Photograph by Anna Schultz ’16
Photograph by Anna Schultz ’16
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In spring 2015, Erik Brandt was appointed chair of design at MCAD. NEXT sat down with him to talk about his vision for the future of the design department, his professional practice Typografika, his Ficciones Typografika poster project, and the importance of thinking globally.

Erik Brandt has been a faculty member in the design department for the past nine years and served as interim chair prior to his recent appointment. Brandt’s studio practice has encompassed all areas of the department—graphic design, illustration, and comic art—and he has exhibited work throughout the United States and internationally. Brandt holds an MFA in visual communication from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and a BA in philosophy from the College of William and Mary. Brandt is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), an invite-only organization that unites the world’s leading graphic designers and artists, and serves on the AIGA National Education Steering Committee. 

Conglomerate Identity 

Erik Brandt, Conglomerate Identity, 2012, poster, bulletin, and postcard

 

NEXT: You were born in Montana, and then lived in Cameroon, Malawi, Cairo, and Germany. Tell us more about your background, growing up as a global citizen.

Erik Brandt: The story of my life is really a story of languages. My father was originally in the Peace Corps, but later became a headmaster of international schools, so that’s why we moved around so much. My first language was French as we were in Malawi, and then I learned a little bit of English, and then we moved to Germany, so German became my primary language.

That’s really key in my identification with the idea of conglomerate identity—not really having a home or roots, as some people say, but rather more of a floating root system that’s connected. I think that’s why my interest in philosophy and history was actually perfect preparation for a life in graphic design. It gave much more vocabulary, quite literally and conceptually, to the work I do, so I think that’s a common stream in all of my work. I clearly have a strong interest in typography and that comes from an interest in language and cultures and how those things are communicated.

You began your career as a cartoonist for RADAR magazine in Japan and later taught at Pennsylvania State University and VCUQatar. How did you arrive at MCAD?

I came to MCAD in 2007. I was teaching in Doha, Qatar, before that, and for me, especially in the mid-90s, Minneapolis was kind of our Amsterdam, as far as graphic design goes—mostly because of the Walker, but also because of MCAD. I was familiar with some of the professors like Jan Jancourt, but maybe more so with what was coming out of the Walker at the time—Matthew Carter’s typeface and Laurie Haycock Makela, who was the design director at the time. By the same token, my wife, who’s a poet, was also fascinated by Minneapolis because of the strong creative writing community here.

Design Department Poster 

Erik Brandt, MCAD Design Department Poster, 2015, poster, 24 x 36 in.

 

You’ve already made design faculty and curriculum updates. What is your vision for the design department and what else do you hope to see change?

The biggest change that we as a collective are initiating is a shift from the thought that the department as a whole would focus largely on print. We’re trying to find a better balance between the obvious needs of the contemporary communication environment, which is clearly digital in nature. We may then shift and redevelop the graphic design curriculum, with an eye to collaborate with our colleagues in media art, but also find ways for students within our area to benefit from that as well. I’m very excited of the possibility of a new dedicated interactive faculty member joining us that will help us expand our strengths.

In the course of interviewing for this position, a frequent question was, “What is the future of design in general?” and my response was that everything will be exactly the same and everything will be completely different. The essential forms won’t change. It will be a balance of type and image relationships that give form to communication. That’s been happening for hundreds of years now—communication vehicles change and you have to adapt to that.

I don’t think there should be a particular vision in terms of a dedication to a certain formal orientation or a certain way of communicating. That contradicts the idea of design thinking, period. Process and problem-solving are most important.

For me as chair, the critical piece is taking advantage of the outstanding, long-serving faculty here within the design department and to continue to allow those professors to do what they do. I can boast this: all of us have a contemporary practice, which isn’t necessarily rare, but it’s certainly hard, so it’s all the more admirable that the faculty are able to advance their own practice and then transmit that continued fascination to students.

No Fly Gif

Erik Brandt, No Fly Posters, 2013, posters, full: 762mm x 1020mm, individual: 254mm x 340mm

 

So why is it important to maintain a professional practice as a professor?

For me, it’s just not a question. This is how I live my life, and that’s making things. It’s such an important part of what I came to understand about myself. My heroes are old designers—people who are still hungry for creation and making things. My goal is to be an old designer that hasn’t given up and is still making interesting things. 
I think it’s important to project your work and take a risk with the world that may or may not like what you do. What matters is recognition of colleagues. I don’t mean to sound vain-glorious, but when I was accepted in AGI, that was definitely a highlight of my career as a designer. The counter to that is this terror that now I have to produce work at that level all the time and I’m really not sure if I’m capable of that.

I think it is healthy to have a certain level of humility and fear. I tell my students when they worry about such feelings, it shows me they are demonstrating care, and care involves a great deal of uncertainty. That means treating your work well—lending it your best craft, your best intentions, your love.

On the topic of your work, you started your Ficciones Typografika project to facilitate a space that allows designers from across the world to create experimental work that addresses the idea of typographic fiction in a public setting. You’ve been printing, cutting, and pasting three posters at a time on the wall of your garage in south Minneapolis and documenting the work on Tumblr. Can you tell us more about this project and why it’s been such a hit, both online and offline?

It’s not necessarily anything new, but it’s really unique in a bizarre way. It has both a physical and an online life, it’s international in nature, it’s broadly defined, so it fits social media perfectly, but then it also fills this hole in contemporary graphic design for expression.

One of the most enjoyable things is being outside and engaging with people coming by. I’ve had the most bizarre run-ins with people—some quite vulgar, but always positive.

I’ve posted more than 1,110, but lately I’ve been thinking it has to come to an end at some point, especially if I want to make a book about it, or a series of books, which is what I’m thinking about.

