Food for thought‘[...] do not think that good design can make a poor product good, whether the product be a machine, a building, a promotional brochure or a business man. But [...] good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential. In short, [...] good design is good business.’
Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM CEO

Lava — Dutch Design Talk At The Design Museum

February 21, 2012, 8:05 AM

Dutch designers are almost by default among the bravest and most inspiring, so there was no way I would’ve missed Mr Hans Wolbers’s talk at the Design Museum last week. Under his helm, Lava Design have produced some great pieces of graphic design and branding over the last 20+ years.

The event's quirky poster and the 'Free Magenta' book

The event started with Mr Wolbers thanking the sponsors and explaining the idea behind the event’s poster. Taking a different approach, the sponsors became the main focus, their gold-foiled logos being repeated several times, while the ‘content’ took a more humble place at the bottom.

Mr Wolber’s simple presentation, white text (using Impact!) on black background, showed nine sections on the table of contents and was announced to have 600+ slides (for 45 minutes). I thought it might actually be a stop-motion film, but Mr Wolber’s delivered a fast paced, very insightful and humorous presentation. ‘A monkey called Bokito’ was the first section, explaining again the Lava philosophy of telling a story in a surprising way. Why show a gorilla (Bokito) when everyone knows how one looks, when the story in the newspaper is about how it managed to get across a big water ditch? So the whole article showed only photos of the ditch, no gorilla.

Design is not about beauty, it is about telling a story

Next was their definition of design: Design is not about beauty. Design is about telling a story. Followed by the Lava ‘corporate’ film, funny and self-deprecating, showing a good sense of humour that was present throughout the whole evening. One example: the founders Hans and Greet names could’ve led to a hilarious Hansel & Gretel company name, but it was not meant to be (the illustration had the packed hall roaring with laughter). Mr Wolbers continued with how, not having a lot of work, he and his partner decided to start with a holiday first. A volcano in Indonesia led them to their name, Lava Design. And a train from Shanghai to Amsterdam provided more than enough time to read one of the ‘Bourne Identity’ books and change the rules of the spies into the designer’s:

  • Think as the enemy client
  • Always stay in control
  • Do the unexpected

Back from holiday, both partners had around 600 meetings in 5 months, 3 per day for each, showing their portfolio to potential clients — this perseverance soon paying off. The fun story around this point: putting on their letterhead Alain Prost’s quote: ‘If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough’ (attributed to Mario Andretti, but with the Internet, you never know) led to an appearance in one of the Rockport books with Mr Prost as the ‘boss’ of the company.

‘If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough’

Next came a collection of photos of weird, funny, vernacular or over-designed toilet signs from all around the world — a growing series for a future book. These supported the point that understanding clichés can help in understanding design as stories and visual communication in general. Btw, If you have any similar photos, Mr Wolbers would be happy to receive them: hans at lava dot nl or contact him on Twitter at @hanswolbers.

A very good tip on how to explain the importance of brand identity to clients followed: using details of Van Gogh paintings, easily recognisable without seeing ‘the logo’ — Vincent’s signature — because of their style, something that a good brand identity should possess.

Visual style versus 'logo' — understanding the difference

The next sections were case studies of LAVA projects. Worth mentioning is that most of them had video presentations, showing animations of the logos with music in the background — I bet this makes things more interesting (and easier to take in) for the client. First was ‘7 days of inspiration’, a flexible identity for a networking event:

'7 days of inspiration' flexible identity

The THNK project, another flexible identity for the Amsterdam school of creative leadership, based on the idea that there is no ‘I” in Think, led to a multitude of I’s coming together and overlapping to form a network:

A flexible visual identity for THNK, the Amsterdam school of creative leadership

The following case study was titled ‘G-Spot’, about a South Korean company called Gabia in need of a new identity. A project started with what seemed like a spam email, but which proved to be a very good lesson on why you should avoid working for a client without knowing their background and paying a visit — they did only after three rejected concepts. The first one relied on four coloured circles, very similar to the very popular billiard signs, present all over the place in Seoul.

The visual identity for the Dutch National History Museum was next — a very simple yet so bold, different and fresh approach. Instead of going for the usual long name or the NHM acronym, they chose the ‘in NL’ name and developed yet another flexible identity, worthy of comparison with the identities of acclaimed art museums like Tate, Pompidou or MoMA:

Connecting the past and the present, the Dutch Museum of National History identity

A similar project but with a different solution, the very fresh identity for the Moscow Design Museum (launched that very morning):

Russian glassware inspiration for a flexible grid …

A visually striking array of symbols, all based on the same grid:

… leading to a multitude of symbols.

“Claiming a colour is nonsense because colors are from God”
— Gert Dumbar

‘Free Magenta’ was the next story — if you’ve missed the total nerve of T-Mobile for claiming the magenta colour as their own a few years ago, read more on the website: Mr Wolbers’s story proved again that designers should (and have the power) put their skills in service of good causes.

The last section was titled ‘How to earn more money’, based around some priceless advice (in the words of Peter Griffin: ‘see what I did here?’):

  • Explain the value of your work creatively — Hans’s business card shows the classic ‘good—cheap—fast’ triangle, of which the clients can only pick two — very simple, very effective and also quite fun;
  • Be market sensitive — good advice on how to adapt to the market, especially during a crisis, as Lava explain on this specially created website:;

A very entertaining story was the one about tenders — most designers’ nightmare. After frustratingly seeing client after client skipping the carefully-written presentations just to go directly to the last page and start complaining about the price, no matter how high or low, Mr Wolbers started to look for a ‘design solution’ to this problem. It came in the shape of three sealed envelopes, one with a ‘cheap’ price inside, one with a medium price and one with a high price. You can imagine the client’s surprise to this approach. They would almost always avoid the cheap one — no one likes to be seen as cheap. That would leave the medium and the expensive. What’s the difference, the client would ask?

Paris in your old, rusty car …

Well, for the medium price, it would be like going to Paris in your old, rusty car …

… is not exactly Paris in a superb Jaguar.

… while for the expensive price, you’d be going to the same Paris, but in a superb Jaguar. The destination is the same, but the necessary time and the experience are quite different. A very smart way to put it, and two out of three clients would go for the expensive package. The ending conclusion: Think creatively not just in design.

Think creatively not just in design.

Questions and answers followed, myself starting by asking whether Lava presents more directions to the client or one, and more after if the first one fails. It seems they present early concepts and involve the client early in the process, choose one direction and develop only that one. Another question made Mr Wolbers confess that he’d love to design an airline (who wouldn’t?). Another good question was whether Lava are specialised or not (from Mr Lee Sankey, see below for link). Their aim is to have/be more ideas people who could direct a team of visual specialists (freelancers). A question about pitches made Mr Wolbers explain the advantages of having a strong Dutch design association (think AIGA), meaning they only take part in paid pitches. Still, he admitted that competition is getting tougher.

Mr Hans Wolbers

Personal note
I’ve taken the time to write all the details I could remember (and recreate some of Mr Wolbers’s examples with images from the web) as this has been probably the most inspiring design presentation I’ve seen ’till now. Dutch design, no matter how beautiful, often seems ‘alien’ and undoable in other places but the Netherlands, but hearing the stories for each case study convinced me that there is no excuse to not doing fresh, surprising work. This review might be on the long side, but I hope it is useful nevertheless. Thanks again to Mr Wolbers and the organisers.

— see more case studies on the Lava website;
— you can follow @LavaDesign and @hanswolbers on Twitter;
— keep an eye on LongLunch and the Design Museum for more events;
— Mr Lee Sankey blogged about the event as well.



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