthusiastic and embraced them both and enjoyed them equally.

Studio Dumbar –

GS: You founded Studio Dumbar in 1977. Why did you form the agency at that point in your life?

GD: At that point I was working at Tel Design and some new partners came in. They were more interested in only making money while I was interested in the fun of making money. That was the difference and I had more trust in creativity. That caused a split.

GS: Within the Netherlands the agency quickly established itself through it’s iconic designs for the public sector. What were the first key clients you secured in this sector?

GD: Our first key client was the PTT which I negotiated from Tel Design so I could take them to my new studio. Also the Dutch Railways (NS). Both clients made it clear to Tel Design that they preferred to stay with me.

GS: Your work for the Dutch telecom and post authorities (PTT) set a new precedent for ‘corporate’ identity in as much as it allowed for a vast range of interpretation within it’s scheme. I think you describe this as ‘the concept of the logo as an idea.’ Tell me about your concept for the PTT and how you got the client on-side with such a seemingly complicated identity.

GD: I must say the PTT was an ideal client. It was the biggest client for good architects, landscape architects, fine artists and designers. The PTT had a very well organized Aesthetics Department and even before the war they had a very influential director who was very aware of the importance of designing their items. PTT already had good experience of working with designers and then came the idea of a new corporate identity with a pitch between Tel Design and Total Design. Then the head of the Aesthetics Department, Hein van Haaren, suggested to Wim Crouwel and myself ‘It’s interesting for you to work together on this project because you are somewhat extremes’ — Wim was all about grids and I was into grids of course but also more illustration, photography and that sort of thing. I said that was a historical idea and suggestion and I was immediately in favour of it and Wim also. We both came to the conclusion that it would be a exciting experiment and then, in fact, we started working together. It was absolutely unique in the design history of Holland that two studios which are at extremes were working with this prestigious client. It was clever of Hein van Haaren to mobilise us and I must say we really enjoyed working together. We had joint presentations in each others studios which was very exciting also for my designers. That was corporate identity number one.

Corporate identity manual for Dutch Post and Telecommunications 1989

A few years later there was a second corporate identity project, which Studio Dumbar worked on alone, when the postal and telecom services went to the stockmarket.

Later on PTT asked us, Studio Dumbar, to carry on with this flame of enthusiasm so we designed these symbols but in my head I already had these little blocks. I didn’t tell because they were tactics and a strategy with the client. Then I came up with the idea that theoretically you can split this form into an endless range of possibilities which are all based, in some way, on it in either proportion or form. What happens if you propose this to the client that from this you can have endless variations or expressions across various different media. It was a very simple step, never done before. By that time the PTT was the biggest client for applied design in Holland. With this system I was able to give fellow designers the freedom to vary their design possibilities. The elements allowed them to interpret the corporate identity in their way without losing the sender. 
That inspired so many Dutch graphic designers to say ‘wait a moment, we now have this, this is far more interesting’. Gerard Hadders, especially, did some really beautiful things with it. It became such a remarkable and, at the same time, recognizable corporate identity that at a certain moment we didn’t need to put PTT on anything because the Dutch public understood it. This was new for the Dutch public but they grasped it. As an example of this the person who was responsible for the crockery for the canteens said ‘Dumbar you are a good artist but don’t mess around, just put the PTT logo on our cups’. I said ‘Of course’ but then secretly designed a version using the blocks with no logo and the PTT loved it.

In those days it was the most stolen canteen crockery in Holland! It was not my intention, of course, but it illustrates how to work with an idealism.

If you believe in something try to convince your client. And you can always convince your client by waving your arms to make them enthusiastic too.

PTT Crockery (in assocoation with Dawn Barrett), 1989. Source: Studio Dumbar

That’s what I said to my clients ‘Look I’m waving my arms so you must believe me’ and they would all start laughing. Then I could sell my ideas.

