Max Kisman, graphic designer

Interviews by Peter Biľak
1 704 words9 min read

Max Kisman (Doetinchem 1953, the Netherlands) was educated in graphic design and illustration at the Academy for Art and Industry in Enschede and the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam (1972-1977). He designs exhibitions, books, magazines, calendars, animations, posters, post stamps and typefaces. He co-founded 1986 TYP/Typografisch Papier an alternative magazine on typography and art. In the mid-eighties he pioneered digital technology in graphic design for “Language Technology” magazine and posters for the “Paradiso” concert hall in Amsterdam. From 1989-1992, he worked and lived in Barcelona. He designed typefaces for FontShop International and Fuse. He now designs animations for program announcements of the Dutch progressive public television broadcasting station VPRO and is associated with the graphic design collective “Wild Plakken”. Recently he became more involved in graphic design for digital and interactive media.

OK, Let’s start with one of your provocative statements. In Typ G, published in June 1991, you wrote: “The institution of the letter will be abolished. The power will be defeated. Since their digital manifestation, letters have been outlawed. The prevailing conceptions have lost their value. Graphic design is a fake and aesthetic-based page filler. Graphic design and typography will be banned.” Did you quit designing fonts after this statement? How do you look at that statement now, almost four years later?

I haven’t really seriously designed any fonts after that period. Since 1992 I have concentrated on television graphics, animation and since last year new electronic media. There is not much time left to design typefaces, though I have made some for specific uses.

Because my angle is shifted I am less interested in type. There is so much of that stuff and I wonder what I could add which hasn’t been done before. Too much I see now is somehow related to what I did years ago. Of course I recognise some very good designs but to me the revolution is over and repetition began a while ago. There is no meaning in type design, all is decoration. Everyone can do what someone else is doing. Type design becomes an average taste to express a general life style. In contrast to that I appreciate graphic design which is challenging, which is brutal and takes risks, which is not commercial and expresses ideas or emotions, which is involved with society.

Type is available anywhere at any time. Concepts of type are available anywhere at any time. Like the jersey you wear or the shoe you choose. Nothing more, nothing less. All this fuzz about type becomes a bit irrelevant, I think sometimes. Of course it’s a big industry, a lot is involved, many typographical magazines appear, lots of students are waiting to bring in something new.

This massive run on type is an escape from an essential question. Whether graphic design will survive or not. And if so, how? More important at this moment is to redefine graphic design.


Because type has become more abstract in the last 50 years, people have become more flexible in reading. Do you think this will continue?

Type itself didn’t become more abstract, but the ability of reading more complex forms increased. As we are able to absorb many quickly changing images such as in video clips we will be able to understand certain scripts. Scripts which become a visual language. When we understand that language we will read them. It might continue until type is so abstract we don’t need it any more.

Some highly abstract ideas are too complex to be expressed differently than verbally. In spite of that, do you think that type might be redundant some day?

Pwoah... To be honest I think type will always exist in some kind of form. It’s so easy to read. Books will be special items in the future, but still use type. Libraries will conserve all kinds of knowledge about knowledge itself and how it’s stored, namely through written language. There are enough other reasons why type should remain accessible and used.

What do you think of those hundreds of fonts which are only based on computer errors or effects? (FontShop International just released Dirty type series)

Like I said before, this kind of type and typography will be an item for the masses and will have a purely decorative function. Type based on errors always has a short life. Remember the woodblock type or type machine letters? Get it while you can is characterising type design more than quality does.

Do you think today’s Dutch graphic design is still recognisable in the world’s scale? If yes, do you think the Dutch designers are able to keep their identity even in 21st century?

The kind of Dutch Design you’re talking about doesn’t exist anymore. Dutch design politicians and salesmen have sold out Dutch Design. The best Dutch Design is made abroad, for instance in the USA or in France and Germany. But probably and hopefully the Netherlands will be able to educate a couple of very good graphic designers. These designers continue to work and to think in the best Dutch tradition and mentality which originated in the early seventies. Form to content related design from a progressive and critical point of view always gave, and will give, Dutch Design its identity in the future.

Technology is changing unbelievably fast. People working with new media are under constant pressure of receiving (and digesting) new information. Are you afraid of being overwhelmed by this information?

We always have been overwhelmed by information. But human beings are very selective. They choose only the essential information which is useful to them. But, yes, information became much more and instantly available. The problem is much more in the choice and in the search. Electronic information distribution is still a complete chaos and not very user-friendly. The fact is that soon we will have systems with millions of databases available 24 hours a day instantly. We have to find ways to edit out the crap. We need individual support and intelligent agents to help us select appropriate information.


What role does technology have in today’s environment? How will the role of an artist change in a digital world?

Looking at your previous question, the artist will be involved in giving structure to the visualisation of electronic information. In whatever way, functional, straightforward or artistically and expressive. The artist will discover the new media and explore its possibilities and impossibilities within his or her talents. Graphic designers will continue to do what they’ve done before, visualising content in a related context. With the extension of time, movement and space to their work. The importance of visualisation of content in the electronic media is underestimated, I think. Too many amateurish players seriously think they can do it themselves. The same misunderstanding happened (and still goes on) with desktop publishing. Graphic design is a very specialised profession and will be of high value in the new media. Like all other kinds of artists, graphic designers must experiment and study all possibilities and impossibilities of new media, be it in communication or in expression.

How do you see the future of copyright and intellectual property? In this digital era it is hard to say what is an original, and what is a copy. Do you believe that information should be free?

I think this is also a misunderstanding. Information never was free. All information in the form it exists is somehow protected. Only when you filter the information and change its context is it possible to create a new stage. Information is as free or as protected as you want it to be. But I believe in intellectual property. And then copying means you borrow someone’s identity for yourself. And that won’t really work. I do not really care if people copy my fonts or copy my style, as long as they admit they’re not clever enough to do it themselves.

Designers have certain visual power. Are you suspicious of the manipulative quality of images?

Some designers have certain visual power. All images have manipulative quality. That’s what images are for.

Computers and designers are tied so closely together that they can not practically survive separately. Are you able to distinguish whether images are coming from your brain or your computer?

Can you tell whether an image is based on imagination or came out of a certain technique? Technique only offers you a way to create the image, but not the thought. An image of which it is able to trace a thought and which isn’t covered with thick layers of cheap effects can be honest and clear. Depending on the brain you just mentioned it might well be possible. Even crap comes out of a brain.

Do you think it is necessary to create beautiful things? Do you think that by designing beautiful things we can create a better world?

Beautiful things only exist next to horrible ugly things. Taking into account there is enough ugliness I assume I create beautiful things. A lot of ugliness comes from a bad world. With my work I can show that it is possible to make something nice and special, but I don’t think it will help to create a better world. I only can contribute this minor positive atom in the universe, hoping its collision with another particle gives a good chemical reaction.

Tell me something about your latest work?

For the last three years I make animated loops as program announcements for the progressive Dutch TV station VPRO. I am involved in experiments in new media for the same corporation in their World Wide Web server and CD-ROMs. Also I designed a number of icons for the World Wide Web server of HotWired.

What do you admire?

Originality, character, experiment, integrity, boldness, clearness, emotion, personality.

Who do you admire?


Would you like to add a final word?

The End.