Lucienne Roberts x Satoshi Isono
Blurring the boundaries between two-dimensional and three-dimensional design
Our long-time collaborator Lucienne Roberts discusses her partnership with the studio with Satoshi Isono, Creative Director at Universal
"When you really know how someone works then collaboration becomes more fluid and intuitive, it's less formal. There's a naturalness to it that I really like and that I look for in other projects." —Satoshi Isono
Satoshi Isono (SI): Lucie and I have been working together for a long time, since 2012, so going on a decade now. I think these long-standing relation-ships are really important when looking at collaborating, especially on cultural projects.
Lucienne Roberts (LR): Absolutely, good collaboration is often about that personal connection. We worked with Satoshi before he was at Universal and so he kind of brought us with him into his new role there. It was very much the result of our having a strong mutual trust already.
SI: I think when you really know how someone works then collaboration becomes more fluid and intuitive, it’s less formal. There’s a naturalness to it that I really like and that I look for in other collaborative projects.
LR: Yes, it means we can break out of the often quite hierarchical conventions of the design world – architectural or 3D design and graphics are often ranked according to misunderstandings about value and importance. This isn’t useful or even accurate. There’s none of that in the way we work with Satoshi. He has a humbleness about him, there’s none of that top-down stuff.
SI: I think we both find those separations between 2D design and 3D design slightly strange and try not to make those distinctions in our projects, so that works well – especially in a cultural project, where really the most important thing is helping people connect with the subject in whatever way they can.
LR: The Wonder Materials graphene show at the Science and Industry Museum, Manchester, was a good example of this process in action. It came about because my studio had worked with the Manchester team before, so they invited us to pitch for the show. We knew immediately that Satoshi and Universal would be ideal partners, so started collaborating from the pitch stage, which was excellent. The brief was also incredibly open; the museum had commissioned Danielle Olsen as external curator and she came with some exciting ideas. She wanted the narrative to be organised around time – the past, present and future – but, as graphene is effectively a ‘new’ material, how we depicted current research and the future possibilities was still to be defined – that offered us a lot of freedom.
SI: It was the ideal process in a way, because we came in with fresh eyes to this exciting material that still has so many unknown applications, and we were able to just really delve deep into the research ourselves. It was very exciting, because we were learning so much in the process.
LR: We often start exhibition projects knowing very little about the show’s subject, but keen to learn, which helps us to imagine the experience from the visitor’s perspective. Then via the research process we develop an expertise of sorts. This is hugely enjoyable, but can be dangerous as you risk losing that initial position of naivety. It’s really important that we continue to identify with visitors as this is key in helping to get the message across simply. So, we try to wear any expertise of ours lightly.
SI: This is why design is so important in communicating cultural projects: it’s not just giving them form but it defines their whole accessibility. So we spend a lot of time talking to multiple users and making sure we’ve considered every perspective possible to find the best solution, which can often look deceptively simple in the end.
"We often start exhibition projects knowing very little about the show’s subject, but keen to learn, which helps us to imagine the experience from the visitor’s perspective. Then via the research process we develop an expertise of sorts. This is hugely enjoyable, but can be dangerous as you risk losing that initial position of naivety. It’s really important that we continue to identify with visitors as this is key in helping to get the message across simply. So, we try to wear any expertise of ours lightly."—Lucienne Roberts
LR: Telling the story of graphene was a complex process. We wanted to reflect the diversity of research and possible futures, and worked with multiple stakeholders and other creatives to make this happen. I was sorting through various files the other day and came across our research documents and the many iterations of the design. The final design is so beautifully simple, moving from those amazing grey boulder-like structures at the entrance to the white minimal forms in the ‘lab’ and the colourful Future Wall. But it takes a lot of work to reach a solution that is this simple.
SI: That’s why it’s important to spend as much time as possible on the early stage of a cultural project. The problem is that these shows are temporary and often the timeframes are quite compressed, plus you have to balance many different needs and stakeholders – so you just have to do your best to meet those needs. I think what makes our collaborations with Lucie and her team so successful, though, is that we’re both so passionate about the subject that we’re exploring, and both want to find a totally honest way for people to access that subject. I think that honesty and passion comes across in the final designs and the visitor experience.
LR: Absolutely. I think our collaboration on the Wellcome Collection exhibition Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? really demonstrated this too. It came out of an ongoing project I run with my friend and colleague Rebecca [Wright] called GraphicDesign&. Our projects always demonstrate how graphic design is connected to other subjects and industries. My studio has experience producing graphics related to healthcare; we’ve also had Wellcome as a long-standing client, so it seemed like a natural fit to do an exhibition with them focusing on the essential role of graphics in this field. Looking back this is probably one of the projects that I am most proud of, content- and design-wise. It felt very personal. Universal’s sensibilities around materials and form made them the best of partners.
SI: I think this exhibition perfectly demonstrates what we were talking about with 3D and 2D design not being useful categories or hierarchies. Jointly we created an open space populated by large-scale graphic symbols in 3D that people could walk through; it broke down the boundaries between design disciplines. The 3D and 2D were totally integrated. And having this open space felt completely right for this subject, we wanted people to find their own journey and connection points. Whereas with graphene, we were telling the story of past, present and future, so we developed a much more linear journey through the show.
LR: Near the end of the design process on Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?, Satoshi suggested painting the columns in the space bright red. It was a stroke of brilliance – literally and metaphorically! They punctuated the space while connecting visually with the first exhibits in the show: the Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Crystal that hung on giant flags from the ceiling. The columns became graphic elements, intensifying the experience, similar to how graphic design shapes our physical experience of the world. There’s a lot of trust involved when working in the way we do. Satoshi and I have worked together for so many years now and, I think, feel a great deal of mutual respect. This makes collaboration quite free. We’re not scared of trying new ideas and, most importantly, we are united in wanting to support audience engagement. That’s what we believe we are there to do.
"Design is so important in communicating cultural projects: it’s not just giving them form but it defines their whole accessibility."—Satoshi Isono