Shifting from Safe to Extraordinary: Designer Marian Bantjes

Marian Bantjes

Marian Bantjes

Today I watched a course on (a subscription through my work) about Marian Bantjes, a Canadian graphic designer. I was drawn to her story because when she was around the same age I am now, she moved from leading a design firm with a team to focusing on personal design work. Since I am considering such a path, I wanted to hear about her journey. Here are themes from the course that resonated with me:

Do Artists Need to Isolate Themselves Physically?

Marian lives in a home she renovated on Bowen Island in British Columbia, which also whisked me back to my days living there and spending time on the Gulf Islands. Her choice to leave Vancouver to work in isolation reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend Rafael the other day – about whether one has to isolate oneself to really do extraordinary art.

She sold her part of a design business to her partner, providing enough funds for one year. She spent that year creating a body of work that would hopefully become the next phase of her life. While she created that body of work through drawing and painting in her home studio, it was actually an entry into a t-shirt design competition that made her style iconographic in the design community. So it goes to show – isolation combined with selective re-insertion in the community is the best way to be truly different but still bring your work to the world.

The Grounding Theme of Love

When Marian was describing her transition from the “safe” office life to one where she focused on the extraordinary, she talked about an epiphany she had when flying over New York looking down at the lights. She realized that everything she did was for the purpose of love, which is something I have said before when I was gathering stories for National Wildlife Federation. My goal with that project was to bring love to my interviewees, by showing a sincere interest in their stories. My goal was to heal the rifts within the organization by helping each person be heard, and to share their humanity with each other. That grounding idea, that we all come from a place of love when we are doing our best work, is key to my own beliefs. It was a good reminder hearing it so elegantly from Marian.

Designing Around an Annual Theme

She felt so strongly about this theme of love that she decided to make extraordinary Valentines. She would send them to a network of people. Her work was so “obsessive” as one of the recipients said, it really stood out from the other piles of unsolicited design work they received.

  • Marian Bantjes Valentine from 2005 – This one sets the stage for it all with the words “Everything I do, I do for love”
  • Marian Bantjes Valentine from 2006 – The design says “True Heart”
  • Marian Bantjes Valentines from 2007 – Individually hand drawn – gah!
  • Marian Bantjes Valentines from 2008 – She took the form of a heart and made them each a letter of the alphabet – then mailed people the letters of their name, knowing they would recognize their own name in the jumble of letters
  • Marian Bantjes Valentine from 2009 – An incredible letter – to quote some of it – “you’ve never really been sure of this – but I can assure you that this quirk you are so self-conscious of intensely endearing.” Doesn’t everyone have something that they feel is odd, but they hold on it because they believe it is what really makes them true?
  • Marian Bantjes Valentine from 2010 – This one is my absolute favorite as an AMAZING example of creative reuse – and I think hers too based on the documentary. These Valentines were made by laser cutting recycled used Christmas cards, and they have some amazing moments of awesomeness depending on how certain parts of the images were “fussy cut” as we say in quilting
  • Marian Bantjes Valentine from 2011 – The theme this year was “Remember when we were young, we used to give Valentines to all our friends.” She gave each person a sheet of Valentines to remind us of that time.

I love this example of her journey because I know Trashmagination started in some ways with the Halloween costumes I made from trash. The annual event forced the creativity.

Finding Epiphanies By Being Well Rested

When Marian gave a tour of her home, she showed where she likes to sleep and rest. She notes that this is a critical part of her design process and she likes to sleep a lot. She notes that her “morning idea” – the idea that comes when she wakes up or perhaps in the shower – is invariably her best idea for the day. I agree with ALL of this.

The book Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer explains the science behind this. I was so impressed by this book that during an innovation session last spring, I incorporated something called “Brain Breaks,” which meant the participants needed to do something brainless with their hands unrelated to the task of the session. I believed the best ideas would come during these breaks. I’m not sure we proved that to be true in our session, but everyone universally said they loved the experience.

Writing About What You Believe

While Marian was moving from agency-style design work to a more personal style of work, she did a ton of actual design work, and she also did a lot of writing about it. She contributed to a graphic design blog called Speak Up. She explored themes of graphic design. For example, she wrote about the design qualities of each letter in the alphabet. These opinions appear, in some ways, inane. Who cares about whether each letter of the alphabet has been well designed? But there are truths in her observations that extend beyond examining each letter.

For example, I wrote a blog about what makes a good creative reuse project, including a scoring mechanism. This blog got almost no response except from my dear friend Janice. It was too odd. Who cares about a scoring mechanism for recycling projects? But it matters to me. It matters because I want my designs to be that level better – and one can reach a level of meaningful uniqueness only when one has meaningful restrictions. Writing manifestos may seem like an odd use of leisure time, but I think it’s wonderful. I’m trying to show you what is going on inside my brain – and maybe it will trigger something for you. Maybe it will make me choose to dig deeper into one project as compared to another.

Marian notes that she has more ideas than she will ever have time to design. I know how she feels! So writing about what is important helps me decide where to put my energies.

Welcome to my Dirt Collection!

At one point in the documentary, Marian shows her dirt collection, which is a series of bottles holding dirt from places she has been. She hopes to make a sand painting with them. That reminded me of Trashmagination and my never-ending systems for sorting trash by color and shape so it’s ready for that moment with a project epiphany occurs. It’s like having bottles of paint or new paint brushes ready to go. Hearing about Marian’s dirt collection made me feel better about my bizarre collections too.

Always Reinventing and Creating Wonder

There are times when I wish this blog and my “body of work” were more cohesive, or my life journey was more linear. It just isn’t, and actually looking at the variety of her work makes me feel better. Not only does she shift her materials, she makes things that are curvy script all the way to stuff that looks like a robot made it. People may think they are going to get something specific from Marian because they like an earlier piece she did. But then when she approaches their assignment, she gives them something they never could have expected. That will make some clients upset, of course. But that is how I feel too. You will get the best solution for the problem. Exploring themes is fun, but surprising people is more fun.

Marian describes how her favorite thing to do is to surprise people and make them take a second look. She loves to juxtapose things that are surprising. Her book, I Wonder, explores these themes. Surprising people is best part of Trashmagination – when people say “This is made of what?” or they say, “Wow I never looked at that piece of trash in that way.” Creating wonder is my most satisfying work.

(The photo at the top of this blog was taken by kris krüg and is shared via Creative Commons on Flickr.)

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