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Is there a link between conceptual art and branding?

For Dimitri Jeurissen, co-founder of Base Design, who grew up amid his parent's art collection, there surely is. In a provocative conversation with American artist and writer David Robbins, Jeurissen inspects the influence of his early exposure to conceptual art and its later impact on Base's creative strategies.

David Robbins: Your parents collected contemporary art, didn’t they?

Dimitri Jeurissen: My father was more passionate about art than my mom. She supported his interest, just as he supported my mom’s passion for fashion. We lived with this collection in our home. In the early 1970s my dad would go to, for instance, an exhibition of Marcel Broodthaers, and there would be four people in the gallery: Marcel, the collectors Herman Daled and Anton Herbert, and my father! Contemporary art kept him sharp and culturally aware.

DR: Late ‘60s, early ‘70s contemporary art had a particular flavor. It was the time of high conceptualism, when art could, for example in the work of Ian Wilson, consist of a conversation.

DJ: Yes. My father focused on the cutting edge in European art. He was very attracted to the British art scene too, to land art — Hamish Fulton, Richard Long — and to Gilbert & George…

DR: From a young age you were being exposed to works that often frame some relationship between photographic imagery and text…

DJ: I was. Talking about influence or inspiration, conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth was for me a big eye-opener. I had the opportunity to meet him here because he was working at the time with the gallerist Xavier Hufkens, who has been a friend since childhood. Joseph gave us the opportunity to make a book for an exhibition in Antwerp, and that experience had a big impact on me. Conceptual art is a deep dive into how language can function, including in storytelling. Many of the works hanging in our house focused on a dialogue between text and imagery — word and picture framed by a concept. In Joseph’s work it’s often a triangulation, between the text, the image and the object.

DR: Conceptualism is arguably the most successful art since surrealism. Both recognized something universal. Surrealism recognized not only the importance of dreams but also the sense that there are other realities than empirical, objective reality. Conceptualism, for its part, recognizes our innate ability to change how something can be thought of — not just to make a picture of it but to change our perception of it, to re-package reality, and thereby to re-make our environment. Can you speak to the tool’s application in your own work?

DJ: When I look at the influence that conceptual art had on my thinking, it definitely was the most important art form in my lifetime. How to picture, what to picture, what kind of narrative does the picture suggest, or how to situate the picture through narrative. Content and concept, concept and content. In the case of Joseph, you can talk about different languages too, as you know here in Belgium there's Flemish, there's French, translation is in the air… So all that was important — not only the concept and what it meant, but also how it looked, the form, what freedom it took and communicated. I think early exposure to contemporary art gave me flexibility, a willingness to experiment with ideas, styles, and techniques, and an unconventional resource base.

DR: The mental toolkit of the conceptual is one of the things that defines the modern. A serf did not feel that he or she could rethink their environment! The most successful art ideas escape the context of the art world and enter the water supply. Surrealism entered the water supply; we all experience life in a way that is at times “surreal.” And conceptualism, too, entered the water supply; the ability to re-package just by thinking differently is fundamental to who we are. It’s why a branding-and-identity company such as Base can work conceptually and succeed.

DJ: What’s the etymology of “concept”? I looked it up, and one definition is “an abstract idea, an idea or invention to help sell or publicize a commodity.” In “concept” there is also a division between concrete, abstract, artificial, self, theoretical or relational concepts.

DR: All of which you use in your work at your company.

DJ: All the time! At Base we often talk about perception, and influence. A brand or project wants influence, right? Conceptualism is integral to achieving that. It's not just about creating a logo or look but crafting a concept that resonates with the target audience, conveying a particular message and emotion. A brand’s success is in those details. I’d say that brand identity, art direction, and art overlap in these areas. Which is fine with me, since from the beginning I wanted to work more in culture and mix up these things, not get stuck in only commercial advertising.

DR: What about other influences during your formative years?

DJ: Print advertising was then in a golden age — late ’70, ‘80s. I especially liked the work of a French advertising guy, Jacques Ségéla , who was a star in the business at that time… Very quickly I was engaged by the behavior of “brands.” How does a brand get its personality? How does a brand acquire its attitude? How might a brand nurture and capitalize on design and storytelling?

DR: Were print magazines important to you?

DJ: Absolutely.

BEople Magazine
BEople Magazine

DR: Because so much is online now, it’s difficult to communicate to a younger person how central the print magazine was in the 20th century.

