“Talent Is 99% Hard Work”

An Interview with Czech Graphic Designer Jan Vranovský

This time I’ve asked Czech graphic designer Jan Vranovský who is based in Tokyo, Japan at the moment. He has talked about the differences and similarities between Japan and the Czech Republic (generally the Western world), his approach to work and many more.

When did you become interested in design & typography? Who inspired/inspires you?

I have been interested in it ever since I can remember, really. I spent part of my early childhood living in Boston, Massachusetts, at a place saturated with well-developed brands and corporations with accordingly developed logos and identities, something you could hardly find back in the former Czechoslovakia. Before the US, I was interested mainly in flags and coats of arms, as far as I can recall, but after that I was completely soaked in the beauty of visual commercialism.

I remember playing games with my brother where we established imaginary companies only so we could design their imaginary logos — or labelling everything we built from Lego with logo stickers I drew. I started using vector-editing software around the age of 11, and I made my first logos for “customers” (for free of course) around the age of 13. At that time I also launched my own magazine in elementary school, again, only so I could design it, and then made two more in high school, one minimal and one heavy metal-like. I was pretty obsessed.

Huge inspirations for me were works of people like Saul Bass, Stefan Kanchev, Yusaku Kamekura, Armin Hofman, Massimo Vignelli or Herb Lubalin.

Do you think one is born to be a designer?

Some people are born with predispositions that help them turning into good designers. However, talent is — in my opinion — 1% of success, the other 99% is hard work, enthusiasm, devotion and, let’s face it, entrepreneurship.

You are originally from the Czech Republic but right now are studying in Japan. How did you end up in Tokyo?

I’d been always interested in Japan, visited the place several times before, even studied Japanese studies at the university for a year, and I’d planned to do my architecture master in Japan ever since I started studying architecture. When the time came I simply applied, got accepted and moved. It was surprisingly a smooth, straightforward process without any kinks or dramatic moments. I am very grateful to the University of Tokyo for giving me the opportunity and the financial support to study architecture here.

Could you also talk about the differences and similarities between these two countries design-wise?

To me, one of the most interesting things about Japanese design and architecture is the fact that in this country minimalism as a concept exists pretty much since Zen was introduced (12thcentury). What we do in the West, for let’s say, in the last hundred years is being done here for over 800 hundred years. The idea that is very much conflicting with our past in the West is the result of fluid, long-term development here. All in all, I feel minimalism is much more mature in Japan. It is also much more rooted in the society and touches wider range of activities and customs, so once it’s applied to design, the society tends to accept it easily.

This doesn’t mean that everything in Japan is minimal, far from it actually. Historically, there have always been at least two major approaches: one of them is based on Zen and domestic traditions, the other is more interested in foreign (typically Chinese) influence. In graphic design, you can see amazingly minimal and clean things as well as amazingly cluttered, crazy colourful design — and a lot of pure crap, of course, same as everywhere else. That being said, I feel the bar in Japan is set higher than almost anywhere else. I believe it is because of the society and the relative lack of conflict between how people live and how things are designed.

Photo: Dan Friedlaender

In contrast to that, minimalism in the West, or in the Czech Republic to be more specific, to a large degree is a misunderstood concept without proper cultural background. It’s accepted, sometimes rather mindlessly, by intellectuals and people who claim to understand art and design, while the large part of the population remains refusing it. It also tends to degenerate into superficial token of wealth rather than being what it actually is: a decision-making process and form-finding logic. Designers typically focus on those who “understand” modernity (and pay for it), ignoring the masses unable to understand, accept or relate to it. The lack of decent alternatives together with ostentatious elitism of minimalism showing no interest in addressing mundane needs leads to massive amount of kitsch and ill, primitive design answering demand of the large part of the population in the lowest possible manner.

As an outcome you can find a decent amount of good design in the Czech Republic (typography, book and glass design that are our strongest fields), but the overall situation is somewhat chaotic and full of conflict. I feel that the distance between highbrow design, art, photography, architecture and mainstream society is growing, and that’s a bad sign.

Have you experienced something that people tend to call culture shock when you moved to Asia? What were your expectations?

I wouldn’t call it a culture shock, I was already quite aware of Japan’s cultural and social specifics at the time I moved here. However, Japan is full of weirdness, and even if you are aware of it, on a theoretical level, it’s a whole different thing to actually experience it first handedly.

Tokyo’s metropolitan area is huge beyond imagination (over 20,000,000 inhabitants), yet most parts of it feel like a small town. The intensity of built-ups is unbelievable. Buildings are either ridiculously small or ridiculously huge. A typical, somewhat affordable flat in inner Tokyo has between 10 to 20 square metres. Earthquakes are part of everyday life and there’s constant fear of a massive one striking Tokyo in the near future (some sources claim this will happen within the next two years).

Photo: Dan Friedlaender

The society is very specific and quite closed too. There is a strong emphasis on hierarchy, responsibility (of both society towards individual and individual towards society), family and hierarchy within it. These things sometimes lead to seemingly bizarre behaviour and deviations like hikikomori, suicides, otaku culture and so on. However, I see a lot of similarities in the way of thinking and behaviour between Japanese and, say, Czechs, sometimes quite surprisingly. I live right next to both elementary and junior high school, which makes it very difficult to sleep during the weekdays, but gives me unique opportunity to peek into the education process as one can hear literary everything that’s happening there. Almost every single day, they would play classical music — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi… — to the children. The end of the day, the perception of beauty unites us deeply.

