James Gilchrist: A Warrior from INTL

This article was written by James Gilchrist, co-founder of INTL︎︎︎ and Warriors Studio︎︎︎, and Hsing-Kai Peng︎︎︎ , chairman of TPadd assoc. On the eve of INTL International: The World's Trendiest Design Festival talk, interview James for his insights on design agencies, social media, posters and art, the shaping of visual trends, and the inspiring earn behind running INTL.

Hsing-Kai Peng (F): Hi, James. I'm excited to work with you on the upcoming lecture and this interview. There are many interviews available online about Warriors Studio's approach and past projects, so I'd like you to discuss global visual development and the artistry of graphic design as a co-organiser and judge for INTL.

2010–2020 seemed to be a new chapter in design history; the younger generation has attempted to develop new methods to influence or react to diverse global phenomenons. And even long-established organisations such as Le Signe︎︎︎ were reorganising and restructuring in this period. What do you think about the design organisations located in different places, and what motivates the younger generation to establish their organisation?

James Gilchrist (J): For me, the welcoming of new organisations like Antwerp Poster Festival︎︎︎, etc. which focus on the practice and culture of design does not indicate a new chapter as the types of organisations you mention and their pursuits have been around for over 100 years, but it’s always exciting to see new people with fresh ideas and approaches coming through.
Seeing new design-focused organisations and groups, particularly run by other young designers, especially if you can feel their passion, drive, and genuine desire to do something fresh and ambitious, is amazing.

We can also relate as we were in the same position when we started Graphic Design Festival Scotland in our final year at university. We still have the same ambition but feel at a different stage of the process now.

The originals which immediately spring to mind are the AIGA︎︎︎ (American Institute of Graphic Arts) in New York (according to Wikipedia, founded in 1914) and the globally-based AGI︎︎︎ (Alliance Graphique Internationale), which was founded in 1951.

If we think about festivals, competitions, open-call projects etc. Then we can look at Le Signe’s Biennale internationale de design graphique (est. 1990), Centre du Graphisme d’Echriolle︎︎︎ (also 1990), Golden Bee︎︎︎ in Russia (Est. 1992), My Monkey Gallery︎︎︎ (Est. 2004), then move forward in time to Graphic Matters︎︎︎ in the Netherlands (Est. 2007 as Graphic Design Festival Breda), Weltformat︎︎︎ in Switzerland (Est. 2009), Open Set︎︎︎ in the Netherlands (Est. 2012), ourselves INTL (Est. 2014 as Graphic Design Festival Scotland), followed by LAD Fest︎︎︎ (Festival de Diseño Latinoamericano) in South America (Est. 2015) and so on. This is just a small selection who are close to us out of hundreds of organisations. Neon Moire︎︎︎, run by Thomas Dahm︎︎︎ is a great place to start to discover more.  

Perhaps the more fluid, evolving landscape of (graphic) design and the decentralisation of design activity is encouraging more people to form their own organisations. What do you think? What inspired the forming of TPadd assoc.? 

F: Communication between Taiwan and other countries is not frequent as an island country. Moreover, Taiwan’s complex historical background has led to political isolation and difficulties in cultural exchange via design with creators worldwide. But I believe the situation is improving. Founding this association allows us to introduce creators our studio admires to the Taiwanese audience; furthermore, instead of speculating, peeping, or guessing the meaning behind the global design changes, we are looking forward to starting to participate in the conversation with the world.

In our last conference, Pat (from Studio150︎︎︎) shared that many high school students actively gave feedback at the Bangkok Art Book Fair. The internet's openness has interested Thai students in creating internationally, which gives Studio150 a focus on bringing European design methods to Thailand. We were amazed by Thai students or young creators' drive to learn and explore independently. In any case, social media has facilitated the exchange of creators worldwide. Seeing the creation of many young organisations internationally, including INTL, is one of the reasons that encouraged us to start the association.

J: Yes, I think social media has accelerated the number of groups focused on the culture and practice of design, and facilitated more exchange amongst creators. Social media makes an ideal interface for exchange between practitioners, businesses, organisations, event organisers etc. Communities and digital cultures can connect and blossom all over the world.

