Interview with Veronica Ditting, designer of FANTASTIC MAN and THE GENTLEWOMAN

Today I present you a new interview for the new Better Mjstakes, starring Ms. Veronica Ditting, the great designer of two of my favourite magazines: Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman.

We first met in her studio some weeks ago in Amsterdam. The following interview is an extension of what we have discussed: design education, motivation, the designer-artdirector-relationship and many other aspects in the process of magazine creation.



Hello Veronica, please tell us about your background, who you are and what you are doing.
My name is Veronica Ditting – I was born in 1979 in Argentina, raised in Germany, studied graphic design in Dortmund, Germany and at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Since graduating five years ago I am work independently and have a studio in the centre of Amsterdam. I mostly do printed matter and collaborate with artists, photographers, cultural institutions; e.g. conceptual artist Barbara Visser, visual artist Katja Mater, the Stedelijk Museum, exhibition space W139. I run my own projects, but also work for the magazines Fantastic Man (since 2005) and for The Gentlewoman.

Why did you decide to leave Germany for Amsterdam? We already talked about it briefly: What is your critic on German design schools?
I’m not up-to-date enough to give general criticism on German design schools, I can only talk from personal experience which lies some years back. All in all the study I did in Dortmund was a little slow and undynamic, breeding a kind of subtle lethargy. Most projects turned around imaginary clients and situations, at the end of a semester you would get a grade, but hardly any feedback on how the teachers got to this decision. There were a hand full of teachers I appreciated, but as a whole the department lacked a shared vision, which I found quite depressing as a student. On the other hand I must say I still benefit a lot from the practical background I got there. While being close to graduation and feeling unsatisfied with my studies, I decided to do an exchange semester at the Rietveld Academy. It sounds ridiculous, but I was surprised that most of the teachers at the graphic design department communicated with each other. I was part of a great class where most people were actively involved in discussions (something which barely happened in Germany) and we pushed each other with a healthy spirit of competition. The first six months were tough and fabulous at the same time – I learned a lot about how to approach assignments and take responsibility as a designer – creating your own content, working from an editorial point of view and being critical towards design itself. Basically being more autonomous and less subserving. It definitely opened my eyes and made me aware what my interests are in graphic design, so I decided to graduate here. Looking back I definitely benefitted from both schools, it’s always good to have a comparison. It makes you realize what you have or don’t have at a school. I’d be curious to know how the situation at German art schools is now.

What does it mean for you to live and work in Amsterdam?
Mostly it means being in an international city with a tight community and being able to collaborate with people whose work I respect. Most of the people I work with are friends. 10 years ago I would never ever have imagined to live in Holland (I had been here only once before moving) and to be honest I still have quite a love-hate relationship with Amsterdam. At the same time I’m aware of the possibilities I have here.

What fascinates you about your profession? Why graphic design?
Actually I started studying industrial design first, but after a year I realized I wasn’t made for it and I switched to graphic design. In simple words graphic design gives me the possibility to connect many of my interests and work interdisciplinary, you can fulfill many different roles as a graphic designer. Also the dialogue between clients, artists, editors, designers is an integral part of how I always wanted to work.
Nonetheless I am often doubting what I am doing!

What motivates you to sit down and do the real work when you are busy procrastinating?
I’m easily distracted by mails, internet or simply chit-chatting with my studio mates. In general I have unproductive periods and then others when I exhilarate. I’m always busy with something, but often find myself postponing things and feeling too slow. A friend of mine swears on an egg timer to force concentration, but it doesn’t really work for me. I hate to admit it, but I need some pressure, strict deadlines to work constructively. Also realistic To-Do lists are still the best solution to get something done.

