Isabel Seiffert for Eye on Design 

Isabel Seiffert on Merging Concept and Form

The job description of a designer in itself needs to, and will be, redefined. 

Isabel Seiffert is one-half of Offshore Studio, along with Christoph Miler, based in Zurich, Switzerland. Seiffert engages an active teaching practice alongside her studio work, leading courses and workshops at HKB (University of the Arts Bern), Zurich University of the Arts, HGK Basel, HEAD Geneve, Weissensee Academy of Art Berlin, and F+F (School for Art and Design Zurich), as well as serving on the Diploma Jury at ECAL. Seiffert’s work has a simple elegance and conceptual edge, a balance she strives to encourage in her students. The thought and labor she imbues her courses with are palpable and fascinatingall the play that makes design school fun, and all the rigor that leads to highly sensitive and media aware humans. Between rainstorms and shutdowns, we caught up via a call where I got to learn a little bit more about her teaching practice. 

You teach at so many different schools. How does your instruction vary between them, and how do you adapt your courses to the different institutions?

Either I’m really close to the school, or I speak a lot with the assistants and the head of the department to find out what would be necessary and what are they doing in their curriculum. Christoph Knoth, co-professor of the Digital Graphic Design class at HfBK in Hamburg asked me to focus on typography. So looking at their curriculum, I thought it could be interesting to work with typography, OCR technology, and the aspect of surveillance. The assignment we created was: Experiment with type design and shapes to create license plates that are still legible for the human eye but cannot be fully decoded by OCR technology and thus are unrecognizable for automatic number plate recognition. 

At F+F,  where I used to be the assistant in the visual design program, I know really well how the program works. There I probably wouldn’t do the Hyperimages–Deconstructing Kim Kardashian” workshop. But at ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts), that same workshop was a conceptual project following their theory seminar on Hyperimages (a grouping of image objects that together form a new, overarching unit whose meaning cannot be understood as mere addition.) In that program, they do a lot of design research, so a Kim Kardashian Workshop on media and its mechanisms was a perfect fit.

I love the conceptual underpinnings to your assignments. Could you share a few more that exemplify the range of the projects that happen in your classes?

To expand on the Hyperimages–Deconstructing Kim Kardashian workshop, we held a two-part workshop in May and September. We took Kim Kardashian as the hyperobject (an object that may be experienced even if they cannot be necessarily touched), basicallyas the hyper image. And the students deconstructed Kim Kardashian through the images. We had various topics like KK + cosmetics, KK + cars, KK + fashion, and so on. The students used this assignment as a base not only to speak about the media persona of Kim Kardashian, but also to critique social media in general, point to the relationship between the entertainment industry and politics in the U.S., colonialist history, and the objectification of the female body. By only telling these narratives through use of imagestheir sequence, size, position, order, and aesthetic treatmentthe students developed a sharp focus and editorial storytelling skills.

Another workshop was called “the Greek term for mask is persona.” It was based on Siri Hustvedt’s novel The Blazing World“, in which an artist and art collectors’ widow borrows the identities of three living men to exhibit her art installations and experiment with the perception of gender and genius. The students in this workshop used different graphical methods to represent the main character and her various living masks. The first day they worked out the visual representation of the main character, and in the following days they created the personas she used as masks and printed them out on transparent paper to overlay on the main character. 

Last year at HKB, the students created visual identities for scientific institutions. This year, Jiri Chmelik, who I teach this course with, prepared an assignment that looks at visual identity and corporate design within the realm of phenomena and behavior. We specifically looked at our impact and behavior with the natural environment. Due to the lockdown and contact restrictions, people in Switzerland spent a lot of time outside, rediscovering remote areas and camping. This comes with a set of problems and conflicts. We wanted the students to look at visual identitiesof organizations, interest groups, governmental departmentsto communicate and invite certain behaviors, responsibilities, and rules. We wanted to move away from corporate design as something that is purely connected to the commercial and capitalist realm. The term “corporate already suggest the notion of embodiment, and embodying responsible and sensible behavior with our natural environment is one of the most pressing issues. 

If students were to take away one main lesson from working with you, what would you hope that to be?

For me, it’s always quite important that there’s this balance between craft, concept, thematic exploration, and a certain relevance. We often try to use the first couple of days to speak about a certain subject: to dive in, for the students to find their point of view on it, to find out weird facts, or something that is maybe not obvious to speak about. 

Then in the next step we really push is for them to work with details. Often students have a great idea and visual starting points but don’t necessarily go the extra mile to push the concept in its detail. So we always talk a lot and try to encourage them to really work on the visual and conceptual refinements and take this extra mile. It’s often a bit stressful for the students, but in the end they’re always super happy, like, Oh wow, I didn't know this tool,” or, I found out about this new method.” We we don’t want something that’s only formal, but something that touches on an element of what is going on in contemporary life.

In the emails we shared prior to this interview, you talked about the Swiss design scene as, well, a scene. How does your method of instruction nest within Swiss design education? 

Christoph [Miler] did his BA in Austria and I did a Diploma (a bit more than BA) in Germany where there was a strong focus on design and cultural theory. It was a lot about thinking, writing, and talking, and less about specific formal skills. I think we both were hungry to learn more about the actual craft afterwards, which is why we enrolled in the MA Design at ZHdK with the specialization in editorial design. These two different backgrounds have formed a synergy and informed our practice as well as our teaching.

Swiss schools in many ways, for good and bad, are really focused on the heritage of craftsmanship and quality. A certain style and a certain way of doing design, and this is very much the focus still. The quality that comes out of these schools is super high in terms of skills and form. But for me, there is a bit of delay in addressing urgent topics and maybe even a neglect that design education has anything to do with contemporary issues like the climate crisis, social injustice, and the limits of the capitalist system in which design situates itself. These are hard question but, from my standpoint, are essential for the future of design education. 

The job description of a designer in itself needs to, and will be, redefined. In recent years we’ve talked about this shift only in technological terms (will AI take over design processes? etc.) but I think the shift is much more in the role of the designer within systems of knowledge production, social and environmental responsibilities, and therefore new areas and modes of working.