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Drawing the Line Between Serious and Silly: The Playful Design of Philippus Johan Schutte

The result of an indecisive high school curriculum and a love for words, colour, and finding humour in the everyday, Philippus Johan Schutte’s career includes an assortment of creative skillsets.

Whether it’s his photography, design, or events planning, Philippus makes use of playful colour palettes and tongue in cheek humour to underpin strong conceptual work for various brand identities, personal projects, and event posters amongst other things.

True to his nature, the Cape Town based designer provided us with a rather fun interview about his work, his graduate portfolio, some great music to listen to, and a project he worked on to help a friend traverse Central Africa in a less conspicuous way.

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When did you first know you wanted to pursue a creative path?

Okay, so when I was in standard 7 (grade 9) in high school, about to enter standard 8 — when we had to choose subjects for the first time — I remember having very little clue about what my interests were, or rather, in which subjects I would develop any interests. With this impending life decision in front of me, I was caught with my pants down, and reacted accordingly: quickly, irresponsibly I picked a handful of unrelated subjects. Some of them were at the recommendation of my parents (who I will never forgive for suggesting “Business Studies”) and some were just shots in the dark, pure guesswork. One of these stray bullets hit Art, because, other than language, I liked the idea of art, even though I could not draw for shit at the time, and I still don’t think I can draw for shit today. I wasn’t exactly an “A” student, and in Matric, my English teacher suggested I pursue copywriting because I have “an interesting way with words” whereas my Art teacher suggested Graphic Design, because I liked using “interesting colours”. It was their combined suggestion, quite unromantically, that pushed me into this direction. I’m still not quite sure what that direction is but I’m enjoying it.

A lot of your work contains humorous, tongue in cheek elements, but you’ll undoubtedly come across a few projects that are a bit more serious. How do you balance those two sides of your work?

Most of my ideas start off in the form of jokes and witticisms in response to something supposedly serious (or vice versa) and then I play the two against each other. There’s usually a meeting point, a mutually agreed upon neutral space between the serious and the silly, and once I find that space, I lean it towards whichever side I feel is more contextually relevant. Like, having to dress Smart Casual for an event isn’t the same for everyone; some lean towards smart, some lean towards casual. But overall I think context is important, and I wrestle with that context as much as I can in hopes to subvert it. But if I’m met with absolute resistance, I generally settle on doing something a bit more serious or straightforward, and it’s almost always for great reasons that I shouldn’t be allowed to play it otherwise.

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Do you think it’s important to poke fun at yourself in the creative industry?

A part of me wants to say yes, but really, don’t force it if it’s not organic. If you’re a serious creative, you’re a serious creative, and that’s okay.

Your graduate portfolio for Red & Yellow is great. How much of that style and original aesthetic has stayed with you in your design?

Well, I try to treat whatever I present my work in as an actual work itself. I recall my portfolio not being well-received by our year’s external moderator — I think it received a 60% mark because, according to him, a portfolio is meant to clearly showcase a body of work only — but it was very well-received by my fellow students and teachers, somewhat in a way that seemingly payed testament to how I think rather than purely what I produced. I was adamant that the book itself was essential to not only the work, but the narrative around it. I think the same can be said for my new website, which my good friend Raphael Segerman developed (he did a fantastic job of sticking to my weird UX ideas). I’d like to think it also retains that sense of an ongoing narrative, but if it doesn’t, I hope people think it’s a Greek pizza franchise that went under and came back, against all logic, as a design studio, or something. I hope people would want to see how a company like that grows over time (I would).

How would you describe your style now?

Smart Casual.

Where do your ideas come from? Can we get a bit of a sneak peek into your process as a designer?

I read a lot and subsequently write quite a bit. I don’t really write long stories or anything, just descriptions of an idea, often in a very open-ended way. Everything has a tiny narrative. My photos do too. I won’t draw something until I’m quite sure I want to exert that kind of energy into the world. I check up on new websites first thing in the morning, because I’ve grown to find wacky design narratives in web design very satisfying. As for process, I think I follow a similar trajectory to that of the young emerging artist (and old friend) Mitchell Gilbert Messina, where I would try something, take a photo of it, send it to a friend with the caption “IS THIS DOING ANYTHING??!!” and decide that the friend is taking so long to respond because whatever I made is awful, and needs work. By the time the friend gets back to me I send them the finished product I’ve completed in the interim (“It’s cool I figured it out! Thanks though!”) and if it still needs work (assuming I’m still open to advice at that point) we spitball until it’s great. Other times, as with all creatives, I just stare into empty space and the ideas come to me.

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Your African Lake’s project seemed like a lot of fun. What’s the story there?