Emma Lazarus

Erik Brandt, Ficciones Typografika 1060–1062 (poem by Emma Lazarus, 1883, emphases 2015), installed November 18, 2015, wheatpasted bond paper, 72 x 36 in.

 

Gentien Arnault

Gentien Arnault, Ficciones Typografika 1116–1118, installed February 7, 2016, wheatpasted bond paper, 72 x 36 in.

 

Can you talk more about the importance of having an international perspective and encouraging students to think globally?

Everyone else in the world is conscious of this and participating in it whether they know it or not. Your portfolio is already immediately accessible and that’s a good thing, because that means that you can anticipate potentially working on an international scale.

My small practice has an international reach, and not by accident. I’ve consciously made that effort to try and project my work, and that’s something that we really encourage students to have a plan about.

Of course, I have a bias because I was fortunate enough to be towed around by my family completely beyond my control, but then later on in life, I lived the same way. If in life you don’t get to see the city of Istanbul or you don’t get to travel, you will have failed, because as we know well, if you’re just a traveler, you learn more about where you’re from than the place that you’re actually seeing. You immediately notice differences, but it’s really a comparative noticing. If you can at least get close to an experience like this in a digital sense—it’s possible, it’s free—you have to do it.

Most of our students at MCAD tend to come from the region. We tell them, “You can always come back. It would be better if you can come back with things that you’ve brought, so if that’s New York, if that’s Berlin, if that’s Beijing, we’ll all be better for it.”

In your opinion, what is the real value of an art or design education?

The value is being gifted a set of tools that will allow you to live a life in these fields, which is incredibly challenging, and can be incredibly lonely and very competitive. That key value is learning—the latest meme is “design thinking,” but to me—design process. It allows and has allowed for someone like me to continue with a variety of interests, but then find application for those interests. It’s being comfortable with the idea that the future cannot be predictable, and how that’s actually a good thing because that means that your life is going to be filled with hopefully pleasant surprises that you can react to.

The exciting part about our field is that there’s always promise built in. There’s always something new—there’s always something different. As I hope for all of our students, life is long, things will change, there’ll be new influences, there’ll be new toys to play with, and the same forms of thinking that you bring to a practice will be applicable no matter what stage that communication exists on. That’s actually a commitment toward living a life—not a commitment toward a job.

Like Tears in Rainbows

Erik Brandt, Like tears in rainbows, 2011, centerfold poster for Crack Magazine, approx. 13.4 x 20 in

 

What makes MCAD different? What can we offer that other programs can’t?

I had the opportunity to leave last year and to take over another program, which was incredibly attractive, I have to admit, but what was more attractive were both the students and the colleagues I’ve known at MCAD. It’s evidence, what happens in the hallways around here. The work is constantly changing. It goes up, it goes down. It’s a really creative community. Having had the benefit of teaching at several other institutions, I can say it’s one of the most vibrant that I’ve ever taught at.

I think that we’re kind of uniquely positioned in the Midwest in the so-called flyover zone, and in some ways, it gives us a lot of freedom. Within the American scene, which is essentially bipolar, it’s either New York or LA. Personally, I think the scene is so vibrant here across the entire creative spectrum, and I think it’s no secret. Winter is long, we are remote, and I think that’s actually to our advantage because if you want to make something happen, you have to make it happen.

What are some of the things you’ve learned from students in your years at MCAD?

Teaching has primarily been a vehicle for learning, both for myself as a person and obviously for students. The thing that you must preserve, in being a teacher or being a father, is always the absolute joy and wonder of discovery. The best day of my week is my teaching day, because that’s when I get to work side by side with students and both hopefully inspire and then witness these moments of discovery.

I talk about teaching as a time warp. You never know when some of the ideas you’re trying to communicate will be embraced or awoken within someone. Fortunately I’ve been teaching long enough that I have students that hated my guts twenty years ago writing me now, reflecting and saying, “Gosh, now I understand.”

When I was teaching in Doha, Qatar, I had to change my entire approach to teaching because none of my jokes worked, no musical references worked, and no cultural references worked. I had to devise and develop a way to be flexible in that approach and I think that made me a much better teacher. I’d like to think I brought that flexibility here to MCAD.

Wow po-po 

Erik Brandt, Wow Po-Po, Wow Pee-Pee, 2013, greeting card, 5 x 7 in.

 

Are there any other recent projects you want to mention?

In addition to my daughter Beatrix, my other most important recent project is our youngest daughter now, Colette. Those are the biggest design projects that exist and I feel really lucky to have two girls because it’s especially fascinating and foreign.

It's wonderful being a father because you get to witness how close to the source they are. I remember the exact same thing, endless hours spent drawing and dreaming up worlds. It’s a joy to see my daughter Beatrix going through those things. It’s always a reminder of how lazy you are, and I mean in your intellect too. Her drawings are endlessly inspiring to me. I’m not sure if I would still have the same level of freedom. I think that’s something that comes with just constantly working.

Beatrix and I—she’s five now—have this tradition of coming to MCAD on Sundays. It’s very quiet and empty. I cut down posters for Ficciones Typografika and then go back and hang them, so it’s all interconnected. It’s very much a home.

Anything else?

I really welcome and would love it for alumni to reach out to both myself and to my colleagues. We’d love to hear about what they’re doing, where they are, and when they’re coming back, so we can give them a big hug and say, “Welcome home.” 

Visit Erik Brandt's projects on the web at typografika.com and ficciones-typografika.tumblr.com.

Erik Brandt

Erik Brandt, Ficciones Typografika 964–966, 
installed July 29, 2015, wheatpasted bond paper, 72 x 36 in.

 


 

MCAD’s Design Faculty

MCAD Design Faculty

Clockwise from left: Jan JancourtTom GarrettLinda FrichtelKindra MurphyBarbara SchulzErik Brandt