Established. 2010

In-depth interviews with the world's leading creatives


Established. 2010

In-depth interviews with the world's leading creatives

FEATURE INTERVIEW #32 from February 2015

Always Anew, Always Atypical


Pawel Nolbert

Unless you have spent the last six to nine months under a rock in a dark place, you must have stumbled across the a project that has taken the creative world by a storm. ‘Atypical’ was one of the most blogged art project of 2014, getting the well deserved attention. I have had the pleasure to follow Pawel’s career for nearly a decade now, he always thinks up suprising concepts with ideas that make everyone put down their tea and take notice. Pure talent and pure gentleman.
Pawel Nolbert is a Warsaw-based designer, artist and a creative of the new generation. He works across a wide range of design, advertising and art projects, complex visual imagery, branding and various product related creations for clients around the world, from acclaimed global brands to smaller independent companies. More info: @hellocolor
Pawel Nolbert is a Warsaw-based designer, artist and a creative of the new generation. He works across a wide range of design, advertising and art projects, complex visual imagery, branding and various product related creations for clients around the world, from acclaimed global brands to smaller independent companies. More info: @hellocolor

You studied computer science but then you swiftly went into graphic design and illustration. What was the main reason?

Actually there was no moment when I said “fuck the IT, let’s do some art”. By the time I started my computer science education, I had already been involved in graphics and digital art scene for a year or two. The one thing about computer education that I can surely say came handy in my design activity was the programming knowledge. I mean anything from C++, through java, to some low-level programming languages that I learnt there. Learning how to think of programming in a structural aspect was definitely helpful at the time, when I was involved with creating Flash websites that required actionScript and some other programming/script languages knowledge. The "Flash" period was basically the only time I was involved in interactive design for real and it was a very good time as I'm remembering it now. After that time it went a smooth transition from the digital art and web design towards the widely perceived digital design. It was good to be more specialised at the time but now it’s all overlapping so much that it sometimes doesn't make too much sense to distinct one profession from another, and it’s getting easier and easier to get into all of those disciplines, at least in terms of the technical abilities.

Was there anyone you can cite as a creative hero or aspiring figure?

Of course I can name some people who I find highly inspiring, but it's hard to pick only one, there's many wise people to listen to. I find it more captivating to get inspired by people outside my profession. Paul Smith and his attitude and approach to design in fashion and beyond has been that inspiration for me for a few years. I find Smiths’s philosophy close to my personal habits and rules that came naturally to me and I’ve always been fascinated by how he applies a similar sort of thinking to his work and above all, how much of a positive person he is. I would also quote the "Think different" slogan from Apple and I don't have to mention who stood behind the bigger idea there.

After a few years at Ars Thanea, you’re now freelancing again. What are the main challenges from going at it alone? 

The important thing, at least for the procrastinator that I am for a lot of time, is managing the day time wisely, because you’re there alone and have to do an array of things altogether, that normally couple of different people do at a company.I often observe fellow designers leaving bigger or smaller companies to start something on their own and it always goes along with their increased online/social activity and I always smile friendly, when seeing that sort of awakening. Getting out of the comfort of full time employment means a constant work to get out there, to show and to stay fresh, especially when you rely on promoting yourself online in the cool-oriented times like we have now. Looking at my friends I can say that depending on their personal nature and mindset, there are some people who would never go on freelance as well as there are ones who would never work for a company. Well, you have to work out what's best for you, because whether you are a team player or a one-person machine, at the end of the day it’s your little private business that you have to take care of.

Does living and working from Warsaw have any limitations or drawbacks?

It sure has, every place has some limitations of different kinds. Warsaw probably won’t offer the possibilities of going as big as for instance New York or Silicon Valley, but it also doesn't have the downsides of those two places that are often very costly to live in and that are quite exhausting ones on a long-term due to the workaholism that places like NY stimulate or force. The typical Polish mentality, unlike of many european nations where you’d rather stay in line and buy the same car as your neighbour, is being more competitive and is more about showing that you can do more. I guess with that sort of less social attitude, can also be a positive thing when it comes to being one of many (designers) out there. There are definitely things that I like about working from this latitude, between the East and the West. In the recent years, my major clients were coming mostly from USA and I quite like that I’m about 6 hours ahead of the clients I work for. That’s a nice time advantage that makes it easier to wrap everything up for their morning, when the delivery usually takes place, but sometimes it means staying up late to synchronise. The bio saying "New York based" could make a difference and it would probably still be easier to be there if you want to focus on a particular market, and that's what I still want to do at some point, but we should really get used to the global nature of doing business nowadays and your location should play a secondary role in it.
Pawel Nolbert ColourspacesPawel Nolbert Colourspaces

In your career, if you could do anything differently, what would it be? 

