SABINE DOWEK TALKS MOMA, DESIGN RESEARCH & CREATIVE QUESTIONING
WNW Member Sabine Dowek worked in MoMA's graphic design department for four years before going freelance. We were excited to learn how such an experience could speak to the concepts of research, conversation and celebration that drive graphic design. And Sabine delivers in our interview below. The Brazilian-born and New York-based designer tells us, "For an exhibition, the best research was often talking to the curators, engaging them in conversation, asking questions—that is where a point of view is revealed. That point of view is what drove the curator to spend years of their lives extensively researching and developing a subject matter, so it's a pretty special place to start from. Asking questions always helps." Sabine's ability to discover the creative passion behind great curators, artists and their works as a means to unleash her own is what defines her stellar contributions to MoMA.
Sabine also tells us about other go-to venues for inspiration in the form of New York museums, galleries and jazz clubs. Sabine adds, "The word 'working' can be limiting, in the sense that when you are not, you are still aware and observing things happening around you. These observations later manifest themselves during the creative process in several different ways." Take the time to fully appreciate Sabine's work, and you may be lucky enough to see it later manifest itself during your own creative process.
Tell us about your creative background. Who is Sabine and how did she get here?
I am a designer originally from Rio de Janeiro. I’ve lived in New York since 2006 (except for a short stay in São Paulo last year).
Before even knowing what graphic design really was, I was passionate about drawing. My father owns an extensive collection of Bandes Dessinée (Franco-Belgian comic books). He taught himself how to draw by redrawing scenes from his favorites books. I used to do the same, attempting a child-like version of Spirou (a popular character beloved in France/Belgium). I was never great at it, but continued to draw and paint until going to college. During my last year in college, I realized my education had been quite insubstantial and felt unprepared to practice the profession. I transferred to SVA in New York. I recall having a similar feeling then upon graduation, perhaps to a lesser degree and despite the fantastic education I received. I realize now this feeling has stayed with me until today, and I suspect it always will.
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
I think there is definitely a shared sensibility across my work and that continues to evolve over time, but I wouldn’t call it style. As an illustrator, having a style is helpful, but as a designer, the visual expression should be informed by the specific and singular needs of the client or project.
What drew you to this subject?
The Jazz interlude is a bi-annual fundraiser to benefit the Friends of Education at MoMA and to raise funds to acquire African American art. Jazz music is fascinating. I would often go to the Village Vanguard and be mesmerized by the musician’s improvisation skills. And they always seem to have so much fun playing.
What inspirations helped inform this project?
Apart from being a jazz fan, the vernacular of vintage jazz albums are great. They really incorporate the rhythm and soul of Jazz. I did a lot of research on jazz albums and the kinds of graphic elements typically associated with it.
The hardest part for me was the deadline. It came to us late and we had a week to figure out the design, while in the midst of many other projects. Oh, and being 9 months pregnant didn’t help either.
What drew you to this subject?
This was a unique exhibition. The curators, Leah Dickerman and Masha Chlenova, had the thesis that abstraction wasn’t the result of a single genius, but rather born out of the relationships between artists of that time. The curatorial team spent many years researching who knew who, and together with Columbia University created a basic skeleton of those connections which we then worked from. Being a part of such a unique concept and process was great.
What inspirations helped inform this project?
Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first director, had created a chart in 1936 mapping the development of modern art. It felt like an obvious decision to use that as inspiration for the artist network chart we were designing for the same museum 76 years later.
The network chart was particularly hard to tackle. There were over 80 connections, so it's very dense and was labor intensive.
What was it like to work as an art director and designer for such an institution like MoMA? How does your approach to museum and exhibit identities differ from your approach to book cover design?
Working for MoMA was an incredible experience. To be exposed to fascinating art, work with knowledgeable people, and be behind the scenes of formidable exhibitions displaying the work of absolute masters—I feel very fortunate and grateful. Walking through the galleries before the museum opened to the public, alone with a Picasso—there was something special about it.
