Good design can do many things. It can make us laugh, it can push technologies and ideas in directions we’d never thought possible, it can bring communities together and forge new ones, it can look beautiful, it can look ugly yet still be brilliant, it can change the way we see the world and it can even provide solutions to the problems blighting our poor little planet.
Design doesn’t have to do all these things all the time, of course. Sometimes good design is straightforwardly about craft, or selling something. But in this article we’re celebrating the practitioners whose work goes deep, looks stunning, and most of all, reconfigures what we thought possible with image-making and the concepts behind it. These game-changers showcases the breadth of boundary-pushing designers and the best of experimental design around today.
If your eyes aren’t already turned on to these creatives and the thoroughly brilliant output they produce, make sure that changes: we reckon they’ll be making some big waves this year and beyond.
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2018 was a big year for Astrid Stavro: she joined Pentagram London as a partner. Not that she needed one of the biggest names in design to boost her CV, though. Since founding Astrid Stavro Studio, and co-founding Atlas around six years ago alongside her partner Pablo Martín, Stavro has made a name for herself as one of the best, sharpest and smartest designers around.
Stavro studied graphic design at London’s Central Saint Martin and The Royal College of Art, where she is currently a visiting lecturer in the School of Visual Communication, as well as being a member of design association Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI).
“As a designer you have to be like an author, too; you have to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Stavro says. This idea of narrative and “soul” is crucial to Stavro’s design work, and explains why a large portion of Atlas’ portfolio has centered around design for books and magazines, alongside corporate identity and packaging work.
Stavro was behind a previous redesign of London-based arts magazine Elephant, bringing in a variety of experimental approaches to type and layout. She also writes for the publication, among others, and she’s planning on writing her own novel too.
Having worked for clients ranging from Phaidon to Camper to The National Portrait Gallery and the Barcelona Design Museum, Stavro’s work unites meticulous craft with smart conceptual ideas and imagery that looks to engage the viewer on an emotional level.
Her design process always begins away from the screen: “I sketch and draw on bits of paper, napkins or whatever I can find as I’m horrible with sketchbooks and lose them anyway. That’s where ideas happen, not at a computer,” she says.
“Astrid is not only a contemporary and active voice in design, but her work is both intellectually and aesthetically of the highest order,” says Pentagram partner Angus Hyland. “We share the same values around the importance of conceptually led work delivered with minimum fuss. At a time when we are broadening Pentagram’s brand with new partners in unfamiliar disciplines – I’m thinking particularly of Yuri Suzuki – Astrid represents a continuity of quality in classic graphic design craft.”
Peruvian-born designer Jonathan Castro has worked with a veritable who’s who of brilliant studios: The Rodina, Studio Dumbar, Metahaven and Bureau Borsche, to name a few. It’s not hard to see why he’s so in demand. His work is colourful, impactful, and experimental; it’s informed by multiple cultural and conceptual strands ranging from his Peruvian roots (in particular the traditional costume aesthetics) to black metal and punk graphics, experimental electronic music and jazz.
“When I started making graphic design I wanted the same sort of freedom you have in experimental music,” he says. “Just mixing everything in, and being really free.”
What’s at the heart of his work – as with Peruvian costumes – is the idea of ‘soul’, imbuing non-living things with that intangible energy. “I really believe design contains energy and soul and spirit, almost like witchcraft,” he says. “The main idea for my practise is to transmit feeling and emotions, just like the way music does.”
James Gilchrist, co-founder of Warriors Studio and Graphic Design Festival Scotland, describes Castro as “one of the the most imitated people in the contemporary graphic design scene”.
He adds: “There’s an authenticity and originality to his work which makes it magnetic. His work feels like a personal development of an aesthetic that has been around for so long but he has taken it in a new, distinctive and personal direction. It’s the perfect formula for a hit – familiar and new elements combined. We’re getting to a point in time where so many designers grew up absorbed by video games, outlandish cartoons, maximalist communication… and in a world saturated by media, his style just hits the spot. While everyone copies, references and steals, Jonathan powers on doing his thing, untouchable and unfuckwithable”.
Gilchrist is also blown away by the sheer volume of his output. “He demonstrates the importance of consistently producing new work… New personal work, new collaborations, new commissions, new visual experiments and pieces of research firing out at all angles constantly and all consistently great,” Gilchrist surmises. “Thanks for doing what you’re doing and please keep it up.”
Next page: Wang & Söderström and Pontus Törnqvist