David interviews Martin
In this interview, I, David Frank Tenora, speak with Martin Lorenz, a designer, educator and co-founder of TwoPoints.Net. Martin’s passion for flexible visual systems in design has led him to write a book on the topic and create the platform flexiblevisualsystems.info. We discuss Martin’s approach to flexible visual systems, which is based on his belief that static approaches break in a world of constant change. His philosophy is grounded in 10 years of research at the University of Barcelona, 16 years of experience at TwoPoints.Net, and 20 years of teaching at over 10 design universities in Europe. In this interview, we dive deeper into Martin’s philosophy and approach to flexible visual systems.
Why should designers pay attention to flexible visual systems?
Well, that’s a great starting question. You can answer it on different levels. The most pragmatic level is that developing rules and systems makes your work much more efficient, allowing you to save time and automate tasks. However, answering the question on a macro level involves focusing on the creation of systems, which changes your perspective from solely focusing on objects. This helps you consider everything that influences your work, including how you approach and apply it within different systems, and how it interacts with the people you want to communicate with, in the respective contexts. This broader perspective is fascinating because it lets you examine real-life systems that surround our society.
What is your view on visual systems in today’s world? Do you think they are adapting flexible visual systems?
When it comes to branding, I believe we are in a transitional phase where we need to become more flexible. This is evident in our emphasis on designing logos. Traditionally, logos were used to symbolize a specific producer, family, country, institution, or city. However, they have become more abstract over time. For example, the Deutsche Bank logo is a simple line going up to symbolize progress, success, and growth. While it’s still a symbol, it only represents one message and isn’t a complete visual language. In today’s world, with so many different devices and communication channels, a plain symbol doesn’t get us very far. That’s why we’ve started developing different visual assets to be more expressive in our visual language. However, we still use the logo as an add-on, and sometimes it’s barely visible. This approach is rooted in the past, but I think it’s time to change our priorities. Maybe we don’t need to get rid of logos altogether, but we should give them a lower priority and focus more on the tools that help us communicate effectively.
Did you feel the need to develop flexible systems for visual identities because you believed that logos alone were no longer adequate in conveying messages effectively in today’s world?
Exactly. And I’m not alone in this thinking. In Karl Gerstner’s book “Designing Programs,” he recognized that while working on visual identities, he only used the logo as a kind of add-on or stamp on the things he designed. He realized that the design itself was far more important than the logo that he placed in the bottom right corner. He recognized this as early as the 1950s. In the 1970s, there were many people who thought systemically about visual identities, which was consistent with the context of that time. Many theories, such as complexity theory, popped up, trying to understand the complexity of the world and not simplifying reality. Simplification is always a reduction of information, which often leads to partial falsehood.
Do you believe reducing complexity isn’t always the right solution?
Well, I mean, we have to reduce complexity in order to make it understandable. When we communicate, we have to narrate complex contents in a way that makes them understandable. This means developing a message that is easier to understand, but it should always lead to a more complex understanding of the content you want to communicate. As a designer, you cannot start with simplicity; you always have to start with complexity. Then, you end up with a message that is simpler but can lead to complexity again. Keeping it simple will make you unaware of many important things to understand because reality is not simple. If you only see one part of reality or a simplified version of it, you won’t understand how it all interconnects. Simplicity should be a tool for conversation, communication, narration, and storytelling, but it cannot be the ultimate goal.
I’m curious to know what additional value flexible visual systems bring compared to the work of Karl Gerstner and other pioneers whom you used as examples and stepping stones for your own methodology.
The main difference between my book and the works of Karl Gerstner and other pioneers is that I wrote it in this century, using different tools and communicating through different channels. The digital devices and the internet have changed everything, making interactivity and motion an essential part of communication. When I started my Ph.D., I recognized that the authors from the 70s were heavily influenced by the tools available at that time. Thus, my theory/model that explains the current state of visual systems has a different approach, which I call ‘systems based on transformation’. This approach includes not just recognizable shapes but also transformational processes. This way of thinking is evident in kinetic art, generative art, generative design, and even architecture. It’s a different approach, but it’s also observable in face filters and other kinds of filters that build a different digital identity. While this can lead to problems in the case of face filters, it’s still a way to create a unique digital identity.
