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The following interviews are part of a larger project for a thirdyear Directed Studies in Design Futures. We have conducted these interviews with Emily Carr alumni to gather knowledge about design practices, methodologies, experiences and advocay, while simultaneously taking the opportunity to showcase former students of Emily Carr University. The interviews were prepared with two specific audiences in mind; Current, the Design Research Journal, and the Design째, which both are web based publishing mediums for design research and degree content respectively. We are excited to share with you the outcomes of our project, and to create a legacy for Emily Carr, sharing the experiences and insights of alumni.

Bree + Solveig

The following is an interview with the Creative Director of Seven 25. Design &Typography, Isabelle Swiderski. The interview was transcribed from a video of our meeting in October, 2011.

Isabelle Swiderski was kind enough to spend a moment with us to talk about her design work, experiences and practices. She is an Emily Carr Communication Design alumna, and holds a Master of Arts in communications from the Royal College of Art in London. She is the founder and Creative Director of the Vancouver-based studio Seven25. Design & Typography Inc. Established in 2000, it became her full time commitment in 2006. One of the things that struck us about Isabelle’s work was how it spans over multiple mediums. There seems to be a cross-pollination and generation of inspiration with ideas percolating all the time a result of her flexibility with various mediums. We were curious to learn more about her motivation and experiences around this.

SJ: There looks like there is a lot of learning transfer

focused on branding and developing my web skills.

going on between the different mediums. What

Then about two years ago I got back into filming.

kind of learning transfers have you discovered while

I am interested in the arts as much as politics,


and social change, and how we can use design

IS: Sometimes there are surprises and sometimes

thinking and design systems to trigger social

there are more expected [learning transfers].

change. Those are some of the major themes in

Certainly the refrain or the well known truth is

the work that I like to engage in; how we can have

that we are all basically telling stories. All of the things that I engage in are about telling stories, just in different ways. Film is really just another extension of what I’ve been doing. Even putting on Common Thread, an exhibition from a couple of years ago, came about whilst thinking about things that interest me and seeing how the input of other people can make the story more relevant to people. SJ: What interests you?

IS: I am curious about lots of things, so I keep

an impact beyond selling things. Making money

shifting focuses. For instance when I was at RCA

in the not for profit space is not a negative thing.

I did film work and when I moved back here I

If you can become self-sustaining, especially

with fewer grants available and less money from

SJ: How did you get involved in not-for-profit work?

agencies, it is super important. If a not-for profit

IS: I have always had an interest in our impact on

has the ability and the appropriate product to

the environment. Even through my childhood, it

move into the realm of social enterprise to be self-

was something that was close to my heart. As

sustaining, it is fantastic and, I think now, the way

time went on, I worked as a book designer for

to go.

several years and when I came back to Canada

SJ: Have you always had a clear vision?

IS: No. I think it comes through challenging yourself, discovering new things and going “oh, that’s interesting, I haven’t thought about that recently or haven’t thought about that in this way”. You may be collaborating with someone new or encountering something new, you’ve seen a show, or travelled somewhere; these all feed your curiosity and your interests. Hopefully it just becomes exponential to how you learn and hone your vision. Even if at the beginning you have

I did work with educational, cultural and not-for-

to perhaps compromise where you work, and it

profit organizations. Then I went to Rethink where

may not be exactly in keeping with your vision

I did mostly commercial work and realized what

or what you want to do. I think as long as you

interested me most. My direction evolved gradually.

allow yourself time to think about what it is you

This is not to say that we would drive people away

want to do, then eventually you’ll get there. I really

who are for profit, especially as social enterprises

believe in that. For example the film I am working

are a part of what we do.

on; It took me one and a half years to study and nine months to write the script and collaborate

SJ: How do you negotiate and navigate your work

with people, and now it’s realized. It was not

between the practical and the artistic?

instantaneous; I had to go and keep going. So,

IS: I try to balance things I am passionate about,

I think that if you can give yourself that space to

whatever they may be and hopefully work with

think about what it is that you aspire to, then there

people who are kind of in that space. I love

is a much better chance of it happening. And I

strategy and the big picture thinking that comes

think that makes it super exciting.

with branding and with identity work. Then the self-

Isabelle specializes in education, cultural and not-for-profit

directed projects, like Common Thread or the film

work. After she shared with us her insights on how we can

are driven by that space that I allow for, to think of

realize our aspirations, we asked what drove her work in this

what do I want to do next. More than calling it art,


it is just trying to get out of the business a little bit and think ‘well, why am I in this business? What

is it that I love about it?’ I think that helps me to

things going on in terms of identity now, because

identify what I may not be doing at that particular

of virtual identity and our real human physical

moment in my practice. I bring it in laterally through

identity. It’s become more and more complex I

another self-directed project.


SJ: Can you tell us a little about the self-directed

SJ: What characterizes the design community in

project you mentioned: “Common Thread” ?


