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GDFB: Interview with Dennis Elbers

After graduating from the academy for art and design AKV|St.Joost (Breda, NL) in 2003, Dennis Elbers worked as an artist, curator and organiser. He is now director of the first Graphic Design Festival Breda.

By No author /asdf 30-05-2008

After graduating from the academy for art and design AKV St.Joost (Breda, NL), Dennis Elbers worked as an artist, curator and organiser. He is now director of the first Graphic Design Festival Breda.

Early days
Elbers moved to Breda to study at the academy of fine arts and design. "I didn’t really know much about Breda until I moved there 10 years ago. In 2003, after I graduated we thought Breda a bit dull. There were lots of talented artists from the Academy but they all left Breda as soon as they graduated because there wasn't much going on here; there were no good places to exhibit work and there wasn't really a creative atmosphere. So in that year we set up the KOP foundation which includes a big 300sqm exhibition space and 10 studios. Now, over the last couple of years there's been a real drive to try to wake this city up. And it's worked, there's now a thriving industry, and many designers are staying and working, often for big international clients."

Idea for a festival

The idea for a festival started with the fact that a new museum for graphic design will open in June 2008. Elbers, "In 2006 we talked to people from the council who said that the museum will open but that they also wanted to do something extra. My idea was not just to hold a one-off event but something that is held more regularly, the idea being that it explains to the people of Breda what graphic design is all about. The idea of the new museum had triggered a lot of discussion in the city and I wanted to get involved in that and reach that wider audience. I got a small grant from the city council and then started looking for funding from other partners."

Breda and graphic design
The art academy St Joost has had a strong connection with graphic design for many years and many famous Dutch designers graduated from there. The art museum always held regular exhibitions on graphic design. Elbers says "Lots of designers live in Breda, and during our preparations for the festival we also found that there’s a whole graphic industry built around the city. But apart from the past, we’re keen on focusing on the future and forging new links between the city and graphic design."

Elbers set up most of programme himself. "Initially I had many ideas but only a small selection made it though this year. I wanted it to be a festival for the designers, not of my ideas. So I started off with a few notes, followed by discussions with a couple of designers, then developed the projects. A programme board was also set up, to whom we sent the ideas, but in the end they didn't change much."

Festival theme
Elbers says he didn't choose a 'theme' for the first festival because they wanted to encourage support from a wide range of people and companies. "If there is a theme then it could be said that our ethos was to approach the designers from the angle of their own individuality and personality. For instance, we're not showing retrospective displays of their campaigns or plan to highlight their best-ever/award-winning work etc. Instead, we set up new projects and asked designers to make special work for that project from their own point of view. So we didn’t really tell them what to do, we just said, 'this is going to be the medium and we would like you to send in a design, animation, t-shirt or whatever, do whatever you like.' They really liked being in a project like this as it meant they were free to set up their own ideas. But for some it was also a challenge, they were used to people looking over their shoulders all the time saying, 'we need to communicate this or that', and now there was nobody, so this also caused a lot of discussion between the designers. We wanted them to do their own thing and not to work with the usual client/designer relationship."


The festival aims to appeal to a wide audience. "Most of the graphic design events you see are by graphic designers for graphic designers. We decided to split our audience up into three groups. The first is the general public. This is mainly people on the streets of Breda, working and living there. Anyone in Breda over the next six weeks will definitely know that something is going on. Maybe they don't realise that it's a graphic design festival, but they will be confronted in unusual ways with graphic design. We hope to surprise them, put a smile on their face or inspire them to find out more about graphic design. The second group is the designers themselves. Around 80 designers will be taking part in the main programme, plus 250 in the co-productions. These designers come from all over the world, Australia, Brazil, Sweden, name it!"


The third audience group is children from the age of 12. "We've set up a number of different products to introduce them to graphic design. In one project the kids will be able to make a sign for their favourite place in the city. This could be grandpa's house, the playground, a sweetshop...under the guidance of professional designers the children will make the signs and then place them in the city. We wanted to show that graphic design is not just looking but also communicating. The children's signs will tell everyone about these special places and they will think about them, so it has a social function too."

Big names and grass roots
Another project involved selecting 20 businesses from Breda and hooking them up with 20 designers from Breda. From these meetings 10 companies are now connected to a local designer and they will now do a project together, which the businesses will pay for. "We tried to make the businesses see that design is useful for their business and also that they don’t have to look very far for a good designer."

Watch this space
The festival will be a biannual event. "Setting up a festival like this takes so much organisation! We will be around in the period in between years, so people will still notice us and see what we are doing, but a major festival like this can only be done every two years. Otherwise we'll go crazy!"


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