For his book “Work for Money, Design for Love”, David Airey asked Thierry Brunfaut to contribute to the publication by explaining how he kept his fire burning. We wanted to bounce back on several interesting topics approached in the book and talked to Thierry about his contribution.

By publishing “work for money, design for love” David Airey want to help designers with starting and running their businesses. How did you start Base?
From the early moments, our specificity at Base has been that we were originally international. Base has been built in three different countries at the same time, all partners being close friends, but in different cities. Ironically, we kept the quality in the creative process by “staying close”. And we somehow manage to multiply our small studio quality. BaseDesign is just like a one location studio but with front doors in different cities. This was only possible because we were friends and we knew exactly what we wanted to do. When you start, you are often more interested in what you want to do than with whom. But with time, you realize that the best projects are those that are made in a good relationship. That’s why I think that it’s “first with who and then what” that matters.

How is it to build a company with friends?
Although the process was tedious and still is sometimes, it is the best experience I’ve had so far. You have good sides and down sides. It’s like a family business.

David Airey wrote «By placing yourself in a specific design niche, you decrease the number of competitors and give yourself a greater chance of being the go-to name for the service you provide.» «So by specializing, you increase the conversion rate when it comes to recommendations from your best salespeople – previous client». At Base, your clients are quite diverse. Why is that?
It is something we didnʼt plan on purpose. When you work in just one niche and specialize, you may “master” that kind of work each day more, but may also impoverish your broader vision. I prefer to know few things about several topics, than to know everything in just one. At Base, our choice is to approach any new project as an amateur, with a fresh eye and also with a background which comes from different areas. We place curiosity in the center of our process. We are never blocked by a «that’s the way it has to be done in this kind of business», it gives us more freedom for a real innovation and we defend this vision. We are proud to say and explain that our projects in various sectors constantly feed each other. Clients are interested in that because that’s how the world works today! I remember working for Yves Saint Laurent, MoMA and the Belgian Socialist Party that same week: isn’t that great? I really feel lucky. The borders between disciplines are thin today and we can offer something innovative to anybody from our diverse backgrounds.

Are there any clients you don’t want to work with?

We refused to work with a cigarette manufacturer and also with some political parties. It’s a decision we took all together. It’s a question of integrity and morality. Basically: your gut feeling. Furthermore, we also sometimes decide to not work inside a certain frame. If we don’t agree with someone’s attitude or process, we know that the collaboration is doomed to fail. It’s something you feel from the first meeting and you have to trust your intuition. Communication is essential in the creative process. We need to interact with clients. Branding , communication and design work come about as the result of an iterative and continuous process of identifying requirements and proposing creative solutions.

Sometimes you have to accept that cooperation with clients is not passing in a constructive way. And then we may decide to stop it. As a designer, you are sometimes close to becoming a therapist for them. The key point is collaboration, communication, ability to listen and trust.

You have internationally well-known clients. Why do you still design pro bono? “Design for free? Problem for free.” was one of your “five-minutes”posters

Actually, you do pro bono for different reasons. Either you believe in a cause/organization and you want to support it, or you strongly believe in someone’s work, you want to participate, to help a project to grow. With Lea Peckre (young fashion graduated from La Cambre Mode[s]) for instance, we believe in her creations and we wanted to help her. And we hope that we are still going to work together in the future. In this “five-minutes” poster, I meant that problems come from the “unspoken” in pro bono works. It’s important to set up a framework. When you design for free, the relation with the client may be distorted. As you do it for free, clients do not dare to say that your propositions do not meet their expectations. You may also be frustrated with corrections when working for free. The problem with designing for free is that it takes out the value of the work. You have to estimate how much it’s worth before designing for free and tell it! Doing pro bono is a like a present to someone else, to the project. When this is settled, you can begin to create with a certain freedom of speech.

Getting back to he Five-minute posters, they are made to question people and designers. When I wrote: “Pick a name. Pick a typeface. Pick a color. You’re doing branding”. It’s obviously provocative because branding is evidently more than that but if you are totally honest, it’s also sometimes only that: stand for a couple of simple things. I like that those posters create exciting debates.

Would you like to work by yourself, for yourself? Would you like to share your experience by editing a book maybe?
Not really for now, my preoccupation is really communication. I think I’m good in synthetizing thoughts. My five-minutes posters are made with ideas coming out of the studios, we just wanted to shared it outside Base. Working in a team is by far what I like the most.
When it comes to share my experience, I prefer to teach. I’m now professor in Design and Typography at La Cambre Visual school of art and really enjoyed it. I can adapt or even recycle processes a I use a Base with the students and then also reuse what I’ve learned with them when back in the studio. I don’t know if my design students imagine for a second how much I’ve learned thanks to them! And it’s the same feeling with the basers. They amaze me every day.
Speaking personally, I do small identity or graphic work for friends sometimes. The good part through this process is that you can just do what you want. You don’t have to justify your choices as you have to for big clients. At my age and with my experience, I allow myself the complete freedom to create with my feelings. It doesn’t mean that there is no concept in my creative choices, I just don’t have to justify it. Your closest friends always trust you, don’t they?

How does it differ from the process you follow for your clients?

Clients want and need us to be strategic. It’s a need I totally understand. You have to explain every choice and this may take out a part of the project’s soul. I keep saying to my teams: “Be intuitive, create with your feelings. You don’t have to justify everything”. We need to create with our guts and an open mind and we know that a client’s trust is crucial in this process. The best projects we have accomplished were those created in an atmosphere of speaking and listening with great freedom. We always come back to “first with who and then what”. I think that so far, it’s working. When a client says “I really like your team”, I’m always 100% sure we are going to deliver a good project.

You don’t really communicate about the positive impact of your work on clients’ growth in term of turnover or attendance. Why?

It’s too easy to just correlate those data with our creations. Actually I believe it’s impossible. There is a cultural value that you cannot quantify. It’s impossible to say that the success of a company is 100% related to your new visual identity or new communications. It’s always much more complex than that. It surely implies a new dynamism but other factors must be taken into account. Nevertheless that’s what clients await because they want to be reassured and I understand that. We certainly want to increase customer’s awareness and improve the visibility of their brand or institution. But more than that we want people to think about the world they are living in, we want to create value, a feel, incite reflection and trigger dynamics. It’s the added-value we propose and it surely benefits the brand and its customers.

“What design school didnʼt teach you?” is a chapter in which David Airey proposes to set up a class in designer school to teach designers to talk with non-designers, to clients who donʼt have the same references. As a teacher in La Cambre, do you do that? If you do, how do you teach your students to talk to people?

The purpose of my class is about presenting yourself. Not only through your work, but also verbally and, even, “physically”. How you talk, how you behave, is as important as the work you are showing. I guess I teach them how be just “themselves” and transforming that into an strong asset. To build their self-confidence. My students have to stand up, speak about what they have done and how they made it. I want them to tell the class if they failed in the creative process and why. That’s one of Base’s ten points “We’re not afraid to make mistakes, we learn from them”. Being honest always works! What interests me the most is to trigger their reflection about their process and work and to be able to express it to someone else.

What are those 10 “foundations”? How were they build and why for?

Internally, we spoke openly about what we think BaseDesign is and how Base should evolve every day. Those 10 statements are not new, it’s the way we see our work, and are the result of a lot of workshops. I’ve just decided to write them down to help all basers and Base team in their everyday life. This 10 point list is on the wall of all our 5 Bases. It is just a tool they may use. Sometimes we use it to explain our processes to clients. And it’s working great!

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