How do you and art director Jop van Bennekom work as a team? How are the roles defined?
I started working 5 years ago for Fantastic Man, since then Jop and and me collaborated on a variety of projects for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a book for photographers Anuschka Blommers & Niels Schumm etc. For Fantastic Man I mostly step in when shoots have been commissioned by Jop, and we have a conversation about which direction the magazine will go. I’m responsible for the visualisation of that material. As we’re only counting issue two of The Gentlewoman right now, it needs more focus and time before production time. This is why I start sketching or looking for papers a bit in advance. We have the same understanding and aesthetic sensibilities and know each other well by now, so a lot of things work naturally. During the intense production time we discuss a lot, both confirming or criticizing each other. A lot of things happen at the same time and of course we also discuss certain steps with the editors-in-chief Gert Jonkers (Fantastic Man) and Penny Martin (The Gentlewoman). We’re a small team and you have different dynamics with each person. Ultimately there’s a lot of trust, I think that’s why it works.

Before you start a new issue — do you already have a vision of how the magazine could/should look and feel like, or does it all develop in the process? How is the process when developing a new issue?
Usually before production time we get together to discuss what we want to improve or change for the next issue. So partly we start with a visual vision, but mostly the real shaping takes place when we get the material in. The first step is making a dummy, a basic set-up of the content. It gives you an idea how the material comes together and helps determine the order. It sounds very basic, but it’s the best way to solve the puzzle. We keep shaping the dummy until the end: designing and fine-tuning the content at the same time, every tiny element is considered. Basically a lot of things, design and editorially happen at the same time and keep influencing each other. All layers relate to each other, we try to make them specific and find the right tone of voice.

How do you plan an issue? Do you set up limitations like number of articles, pages, etc. … ?
Because of the huge edition we have to order the paper quite a bit in advance and naturally a good balance of content is important. This creates a more or less given set-up – a certain amount of profiles, features, fashion stories and ads.

What is the procedure when you receive material for a new story to layout?
That depends very much on the material itself, but mostly we make a rough selection of images and a temporary order and think about how we want to use them – e.g. as an image or a photograph, if it needs a design element or not. Some stories find the right layout from the beginning, others need a bit more time and sketching.

When designing, do you imagine/think of a certain kind of reader? Or do you have a certain person in mind while designing?
Approachability is very important to the magazines, so I definitely keep the reader in mind, but at the same time it shouldn’t be a compromise. I think the reader notes if you stay authentic and personal.

If you are designing a certain story — about Inez van Lamsweerde e.g. — do you feel a special connection to the person afterwards?
I woudn’t necessarily call it a special connection, but of course you study the person differently than just reading about them in another magazine. Sometimes a person really grows on you over production time.

How does the selection for the reference section work? And what is the idea behind this feature?
The reference section offers the possibility to show extra information which can’t be placed in the story itself. It could be anything – a location of a shoot, work by the featured person or simply a fun fact. Sometimes there’s an overlaying idea or topic. We try to make it a very good variation, while at the same time extremely specific.

When it comes to the graphic design and the aesthetics of certain elements, each issue Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman — is a further development of the previous one. Why? Is there really always something to improve? Why don’t you try to establish one look?
Of course there is always something to improve! Maybe we are our own harshest critics in that sense. We hardly ever change anything just in order to change it (except if we used it too many times). The appearance of every issue is varied – sometimes more, sometimes less, but it’s always related to each other, referring to its own visual vocabulary. So even though there’s changes I do think it’s one recognizable look; we’re not re-inventing the form every time. Sometimes I even wonder if anyone even notices the differences.

In both magazines the advertisements seem to fit into the magazine almost perfectly. Do you somehow have an influence on their look too?
No, usually we don’t have influence their look itself, but we definitely take care of the balance between content and ads. For example two single pages don’t clash or look the same next to each other.

What are your future plans regarding your work (and life?)
Partly continuing the things I’m doing and partly finding new work possibilites. I am currently working on my website which is long-time overdue and one of my biggest projects in 2011 is developing the design for a new cultural space in The Netherlands. Furthermore it would be nice to work a bit more abroad, maybe spend some time in NYC? I guess I need a big city as a contrast to Amsterdam. And I should definitely take some typing classes.

Thank you, Veronica!