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/ Interview with Robert L. Peters, FGDC

Robert L. Peters is past president of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda), a vice president of Design for the World, a foreign correspondent for Communication Arts magazine, editor of the GDC Graphic Design Journal, and a GDC Fellow. He is a graphic designer and the founding principal of the design firm CIRCLE based in Winnipeg, Canada.

Robert is active internationally as a consultant and design strategist, policy advisor, juror and guest lecturer. He lives with two cats in a passive solar house in the woods of eastern Manitoba. When not immersed in design, he enjoys nature, mountain climbing and human-powered outdoor activities.

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/ How were you first introduced to the internet? Do you remember your first impression?

In 1993 I participated in a nationwide dialogue with other Canadian graphic design advocates. Communications Canada had promoted the use of bulletin boards and 'the Web' as a suitable communications tool - though I was frustrated by the non-intuitive interface, the clumsy dialup and the slow pain of 2400 baud.

/ Looking at your track record, you have a *multiple path* education. Why?

The vagaries of life, I guess. Maybe because I was always more interested in the journey than the destination (though that sounds so cliché). I started painting as a child (my father was a Sunday painter) and then did a year's foundation program in art in Basel, Switzerland.

After graduating from Black Forest Academy I went for a year of bible study at Capernwray Hall in Lancashire, England and then worked with Operation Palmbranch, an African relief mission based in Bavaria, Germany. This was an incredible learning opportunity, as we were a small team of volunteers re-building scrapped Mercedes Unimogs (amazing all-wheel-drive vehicles trashed by the military in NATO war games) that we would then drive down through the Sahara for use as mobile hospitals and surgical units in northern Zaire (now the Congo). I'd have to say I learned some of my greatest lessons in life during that time. Later, studying graphic design and design management in Canada was a more pragmatic choice that prepared me for my design career.

/ What was your first profession?

When I came to Canada in the early '70s, I tried to make it as a painter. I was very enthusiastic about Nature and the 'wilderness' that 'I'd found.' Naively, I soon discovered that Canadians prefer to spend their money on hotter BBQs and faster snowmobiles - fine art was low on the priority scale. There were numerous galleries selling 'sofa paintings' in great numbers - you know, the formulaic assembly-line forested mountain settings with reflected sunsets - and I just couldn't/wouldn't enter that arena. I was saddled with the frail ego of an artist (all artists want to be loved) and I was an idealist to boot. To make a long story short, my paintings of remote lumber camps in NW Ontario (man's struggle to tame Nature intrigued me) did not sell well enough to pay the rent, so 'applied art' seemed like a practical alternative.

/ Describe your present professional activities and why you chose it and your path to becoming a professional designer.

I am a graphic designer and the principal of Circle, a design consultancy based in Winnipeg, Canada. I first encountered a real, live 'graphiste' when I was nine years old and living in Basel - I was intrigued with the mugs of pens, paint tubes, brushes and scalpels surrounding his drafting table and I knew from that time on that I'd eventually become a designer.

I've taught design at the University of Manitoba and have lectured in many countries. I write foreign features for Communication Arts magazine as well as for other design publications worldwide, and throughout my career I've been involved with design advocacy and professional design organizations such as the Association of Canadian Industrial Designers and the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC). For nine years I acted as the GDC's representative to the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda) and thereafter became very involved internationally. I'm currently serving board roles as past president of Icograda (our Secretariat is in Brussels) and as a vice president of Design for the World, a humanitarian NGO based in Barcelona.

When I started in design, it seemed to be a way to utilize my artistic talents, idealism (desire to create a better world for all) and broad curiosity in a gainful way. I quickly realized that to be a designer is a special privilege - it allows one to fully engage both halves of the brain on a daily basis in service of specific objectives. Of course there are frustrating days (when I consider becoming a shepherd or a taxi driver instead) but I would have to say that I truly love the profession of design.

/ What is your favorite designing material. Why?

I see design as an action, not as form (and I prefer to use design as a verb rather than as a noun). Of course, meaning, function, form and value flow from the action of 'designing', but for me design has much less to do with product or medium than with process. The design process starts in the mind - so I would have to say that my favorite 'designing material' would be human minds (the minds of clients, colleagues, collaborators as well as my own).