To build on that, social media is also influencing what experiences design organisations are offering, how we communicate with each other and the type of visual work which is produced - for better or worse.

For us, it feels as though social media is now transcending a platform for showcasing and algorithm changes and format preferences are now directly influencing and negatively impacting the creative work itself. In our opinion, it’s fostering a more disposable approach to culture around design and creativity.

The algorithm determines the type of work which is more ‘visible’. Our brains are rewired for instant gratification. Our attention spans are reduced to milliseconds. All of this must now be considered when creating and publishing online. A continual changing of formats which are ‘successful’ on the app also has a direct influence on the form of what is created both by creators and organisations. This continual altering of what we do and how it is consumed is frightening but unavoidable.

Designers or makers being influenced by their tools is a classic dilemma and could evolve into a separate discussion. David Carson︎︎︎ advocates for an abandonment of all grids and guides because who then is the author of the work, you or your software?

Alongside this, I think the popularisation of (graphic) design also plays a role in this acceleration. Let’s chat about that. Do you think (graphic) design is becoming a more popular field to practice and participate in? Our instincts and logic say yes, but we can’t say for sure. If there is data on this, we would love to see it.
Given the growth of the digital world and Graphic Design’s integral role in commerce, it would be unsurprising if there hasn’t been a shift toward more people working in design.

Along with that comes the question of how that impacts (graphic) design as a practice. There is so much we could discuss here. How has this popularisation combined with social media affected the type of work which is done? How has the increase in aspiring designers impacted the commercial side of the industry? Has the increased popularity of design altered the types of practices and design businesses which exist? Have these changes also influenced the designer/client dynamic?

Personally, I think a glamorisation and simplification of the practice of (graphic) design in the media, on television and through certain courses in education has set a new low precedent and expectation of what it means to be a designer. I think this has then been confirmed and perpetuated by a new wave of TikTok/social media designers offering “How I designed XYZ” in a video which reduces weeks of hard work into 10 seconds. As if all you have to do to produce design work is wave your mouse around for a few seconds. 

I’m conscious of sounding like an old git but it does sadden me. At the same time, a strong intellectually-backed practice which combines original thinking, considered craft and rigorous strategy will always prevail in reality over light-touch social media videos. And at the same time I think the evolution of the (graphic) design practice into a more fluid space, combined with more open-minded thinking, new tools and fresh approaches means now is the most exciting time to be involved in design, so far. Is the most exciting time always the present?

F: Do you agree that ‘experimental’ is the critical value of these new organisations? Nevertheless, experimental concept is hardly accepted in commercial projects. How would you let the audience understand the importance of experimentation and exploration as a design organisation?

J: I’m not sure anybody believes experimentation is not essential in design? But if I was to offer my thoughts on experimentation, it is the only way to develop and improve. It is how you create something truly interesting and fresh, and a straight-fire way to break free of your personal comfort zone and boundaries.  

‘Experimental’ work makes perfect sense as the face of a lot of new design organisations because for an audience, it can be more enticing for us than conventional, classical, work, which most designers are involved in creating commercially on a daily basis. 

Like you say, sometimes the most exciting work does not make it into our daily lives as it is not possible commercially, so more expressive, artistically-led work becomes confined to exhibitions, competitions, workshops, books, etc. It’s bittersweet, isn’t it? We can enjoy the work and mourn the fact that it is confined to these spaces at the same time.

The audience of many of these new design organisations is also the ‘younger’ generation (partly dictated by who is most active on the platforms) so I think this influences what is offered and how it is presented too.

A focus on ‘experimental’ work could also be an indicator of other things; a growing popularity of self-authored work and an increasing desire to create design work which is not commercially driven. Two things which we have definitely observed through INTL and while working in education over the past 8 years.

With the field of design expanding into self-authorship and the transcendence of designers into other roles and practices, ‘experimental’ work also better represents the direction the practice is moving in.

However, to contradict that, it also seems (graphic) design is accelerating in the opposite direction as an indisputable and effective proponent of capitalism and consumerism. The field expands in multiple directions simultaneously, with new directions opening up every day. Wild!

