Bojan Hadžihalilović is a graphic designer from Sarajevo. Together with his wife Dalida Hadžihalilović and Lela Mulabegović Hatt he founded the Design TRIO Sarajevo studio in 1985. Initially, the studio designed album covers, daily newspapers and magazines, theatre and film posters, and books. Some of the most famous works from this period of study are album covers for popular bands and performers, such as Plavi orkestar, Bijelo dugme, Crvena jabuka, Dino Merlin and others. During the war, TRIO started designing a series of handmade posters called Greetings from Sarajevo. The anti-war message that postcards and posters conveyed to the world became one of the symbols of the then besieged city. Studio TRIO founded the agency called Fabrika, which has developed into one of the largest design and marketing agencies in the region since the late 1990s. Bojan Hadžihalilović works as the creative director of Fabrika, and in addition to design, he is currently interested in computer graphics, TV animation, production of music videos and digital communications. His work has been discussed in reputable design and art-oriented magazines, including: Graphis, Print, How, Step inside Design, Life, The Face, Creative Review, Art Press, Flash Art and others. Works by the TRIO and Fabrika studios have also been published in Anatomy of Design, Innovative Promotions at Work, The Design of Dissent, Evil Doesn’t Live Here, Political poster of Central and Eastern Europe 1945-1995, etc. As of 1996, Bojan Hadžihalilović is a full professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo where he teaches at the Department of Graphic Design. Simultaneously, he also teaches visual communications at the Faculty of Architecture and the Academy of Performing Arts.
OM: Thanks to father Fuad’s education in design and his direct contact with and involvement in the active life of art and design, you were introduced to an exciting and changing world at a very young age. How much influence did the old-school designer have on your work, as you often call him in interviews?
BH: As a kid, I used to watch my father sketch, draw, set letters using letterset, cut with scissors, and brush and use Rapidograph pens to create logos for hours. I was surrounded by magazines and books on design, photography and architecture. I had no idea what he was actually doing as a designer; for me he was, as they say in Bosnia, a “de facto artist”, although he was neither a painter, nor a sculptor, nor a graphic artist. That was kind of cool to me… Then I noticed that my old man, through work, spent a lot of time with filmmakers, musicians, smart and interesting crowd, writers… And then I thought: I would like to have a life like that! It was the golden age of posters for plays, movies, sporting events. I recall my father’s posters that looked like serious paintings or graphics – the ones you would want to hang on a wall at home.
OM: It is precisely the types of knowledge that have been somewhat forgotten nowadays, such as knowledge of materials, direct work with the press and handicrafts, that stand out in your probably best known and most reproduced posters Greetings from Sarajevo, created in the city under siege in 1993. How were the postcards and posters made, what manufacturing methods did you have to use?
BH: Our war posters were created according to the old-fashioned principle of classic designers – first an idea – a sketch, as a small original, which then became a postcard, and then we enlarged it and projected it on a large B1 poster format. On our originals, below the tempera paint, a pencil-outlined grid can be seen even today. We used this grid to transfer the image from the small to the large format. Then we took tempera paints, brushes and finished the original, created by hand. It is probably the last series of original painted posters created as a tribute to essential design created during the war. These were posters-originals that we did not reproduce, which is the opposite principle of design and propaganda.
OM: In 1985, the design studio TRIO (Bojan Hadžihalilović, Dalida Hadžihalilović, Lela Mulabegović Hatt) was established, primarily connected to the Bosnian-Herzegovinian music scene. The studio’s first job was the cover for the first album of the then-new band Plavi Orkestar – Soldatski bal (1985). The cover of the record itself is a redesign of the Beatles’ cult album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The iconography was changed, and in place of the Beatles, members of Plavi orkestar appeared. Has recycling a successful and recognizable design imposed itself as a good solution?
BH: In those days, it was a challenge to be referential, to retroactively play with symbols of the past, to “hijack” facts with totalitarian symbols or images, while creating some kind of postmodern or simply celebrating the kitsch of the visual Dadaist style. We thought we were dealing with art satire, by referring to universal works known to everyone, we visualized the moment of the time. It wasn’t “anything particularly smart”, we were kids, we barely began our studies at the Academy, we loved pop art, Warhol, Monty Python, Dali, Dadaism, punk, Marcel Duchamp. We were still teenagers; we had just enrolled in the first year of the Academy – along with Lošo. We needed to put the heroes of our time on the covers, quite naively, we thought that the four members of the Plavi orkestar band were our version of the Beatles behind the “iron curtain” and they really became that. The first album sold 500,000 copies; girls were screaming and going hysterical at their concerts. We also became smallish big shots ourselves, we worked for Bijelo Dugme, Merlin, Crvena Jabuka and others.
OM: What inspired you in those years? Who did you see as a role model for your own work at the time?