Your book mainly explores the use of grid systems and their combination with transformation in flexible visual systems. What other tools can be employed to achieve flexibility in visual design besides grid systems?
Grids are just one tool among many that can help you design. They can make the design process quicker and help establish rules for a visual system that others can easily apply. Grids are particularly useful for laying out and deconstructing images. However, at the end of the day, what is needed are rules for the design process, which will become your system. Rules for the design process can be established even if it is not digital, such as choosing which pens to use and how to use them. Anything can be systemized, and I do not believe that flexible visual systems need to be the starting point. Instead, they can be a helpful tool for explaining to others how to design, particularly when working collaboratively on a big project.It’s not necessary to use FVS for small projects, but they come in handy when working with a team and when there are a lot of deliverables to design.
In the age of automation, designers are required to become increasingly efficient. Do you think that flexible visual systems could assist us in keeping up with the pace of today’s world and beyond?
Of course, flexible system design enables automation and therefore more efficiency. But this is not what I am interested in. We, humans, have to slow the fuck down. We are destroying the planet with our efficiency and as we live on and of this planet, we also destroy ourselves ultimately. To me, it’s crucial that flexible system design isn’t tied to any particular technology. It’s more about understanding the systems that you live in, that you work in, and that you communicate with and guide these systems toward the direction you desire. I’ve been working in design since the late 90s and have changed my tools so many times, mostly digital tools since I grew up with them. However, any tool can be used in relation to FVS. It’s important to avoid being reliant on specific tools and to have the ability to work with any tool or program. FVS is especially interesting because it frees you from the limitations of tools, enabling you to discover unconventional solutions even if a program cannot achieve a desired outcome, because of the design ideology of its developers. You break free from the confines of the tools that everyone else uses, which can be comfortable but also restrictive. By making yourself more independent, you can arrive at more engaging and thought-provoking solutions.
So, this brings up the idea of creating your own tools. I think you’re also exploring the use of coding, which relates to automation. Do you think coding could enhance FVS?
Absolutely. Coding provides a lot of freedom because the tools we use, such as Adobe products, are also coded but based on a certain concept of design and how it should be done. This can sometimes be limiting if your concepts or processes differ. Coding allows you to be more expressive in your own way.. However, I don’t think everyone needs to learn to code. I believe people should focus on being independent and creative, and not feel reliant on one specific tool. If a program doesn’t work for you, you should feel free to switch. Coding can be helpful, but it’s not necessary for everyone.
Do you still like to work analogically rather than jumping directly onto your computer?
I mostly work on my laptop because I’m used to it, and it’s quicker since I have everything there. But I would love to force myself to work analogically at least once a week, to see how my thinking changes. In my classes, I give the same assignment for both digital and analog work, and the results are completely different. The funny thing is that I think very digitally, so when my students work analogically, they expand the idea of the assignment and it becomes something completely different. Discovering that working with analog methods can be rewarding because it encourages thinking about things in an intuitive way. Moreover, the sense of scale has been lost with the use of computers, where everything appears to depend on the size of the screen. For instance, a stamp can look as large as a billboard on our screens, but this can distort the perception of scale, which is essential in design. As a result, we have lost the ability to differentiate between the designs suitable for different scales.
Speaking of intuition, some designers may argue that using grids in FVS could impose too many limits on intuitive design.
If you use it in the wrong way, of course, it’s true. When I work with grids, I use them differently than most people. I think that grids should always be present as guidelines to help guide your design, but they shouldn’t come first. Similarly, when developing systems, I never start with the system first and then design around it. I need to be free and intuitive at first. Later on, I think about which system can help me be more consistent in my design and explain it to others.
So it’s more about different phases in the work. For example, it’s important to visually brainstorm first, and then use flexible visual systems to simplify and digest your ideas to make them more powerful, right?
Yes, exactly. Intuition is very powerful. Unfortunately, too many people jump directly to the solution without taking the time to brainstorm first. They may think it’s more professional or they’re afraid their client won’t understand if they propose something out of the box. But if you skip the brainstorming phase and go straight to the system, you miss an essential part of design: the human part where you use your intuition and empathy to think about communication and conversation, not just implementation and application.
There are still designers who prefer creating logos. Is there a way to use logos while respecting the boundaries of flexible visual systems?
