Cover photo: Ana Buljan
Ana Labudović was born in 1983 in Zagreb. She currently lives in Rijeka and works online. She began her professional career in 2002 in the marketing agency TFM, and after that worked in the web studio Sheepoo Arts, only to return to school. After graduating from the Hyper Island School of New Media (Sweden) she did an internship in Vasava Artworks (Spain), after which she has been working as a freelance designer and editor for the publishing house Maomao, which published two of her books on graphic design. After returning to Croatia, she attempted to juggle her freelance work with the position of art director in the digital agency Inventa, but ultimately chose to dedicate herself to her own independent work. She is active in several disciplines with a focus on production for independent culture, the civil society and film. Since 2010 she is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the heritage of sculptor Branko Vlahović. She is fascinated by our relations to technology, networks, privacy, nature, gender and society, experimenting occasionally with interaction design in cooperation with other members of the Radiona hack Labmaker Space.
Although you are primarily a graphic designer, you have already gained a lot of work experience in various other fields. You have studied abroad, worked in a web design studio and a digital agency, organized music events, curated exhibitions and written books. How have these experiences shaped you and led to your current position as a freelance designer?
My various interests have attracted me to a wide array of experiences in the beginning, which requires certain flexibility when it comes to adapting to different types of work processes. The roles I found myself in changed, and over time it became clear what suits me best. This isn’t necessarily connected to concrete fields of work, but rather with my motivation for a particular job and how much of myself I was willing to invest in it. I can be equally motivated to work in a field in which I have more experience or to work in another field I have an affinity for and that I feel can teach me something or ensure a stimulating environment. Today’s position is important to me because the dynamics of work allows me to switch between various disciplines and to occasionally take a break from design. At times I envy those who are focused on only one field and manage to constantly develop themselves in it. But, it is important to me personally to be able to retain this freedom as I find it difficult to work in only one field; I’m not fond of routine, and there are more important things than design, if I can say something like this here.
“Before future freelancers are seduced by the idea of working in their pajamas from the comfort of their own home, they should ask themselves the following: Can I afford to get sick? Is my overtime work paid? Will I get severance pay if after many years of collaboration it turns out there’s no more work for me? How much maternity leave do I get?”
How is freelance work accepted in Croatia and what do you think are its key advantages and disadvantages compared to being an in-house designer in an agency or studio?
Although I have chosen to be a freelance designer myself, I am fairly critical when it comes to the reality of it. In this sense, what is most often discussed is the choice between two types of compromise – a stable income and the restraints of corporate culture on the one hand, and autonomy of one’s own expression and time organization on the other. Today, we have to be aware that the situation is much more complex. In the last couple of years, freelance work is often represented as the future of work, and the creative industries are prone to presenting it as more glamorous than it really is. I often here people choosing freelance work because they are sick of working 9 to 5, even though agencies often require you to put in longer hours. But, the majority of freelancers I know do not shut down their computers at 5 to go on and have a life. They spend many hours working in order to compensate for a job they haven’t yet been paid for or to meet very short deadlines.
As far as the framework for freelancing is concerned, we’ve seen more and more options in the last couple of years; increasing numbers of people set up sole proprietorships in various legal forms, some even opening companies online in Estonia, but their position is still relatively unprotected when it comes to various pitfalls, from the shortcomings of the existing legal forms to the unstable market. I feel most freelancers have more in common with employed workers than with small businesses, with which they are often compared and which they are encouraged to emulate. The dominant discourse is that just like small entrepreneurs, they must be more ambitious, be more efficient, work on their self-representation, network, think about increasing their bottom line and where they will be in 3 to 5 years. In case they fail, they are accused of not working enough. Freelance work is growing exponentially in many fields, and behind the seductive ideas of autonomy and flexibility there is the other side of the coin. The calculation is simple – to employers it is more cost-effective to hire freelancers than to employ them, which would ensure them stability and security. Before future freelancers are seduced by the idea of working in their pajamas from the comfort of their own home, they should ask themselves the following: Can I afford to get sick? Is my overtime work paid? Will I get severance pay if after many years of collaboration it turns out there’s no more work for me? How much maternity leave do I get? Generally speaking, these issues are far more important than motivation and self-discipline, and I feel everyone should stand up for herself/himself in every type of job, be in solidarity with one’s colleagues, actively advocate for rights and put pressure on legislation.
You already have an impressive body of work as a non-fiction author – for foreign publishers you have written, edited and designed two theoretical books on graphic design and visual arts – Color in Graphics (2008) and The Field Guide for Graphic Designers (2009), and you edited a monograph by Branko Vlahović published on the occasion of his retrospective. How important is critical and research work in design and is there enough of it in Croatia?
In Croatia, design is discussed more and more, books and textbooks are published, and exhibitions and conferences are organized. In the last couple of years, one can definitely sense a positive shift towards the opening of a new space and stimulating such activities. Critical and research work should not be a luxury or some sort of unattainable academic category. Continuously engaging with these subjects additionally connects the stakeholders, both among themselves and with professionals from other fields, which is a desirable characteristic of any progressive field. The educational system plays a key role in preparing the field and encouraging younger generations to do this type of work and to experiment. It seems to me that the Department of the Design of Visual Communication at the Split Art Academy is doing a great job with its Interactions workshop. The work of the Croatian Designers Association Gallery enabled a context for great exhibitions dealing with the archeology of design, such as Women Designers 1930 – 1980 by Maša Poljanec and Maja Kolar and Excavations by Lana Cavar and Narcisa Vukojević, but it is equally important to dig around the specificities of the time we’re living in now, as demonstrated by the exhibition Politics of Emotions– the Design of Indie Video Games by Srđan Laterza. I definitely also want to commend the resurrected Plan D, whose program intends to cover recent issues within and outside the field.