BH: There were plenty of role models in our country, excellent designers: Picelj, Bućan, Vipotnik, Mirko Ilić, Dragan S. Stefanović, the Irwins, but also the geniuses of our time: Fukuda, Roman Cieślewicz, Saul Bass, John Baldessari, Keith Haring… Each of them was great in some aspect of design. It was the golden age of visual art, more so than of advertising etc. Then there are the inevitable Monty Pythons, the Surrealists, the Neue Slowenische Kunst, and the influence of Mladina and Feral on our lives. Creative workers proved themselves in all fields of public action: posters for the theatre, film posters, LPs, book covers, cultural events. We worked on jobs from Belgrade, Zagreb, Subotica to Ljubljana – we, a small company of designers from Sarajevo. The alternative was much stronger than the mainstream, Polet had a bigger impact than, say, Start, which was “like concrete”.
OM: In addition to connecting with new musicians on the scene, TRIO began its collaboration with the band Bijelo Dugme on their last two albums. The first still has clear symbolism of the propaganda of totalitarian regimes (a photo of the Chinese march), while the second album exudes a completely different symbolism (Noah’s Ark by Edward Hicks). Once again, it is a matter of directly taking over already existing solutions, but this time without any intervention. Although clear, the symbols are read between the lines this time. How is the symbolism of a work read? How is the line between clarity and exaggeration, or readability and provocation, determined?
BH: At the time, the visual provocation was the holy grail. We played with taboos and national and international symbols. We were lucky enough to work with some of the most audacious characters and to learn from them. The challenge was to create small or big visual mischief with regard to forbidden topics: Tito, the Party, partisans, communists… It was a favourite mantra of rock performers as well as theatre directors, writers, and even us, the designers, who were lucky enough to work for them. We happily took on this challenge and wanted to create some kind of our own pop art and we had a really good time doing it. On the cover of the double album by Bijelo Dugme, next to the logo we wrote the word “live” in the style of Tito’s signature, and for the visuals we chose a photo from a big session of the Central Committee where all participants held up their hands in unison. This atmosphere resembled the energy of one of the band’s concerts, but it was also very totalitarian, very “one-party system”, and at the same time it was very punk in a way.
OM: Are album design methods different today? What is the starting point for the design of the cover – the lyrics or the sound, and how can the initial idea be harmonized with today’s marketing requirements?
BH: Unfortunately, record covers are no longer so crucial for the promotion of music. What matters to bands is what happens on social media, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. It is the video, as a form, that has become critical. Fabrika has exciting experiences with a dozen videos that we had the opportunity to do for the band Dubioza Kolektiv. The design and identity of Dubioza is recognizable and universal, with its combination of black and yellow, and the Bosnian Rastafarian character, who is also the symbol of the band. They have a super simple and orderly visual identity, and each new song is a new expression of the band and a new opportunity to entertain and teach their fans.
OM: The Greetings from Sarajevo postcards have travelled all over the world and have been reproduced in reputable magazines all over the world. The message of peace, freedom and art was sent from the cut-off city as a symbol of hope and the continuation of life. Do you follow art that is created in war zones today? Is today’s anti-war art/design different from your idea of appropriating world-famous symbols?
BH: If we look at the influence of today’s designers, graffiti artists and artists on world events, then, symbolically, we can say that Banksy speaks on behalf of all of us. I have remained eternally emotionally attached to everything that happens in war zones in a world in which the eternal struggle between good against evil is waged, a struggle for the rights of those who are endangered. Sounds overly sickly, I know, but you can’t get rid of it once it is inside you. The fight will never stop and I will always be on the side of the attacked, endangered, weaker, that’s the kind of person I am. I am always the “other” in my homeland.
OM: What is required for a quality publication that will respectfully address sensitive and difficult topics, as was the case with Tarik Samarah’s Srebrenica monograph?
BH: Good question. There are no killings, explicit scenes of torture, oppression, executions in Tariq’s book. Everything in it is the aftermath of Srebrenica, which perhaps speaks more powerfully than the tragic documents and movies we had the opportunity to watch. People don’t like to watch tragedies, they don’t like to remember executions, but the Monograph and Gallery 110795 don’t leave anyone indifferent. This year we had the opportunity to do the visual identity of the Potočari Memorial Center, as well as a one-minute video on the occasion of 25 years of the genocide in Srebrenica. It is very challenging to accept such a task, especially since we were given complete creative freedom and enjoyed the full confidence of the client.
OM: For many years, Fabrika, as a creative partner of MESS, the oldest theatre festival in Southeast Europe, has designed its promotional videos and posters, which have become recognizable representatives of the entire festival over time. How can a poster connect with an audience?
BH: For over twenty years we have had the honour of working for Mess, every year we have a diametrically different approach, almost all the creative professionals from Fabrika have had the opportunity to work for Mess, the oldest theatre festival in the region. The formula of a long cooperation is mutual trust between the Festival and Fabrika. Every year we would have the task of marking the burning issue of that year. We always create a poster, then a video, then the identity of the communication materials, catalogue, T-shirts, digital content, strategy, all the way to the opening and closing events. In a way, our small formula for success is actually our fanaticism and love for this festival. Although, we have the same approach when working for other festivals: Jazz Fest Sarajevo, Sarajevo Winter, the first three Sarajevo Film Festivals, Bookstan and others.