DJ: I bought a lot of magazines! Magazines were essential. A lot of people that I admired were coming from that world — Fabien Baron, who took over Bazaar, then Interview. Neville Brody in London, with The Face or Arena. The magazine, as a form, was also where these different worlds were merging — music, fashion and art… We even made a magazine at a certain point because we realized that there wasn't any magazine of that kind in Belgium.

DR: What was it called?

DJ: It was called Beople. This was in the late 90s. The cover had a big white dot instead of a photo of a star because we didn't have stars in Belgium! Beople gave us a lot of freedom to experiment with design and narrative. I didn't know what I was doing, I was just putting images with design and subjects of interest together and figuring out how to treat them. I was art directing without knowing it!

DR: What other forms were you exploring?

DJ: Book design. Catalogs. Branding. Editorial jobs. The relationship with my partner in the company, Thierry Brunfaut, wasn't the usual sort of copywriter/art director one, it was more that of designer/art director. We both were interested in content and in concept. He went deeper into the design aspect, and I went deeper into iconography, photography, and art direction.

Ace & Tate Campaign, 2022
Ace & Tate Campaign, 2022

DR: You adopted the conceptualizing role more than the design role?

DJ: We didn't want the studio to have a specific “design” style, but more a way of approaching something, conceptualizing something from it, and then developing a language around that. That method became sort of the core of our business. When you have the good idea — and today we still talk about the power of that one good concept — you can build so much off it.

DR: Can you give an example?

DJ: Not so long ago, we did a campaign for an eyewear company called Ace & Tate.

The campaign was for sunglasses. We had faces without glasses facing the camera and squinting, as though into the bright sun. It was just after a long Covid winter, everybody was fed up with being inside. Just seeing those faces with squinting eyes, you immediately understood the beauty and joy of it.

DR: And the need for the product.

DJ: Yes. We started as a collective in 1988, with different expertises around the table. Thierry, Sophie, Juliette, Martin and I. Sophie was an illustrator. Thierry was passionate about design and typography. Juliette had a passion for materials and print. I was more an art director interested in image and photography. There was a collective of expertise that was put at the service of branding. In Belgium there wasn’t branding yet, really — we knew it existed but the culture was not like in America, where branding went back decades. In Holland or Switzerland, design was the cultural anchor. In Belgium, we didn’t know exactly what we were doing… which lent a certain freedom. We didn't know what you couldn't do!

DR: Why wasn’t there a branding tradition in Belgium?

DJ: Companies were more keen on making good stuff than packaging it. They were less about capitalizing on brand value, whereas in American culture it's all about brand value. With Coca-Cola, for instance, the bottle and the logo is worth 60% of the total company value. Europeans are makers and crafters, who prefer to spend all their money on manufacturing.

DR: Mass market is in America’s marrow. For better or worse, we’ve always been into the abstract idea of “everyone.” From blue jeans to Coca-Cola, America does “everyone” well!

DJ: Base did its “naive” identity work for a very long time and gained a reputation in the business community: “Go there, I don't know exactly what they're doing. But they come up with creative stuff. You should talk to these guys.” We knew that at some point we had to streamline what we offered and call it… branding, after which our work became mainly identities and printed matter. Later, as digital technology evolved and the means of communication expanded the points of contact with the consumer, we advanced into talking about user experiences — the interface.

DR: Is that where you positioned Base — in the interface?

DJ: Yes. When we opened an office in the States in 1998, part of our success there was due to our more conceptual, I daresay more intellectual approach to branding, which elevated it while remaining focused on the strong single idea. We offered a conceptual dimension to branding that considered more than impact. America was about impact and efficiency — think DKNY, think Calvin Klein’s CK campaigns. In our work there wasn't this same drive to make everything efficient. There wasn’t the same concern with velocity, if you will. There is a little bit of an ambiguity and quirkiness in what we're doing. We slowed down your perception. It was less the commercial impact, more the message, the storytelling, the content, and the beauty of the whole.

Base was difficult to market because we weren't consistent from a formal point of view. A client often didn't know what he or she was going to get. For me that was an exciting proposition for a company — just as it's exciting for you as an artist, David. With Base that openness was more exciting for me than to be categorized as a branding company. My team does all sorts of things in their own lives. I have designers who also do pottery or performance or play in a band. And that idea of multiplicity is something that the younger generation feels extremely excited about. They're much more comfortable with it than previous generations were. I’m pushing to embrace that diversity.

Communication is so diverse now. We need to always go in with a little bit of ignorance and openness and not prejudge, to find solutions to the questions that are asked of us. To me that’s the challenge: never to come at it with a format.