The PTT identity system was all over Holland, on buildings, on vehicles, everywhere at random. It was here the art historians came to the conclusion that I was a Post Modernist, which is nonsense. This is only Modernism with a sense of humour. That’s all. And all these art historians say ‘this is Post Modernism’ and I say rubbish. It’s all rubbish. It’s essentially Visual Esperanto!

GS: In recent history the PTT was divested, creating new organisations for telecom (KPN) and post (PostNL). How do you feel about the identities for these entities?

GD: It’s all politics. I don’t have so much feelings for it. Let me put it this way, even the PTT CEO later came to me and said ‘This was such a success that when I went to America to collect money the American bankers wanted to have a ballpoint pen with the PTT corporate identity on it’. That was a nice and friendly compliment he gave me. It worked. I have to say it was also the case that the PTT was experienced with dealing with designers because they had a proper Aesthetics Department then which they don’t have now. Nowadays corporate identity, well leave it. It seems to be all about money and it kills design. I’m not so interested any more.

GS: With a diverse roster of clients from NS to Holland Festival your agencies work bridged both the corporate and cultural sectors in a seemingly effortless way which I think most agencies today would find very hard to emulate. How did you manage to make the agency interesting for clients from each end of this spectrum?

GD: Well in your research you’ve left out a important period in my life that is my work for Zeebelt Theatre. I established, together with someone else, a theatre here in The Hague which dealt with theatre in relation to art, music, graphic design, dance and architecture. We were successful and people travelled from far away to see our performances. I did it because I didn’t have time to do it. I thought it would be an interesting laboratory for Studio Dumbar if we gave all our designers an opportunity to do the publicity.

Studio Dumbar’s work for Zeebelt Theatre. Source: studiodumbar.com

In that moment the designer was the client and the designer at the same time. They could express themselves in a way which was inspiring. This, was for me, a pure laboratory where the designers could go really very far. This was also the period where we worked together with Cranbrook Academy in Detroit which was at that moment the most avante-garde art school in America. The Head of Graphic Design Catherine McCoy visited me and was so impressed by the way we approached our work that she asked if she could send some interns. I said ‘of course’ and there is a lot of influence from Cranbrook Academy in this work as well.

The Dutch public was confronted by this sort of avant-garde typography but for my designers Zeebelt was the ideal laboratory, a sort of scientific experiment.

It enabled us to get interesting cultural clients like The Holland Festival and The Holland Dance Festival where we could experiment with typography and image.

Posters Holland Dance Festival. Source: Studiodumbar.com

We also organized big international design congresses as at that time you could go to the Ministry of Culture Affairs and say ‘I need 150,000 Guilders for a congress’ and they gave it because we created such a well prepared programme. They also trusted me because of the success of the Dutch Design travelling exhibition no.2 and they knew it would be in good hands.

GS: Within your work you are credited as the first Dutch designer to use staged photography in their work. You also famously say in your poster work you were more obsessed by the image than you were by the typography.

GD: Yes, it is mixed but the typography tends to become more of an image. I created the posters for the Holland Dance Festival with Bob van Dijk. You must not forget that all the work is not only from me. I inspired my talented colleagues in the studio. Together we would have a dialogue and sketch and work it out. That is the work of Studio Dumbar. The structure of the studio was very flat, unlike British studios. In fact I deliberately had nothing to say except one thing — ‘Please no Helvetica’. (laughs) For the rest I let them free. It was the first design studio I think where the designers could sign their name on the work they did. We also did a profit share as well. To give an answer on this, yes, I made an image from typography. But still due to this, I’ll come back to my very first point ‘Marketing driven design’, if I had shown this to a marketing guy who was working for Holland Dance Festival he would say ‘Oh Mr Dumbar, this doesn’t work at all’. But I happened to sit in the board of Holland Dance Festival and I heard that research has shown that this sort of expression provided an increase of 19% more ticket sales. This is exactly what I mean. I believe within pure graphic design there is magic which is taken away by marketeers. That is my opinion.