OM: This year, the 60th iteration of the festival is called Nostalgia for the Future. The idea is for the poster, as the most prominent symbol of the festival, to examine current social topics. Sometimes they are placed in front of the viewer directly and without hidden readings (the possibility of Trump being elected US President in 2016, the destruction of Palmyra in 2015, etc.), and sometimes the meanings remain hidden until a more careful reading of the context. Can the message of the poster be as strong today as it was in pre-digital times?
BH: Locally, Mess is proof that the poster can still be a driving force. Every year, the streets of Sarajevo are plastered with new visuals for Mess, and this process of questioning or reaction begins in the public, which is marked on the poster and speaks about the time in which we live. Although, this year everything is topsy-turvy, during the time of the Coronavirus, so we have not finished the story of 2020 yet.
OM: Fabrika has soon become one of the most respected agencies in the region, and its works are often present in the Croatian media. Advertisements, TV show opening credits, and music videos are just a part of everyday research and design. Are there any rules in creating various types of video materials that you strictly adhere to?
BH: The rule is that there are no rules. We have a creative team of complete individuals who give their best, particularly on joint projects. Each new project, in fact, comes as a totally new challenge. We like to switch up genres, Fabrika is equally good when we do commercial projects and no-budget projects. I think we would go crazy if we only worked in advertising. We often work according to Fellini’s saying: “La vita è una combinazione di pasta e magia.“
OM: This year, the Fabrika agency was again awarded in several categories, including the special grand prix award for the best integrated campaign My Sarajevo. My story. created in cooperation with BH Telecom, while you received the award for the best advertising personality of the year. What elements are required to create a successful marketing campaign? Do you put yourself in the position of the spectator or potential user?
BH: When you are a big sponsor of the strongest Festival like SFF, it is important to immediately decide whether you want to promote your products at the festival or you want to be an integral part of the soul of the Festival, the audience and the city. We of course suggested the latter. It was a pleasure to work with the BHT Marketing team who decided to celebrate the best of the history of Bosnian film, as well as music and our specific spirit, at a Festival that represents the best we have to give.
“Young people are the best potential we have. The survival instinct that drives you to creativity is a specific feature of our region.”
OM: Despite numerous successful design achievements in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it seems that art and design are still quite marginalized, which is confirmed, among other things, by the employees of the Collegium Artisticum gallery, managed for many years by your father, Fuad Hadžihalilović. What challenges do gallery and museum institutions in B&H face today? Can quality design contribute to raising awareness of the current situation in culture?
BH: We have a pagan government. Corrupt, destructive, focused on their own profit and on how to win enough votes again to stay in power. For thirty years we have been systematically destroyed by idiots, to whom our history, culture, museums, music, art, publishing are on the margins of the distribution of spoils. They, like all primitives, fear culture and all that progress and the digitalization of things that our heritage represents. This means that we have already learned that we ourselves need to preserve what can be preserved, take care of each other on the cultural level, we have somehow continued with our survival instinct from the war. The struggle for identity and the preservation of cultural and historical heritage in B&H has not stopped since the war. Let’s not forget that the Sarajevo Haggadah has been preserved for hundreds of years, by individuals, citizens, and not thanks to the wise and brave decisions of politicians… Better times will come!
OM: The Department of Graphic Design and Visual Communications where you teach is very active and open to new innovative collaborations with its students. One of the projects that should be pointed out is the Pop Up Festival for Graphic Design and Visual Communications, where students have the opportunity to learn from professional designers, visit exhibitions of big names in graphic design and participate in organized workshops. What is the key to the success of this event? What motivates young designers and your students to organize and get involved in big projects like the festival and the recent Creative Quarantine initiative?
BH: Students are the light at the end of the tunnel. The Pop Up Festival is perhaps one of the best design festivals in the region. The most valuable thing is that every year a different team of students organizes the festival. They all belong to post-war generations. They know that the world doesn’t own them anything, that they have to earn everything themselves. Young people are the best potential we have. The survival instinct that drives you to creativity is a specific feature of our region. The Academy of Fine Arts is an open institution that provides both me and my colleagues the opportunity to encourage each generation of students to be better, more creative than the previous ones.
OM: Fabrika’s successful campaigns certainly open up opportunities for new business collaborations of the agency. What are some of your agency’s plans and future endeavours? You also discussed the possibility of opening your own school of design and visual communications with a slightly different approach.
BH: Design and communication schools emerged during the romantic era before all the great crises. Perhaps, soon the “new normal” will involve agencies like Fabrika being hotbeds for new talents, without being in the business that we used to call advertising. But before that, what is crucial and important for the time being is that we work and survive the challenges ahead and keep Fabrika up and running.
OM: Can you summarize your work in a few keywords – what is it that constantly drives you to create?
BH: If we really live in a time of tectonic change, and it no longer matters what was, but only what will be, then: if it was all just lies, let us lie to each other some more, of only for a bit!