I was having a conversation with Adam Whiteman a few months ago about his trip into Central Africa that he was then still preparing for. He had read somewhere on a forum that in order to seem less conspicuous in a big overland vehicle, one needs to disguise the car in some loud branding — you need an official vehicle of sorts. I told him that day that I’d love to work on it for him, to which he agreed. 4 months later, with both of us having completely forgotten about it, I found the note I made to myself about it on my phone. I asked Adam if he was still interested. He was, and following a 3-day streak of intensive logo design, Mitchell Messina and I created African Lakes Tourism, a research company with a fleet of branded vehicles (sic), business cards, letterheads, Instagram account and purposefully “okay” website. Just like the real deal. Ironically enough, this research company didn’t do enough research, and in the first few weeks of his trip Adam realised a permit is needed to operate as a tourism company in Tanzania, and “Tourism” quickly fell away to just “Tour”. I wouldn’t be surprised if he came back with all that’s left on the car being “Africa”.

You can follow his shenanigans here.

You’re also a photographer, DJ, and writer. Do all of these areas inform one another or do you like to keep them separate?

Each has its own individual execution and approach, but I think design ties them all together. For example, part of me has always wanted to pursue a career as a photojournalist (perhaps more so than as a designer) and as such I have a specific approach to it, generally one of reportage, because I like documenting more than creating in that sense. But where I put it (such as with my tumblr) is pulled back into the narrative I was talking about earlier, so that it forms part of a larger image. I think that the design pull is what makes me feel comfortable with doing so many things in the end, because it keeps everything familiar to me, makes me feel like I’m doing it and not replicating someone else’s work.

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You’re involved a lot with the local music scene. What do you listen to when you’re working?

If I had to press play on my iTunes library right now, it would only stop playing in 70 days time. I have one band I fall back on a lot: I remember hearing “We Tigers” by Animal Collective for the first time when I was 16, and thinking it must have been what creativity sounds like. Up until that point, everything had been either good music or bad music, but this band forced me to look at things beyond traditional conventions. I was under the impression that you’d have to leave certain childlike ideals behind as you grow older; this impression has since evaporated. They remind me that there’s always space for something loud when it’s quiet, or something quiet when it’s loud. The trick is learning where (and when) to put it.

Wanky musings aside, my current rotation features Here We Go Magic’s new “Be Small” album, these two producers called Fouk (check out the “Heavy on The Bacon” EP) along with good ol’ Floating Points singles and my Battles mash-up playlist, in which I have created the perfect Battles album, called “Bbattless”

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You co- founded an events company, ‘The Other’. What’s that all about?

Matt Hichens, Aaron Peters and myself — all three of us DJs with a serious passion for silliness — formed The Other in 2013, and have since played host to numerous launches and parties, including the SWIM parties. The name came from our own inability to word the kind of events we’re interested in, besides being an alternative to what’s already happening. So we became The Other, followed by a blank space. It’s an enabling vehicle for our musical passions, be that in the form of DJing, events management or content creation.

You also mentioned something about a design studio that you’ll “never get around to making a reality”. Tell us more?

Mitchell and I sometimes come up with ideas that don’t fit well with either of our usual practices, such as the African Lakes Project. It’s a space for experimentation and an excuse to hang out and we call it No Buddies, because nobody’s allowed. We’re meant to be working on a series of prints together right now and an offshoot video from Mitchell’s RAMP project at Stevenson, but instead of that we’re doing a project for Max Bagels where we draw on their takeaway cups for three months, which we’ll document before they start using them. It’s for a design competition that we won, where we had to submit one design to Max Bagels, but instead of that we submitted a page suggesting several designs, and it became an ongoing thing.

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Your online portfolio features a wide range of work for a number of diverse companies and projects. What have been some of your favourite projects to work on?

The interior photography and website design for Anien Bell, the RAMP project with Mitchell, Sideways because I still like the branding and it was my first app design, and all the musically involved projects.

Any tips for aspiring designers looking to head into the industry?

I don’t know if I’m the best person to ask this. These are things that work for me:

I often use similes and metaphors to make sense of things for myself and others. I think this helps. Be easy to work with. Communicate openly and helpfully. Make sure you understand what people are talking about (this is important — you’ll end up doing twice as much work with clients who aren’t sure what they want you to do, and it’s easier to avoid that by hard-pressing them for information and content then having to backpedal from a heart crushing “It’s not exactly what we had in mind…”). Grow thicker skin. Engage with as many technologies as you can (I use a Windows Phone and a Macbook — they’re not good friends, but I better understand the shortcomings of both than if I only ever engaged with one of the two operating systems). Remember that people’s problems are not always the same as yours, and you must be sensitive to that, and just because you in your right (or wrong) mind would do something one way, doesn’t somebody else would too. Beware of design about design — it doesn’t say much. Light self-deprecation is an effective way to be humble.

Check out Philippus’ online portfolio here, view his photography here, and keep up to date with The Other here

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