There is no recipe for good design, but are there some universal principles of action? To what extent should practice be consistent with or contradict theoretical work? Should designers pose questions and provide the answers?
I don’t view design as an exact science, so I find it difficult to deliberate it in terms of universal principles. By familiarizing ourselves with theory, we can broaden our perspectives and enrich our knowledge, which we still prove empirically in practice. Specific actions should be viewed within their specific contexts, and we can see in the field that some practices resist rules more easily than others. Is the designer dealing with aerodynamics or systematizing a huge amount of data? Is the designer trying to communicate a message to a mass audience or a micro-scene, is he/she trying to provoke a reaction, interaction, contemplation? Designers are trying to find solutions, and in the process of work, they should constantly ask questions and provide answers.
“Today we can see the heritage of the continuity of the independent scene in the visible shifts when it comes to the development of institutional design. This is particularly illustrated with the breakthrough of designers from the independent scene into big theatres, museums, film etc.”
I get the impression that in the last couple of decades, numerous artists and designers developed their craft and made a name for themselves by working for the independent culture scene. Are there some basic characteristics of this scene today and to what extent is it accepted and represented at the 1718 Croatian Design Exhibition?
The independent culture scene is still the venue of innovative and progressive design practices, although due to the political climate its existence is once again in jeopardy. However, the system is the same. Designers who are protagonists of the scene are both consumers of culture and its creators, because they connect with it more easily in terms of their worldview and sensibility. Their engagement is more personal, and less oriented towards commercial goals. I am pleased by the boldness of numerous designers and artists who are freer in their expression when working in this context. Today we can see the heritage of the continuity of the independent scene in the visible shifts when it comes to the development of institutional design. This is particularly illustrated with the breakthrough of designers from the independent scene into big theatres, museums, film etc. It is easy to into the trap of favorizing the independent scene as quite a lot of us in the selection committee are a part of it and advocators, but in the process of selecting the works we paid special attention not to neglect projects from other spheres. I was particularly pleased to see a couple of very brave experiments in the medium of printed magazines, community oriented projects, those dealing with gentrification or sustainability of life on islands. I would perhaps love to see more activist and political engagement with younger designers.
The categories of the works exhibited represent a wide spectrum of activities that are no longer necessarily clearly defined, particularly in the classification of projects done by interdisciplinary teams or projects with a broader scope and reach of action. Can such works be evaluated objectively and what is given priority in the process? Taking into account that new methods and systems of design appear constantly, should the categories of design be fragmented or would it be better to condense them into basic categories?
It is really difficult to evaluate within the same category a work done by a team of about 20 on a complex interdisciplinary project and an animation of 10 seconds done by one designer. The granulating of categories certainly provides a better context for the evaluation of the works, but in a country as small as this with a modest market and relatively small design scene, this could prove difficult for the committee, as well as the organizers of the exhibition and the editor of the catalogue. If we establish a film and TV production category, and only receive one entry so we proclaim the winner without competition? Similar issues arise when it comes to the budget: how do we compare a highly produced work financed by EU funds and someone’s self-initiated project. It seems to me that with this perspective we are losing sight of what’s important. The criteria should constantly be reviewed and re-established, and most importantly – we should not lose sight of the big picture.
What is your impression of the design practices within the design of visual communications that are part of this exhibition? Are there any tendencies you have noticed as a member of the committee?
The quality level of the submitted works is truly great, the designers seem to take their entries very seriously and it seems to me the bar is raised at every biennial exhibition. It is clear the field is taken more and more seriously, backed by the continued hard work of all protagonists on the scene. I find it difficult to discuss concrete tendencies in the field of visual communications considering the broad scope of the category, but it seems to me that at no time before were there more labels for alcoholic beverages designed.
In recent years there seems to be an increasing number of crowdfunding projects that involve design, and attempt to offer a solution for a specific problem or meet a specific need of a certain number of people. Does this way of advertising and fundraising represent the future in today’s global economy and to what extent do these projects represent successful long-term endeavors or merely temporary and utopian solutions of small manufacturers only seeking a bigger market for their product?
I am personally rather fascinated by the amount and practical purpose of the products and patents financed via crowdfunding platforms. In fact, I have been following for quite some time technological products created by one type of enthusiasts for another, and the way in which some of the more bizarre ones are presented reminds me of the Japanese chindogu inventions. Jokes aside, this raised numerous questions – what kinds of needs do we prioritize today if we feel that a smart cat litter box is indispensible, are the production processes sustainable, etc. The products that end up being financed are the ones that have convinced the most supporters of their quality and necessity, but as the audience of crowdfunding platforms changed from technophiles and designers to a wider spectrum of consumers, the character of these products changed as well. This kind of democratic decision-making is problematic on several levels. If a design team did not manage to get its product in a classic production process that requires investments, time for research and development, prototyping, testing, etc. – that is the continuity of a production cycle– it can easily find itself in a difficult situation.
The majority of campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo do not pass the first step because they don’t manage to get enough funding. Those who do have limited resources and a limited time period to accomplish what they sought to do, as well as direct pressure from their buyers, who express their dissatisfaction publicly and loudly. Then there’s Chinese “entrepreneurs” who copy popular ideas before the financing period for the original runs out, and offer them at a lower price. Even giants like Amazon tend to copy, but that, of course, is considered a compliment. Of course, there are genius campaigns and necessary products, and it’s fantastic that someone can finance their punk album, experimental film or indie video game this way. However, it is neither responsible nor sustainable to leave the financing of culture and technology to the laws of the market and the will of the consumers, under the pretext that this is good for both manufacturers and consumers.