GS: Your design approach called ‘staged photography’ became a strong recognisable motif for many designers in poster design for the Dutch cultural sector for a long period. How do you feel about this appropriation of your methods and were there any designers you felt did this to great effect?

GD: No!. Many copied this idea. We didn’t mind and were too lazy to ask them to stop.

GS: One of your first pieces of ‘staged photography’ was the famous Mondrian poster wasn’t it?

Poster for the permanent Mondrian collection at the Haags Gemeentemuseum. Gert Dumbar at Tel Design; 1971
Poster for De Stijl movement exhibition at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA 1986

GD: Yes, that caused a big row here in Holland. You were not supposed to express Mondrian in this way. Mondrian has always been my hero from the age of 15 because at the Gemeente Museum here in The Hague they have the biggest collection of his work. I was stunned from the first moment I saw it. It was rebellious in it’s time and that is very Dutch. He is still regarded as one of the most important visual thinkers of the 20th Century. That is what I did and that caused an argument amongst the art historians in Holland in those days. You are not supposed to represent Mondrian in that way. I said ‘Why not?’ and just did it because I believed in it.

GS: One of the key messages that came through in my research of you was the importance you place on creating timeless design. I believe you call this the stylistic durability concept? Do you see this as a responsibility for all designers and, if so, what tips do you have to achieve this in today’s world where so much design is temporary and disposable?

GD: That is a very sad addition to your very exciting questions (laughs). I always said to my designers ‘try to make something which can last for years’ and then I introduced the idea of ‘stylistic durability’. First start designing from scratch and not from looking at books. Show everything to me that comes into your head and there was always a discussion where the two or three of us working together get to this mysterious spark. And that is probably the only advise I can give to other designers — listen to yourself and not to the others.

Follow your own sentiments or your own creative desires and from there try to work further, further, further. It’s a very long process and that idea deals with the concept of serendipity. It’s not from A to B with quick logic, it’s illogical thinking.

Via illogical or non-linear thinking you come to the final logical solution, that is the way I tried to teach to my designers and also here to the students here at The Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. Patience, sketching and serendipity, that I hope finally leads to stylistic durability. Examples here in Holland that I created are the Dutch Police and NS Railways.

GS: Two of the major Dutch identity schemes you created with Studio Dumbar are still evident (NS and de Politie) and, in fact, form the backdrop to everyday life here in The Netherlands. What is it about them specifically that has allowed them to stand the test of time and if you were asked to redesign them now what would you change?

GD: Well for the Dutch railways I should change the trains due to new directions I don’t think they make such interesting colour patterns. The façade of the trains are not so functional so I would change that. Not the colour yellow though. It’s still very fresh and the logo also. I would change some pictograms now. There are a few things I can change of course but it will not be such a revolutionary change. It’s a little bit of restoration if anything. The existing idea, I think, still stands strong. Right from the beginning with the Dutch Railways I designed the system in such a way that foreigners who didn’t speak Dutch could follow the colours and instructions and other information to find their way in the railway stations. Mind you we don’t have such big stations as in England or France or Germany so it was rather easy to do that.

NS — Dutch Railways. Source: Studiodumbar.com

And Dutch Police, when I presented it, my concept was, and I still see all these Police Officers with their caps on, and I said I’m going to give you a very revolutionary idea. You have to present your institution as a commercial firm like Coca-Cola. (laughs) They were immediately struck by that idea. I already had another plan (like the PTT canteen crockery) when I said that but I had to be strategic. Due to the striping of the Politie livery, particularly on the Porsches, I got a very enthusiastic response from the drivers who said ‘now, at last, we feel safe in these cars’. I knew this would work so I had a plan to go to the Ministry of Interior & Justice to propose that the Ambulance and Fire services used this livery — that we had a national identity for Law and Order. They liked this idea and simply adopted it. To me it was simple — you just asked them with a cup of coffee if this was possible and then they immediately said ‘why not’. Then I said I want to change one other thing and that’s the colour of the Ambulances, which I made a yellow colour. It was the most ergonomic colour in traffic which I learnt at The Royal College of Art in London. I gave them the same striping and the Fire service as well. It became a Dutch identity for safety, law and order or whatever you want to call it.