F: Let’s discuss ‘exploration’. I think we have more space for exploring the pure form of visual communication in graphic design than in other kinds of design. Before the 20th century, the exploration of visual form relied on the development of painting, so I want to talk about the connection between the art of painting and graphic design.

Whenever I see the Golden Bee Poster Biennale selections, I feel that poster design somehow bridges the visual cultural function of expressionist art. For instance, the worldview shown in Picasso’s works, the influences Malevich and Mondrian brought to the form of graphic design, since contemporary art is seemingly no longer focusing on emotional expression (perhaps this is a phenomenon merely in Taiwan). So what do you think of this—or in other words—what is the cultural goals of posters besides documenting history?

J: It’s difficult to compare expressionist art with poster design as theoretically they both serve different purposes, but thinking about poster design as a contemporary form of expressionism is interesting, and I do believe posters can be art. I’m not sure of the other way around though. Robert Rauschenberg︎︎︎ might have argued differently. We could discuss the age-old blurring boundaries of art and design, but in summary, art for me is more related to expression, and design is more related to function. Graphic design’s role is to communicate. Usually at a strategic, emotional or practical level. Or a combination of all three. For me graphic design is considered communication. This said though, there are definitely plenty of designers exploring a departure from function into an expression which is extremely interesting and helping to open the field up in new directions.

Posters are visual playgrounds for designers, artists and anybody with the tools to create one. The comparison of posters and expressionist art is interesting because a poster can be created with any medium available and will hopefully invoke emotion, or feeling to communicate a message – just like art, although both have their own expectations around traditional formats, mediums and methods. Let’s question these assumptions though. Does a poster have to be rectangular? Does a poster have to be flat? If we say no to both of these, a poster becomes an organic shape in 3 dimensions. Is that a poster? If it is, could a basketball be a poster? If it can’t then perhaps some established ‘rules’ can be broken but not all of them.

In our International Poster Competition, we are always questioning what a poster can be. Does a poster have to be produced industrially or commercially to be referred to as a poster? We would say, no. Have to be printed? No. Does a poster have to include typography? No. Advertise a specific event/happening/product? Again we could argue no. Does it have to communicate SOMETHING? Instinctively, we would say yes, but maybe not? Could a poster be a form of pure expression, because after all emotion is still SOMETHING, and if that’s the case where does the poster become art? These are the types of questions and discussions we have regularly and which we pose to the designers featured in our International Poster Book︎︎︎.

The fact that these definitions are changing and all open to discussion makes the field of (graphic) design interesting, keeps things fresh, and we believe it helps fuel the new (graphic) design organisations you mention—three cheers for changing definitions and open-mindedness. 

(🙌🏻) (🙌🏻) (🙌🏻)Let’s discuss the starting point of visual trends. We have noticed that many designers have started to sample daily life materials for visual interpretation. For instance, Braulio Amado︎︎︎ collects shapes from metropolises, Jonathan Castro Alejos︎︎︎ interprets the complexity of colour and texture from day-to-day life, Le Signe has organised several workshops for kids, and we can find the influence of education of ArtEZ in K.Chen︎︎︎’s practice.

Taking the cases above as examples, can you share your thoughts on the starting point of visual trends and visual culture’s fluidity and development process?
J: The topic of visual trends is huge. Visual trends are adopted, developed and dropped in all areas of culture. Where do trends come from? I think loads of places. You mentioned Jonathan Castro. Having seen Jonathan speak and looked at his work in-depth, you can feel a very true creative pursuit, which has fed into his work. I think that authentic influence from his Peruvian culture combined with a super high level of the craft gives birth to something special. When something special is born, it’s only natural for people to try to mimic it. But shortsightedness leads to mimicking the final outcome as opposed to the process used to create the special thing. Rather than adapting the process Jonathan used to integrate his culture and surroundings, people begin mimicking and adapting his final work. Over time a new visual wave was formed.

I think other visual trends are born from the tools available. Look at the plethora of 3D objects and characters making their way into (graphic) design projects across the world. They are everywhere! As 3D software becomes more accessible, more easily understood by more people, it’s only natural for that to feed into the visual outputs of projects. I’m thoroughly enjoying it and think the 3D ‘wave’ is in its infancy.