I'm from the old school, so ideation is often first realized through pencil sketches on paper, pen squibs on napkins, or in the form of words. Computers are fantastic tools for production but they (still) seem somewhat impoverished and inferior as wombs for creativity (at least, when compared to the human mind).

/ What makes for a good project?

That's really easy - a good project involves a good client (that is not in conflict with your core values, that understands the value of design, that appreciates quality, that engages you because of their trust in your contribution, and that appreciates the value of relationships), clear project objectives, an adequate budget and enough time for the creative process to go through a proper gestation. It also helps if the project/subject is something that you care about and can support with passion.

/ You are a creative head. When did your love of visual art start?

I recently found some paper collage assemblages and drawings I had done at the age of three and four when I was in kindergarten in Frankfurt, Germany. They're pretty good. So I guess I need to credit Tante Henne, my spinster kindergarten teacher. My father was a talented artist and had taught industrial arts for years, so we always had art supplies around the house. He insisted that all his sons learned how to properly use the workshop and various tools (yes, I have made wooden lamps on a lathe). I also collected stamps from an early age, and the colorful little artistic works from around the world provided many hours of visual engagement.

/ What do you look for when hiring creative talent?

I look for people with integrity, solid core values and demonstrated mannerisms that are consistent with their beliefs. The ability to play well with others (team players) is also very important in a studio setting. Of course, analytical dexterity, creativity, literacy, design talent and a high standard of quality are also important - but I would say that these latter traits are in much greater supply than the former.

/ How do you promote your talent and land gigs?

We've always counted on word-of-mouth, where the satisfaction of one client or project leads to the next, and this has worked so far (for over 27 years). In that regard, we rarely promoted ourselves overtly. Sure, we used to enter and win lots of design awards, but I see now that this was more to satisfy our own ego needs (peer recognition is great for this) than to promote our talent. I've always had somewhat of an aversion to 'selling' our services, so it may be a personal bias that has influenced Circle in this regard.

/ How do you sharpen your talent?

We subscribe to dozens of professional and creative journals that we encourage staff members to peruse. We have weekly 'show and tell' sessions in which we share observations and findings with each other and as a form of ongoing learning. We collaborate in studio teams and group critiques. We attend conferences and symposia. We encourage travel (I find having lived or traveled in more than 50 countries and the huge multi-cultural melange that this brings with it to be a huge source of personal inspiration).

/ Describe what makes a good team?

Common goals, shared values, good leadership, mutual respect, and empowered team members. A fertile and supportive environment is important, as is the absence of weak links.

/ Describe what is *inspiration*?

Inspiration is a stimulation of our intellect or emotions. The word itself means to 'draw in' in the way that we breathe air into our lungs. In theological terms, inspiration means to be imbued with influence, a divine guidance to the mind and soul of humankind. In more carnal terms, we could think of things that are 'turn-ons' or triggers to our thoughts and actions.

I believe that understanding inspiration (and how to inspire) is critical for designers who wish to engage specific audiences and then move them to take action. Inspiration can be found and stimulated in many places and many ways - the top two for me are spending time in Nature (Canada provides great opportunities for canoeing, hiking, climbing and biking in pristine wilderness) and through diverse human interaction.

/ How do you protect clients from their own bad taste?

I have difficulty responding to this question as it seems irrelevant, though I think I know what you mean. In my opinion, design is really not a matter of 'taste' or of aesthetics (it is however an effective process by which to achieve intended results - and though 'taste' and aesthetics are often a facet of the final outcome, these are somewhat fickle and ephemeral traits by which to measure successful outcomes).

I suppose I could say that our clients are 'protected from their own bad taste' by engaging us to work with them, though that sounds rather arrogant. Our clients trust us to act with them and on their behalf to ensure that their objectives are fulfilled and that the design brief is respected. When a client engages us we form a purposeful pact with them, and our involvement from initial ideation through process supervision and final quality control acts as an assurance that they will not end up with anything 'bad.'

/ Explain the value of peer recognition.

Being recognized and respected by your peers is important in any profession, particularly in the early years when success-based confidence may be in short supply. Peer recognition makes you feel good (if you care about peers and what they think, that is). Collectively, peer recognition acts as a form of validation, encouragement and empowerment. When we know that we act professionally and at a high standard, we perform even better and with greater confidence.

/ Is branding an important issue online?