As sad as it may sound, I would spend less time with Photoshop and more time writing and replying to emails, and reading contracts.

What’s one golden rule that you apply everyday?

There’s no particular rule that itself makes my work better, there’s no magic in it… just hard work. It’s always several aspects that have to play together to make for a good work. Whatever the other rules might be, there might be no work done if you lose something because you didn't save and backed up your files regularly, a thing worth reminding.

You’re known for being very meticulous with every detail of your work. Do you see this as an asset?

Yes and no. The attention to details is very important, that's what make great work stand out from average stuff, even with minimalistic style which doesn’t mean that there’s no detail. I keep telling myself that 95% of the people looking at it wouldn’t even see the difference in the piece with or without the polished details, but I guess that after all, the extra effort somehow pays off and it goes back to you. If you play with the picture for more time than what is needed for a decent result, and check a few different variations and approaches, I believe that with some experience you should subconsciously pick the right one and improve it, and that people who not necessarily know about design or art would look at it and, even subconsciously, know that there’s something more there, that it’s better.

Having known you from 2006, I can see that you only showcase a small fraction of your work on your folio website. What type of commissions do you wish to attract? 

Oh well I've done so much stuff from that time, remember that collab piece that we made together back in the day? I am very often sceptical when it comes to my own work, it always evolves in a more or less fluid way and I always try to find a better and different way of doing something than what I've done before. I would always love to work with clients who want to get something fresh and who trust my imagination, who expect me to surprise them with something new. There's, without a doubt, a lot of good things in getting commissioned strictly for your style or technique, and that's what I do to some extent - and it’s good, but I would rather get commissioned for original than derivative work.  I'm not a big fan of the whole thing with showing lots of visual references to your client, especially when based on others work, on something that has been (probably extensively) done before. As much as it helps to understand and push some ideas, and I also do it at some points, I would prefer to explain my own ideas without using someone else's work. That's why where there's money involved it is hard to take a little risk of creating something other than what has been overdone by everyone, but proven to work. Of course it’s not what every client needs, and I guess we need both types of clients after all.
Pawel Nolbert ColourspacesPawel Nolbert Colourspaces

Now there’s 4 million Behance users and counting, what’s your opinion on mass self-promotion?

It’s always good to diversify your channels of promotion. Behance is one of those services I've been a part of since the very beginning and it has worked well for me since then. It definitely works great for getting clients. There’s something that we can observe though, a "Behance" style of promotion and presentation, a certain style of promoting your work there in a way that I feel values the project's presentation over the work itself (often mediocre work). You have to be able to sell your work effectively, but with all the promotion, I believe the good work will also speak for itself too and you have to focus on it in the first place. I don't put a lot of effort in promoting my work in a direct way, I very rarely send newsletters, to a very limited list of recipients, I don’t basically send out press releases or do much like that to my target audience, yet for example like with my Atypical project or with Sneakercube, it spreads itself extensively, from tweet to tweet, from blog to blog, from magazine to magazine, however that way of promotion can only get you certain type of audience, and is not very targeted I believe, but I like the fact that the project lives its own life in social media and that can grow to a really unpredictable sizes.

Your trips and travels are always well documented on social media, mainly Instagram. Do you have specific places that you wish to photograph or just go with the flow?

I wouldn’t say it’s well documented, because I publish only a tiny part of what I shoot during my trips and keep most of the typical travel photos for myself and the close ones. My travel photos could be much more “standard”, but I often choose to Instagram the weird parts of the places I visit, that feed my personal interests, but don't necessarily tell much about the place in a journalist way, which way it was not meant to be. When it comes to visiting different places, I’m very much drawn to the American landscape, cities and culture. During my visits in the States I did some couple-week-long road trips across the country, mostly around the coast states and every time I just want to get back for more because there’s still so much to see in the other states. In many places I try to photograph the characteristic of the place, but mostly the small crop of it and seen from another perspective and with my own twist and, let's say, my style. Aside from the list of places that I plan to go to, I still love to get lost and pick a random detour to see the unknown.

Has Instagram played any business benefits to your career?

Yes, for sure. It’s a good place to promote your graphic work too, which by the way I was not a big fan of doing at the beginning, but I changed my mind and I started to publish my artworks there from time to time. I’ve been featured by Instagram twice, for my mobile photography, that includes an interview that I did for them. Those and some other features, and hopefully the photography itself drawn a lot of audience to my account and it was built mostly around my mobile photography before I started publishing my graphic work there. I actually learned to take pictures through using Instagram and it has changed the way I think of photography. It has also impacted my thinking of composition, post processing and ingenuity in photography and by that, also in design. It's a kind of a very short-lifespan content but it gets through easily, like a twitter of images. And it's simply suitable to put your graphic content on a service that exists strictly for sharing pictures.

