Belgian designer Sara De Bondt manages to imbue her work with humour while avoiding the vacuous. Anna Richardson talks to her about ideas-based design, her love of books and aversion to Berthold Akzidenz Grotesk
Belgian Sara De Bondt wanted to study fine art, to the slight consternation of her parents. But it was comments from a friend’s father, who said De Bondt was too shy to make it in his profession of graphic design, that spurred her towards her eventual career.
Meeting her now, De Bondt doesn’t seem particularly shy. Quietly spoken and considered, yes, but not timid. Her enthusiasm is particularly noticeable: an infectious love of typography and digging up the unusual, and an innate sense of what design should be—which is most definitely not ‘obsessive foil-blocking’.
‘There’s a lot of work that’s quite visual but empty: lush images and graphics that don’t mean anything or don’t communicate,’ she says. ‘It’s important to let the content come to the surface and for you as a designer to support that, rather than [making decisions] because you happen to like a certain typeface.’
De Bondt originally studied graphic design in Sint-Lukas in Brussels, with a stint at Universidad de Bellas Artes in Granada, Spain, followed by a Masters at Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht, the Netherlands, before taking a position at Foundation 33 in London. Setting up her own studio in 2003, she believes she has taken influences from every country. Her love of typography, for example, was instilled in London; her approach to working with images in Belgium, a country with a strong comics and illustration tradition; and her ideas-based process in the Netherlands.
Thinking of a concept that gives a project a structure is vital, says De Bondt, who describes her work as ‘thoughtful, typography-led, ideas-based, with a bit of humour’. ‘The concept can take a while to figure out, but then the rest falls into place,’ she explains.
She also has a keen interest in collaboration, both with other creatives and clients. For the visual identity of the Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art in Brussels, for example, De Bondt started by educating her clients about logos and typography. ‘You then have a common ground for communication, and the clients understand what you’re talking about,’ she says. ‘If you make them part of the process they feel they have an influence on what you’re doing, which is much more exciting for me, too.’
For the Crafts Council’s Three by One exhibition catalogue, which will be published next week, the show’s curator Alison Britton created the composition of objects to be photographed for the book.
De Bondt also enjoys experimenting with typography, partly as a reaction to her time at Foundation 33, where she says the house font of Berthold Akzidenz Grotesk had to be used at all times. She collaborates with typographer Jo de Baerdemaeker, who designed the custom-made Wiels. Together, they redrew and digitised Stephenson Blake’s Elegant Grotesque for the new Nottingham Contemporary arts centre identity, one of De Bondt’s largest projects to date.
With previous clients including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the ICA and London’s Camden Arts Centre, and another exhibition and catalogue design, for Radical Nature at the Barbican, due in June, De Bondt’s penchant towards the art world is noticeable, although it wasn’t based on a conscious decision. In fact, she wouldn’t mind more commercial projects in the future.
Designing books is another mainstay for De Bondt, and this autumn she will start a publishing house, Occasional Papers, with art historian Antony Hudek, in what she hopes will be an ongoing series of super-low-budget, pocket-sized, content-heavy, black-and-white books ‘on design and art, and anything in-between’. ‘There is not enough design writing that’s low-budget but in-depth,’ she says. ‘There are a lot of flat, fanzine-style books, which are very much based on the image without telling you what’s behind it.’
De Bondt teaches at London’s Royal College of Art, and with so many projects, she might be keen to expand her team – former student Chris Svensson joined the studio last autumn. But a small outfit can be as effective as a larger consultancy, offering the client more attention, believes De Bondt. ‘The relationship is much more concentrated,’ she insists.
It’s difficult to image De Bondt ever not working in an entirely concentrated and committed way. She says the hint of humour that pervades her work comes from the joy she derives from it.