It’s challenging because we are still on the course of logo design from the last century, and all our programs, deliverables, and templates are optimized for logos. However, there are some examples of attempts to make logos more flexible, which started in the 1990s, even before the internet. For instance, logos became moving on TV screens and movies, such as the MGM and MTV logos. Despite the difficulty of steering the ship into a different direction, we have to work with logos, albeit in a more flexible way. It’s essential to recognize that flexible systems are a methodology for designing, and the system should be the starting point. From the system, you can generate all the necessary assets, including the logo, which should not be at the center of the design process, but rather one of the components.
What is the reason for preferring the term “visual identities” over “branding” and “corporate identities,” as mentioned in your book?
Well, for many reasons. I don’t like using the term branding because it represents the old way of working, which is designing a symbol and then just applying the symbol on different deliverables. This doesn’t effectively communicate anything beyond claiming ownership of something by putting a logo on it. I don’t think this is the way to go in our times. I think our times are much more complex, and even those who use branding don’t really follow the branding process. Additionally, the term “branding” has roots in the branding of livestock and branding of slaves to claim ownership over living beings. I prefer visual identity because it’s much more interesting to think about identities and how they are constructed. I don’t use the word “corporate” when I talk generally about identities because identities can be developed for institutions, products, events, organizations, or any group of people that need to find a common ground for acting or producing. Visual identity is a more global term that includes everything.
What does it take to become a systemic designer, one of the three types of designers discussed in your book alongside the invisible and visible designers?
It’s more like an attitude, a perspective on the world. To think in systems means considering not only your audience, client, or yourself, but every actor in the communication process and the influence they have on it. All three types of designers have valid points, but those who remain invisible face a challenge, because being invisible is still a choice that we have to make. In the case of reading, for instance, we don’t want the designer to be noticeable, but we want the message to be clear. Yet, it’s an illusion to think that we can be completely invisible, as even the simplest typefaces convey a message. As a designer, you’re always present in your view on design, and that can be an advantage, as storytelling and design narration can be powerful tools to communicate. However, if you focus solely on being invisible or visible, you risk overlooking the many factors that shape communication in our world. For instance, your audience brings their own experiences and perspectives to your work, which affects how they interpret it. A systemic designer seeks to understand all these factors, even if it’s complicated because it allows them to connect better with their audience and create more meaningful conversations.
What is your collaboration and work process like in the studio?
The good thing about a very small team structure is that you can be very fluid with the way you work together. If you work for bigger agencies, then your role has to be more defined so you don’t overstep or create redundancies in the work. Our studio’s approach involves collaborating on concept development and strategy before exploring the best visual representation. Each team member brings a unique set of skills to the table; my strengths lie in systems, typography, and type design, while Lupi Asensio excels in color systems, conceptual design, and visual communication, and Elio Salichs manages and brings projects to fruition. Establishing a system with objective rules allows us to work cohesively and maintain consistency in our work. Through collaborative testing and application, we refine and improve our system to increase efficiency in our workflow.
How does your studio approach redesigning logo-centered visual identities?
When designing for a company, it’s important to find ways to make their identity work within the scope of the project. In some cases, this requires a compromise if the company has a rigid brand identity, such as ESPN or Nike, whose logos are recognized worldwide. As a designer, you can’t simply ignore or alter such iconic logos without damaging the brand’s recognition and reputation. Instead, you must find a way to integrate your work with the existing branding. Creating flexible visual systems can build a new world while still communicating with the older world. However, it’s important not to destroy the foundations but to transition into a different world that can coexist with the older one. It depends on the company and its specific communication style. Nike doesn’t have a strict visual system but relies on conversations between their marketing and design departments to define their communication style. This approach may not work for most companies that require clear rules to prevent misinterpretations.
Do you sometimes have to turn down commissions?
As we continue doing this work, we are becoming more selective for a few reasons. On the financial side of things, we understand that constantly being occupied isn’t always ideal, especially if the compensation for these projects is inadequate. It may even be more financially beneficial to turn down some projects and wait for larger ones instead. As we have taken on more projects, we have noticed that certain jobs can become monotonous because we have done them repeatedly. Therefore, we are becoming more selective about the clients we choose to work with. However, it’s also crucial to us that we spend our time in a meaningful and productive way. We want to learn something from every project we take on, and we prioritize working with respectful people. We know that we have a limited amount of time in our lives, and we want to make sure that we use it wisely. As a result, we are cautious about the types of projects we accept.