It’s also been fascinating to see creative coding breaking into the (graphic) design world and blow up over the past couple of years; I think this is also sparking a trend in generated, coded visuals, responsive game-like design work and a new blending of code and design sensibilities to create exciting visual work. Kiel Mutschelknaus︎︎︎ and Tim Rodenbröker︎︎︎ recently ran workshops on creative coding at INTL and my mind was blown.

In terms of visual trends, the unimaginable organic layered visuals achieved with Touchdesigner and Processing are becoming more popular, as it becomes more common knowledge. This could also be considered a visual trend. It will be exciting to see how this develops and begins to bleed into our day-to-day.

Parallel to these, the new accessibility and ease of creating visuals with AI and GAN have meant stacks of unimaginable images are being created with ease. This also feels like we are just about to enter a whole new wave of visual material. While everybody explores what’s possible, has fun, makes funny imagery, it’s only a matter of time before we see interesting practical applications.

Thinking about visual trends transitioning into our day-to-day is interesting. Typographic motion design is a simple concept which exploded over the past few years and went from niche design mood boards to corporate campaigns in the space of 2 years. Sometimes it just takes a small amount of designers to figure out a simple process in existing programmes to birth a trend. The adaptability of trends also influences their reach. Sometimes visual trends never leave the (graphic) design world – I’m looking at you, dark sci-fi, alien-looking, dystopian posters.

I have a simple response to this. Life should not be about work. Work should be about life. The broader experience of life is almost always more interesting than work, particularly in graphic design where daily work is more often about facilitation and framing as opposed to original authorship.

We’ve seen lots of visual trends emerge over the past few years but we’ll have a more up-to-date answer once this year’s International Poster Competition closes and we’ve had a chance to look at all of the submissions.

Generally, we have seen a slow shift towards more ‘maximalist’ aesthetics again, minimalist aesthetics seem to become less popular each year but I’m sure it will cycle back around.

Outwith INTL, an observation we’ve made is an adoption of ignorant design aesthetics by highly professional design companies. This, for us, is extremely interesting. Is this conscious movement away from professional and polished work purely a practical attempt to stand out from the sea of polished design work, big budget videos, slick logos and aesthetically rigid brands? Is this relating to a disintegration of trust in corporations and brands? Is this the (graphic) design industry’s answer to the new wave of DIY selfie-based advertising videos brands are adapting as a way to connect with customers in a more informal ‘authentic’ way? Perhaps it’s a combination of all three.

It’s a strange world, but we’re here for the ride!

F:Although posters are no longer the main medium when conveying messages, most poster competitions still have traditional selection criteria, such as the technology of screen printing methods, clarity of message transmission, etc. We think this may be the limitation of Western posters. I mean, posters are the purest form of graphic design to explore visual languages. Therefore, those criteria regarded as a principle in the competitions will be difficult to accept a large part of poster design serving different situations.

How does INTL break through such norms to allow more possibilities for posters? I am sure you have dealt with this issue since many poster designs that weren’t considered traditional or mainstream in the past have been greatly encouraged by the selection of the Graphic Design Festival Scotland.

J: For us celebrating more artistic posters was natural as Beth and I both grew up obsessed with gaming, so the experience of playing video games is something which I think has subconsciously informed our aesthetic sensibilities. I’m also a huge comic head, I’ve been reading comics all of my life from a young age and the energy and dynamism in comics is embedded in my brain and filters through into our work where it can. Our personal sensibilities as designers then influences our curation and framing of the poster competition.

We love design and we want to celebrate interesting, pioneering, fresh design work. We’re coming from the perspective of practitioners as opposed to ‘organisers’ or ‘judges’. As people, we are less interested in becoming bogged down in technical details, strict criteria or limiting possibilities in any way. That might sound quite chaotic and difficult to control. It is. So we did also create a set of criteria, however, it’s loose and allows for a lot of freedom.