A Dutch identity for safety, law and order. Source: Striping.nl

GS: Are there any clients you didn’t get the chance to work with that you wish you had?

GD: Yes, there are still some ministries I would liked to have worked with. I would have liked to worked for the Dutch Army as I had certain ideas on that. Of course there were some clients but it was not possible. But you see most of it is design for the public sector. More or less, I started it and that’s why the Dutch Design exhibitions were so interesting for the design politics of our government.

Oh yes, this is another story which is not widely known. A buyer from Bayer came to me and they had this medicine for the heart disease, Angina Pectoris. What I did not know is that in the pharmaceutical industry, if they bring a unique product on the market they can only hold that patent for five years. Then they must give it free to mankind so that others can copy it, which is a very good and idealistic idea. They came to me and they said ‘Mr Dumbar, can you come up with a plan which stimulates our brand loyalty?’ I’d never heard of those words so I said ‘Of course I can’. Then I found out what the words meant and I came back with the following idea. I was reading the instructions that came with the product and they felt so cold and inhuman that I said to them that they must rewrite these directions. And then I proposed that you put in every pack a little book. The little book dealt various topics based on ‘My disease and…’. For instance ‘My disease and food’. ‘My disease and sports’, ‘My disease and sex’, ‘My disease and holidays’ — so a whole library. And when they opened the medicine box they could see there were other books so they kept on asking for the same brand. I said the books must be written by a female doctor to which they disagreed initially. To me though the female touch talks to patients so finally they decided to apply the idea.

There were ten books and they were put in with these tablets in the packs and there was an increase in sales of 15,000,000! Well there you are.

If that had been by ‘marketing driven design’ they never would have done it. My morale is if you want your client to earn more turnover don’t use marketeers, just work with a designer.

Booklet for Bayer Pharmaceuticals. Source: NAGO

GS: You sold your share of Studio Dumbar in 2005. 
What was your motivation to exit the agency you founded at this point?

GD: Well, to be honest, at that time I was responsible for the salary of 35 people. I asked myself at that point ‘is that what you studied for with your ideals?’ and I said ‘no’. I had to inspire them and I had to sell the work and seek for new clients. I decided to sell my shares to Michel de Boer in a harmonious way and it later gave me a lot of new energy.

GS: How do you feel about the Studio Dumbar of today? 
Can you see a legacy there?

GD: Well I think it’s the quality. Of course it’s different but the Creative Director Liza Enebeis has continued the ideals of the studio. She was also an intern at the studio. I’m glad that she’s responsible for the creative as she has absolute quality in her ideas and also in her humour. Tom Dorresteijn is the CEO and I have a good feeling that they are doing well. Now and then I visit which is nice. I hope they carry on, probably in a different direction but that’s the game — it’s life. Further I’m not moaning and that is the consequence of selling to Michel.

Outside interests –

GS: You were chairman and member of the BNO for many years. What were the significant changes you’ve witnessed in the Dutch design profession over the years?

GD: Don’t forget the incredible influence of the new media and the computer. We also worked very closely with IBM and then Apple came to us. I can see a significant change which I see in my students now. The speed by which they can instantly change something which used to cost us a whole day to do the same thing. Computers, that’s important. Another change is the mobility of people. They travel freely all over the world, they influence each other, music, literature, theatre etc. And don’t forget the influence and importance in the near future of the 3D printer. In the next ten years everyone will have access to a 3D printer. All these things considerably influence our lives extremely.