At the design studio at MoMA, the designers do a large variety of work—from exhibition design to printed matter to video content. You get exposed to a lot and it never got boring. Formally, the design is almost always typographically driven. While book covers can certainly be that, the concept doesn't necessarily need to exist in the typography—it can be expressed in an illustration or photograph. That opens a lot more possibilities and can be hard to get right. On the other hand, book covers have a set canvas to work from, while an exhibition may not—you can explore the natural architecture of the space, use it to engage or disrupt the design, as well as exploring different materials and animated title walls, if fitting of course.
On more extensive projects, what kind of research and preliminary explorations typically inform decisions throughout your creative process?
That really depends from project to project. For an exhibition, the best research was often talking to the curators, engaging them in conversation, asking questions—that is where a point of view is revealed. That point of view is what drove the curator to spend years of their lives extensively researching and developing a subject matter, so it's a pretty special place to start from. Asking questions always helps. What does the design and language need to do? How will people interact with the design? What are the stories that we should/need to be telling? It is often easy to lose track of this once you start designing and are in the thick of it. But I find myself always going back to these questions, making sure whatever I'm designing still makes sense, and at its best, engages with the viewer in some deeper form.
What moment or project in your career so far has made you the proudest?
Matisse is probably it. First because of the artist himself—having the opportunity to design the identity for such an incredible artist, and particularly for the cut-outs, which is such a distinct moment in his career. Second, I was thrilled we created an identity that didn’t look like the cut-outs, but instead was inspired by a key element that drove the exhibition: Matisse was constantly changing and shifting his compositions. He pinned the pieces of cut paper on the wall of his studio and as he lived with it, he would unpin and repin, modifying the composition in the process. This worked out well as we needed to develop a flexible identity that worked on many different platforms, from the environmental space to a bandage box.
Biggest career failure?
My first job out of college. That one is flashing in big, bright red lights. By the time I left that job, I was questioning whether I should be a designer at all. There were a lot of expectations on me and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I was so concerned with my boss’s opinion of me and was eager for validation, that the quality of my work deteriorated. It’s fascinating how our own psyche can sabotage us. It may seem cliché, but being afraid of failure is ultimately what made me fail. However, it's part of the process and when you do succeed, it feels really good.
What are you working on now?
I am currently freelancing at IBM. They have a new Brand design and experience team. I am working on the World of Watson event, which will take place in October. I also just finished doing a series of illustrations for Buzzfeed News.
How do New York and Brazil influence your work?
If I am to be honest, I feel New York has had a much deeper impact and influence on me as a designer. The years I have spent here, the people I’ve worked with, the stunning amount of things I was exposed to have been crucial to my formation as a designer.
What cultural and creative venues do you frequent in New York?
New York is a hot podge of cultural venues. The main museums are always great to visit, as are the smaller institutions, such as the Neue Gallery, the Frick Collection, and The Jewish Museum. Open Studios in Bushwick has some great art as well. Joe’s Pub, Village Vanguard, and Ear Inn has really great music.
Do you thrive off of being part of a creative community or are you more in your element as a lone wolf?
A little bit of both, probably.
Who are some of your biggest creative idols and influences?
While there are tons of people/studios that I admire, I can’t say they are idols. I can’t call an idol someone I never met (they might be very talented, but not great human beings). People I can call role models and influences are inevitably some of the people I have worked with. Paul Sahre, Julia Hoffmann, Ingrid Chou, Sam Potts, Sam Sherman, Mike Abbink—these are all amazing designers and most importantly, great people.
If you weren’t a Designer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Something with food. I always loved cooking (and eating).
What do you do when Not Working?
Now that I am a parent, I spend most of my free time with my son and husband. Doing things that nourish the brain and spirit, going to museums, art galleries, reading—lately a lot of Green Eggs and Ham—traveling, cooking…The word “working” can be limiting, in the sense that when you are not, you are still aware and observing things happening around you. These observations later manifest themselves during the creative process in several different ways.
What are some things you would tell your high school or early twenties self?
Not to worry all the time. I would say the same thing to myself now.
Who are some other WNW members whose work you admire, and why?
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you for the interview. And thank you for creating such a an important tool in connecting employers to creatives. I am new to WNW and am excited to be a part of it.