Graphic Design

An Interview with Anja Kaiser

Leipzig-based graphic designer, researcher and educator Anja Kaiser (@aeni.kaiser) has a provocative approach to typography. Her work challenges the hierarchical principles of content and aims to explore how visual information. We invited Anja to discuss her dynamic practice and learn how popular culture and its impact on society fuels her work. 

Laura: First of all I’m curious to hear what drew you into graphic design and typographic experiments?

Anja: I got into graphic design in 2004, while drawing posters for our female DJ collective in Cottbus, a small town in Brandenburg. At that stage, graphic design was a kind of escape from earning money within the club scene. I had no clue I would end up in the same trap with graphic design. 

Two years later I began my bachelor studies at the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design Halle where the focus was on typography and editorial design for print media. For my Master’s degree I felt like exploring my own field of interests and taking an open media approach – I was craving to explore some unknown territory and to combine design with research. So, in 2012 I relocated to Amsterdam to do my MA in the design department at the Sandberg Institute Amsterdam. During those two years, I investigated feminism visually and theoretically, began to work on a project Sexed Realities — To Whom Do I Owe My Body? which was accompanied with an essay.

In terms of my formal and conceptual development, it was a very challenging time, but the program allowed me to spend a lot of time to research and formulate more precisely what I wanted from it. I started applying the typographic skills I learned in my former education in a more specific way just as much as my dilettante manner of using software to generate an (unintended) output. My passion to use unconventional digital tools definitely originates in this period. These tools also influenced my typographic treatment. Strategies like Simultaneousness became very important to me, in the sense of needing to create something that allows me to establish complexity, implanting shifts and eclectic contrasts. 

Laura: Can you tell us more about Simultaneousness and any other particular methods that guide your creative work?

Anja: Designers use a specific set of tools that is consolidated, expanded and readjusted within their practice over the years. Tools in graphic design are not only design principles, they also give an account of the canon, knowledge production, models of work, collaboration and strategies of storytelling. Since my MA studies I try to connect and question my visual and conceptual approach in relation to my political agenda: feminism. As in all other areas, it is a western and male-dominated historiography that bars a view beyond the eurocentric horizon of the graphic design scene. I’m searching for an alternative historiography in graphic design and I’m inspired by designers like Sheila Levant De Bretteville whose visual practice is shaped by the political activism and the Women’s movement in the 60s and 70s in the USA. 

I have an urge to exploit the limits of tools, to overcome pragmatic functionalities and to perform alternative narrations. This process is a chaotic navigation of in-between knowledge and non-knowledge to uncover dominant structures and reoccupy subjective gestures in graphic design. Designers usually smooth out conflicts and legitimise the current social order with their symbolic productions. What if these symbols become messy and unstable? 

To me collecting, exploiting, deconstructing and collaging various materials describe an eclectic design practice. Simultaneousness is a process of translation and repetition in order to simultaneously identify and show connections, oppositions and paradoxes. What if foreground and background are enmeshed into each other? And typography doesn’t aim to hierarchize content, but rather to intertwine content and provoke encounters?

Laura: How has your approach to typography, and perhaps more broadly design, evolved over the years creating posters for underground clubs and music events?

Anja: I think it is important to mention that many of these assignments do not come to me from external clients, because in most cases I am part or connected to the festival or feminist collective myself. In the last years I had to learn to professionalise in several roles: writing prose for funding applications, curating programs more inclusively, mediating between artistic productions and rigid regulations of funding partners and much more. In that sense I had to collectively learn to build a structure that made it possible for us to invite and pay musicians, producers and artists. As a result, all my design inspiration for these events is embedded in the debates we have around the various festival editions. In this environment I have the chance to question hierarchy in club line-ups and discuss the financial and institutional dependencies which then also affect my visual strategies.

Laura: How does your critical research practice influence the visual representation of your projects?

Anja: I think all forms of visual representation reflect upon an ideology and provide information about the state of society. If I want to fuel the necessity for a feminist design practice, I need to constantly ask whose voices do I amplify, who do I bring in for a project and which structural conditions do I reproduce. I have the privilege to switch in-between client work, teaching, collective work and self-initiated artistic projects. And all these different fields inform my practice fundamentally. There is not one short-cut to translate a critique or a condition visually. As a visual translator I like to be invited to think through subjective design strategies and intervene with questions, fictions and alternative narratives instead of construed clarity and order.

Laura: Speaking of feminist design practice, can you tell us more about your recent project Glossary of Undisciplined Design

Anja: Glossary of Undisciplined Design (GUD) is a collaborative initiative by designer, educator and artist Rebecca Stephany and myself. We joined forces in 2018 in order to gather and publish tools, strategies and the work of pioneers and peers with the aim to amplify feminist and undisciplined design practices. In collaboration with design students, practitioners and educators, the Glossary of Undisciplined Design is conceived as an approach to be expressed in different models: a series of topical lectures, teaching formats, workshops and a symposium at GfZK – Museum of Contemporary Art Leipzig. All these activities serve as the extended editorial framework for the GUD handbook (to be published in February/March 2021).

With around 56 entries in text and image by more than 20 international contributors, among which Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Hackers & Designers (Anja Groten and Juliette Lizotte), Sara Kaaman, Ece Canlı, Jungmyung Lee and Clara Balaguer, as well as Rebecca and I with students from HfG Karlsruhe, the GUD handbook combines a multitude of theories and narratives with unruly strategies for empowering modes of design practice. 

Discriminatory structures and biased definitions in the field of design continue to reinforce disadvantages, from studying or teaching design to ways of professionalizing in the field and are inseparable from structural issues around relevance, visibility and representation. Rather than pointing to a binary understanding of “undisciplined” as opposed to a “methodical” or “orderly” way of designing, we work with undisciplinarity as a feminist unpacking of modernist, patriarchal or dogmatic rules for designing. Through critical investigations, hands-on experiments, speculative narratives and hybrid forms, GUD approaches this process as a deliberately humorous and joyful attempt to resist patriarchal expectations for the field of graphic design towards messy, fuzzy, emotional, unruly, collaborative and caring design practices.

The playful conception of the handbook as a glossary allows for the rhythmic and engaging interweaving of different intensities and densities of content. In order to address conventional design paradigms in the design of the book itself, conceptual and editorial means such as non-linearity, discontinuity and patchwork are employed alongside formal explorations in typography and layout. On a pictorial level, narrative essays, digital collages, sketches, photos, documentation materials of the symposium as well as reproductions of the design and art work of the contributors, are set alongside each other. This porous and polyphonic editorial strategy enables diverse ways of reading and experiencing the various contents offered in the handbook – contradictions and questions (rather than answers) are articulated and produce a productive tension that invites the reader to access the publication from his/her personal experiences, associations and decidedly subjective points of view.