I run a photography blog on Tumblr calledParallel Worlds where I share strange things I encounter in Japan (and Taiwan), focused mainly on architecture and environment.

Photo: Dan Friedlaender

You are the co-founder of FRVR™ studio in Prague where you carry out a great variety of jobs. What’s the history of your studio? How do you divide work?

FRVR is a form of cooperation with my colleague and friend Dan Friedlaender. Thus the abbreviation: FR and VR stand for our surnames. We have been working together on different projects and on different levels since 2008. It’s slowly developed into working in a studio together. Dividing work has always been relatively smooth since both of us have a little bit different fields of specialisation. During the last year, before I left the Czech Republic, the range of our clients grew rapidly; we had the chance to work with the National Gallery in Prague, a great number of interesting domestic and foreign companies and artists or a Prague-based design fair. Unfortunately, as I am currently fully occupied with my university studies in Tokyo, I can’t participate in any ongoing project, so FRVR is temporarily frozen.

Photo: Dan Friedlaender

You have created several logos. What are the characteristics of a well-designed emblem?

A good logo nowadays doesn’t actually mean too much. A good logo is always part of a wider identity, visual system, and it’s the system that is worth analysing and studying, not so much the logo. It’s like a language vs. one single sentence… You might be using the sentence a lot and it might be, in certain extreme situations, the only thing you will ever hear from the language, but it’s still the language that’s important. A logo mainly needs to be the integral part of the system, a perfectly distilled pure essence of it in ideal situation. Times when it was all about the logo and the identity was there only to support it (1960s and 1970s) are gone.

Generally speaking, what is the design process like? Do you follow a routine? Under what conditions do you prefer/like to work? What kind of tools do you use?

In the most general sense, the design process always consists of research, concept and design development (in this order). Communication and negotiation with clients usually forms a large part of it and many times defines the process. I believe this also answers the second question: yes, there is a certain routine in our process, but we also tend to keep breaking it to some degree, since every project and client is unique. It’s all about finding the good balance between ability to leave our comfort zone and think out of the box while keeping the approach and method sustainable, and utilising craft and experience.

Personally, I always need some amount of pressure in order to work. I prefer tight deadlines that keep me focused on the goal, since I tend to overthink things when there’s too much time available. As for the tools: we rely heavily on computers and software. Pencil and paper are useful for fast sketches and visualising initial ideas, but it’s not something we would typically share with our clients. That being said, we definitely prefer to work on projects involving physical outcomes (books, exhibitions, anything that gets printed or manufactured). This typically involves working closely with paper and material from the very beginning and sometimes leads into making the material aspect the driving force of the whole project. We cooperate closely with print houses and sometimes get involved in the actual printing and production process.

When do you say the work is done? Can you actually do that?

It depends on types of the work. When we make a book, it’s simply done at the moment it leaves the print house. When we design an identity, it’s more complex. There are stages, each has some kind of goal and peak moment after which we move to the next one. In some cases we design the assets and guidelines and that’s it for us. In other cases we cooperate with the customer for many years, working on applications and sometimes even developing the identity further. It’s never a fully continuous process, though, we put a lot of effort in respecting the guidelines we create, and if we discover something that could be done better, we keep this information for the next big update of the guidelines rather than carrying out changes every now and then.

What is the greatest compliment you have ever received?

The greatest compliment I have ever received is when I was awarded Todai Fellowship at University of Tokyo, an extremely generous scholarship given to only around 20 international students each year.

If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?

I would study Japanese harder at the time I was doing Japanese studies at Charles University. I wouldn’t suffer so badly now.

What is the most annoying question someone has ever asked you regarding your work?

Questions are usually not annoying. If someone, whether it’s a customer or someone else, shows enough interest and actually asks me a question to understand my standpoint, that’s normally part of a pleasant and constructive discussion. It’s annoying when people with no understanding of the problem and no conception of design say things about my work without asking anything. But even that is part of the job: design isn’t fine art, it’s there to be seen, used and eventually judged by anyone.

How do you handle criticism?

Self-criticism, sometimes even quite harsh, is basic part of the workflow at FRVR, and it is in fact extremely important. As for criticism from outside: it depends on whether it’s constructive or not. If it’s purely emotional, I try to ignore it. If it’s constructive and there’s actually something to learn or to discuss, it’s always welcome, even if it’s a bit unpleasant at that moment.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently fully occupied with my master studies agenda. My two university colleagues and I have recently finished research on alternative architect’s scale 3D printing method, new material development and research of the role of colour in architecture practice. Now we are all working on digital fabrication lab pavilion, which is going to be built as a temporary structure on Tokyo University campus this fall.

T-ADS (University of Tokyo) project, developed by Jan Vranovsky, Alexandra Karlsson Napp and Yuanfang Lu

What are your plans for the future?

After school I want to focus on merging my graphic design experiences with architectural and digital fabrication knowledge I gain at the university. One future possibility is Ph.D. research, but a more probable option is that I’ll keep on setting up a studio while shifting the focus towards spatial applications.



One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.