Do you maintain any long-standing client partnerships?
We have developed a number of long-standing partnerships with various individuals and organizations over the years. One of our most notable collaborations is the one with ESPN in the US. Additionally, we have worked extensively with Bryan Boyer from Dash Marshall and Justin Cook from Rhode Island School of Design, who are both highly skilled professionals in their respective fields and fantastic human beings. Additionally I have been teaching at Elisava since 2006 and still continue to teach three courses in the bachelor and one in the master degree, both on campus and online. While we meet a lot of people through our work and see who we can work well with, the challenge in visual identity work is that clients typically need our services only once for a project-based collaboration. This is particularly true for small or medium-sized companies who cannot afford to have a designer working on their identity all the time.
Could you share with us the challenges that arose during your work on the Blacklight exhibition? Additionally, could you elaborate on your collaboration with Tim Rodenbröker for this project and how creative coding contributed to its success?
One of the biggest challenges was the number of deliverables required, as well as the limited budget we had to work with. Due to the budget constraints, we couldn’t hire many people to work on the project, but we still had to produce a large number of different deliverables such as visuals on the bus, street banners, vinyls for shops, posters, and digital flyers. The amount of work required was incredible due to the extensive promotion required for the exhibition. For the Blacklight exhibition, we had the opportunity to secure a small budget to incorporate coding in the project, and Tim developed a tool for us that allowed us to design based on the system we defined. Additionally, he coded another tool to create stop-motion videos for some of the animations required for the exhibition. We would have loved to use the tool Tim created to design all the different applications, but we ended up using it as a marketing tool instead. Visitors to the exhibition could use the tool to design their own creations, which they could then upload to their social media profiles. The project served as an excellent demonstration of the potential for creative coding to enhance the design process, and we are excited to explore further possibilities in the future.
How has your collaboration with Tim evolved beyond the Blacklight exhibition? Have you explored any other joint projects such as an online course or a book?
We have a lot of ideas on how we can work together, although we haven’t put any of them into action yet. Currently, we are working hard on a book project to code systems. Our aim is to create a book that is useful, filled with information, and relevant for many years to come. As you might expect, it takes a while to develop such a comprehensive resource. My experience with the FVS book showed me how long it can take to complete such a project. We only started this project last year, and there are many other projects in progress simultaneously. It is a time-consuming process, but we are committed to taking our time to ensure that it is of high quality. The objective of this book is to teach people how to implement coding in system design. We are prioritizing the book because it will contain all of the content that we can teach later.
What values have you gained from your experience as an educator throughout the years of teaching?
Teaching is an integral part of how I work. Our studio uses the “Learn, Teach, Apply” triangle to describe our approach. Learning is crucial to me, and I constantly strive to expand my knowledge. After learning, it’s important to apply these concepts in real-life situations, which we do at our studio. We also share what we have learned by teaching at universities, and through my online platform, felxiblevisualsystems.info. Providing access to our knowledge is important, and FVS also allows us to test our ideas with different people. We aim to make FVS a methodology for various types of designers. Our classes attract people with diverse approaches such as digital, motion, code, type, and analog design. We strive to create content that can fit all of these different approaches and make it a great way to test our ideas with a wide range of people.
What kind of design issues apart from flexible visual systems interest you?
For a large part of my life, my focus in design was on the technical and aesthetic aspects. However, now I’m more interested in understanding the wider impact of design. Who do we work for and how does our work affect the world we live in. I want to explore both the positive and negative consequences of our work and determine who we want to work with. Additionally, I’m intrigued by the role of communication and conversation in society, because without interaction, we cannot function as a group. All of these factors are part of the design world and expand my original focus.
What final message or advice do you have for students, and young designers?
It’s important to find a balance between input and output, especially with the abundance of information available today. Take breaks, rest, and enjoy nature, but also appreciate the benefits of having access to vast amounts of knowledge. However, it’s crucial to filter out the unhelpful or irrelevant. Stay up to date, but be aware of the many sources of unreliable or unnecessary information. With clear criteria for what’s worth your time and attention, you can gain a broader perspective on the world and what matters most.