We live in times of 24 hour news culture. Where do you see the immediate future of new / blog content? 

Blogs come and go, there are new blogs being put up every day just for a 5-minute fame, that after another 5 minutes nobody remembers, projects like “hipster logotypes” tumblrs and a whole lot of “what it would look like if” kind of projects. etc. I guess that pushes people to focus more on "quantity over quality” approach, to just show anything, and it looks rushed. I remember the designer blogs, portals and forums from a few years back and even remember some posts and links that impressed me a lot. I can't really tell this now about the content that streams perpetually at a staggering rate, even if there are some great blogs out there that arguably show some outstanding work, it’s still the sea of links that’s hard to absorb and memorise. That type of flashy content doesn't create a real value that remains there. Where I see it going is it being more and more focused on the moment and emotions, and I would like it to be more memorable, solid and less fragmented, but that's also highly dependent on how you curate your content. 
Pawel Nolbert ColourspacesPawel Nolbert Colourspaces

Your project Atypical has caused waves around the world, did you expect so much interest? 

Yes it was (and still is) quite big on the internet blogs and design sites and social media. After having done some concept work for the project and especially after first tests with paint, I knew that it’s gonna be on fire. For a long time prior making the Atypical series, I tried to get back to doing more typography and I thought that the mix of the type and paint with some quirky look would work well, and it did. There's more about typography than just a graphic, there’s much human aspect to it than to more general type of design. People love typography, words, letters etc. and it’s a very rewarding type of work I think. Atypical is not a closed project and I’ve just updated it with a couple new letters.

Where did the idea for Atypical come from? How long did it take to conceive from start to finish?

That one went pretty quick on an idea layer, but took a lot of time, few months, to complete. Even if I don’t use 3D software much or almost at all, there’s a lot of three-dimensionality factor in my work and I thought I would bring that treatment to a type and also by the expressive use of thick, textural paint. In fact I had that idea of an abstract, dimensional paint strokes quite a good few years ago but, like with a lot of my other projects, it sometimes takes ages to just get it done.

How important is to mix non-digital process methods into any digital work? 

I don’t consider that as a thing of crucial importance. There are some techniques and media that one prefer or enjoy more over another, but in the end it’s about picking the best assets to achieving a desired solution. It has been more and more popular to give the digital imagery the non-digital, Instagram look and by the popularity of that analog style, clients also demand more of those qualities, just like with any other style that happen to be on top.

Unlike you, many people don't put a lot of emphasis into message in their work. How do you plan new work? 

As much as it’s important to express something through your work, I don’t put a lot of message in my work, in terms of the base idea. It’s not easy to do that without over-intellectualising it, when you also have the goal for it to bring the potential commercial commissions, and it’s easy to go too political or moralizing with your message and I don’t want too much of that in my work. With my work, it has often been unclear to people what it is - a photograph, a 3D render or illustration? I quite liked that sort of thing that made people wonder, but if you are putting yourself in a potential client’s mind who wants to hire you for a specific job, you know that this kind of ambiguity might not be good at all. Now, as I still mix the different media in a more or less seamless way, I think that it’s important for people to be able to distinct the technique from it.
Pawel Nolbert ColourspacesPawel Nolbert Colourspaces

You’ve recently created a tribute to a triptych of Francis Bacon paintings. Who came up with the idea and how did you produce the project? 

Originally the idea came during the meet with my friend Lukasz Murgrabia who is a photographer and who I've collaborated with on several projects in the past. We met to discuss the possible ideas for a non-commercial project and we got out with a Francis Bacon remake, as he had just got back from Australia, where he got inspired at Bacon’s work at the exhibition. There were many pieces from Bacon that I liked more, but we decided to start with the “1972 triptych” as a good piece to experiment with and for conveniency of a photoshoot, as it features the same model but in three different poses. We shot a lot of different materials, including the liquid and I also had a huge library of my paint assets.

From your folio, do you have a piece that you’re most proud of? 

From what I show on my websites, It’s easy to say that it’s the “Atypical” project. It has opened a new chapter in my body of work and it has also opened lots of new possibilities to explore that area, as well as new client opportunities. Right now my rendezvous with paint is a very exciting one and it's gonna be here for a while. It was like that with my “Sneakercube” project back in the day and now it is going on with Atypical. I like the periodical nature of my projects as part of a continuous evolution. 
Pawel Nolbert Colourspaces


Interview by Radim Malinic
Images by Pawel Nolbert


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