The criteria for the International Poster Competition we created is:

The posters will be judged on their content, concept, and delivery, and value will be placed on design work which:

- Alters perceptions or ways of thinking
- Offers creative solutions to problems
- Contributes to discussion on current affairs
- Opens dialogue and provokes discussion for debate
- Makes innovative use of media or medium

In terms of the practical aspects of posters which we welcome to our International Poster Competition, there are no limitations to the form of the posters. A1 is the suggested size purely for exhibition purposes but we have welcomes A3 hand-stuck collages, A0 sheets of screen printed transparent rubber, embroidered textile, rolled up 3D forms, die-cut paper shapes and even non-printed digital submissions which can shown only on digital screens.

The content refers to what the poster is about: the subject. Concept refers to the idea: what is the idea behind your communication? Delivery is the form: how have you visually communicated the subject and articulated your idea?

We created this to offer fair guidelines for selecting posters during the judging process however, instinct, emotion and intuition also play a huge part. While design speaks about functions it is also a human-centric practice. We believe design has to invoke emotion and feelings.

F: Let’s chat about some light topics. As a loner on social occasions, I’m curious how you guys maintain the enthusiasm to connect with people and the flexibility to organise International Assembly?

J: We’re social creatures so for us we are always looking to connect with people and communities are a big part of all of our lives. We are all also active in communities outside of design, it’s part of who we are. We stay connected as a team through continual communication via text, email, Zoom, and WhatsApp. But still, while working separately, we all feel the effects of isolation, myself in particular(James). Our flexibility comes from a combination of good management (Beth), knowing we can rely on each other and an internal need for gentle chaos. In essence, our flexibility comes from trust and carefully managed chaos.

As we mentioned above, we truly love design and the world around it and because it is such a vast world which continually changes, it’s impossible to ‘complete’ or master, so that keeps us on our toes and maintains our curiosity. In terms of the community aspect, the community aspect is what makes INTL rewarding and enriching for us. Offering people a special experience which makes them happy, surprised, uplifted, charged up, or alters their path in a positive way makes the stress of running INTL worthwhile. The amount of love, comments and messages we’ve received over the years about the positive impact of Graphic Design Festival Scotland on people personally and professionally is mind-blowing. This positive feedback spurs us on.

Because we love design, and we are also interested in the world around design. The various forms of practising design, the people, the industry, the education, the balance of business and creativity, the tools, the history, the connectedness and the dynamics of all of these things. INTL allows us to pursue and maintain our own interests, explore our curiosity, continue learning about this world around our practice, bring that knowledge into our design work and also share this with an international community. We’re nerds.

F: What are your thoughts on the astonishing fact that Apple targets graphic designers at the low-end of its new product line?

J: I personally don’t have a strong opinion on it. Perhaps the most basic-level design is well suited to a low-end Macbook. It also makes sense for them as a business for a designer to buy a low-end product, then realise they need something which can do heavier lifting, so that they buy a more expensive one. Just sounds like business. C’est la vie.

(😌): I'm surprised you used to participate in a professional choir! I hope we can invite you for a karaoke night when you have the opportunity to visit Taiwan; Taiwan has the best karaoke room in the world! (sorry, this’s not really a question.)

J: I would LOVE to sing karaoke with you in Taiwan. How can we make it happen? Beth and I would love to go to Taiwan, we have never been. Is there any budget, funds, sponsorships or opportunities which would allow us to visit? Perhaps we could speak in person at an event, run a workshop, or curate an exhibition for a space?

F: I would love to host you in person in Taiwan, but unfortunately, our budget is tight as a newly founded association. Apart from the annual administrative fee charged to our members, most of the funds come from the income of my studio and the sponsorship from a small number of friends for specific projects. And the development of graphic design in Taiwan is difficult, which even makes discussing the cultural environment and the design theory a luxury.

If one day we can provide a budget to invite you to visit Taiwan, we have finally successfully broken through the glass ceiling in Taiwan and are going pretty well. It also means that Taiwan may finally start to take the historical profession of graphic design seriously. I am looking forward to this happening in three years.
Thank you for your excellent sharing, James. Would you like to say something to the Taiwanese readers?

J: Work is not everything. Life is short. Tell your friends and family that you love them. Thank you.

Text: James Gilchrist, F. P.
English translation: K.Chen, Wu. Mandarin translation: F. P., Pong Peng. Image source: Warriors Studio.
Published on July 22, 2022. Last Updated on July 25, 2022.

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