Branding (the current buzz-word for identity) is as important online as off. With rapid increases of population (the world population is now 6.3 billion, doubled in the last 40 years), rapid technological changes (instantaneous communication, shrink-wrapped empowerment of the laity, ease of travel, etc.), growth of trans-national corporations, globalized marketing, and virtualization (experiential value asserting itself over tangibility), identity is becoming ever more important.

That said, many of today's branding practices are doomed to failure (and an increase in market cynicism in my opinion) - human beings are not stupid (they can tell fluff from substance, though sometimes it takes a few months) and simply creating 'brand promise' is a long way from developing truthful, meaningful and sustainable relationships between entities and their constituents, and between products and their users.

/ What was the catalytic thought that gave birth to Circle Design?

Need, though I wish I could say the motivation was more visionary. I was a starving design graduate married to a young Canadian wife who had put me through school. Sure I had dreams of achieving great things and making a positive contribution to the world, but to be honest, I needed paying work. Having started freelancing while still in school (illustration, primarily) and not seeing the kind of studios in Winnipeg that I wished to work for (there were mainly advertising agencies and less than a handful of bona fide design firms in the city at that time) it seemed like a low-risk and exciting undertaking. A school colleague and I started the firm as a partnership, and the name 'Circle' was selected both because of its graphic credentials (most efficient form) and its holistic characteristics (lack of hierarchical burden, inclusive nature, and cyclic potential).

/ Describe what the internet means to you.

It's a medium and an environment with great promise. It's a remarkable resource and information source. It means instantaneous connectivity to others around the globe, including to many who are beyond the reach or means of travel.

/ Describe 3 qualities necessary to succeed.

1. Vision. In order to look ahead, it's important to look beyond what is to what could be. Vision can be thought of as a self-concept, a very reason for existence. Vision is the articulation of a desired future and it answers the questions: "Why, and for what purpose do we exist?" and "Why is the world a better place because we do?"

Although my current line of sight is limited by a short-term horizon, envisioning what lies beyond my sight provides inspiration and motivation. On a strategic level, vision can be thought of as the articulation of a desired future that guides and energizes. Jonathan Swift defined vision in a great way: "... the art of seeing things invisible."

2. Faith. I've noticed that the world of late has turned from being fueled-by-faith to being largely controlled-by-fear (fear is a great control mechanism, as witness the success of the Bush administration in manipulating the masses, silencing dissent, and polarizing). I'd equate faith to the 'cup half full' position and fear to the 'cup half empty' stance. I find that you can place most of life's issues and challenges on a fear/faith axis (think of a semantic differential scale or polarity profile) and that the ultimate results are dependent on which position you choose.

Belief takes you further than doubt, just as honey attracts more bees than vinegar. There's a great Chinese truism that underlines my point about faith and commitment: "Cross a chasm with a single leap."

3. Perseverance. If you don't have the will and intestinal fortitude to make it through the tough times, you simply won't succeed. I climb mountains and this point is driven home to me again and again - if I can't suffer through the long and sometimes challenging ascents (I just returned from the Bugaboos, a humbling experience once again) I cannot savor the exuberance of the summits.

/ If there were no budget limitations - which single dream project would you launch?

I'd love to coalesce a project to unite decision-makers worldwide in allocating as great an amount of money for the diminishment of human suffering as is currently spent for weapons and war. Did you know that the world currently spends $912 billion USD on war? And, that the United Nations estimates that a mere $40 billion USD per year would provide clean water, nutrition, sanitation, health care, and education for every human being on the planet?

We could change the world very quickly with a re-allocation of our existing resources.

/ Give a one line counsel to newbies.

Question everything.

/ In your view, explain what is convergence?

It's an intersection, a nexus.

/ Is the www an international network?

Not really, not yet. I think 'it' has those aspirations (and perhaps even holds the potential), but it still only represents a tiny portion of the world's citizens - the literate, the privileged, and the connected.

/ Tell us what the future looks like.

Hmmm that would require vision. It's either going to be very violent, depleted, controlled and then bleak/monolithic (for example, the unilateral preemptive-strike precedent set by the USA in Iraq lowers the bar of human decency and leads us towards this Orwellian prediction) or, those of us who are striving for peace, universal human rights and global equity will actually make a difference and we'll end up with a sustainable, respectful world of peace, abundance and diversity.

I'll keep striving for the latter.