DR: Art direction draws upon a much wider range of tools than most artists do. You have to use everything from web design to print to packaging to physical signs and everything in between. Do you start with an idea and find the materials to support it? Or are you personally attracted to certain images and materials and go from there?

DJ: The concept is central, but it could be triggered by an image or material — anything, really. Listening to music, reading.… You need to take in as much information as possible. First there’s the trigger, then defining the concept, then developing the concept. If the concept is strong, the development feels extremely smooth. It's a good idea when you feel that it's developing quickly, when you’re not forcing it.

DR: What about narrative? How does that function within branding?

DJ: It depends what you're addressing. If you address a brand, it is that paragraph, that sort of ten-liner that explains what you’re about. It explains the place of that product in the life of the consumer. When Steve Jobs said, about the smartphone, “it’s a phone, it's a browser, it's a camera, in one device,” you understood what it was. Good storytelling talks not only about a product but also why the company exists. Storytelling is a filter, top to bottom. If you can verbalize well what you're about, short and sweet and relevant, you probably have an interesting concept and a reason to exist.

As the environment becomes more crowded with brands, narrative has become increasingly important in art direction and design. It’s a means of engaging the audience. It can build emotional connections. It can make a context for brands and products. It can help the consumer to navigate complex information. Creating memorable experiences, aligning with cultural trends… narrative has many uses.

The narrative and the written word is finding fresh application in AI, which is increasingly being integrated into the creative process.

La Monnaie Opera House, Season 23-24 Campaign
La Monnaie Opera House, Season 23-24 Campaign

DR: Following the invention of photography entire industries have been based on the relationship between a camera and what’s in front of it. Today that relationship is being challenged by AI, which can generate images and videos within the computer and without a camera.

DJ: To create visual imagery from language, from narrative, is indeed very different from photography, and it will allow for the exploration of unconventional visual elements. Also AI tools can analyze data, learn patterns, and generate images based on predefined parameters — things the camera couldn’t do.

DR: Is storytelling or narrative a method recently emerged in your business?

DJ: Storytelling has always brought humans together, from religion to Disney.

For a story to succeed, consistency is key, but brands evolve too. A brand is not a static thing. Companies are more aware of this than in the past. A good brand should be open to evolution and to change. This doesn't mean that your narrative changes, it means that the narrative needs to be anchored in something more profound so that that narrative can continue and grow, just as a person does.

DR: I imagine that the ideal is for both to grow together — for the consumer to bond with the brand. And your job is to help the consumer want to use the product or service?

DJ: One of our jobs, yes.

One of the big changes in the last twenty years is the rise of the one-to-one relationship in advertising. In the past, brands had to do a big campaign in physical space — billboards, signs, print, everything. Today it's more of a one-to-one conversation. Because of digitization, the personal computer, social media and the smartphone, the conception of space has changed. Certain brands or galleries or institutions communicate through WhatsApp, through text messages, Instagram, et cetera. Media has expanded a lot. The physical city remains a great canvas for exposure but the digital device is the important one today. Kids are consuming ideas and imagery in such volume and at such a speed, it’s making a new kind of audience.

When you get into expressing brand identity through these different media, you need different expertises. That's where teamwork is really coming in.

DR: Tell me about team authorship and how that works. As an artist and writer I’m used to working alone…

DJ: When we work with a client, the client is buying the rights to our ideas. That purchase can be negotiated in different forms; the client might be buying it for a specific period of time or for a specific objective. The client is expecting that your work will be original. So we need to ensure that if we sell our work to a client, there is a genuine form of authorship, a form of originality. This is a conversation that I have with my teams, that when they come forward with a project it cannot be by opening a book or looking at Pinterest and doing copy-paste. That doesn't mean it can't be influenced by or inspired from another source, but it needs to be an original work. So there is a form of authorship, even if it is collective. I need to ensure, even by contract, that those designers who are working at Base sign off on that, that in the context of the job their work will be original.

So yes, when you deliver a project, there is a co-authorship as a whole. Certain design challenges become so complex from an expertise point of view that you need a team around a project. Hopefully, each of the team members feels ownership from a personal point of view. It’s very important to acknowledge that and to make sure they are part of that ownership and that they are given an incentive to do the best work they can. We often acknowledge it in social media when we talk about a job — we credit the team and the input of different people.

Teamwork is becoming more and more present in the art world, too. Certain artists embrace the idea of the team or collective and of the fact that there's not a unique author anymore. I'm not talking about painters, like Rubens who had an atelier and everybody did some little thing. Rather, it’s complementary expertise that builds the work. Here I’ll quote a colleague, Bruce Mao, a Canadian designer, who talks about Renaissance Teams instead of the Renaissance Man.

