Interview with Stephanie Specht
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a graphic designer from Antwerp (Belgium). After graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 2004 (Graphic Design), I started freelancing with a focus on brand identity, illustration and book designs. Having lived and worked in many different places (Cape Town, Brussels, Princeton, New York, Antwerp), every single one of these experiences shaped me as a creative person. As an independent, I mainly work with smaller businesses and individuals. An inner compass shows the directions to go. Like it did when I started to work as an independent. I didn’t grow up in a family full of entrepreneurs. Working as an independent has never been something I actually longed for. But it did become my path. The freedom that comes with it, is worth a lot to me and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.
What initially inspired you to pursue a career in graphic design?
Back in the days, I would have answered ‘architect’ when someone asked me “what would you like to become when you’re older?” But I’ve never been good at maths. I finally ended up doing graphic design but I actually got my inspiration from non graphic-design sources like for example arts and architecture. The sightseeing of buildings, lectures and books about architecture always have been unfailing sources of inspiration for my work when it comes to spaces, shapes and surfaces. Ever since I was young, I had an incredible fascination for letters and, yes, letters on buildings. Especially buildings dating from the ’40s. Earlier, architects used to put their names – or signature – on buildings. Often at eye height but apparently, people hardly notice it. So maybe not being able to become an architect made me a graphic designer? Haha!
How would you describe your creative process?
I want to make things stronger. Better. Better in a sense of ‘what’s the essence’? During all these years I am still looking to purify everything, even in my work. I like looking at architecture. I try to take small architecture trips. One does not need to go far to do this – just riding my bike through the city is inspiring. I mainly have architecture books at home – it inspires me more than books about what I actually do. When I look at a building that I find interesting my brain does this thing where it exports the shape into single lines and shapes. The building or house suddenly becomes a layout. Besides architecture, music is also really important to me – I listen to a lot of different kind of music styles. There are some jobs where you need to be in a certain mood, and music can really enhance this.
How much does your city and surroundings affect your creative output?
Antwerp is a very convenient place to live and work in. Everything is nearby. I use my bike all the time. And because of that, I feel healthy. I am aware that I never lose time sitting in a car in traffic. So the aspect of time-saving and being able to move around quickly is good. There is not so much distraction, so I feel I can focus really well here. When I lived in New York, this was a huge problem. If I had to go back home from a client, I would always stop somewhere to discover something and then I would get back home too late, losing time, …At the same time, I am older now and maybe become more resistant to distraction. If I want to get inspired or discover stuff, I take a day off work, and roam around the city, allowing myself to be distracted.
What do you struggle with the most in terms of working and living in a city like Antwerp?
The lack of green in the city. There are very little places where you can go and enjoy nature. Every single ‘empty’ spot is being poured over with concrete and our main park in the city is really small. I can’t call it a park. It’s sad. The city is working on a new park in the South but again I don’t think it will be a ‘real’ park. It will probably just be loads of grass spaces and few trees, nothing adventurous. Whenever I am in New York or Paris or even Brussels I am so amazed by the amount of green patches one can find everywhere.
The responsibility of the council in every city is to provide a solid foundation of design, art and cultural facilities, is that evident in Antwerp?
Sometimes I think it is, sometimes I think not. Hard to say. I am not so much involved in politics and don’t know about current plans or situation. But I think it can be better.
Do you think it is also the responsibility of the artist/creative to improve the quality of people's lives in their city?
Yes, for sure! We can create awareness about anything, we are able to communicate with visuals on paper: therefore inform people on another level aside from television or radio. Even though I am not fond of the identity style of Antwerp, it does create a certain unity and belonging and maybe even a safe feeling for some people.
Can you tell us about any current or future projects that you are particularly excited about?
I just started teaching Typography in the first bachelor year in the school where I once graduated, one day a week and this is something completely new for me. I really enjoy seeing the students evolve and love creating new assignments for them. I also learn a lot myself while doing this job.
If you could add or change something about Antwerp, what would that be
The air quality and more green, more parks and a bridge over the river.
Describe the perfect day for you in Antwerp.
Any day where I don’t experience stress (from within or from another person) is perfect for me!
If you could choose any artist/creative to collaborate with, who would that be and why?
Devendra Banhart. When I saw his latest music video ’taking a page’ I felt so happy and wished I could design an album cover for him. His music is so pure, playful and serious at the same time, it inspires me.
I think BEA1991 is also someone I would want to collaborate with. She is just all-round so interesting! She seems to be able to re-invent herself often, a quality I much appreciate!
What do you do to switch off ?
Surround myself with nature, listen to or create certain frequency healing sounds or meditate.
What Does Home Mean to You?
Home can be anywhere. Home is where I am with the people I love or even just being alone. Before 2013, I was moving around a lot, and that has taught me to be ‘home’ in my own body. I worked from ‘home’ wherever that location was. After 2013, when I moved back to Antwerp, I had a separate workspace, for one year – but soon found myself missing working from home. I used to work from home in my early 20’s. The routine of going back and forth to the studio was killing me in the end – I dislike routine, quite frankly. Traffic stressed me out. I found myself longing for the freedom I had in my own living space. But I think it’s also related to the fact that my home is in the middle of the city and the studio was outside of the city. Maybe it should have been the other way around? Since I already work alone, I often have the need to see people during the day, and being able to just walk outside and be sociable. This was not happening in that one space. But I am grateful for the experience. Lately, I miss nature more than ever (since Antwerp is not exactly a green city), so now I am dreaming of a house surrounded by nature with a studio attached. Of course the sociable aspect will be gone then but luckily this year I started teaching typography at the Royal Academie for Fine Arts, one day a week, and that gives me a good balance now in my social life.
Sometimes people relate a specific smell to the city they live in or the place they grew up, does Antwerp evoke a personal smell to you?
Not really… I love my city but I am also aware of the large number of cars that are present here and they do bring a bad smell often.
If you weren’t living in Antwerp and could choose any city to live in where would that be, and why?
For a long time I always answered New York, but after having lived there and then returning back I feel that I have outgrown the place. I don’t want that tempo anymore for a long term commitment. So I think I would say Los Angeles. Slower pace, more green surroundings, close to the ocean and mountains.
antwerp by STEPHANIE SPECHT
A selection of places in Antwerp - recommended by graphic designer Stephanie Specht. See all of Stephanie's favourite places here