Awards –

GS: You’ve won many awards in your career. The most fascinating one I read about is that you were awarded an honorary degree by my former university (the then Humberside Polytechnic) . How did you come to receive this?

GD: Well there were some teachers there who liked my work and I gave several lectures there and then I got an invitation that they nominated me for an honorary doctorate. I looked it up — what does that mean? — and then thought, ok, so I said yes and so it went. I remember I gave a speech in front of all the parents at the graduation day. My speech was about how important Scottish tartans are for the European community and I even imitated, at the end, the Scottish bagpipes! I got a big applause! My family was originally from Scotland so I’ve always been fascinated with Scottish tartans which are also like grids. I remember at one point suggesting to the audience ‘You English all need to wear skirts!’

Today & tomorrow –

GS: You now work in partnership with your son Derk Dumbar. 
How is that and how do you compliment each other?
What type of projects do you work on together?

GD: I have always had very close contact with my two children and I’m happy to say we are still a very harmonious family. As such it’s very nice to work with Derk. Recently we did a project, which is still in development, to create a series of disaster pictograms for the world.

Derk Dumbar. Source: derkdumbar.nl

We were also asked to work with the University of Leiden to create a set of pictograms for medical instructions. A lot of illiterate people cannot understand them so together with a scientific communication approach from the university we are working on a system. This misuse or misunderstanding of medical instructions for medicines damages our health service for almost 150 million Euros per year in Holland alone.
I work on projects like that with Derk and now and then he shows me something and I advise him. Nowadays he is into design for apps with promising ideas. That is a world completely unknown for me though. In those instances I can only be the advocate of the devil. 
For the rest of my time I have a lot of time for this art school.

GS: What, in your opinion, is your greatest achievement and what would you hope your legacy to be?

GD: My greatest achievement in design is the PTT corporate identity project which really opened up a new way for looking at corporate identity.

What would my legacy be? Probably that I don’t take things as seriously as others might take. Humour is important to me.

[At this point Gert shows me a brief he sets for his students called ‘Elves’.]

GD: This is ‘Elves’. If you read this in the way it is intended then you will understand me more after this conversation. This (Elves) is absolutely the gossip of the art school. I’m describing here how incredibly impolite the male students are towards the female students here. They don’t open doors for them, they don’t help them with their coat, they don’t offer them a cup of coffee in the canteen and sometimes they take words in their mouths which I don’t dare take in my hand!. Also at parties they only talk about football and cars. The project is only for female students. Grab a male student and say ‘You are going to work for my project as an Elf’. They have to make a story and a film of 1.5 to 2 minutes, whereby all these bad things they do with this Elf. But first they have to go the Textile department, which is the horizontal way of teaching I do here, and make a perfect Elf costume for this male student. He then has to act in your film. Do terrible things with him so that it is clear to the male students how bad the females are being treated. Then on the opening in the gallery we will have about 20 films and 20 Elves serving drinks.

Would You Mind Swallowing It by Tamara Stanislaw
A story about an elf with a mission

I think the cleverest thing about this is I only give it to two girls in the art school and I say “spread the word around the different departments of the school”. With this it has the effect of oil on water and I even have male students coming to me saying ‘Gert, can I also be an Elf?’ They love it because it is total nonsense and design. With it they have to make a film, they have to make storyboards, their own graphics and their own music. But this is an important thing in Graphic Design. This is humour and absurdism and Graphic Design at the same time. And that is what is also in my life.

GS: If you could do it all again would you do it in the same way? If not, what would you change?

GD: I’d do it in the same way. Probably with less people in the studio but, yes, I’d do it the same way.

GS: Thank you for your time.

About the author:

Graham Sturt is Creative Director of Dutch design agency VBAT.

Originally from England, he lived and worked in London for more than a decade before relocating to Amsterdam in 2007 to follow his passion for Dutch design.


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written by Graham Sturt
Creative Director at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme
PR at VBAT