We're making a point of building teams around Base projects from the beginning so that the conversation between, let's say, the strategist or the writer and the UX designer is baked into the project from day one.

DR: You, personally, have to be good with people to navigate all this stuff. I know you as a naturally positive person but this is its own talent!

DJ: I’m constantly putting people together to find solutions, not just at Base but on the client’s side too, to find solutions together. To do a good project it’s not a conversation that I have only with the CEO, it’s getting the right people around the table at the client's side to have a good, interesting, open, transparent, productive conversation with the Base team.

Bringing the right people in the right spots is the challenge. And for me, that's the definition of creative direction.

DR: In delegating responsibility for a given project, have you had to learn to just let them do it?

DJ: Yes. To take the attitude of "I have an idea, please execute it” is not very inspiring for the team. Instead, you come in and say, "This is the problem," or "This is the challenge, this is the objective. How are we going to produce something that is relevant?” Taking the good decisions or pursuing certain directions and not others, that becomes more my role.

DR: So you can't just tell them what to do, you have to convince them.

DJ: Yes. The team wants to be responsible and have ownership. Even in choosing to take a job or not.

DR: So you do turn some jobs down.

DJ: Sure.

DR: Things that are not in line with what you're trying, as a company, to stand for...

DJ: Exactly. We have criteria.

DR: Is that one thing that distinguishes Base from an ad agency?

DJ: No, it distinguishes one company from another company.

Art directors navigate the ethical considerations of their work, balancing commercial imperatives with responsible communication. This involves making choices that align with ethical standards, avoid harmful stereotypes, and contribute positively to societal and environmental concerns.

DR: Psychologically, moving through the city is like moving through a kind of stage set, in the sense that it’s an environment built and largely owned by people whose names we don’t know. The stage set of the city is also where artifice becomes, paradoxically, the most natural. A company such as Base is positioned at the interface of capitalism and this stage set. Can you speak to this?

DJ: Brands influence and to some extent design the urban experience. Everything is design — architecture, transportation, communication. Today, in addition to the physical environment, we have to take the digital environment into account as well. Next up: augmented reality!

In the city we have a captive audience, in a sense, and we have to try to be responsible toward that audience. A good concept, and ethical design, enhances the consumer’s experience. Nobody’s perfect, but it’s in no one’s interest to design bad consumer experiences.

DR: I tend to define an artist much more broadly than most people do. For me, in the anthropological sense, art is any innovated communication. I'm less interested in defining art or the artist in the narrow professional sense of somebody pushing around oil paint in their atelier. If, for the sake of this conversation we want to recognize that a company like Base performs conceptually all the time, there is little that distinguishes Base from an artist. If you will grant me this conceit, then it's a matter of focusing on the differences between your job as art director at Base and the artist’s role in society.

DJ: The distinction between art and art direction lies in their roles, purposes, and the contexts in which they operate. While both involve creative expression and visual communication, they serve different functions within the realms of artistic and commercial endeavors. Art is primarily about creative expression and autonomous exploration, while art direction is focused on achieving specific commercial or promotional objectives through visual communication.

DR: Base affirms the economic system, where an artist might be critical of it.

DJ: Yes, our work is an affirmation. Art direction is deeply integrated into commercial systems. I don't get up in the morning and say, “Okay, what are the questions I want to address? How am I going to address them?” Rather, the questions are posed by somebody else's companies. That doesn't mean that when a question comes to us, we cannot dig into it, explore it, make it maybe richer or more deep. But at the end of the day, all of this is to service the client, it's to service that product, that project, that institution. So the fundamental difference between an artist and what we do at Base, however conceptually sympathetic, involves occupying different coordinates within the economy.

DR: As you’ve noted, ‘concept’ is flexible, open, and adaptive by design, but I imagine there are other places where consistency appears. There’s taste, for instance.

DJ: I am personally driven by my taste, but for me what is more important than taste is beauty. There is a form of beauty that we're trying to achieve all the time. Beauty is always relevant.

DR: I assume that here you're talking about more than what a given project looks like…The question naturally arises, what do you mean by beauty? For example, mathematicians will speak of the beauty of an equation or formula…

DJ: Beauty can be a surprise, it can be comfort, it can be excitement, it can be calming. It's the feeling that it creates. Beauty evolves. Beauty is a strategy.

DR: How a given branding or identity project is sited in the world…

DJ: Yes. The conversation between beauty and “commercial” objectives is important. How does the project relate to culture and to relevance? Within the context of its mission, it can be made beautiful.