IS: Sure. So the show happened in 2009 at Emily

IS: Well it does not feel very big. I think it is

Carr University of Art + Design. Because I’ve lived

changing. It felt to me, for a while, that it was not

and worked in various places and I also have a

very open towards the rest of the world. I think that is changing. Perhaps it has even changed already. I think that is very exciting. Even in obvious things

“There is more overlap and more of a sense of cross-pollination and a desire to bring all these different points of view into design practice and thinking.”

like conferences and people who are invited to speak. There are so many other disciplines that are enfolded now into design. It felt to me that different disciplines were considered more separate, maybe around a decade ago. There is more overlap and more of a sense of cross-pollination and a desire to bring all these different points of view into design practice and thinking. I think this is very exciting because it opens up opportunities to create projects that have broader boundaries. Maybe it is simply that I was not involved in those kind of things at that time.

mixed background, French, Canadian and Polish, I have always been interested in the hybrid identities

SJ: Do you find there is something missing in the

that we develop. I was curious to ask my friends

design community here?

around the world if they had a similar sense of

IS: I don’t know that it is the design community,

that, or if they defined identity in the same way I

but I think that the geographic separation that

did. Even when I was at Emily Carr I was always

exists in Vancouver is still something that I try to

fascinated by identity and how we form identity in

rebel against. I think for me personally that is the

those years of “teenager-dom” and the different

only issue, and I try to travel and communicate

influences that result in our personal identity. I

with people elsewhere for that reason. And it’s not

asked a few friends—I think it ended up being

because we don’t have talent here, because we

22 designers from around the world—to submit

do, but I just think it is important to have different

a poster. We paid for all the printing, framing and

points of view, otherwise you quickly fall into a rut.

installation. There are also so many interesting

SJ: So how do you rebel?

IS: Oh, I travel as much as possible. And with the studio, even though we are five years in, it is difficult to take more than a week off at a time. I really long for the days when I could just go away

One of the things we’ve talked about the geographical distance we need to negotiate when working in Vancouver. However we live in an increasingly globalized world and we were wondering if and how Isabelle might see evidence of a world sense of design occurring.

for even two weeks, but that will happen. And I am

SJ: Do you see evidence of a world sense of design?

very active online as well. And when I collaborate

IS: I think more as a tool rather than an aesthetic. I

with people or I am involved in projects that are

don’t think that there is a universal design aesthetic

self-directed, I try to involve people from other

or style, which is a good thing in my opinion. But

countries. Or if I am lucky enough to be asked to

I do sense that there is a global movement that

be involved, then that is very exciting.

understands and values the influence that design

SJ: Are you currently involved in a self directed project like this?

IS: Well, I am due for a new one for sure. I was asked to contribute to one recently. A friend of mine in Berlin has written a book about how you evolve as a designer called “I used to be a student too” and it was a comparison of work that we did in school and some work that we are doing now and discussing what may have changed. SJ: What have you discovered as major changes?

IS: How much time I spend working...And, maybe

can have in bettering the ways in which we live

more of a focus on what interests me personally.

and that is certainly one that I am particularly

Certainly, I don’t think I allowed myself that space

attentive to. And I think it’s miraculous how quickly

in school. I mean, being at Emily Carr you know

ideas can be disseminated now. That is part of

what it is like. Third year was horrendous for me.

the reason that I love twitter. Just this morning,

But even in fourth year, especially as designers

there is an organization that is trying to create a

we seem to be so petrified by who knows what,

video on demand system for Canadian film and

the world or missing a deadline. There is a lot

then I discovered this small local company that is

of navel gazing that goes on and so I think it is

doing the same thing for GLBQ films and so I just

very liberating when you get a little older to have

tweeted “I am wondering if these two organizations

that space to say “What do I love? What am I

are talking about whether there is overlap” and I

passionate about?”

got a response that they were now, thanks to that virtual connection, talking to each other. When else could you have that kind of influence. I don’t

know these people personally, but I like what they

SJ: How do your clients respond to this method

are doing and it crossed my mind that potentially


they could help each other out. How cool is that?

IS: There are clients who really value the

So if you bring that tiny thing on a bigger scale

collaboration and want to understand the process

its absolutely fantastic. I discovered for instance

and to contribute to it. Which makes it all the more

52x52, where you sign up to pledge to give money

rewarding, because no matter how much research

every week to a charity for 52 weeks. People are

you do, as an external player, you can bring in a

finding out about it and the money is growing

fresh perspective, but you never know as much

exponentially. I cannot think of another time when

as the organization themselves. So those clients

you could do that sort of thing.

challenge us and keep it interesting. I always compare it to teaching because teaching and

SJ: What kind of things do you tweet about?

interacting with clients is the same in the sense

IS: I tweet about design, typography, film,

that everybody needs something different from

politics and not-for-profit. I am really interested in

you. And you have to be open to how everybody

networking and the film was a perfect example of

learns or wants to interact. So if you are able to

that. I was just so humbled by how many people

listen and adapt then hopefully the collaboration

came onboard, offering help and skills. I think

is fruitful. As with students and as with clients

social media facilitates those kind of connections

you have to allow that person the room to be a

as well.

participant in the exchange. It’s fascinating and challenging at the same time.

We were intrigued by the way Isabelle had broken down her method and process on her website into the elements: strategy & planning, substance & tone, form & style.... For us it reflected a lateral thinking process and we were curious how clients responded to her approach.

Watch the interview with Isabelle on the Current blog:


Emliy Carr Design Futures Alumni Interviews 2011 - Isabelle Zwiderski  

Emliy Carr Design Futures Alumni Interviews 2011