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Joseph Hughes

We Own Rotterdam interviews graphic designer & WDKA teacher Joseph Hughes.






Tell us a little bit about yourself and what excites you about your work?

So, I’m London born but a living and working Rotterdammer since 2011. I mostly work on commission projects as a graphic designer and occasionally work on non-commission, or self-initiated projects, which are usually not graphic design. Besides that, I coordinate and teach at the Willem de Kooning Academy (WDKA) in the Drawing Station since 2016. I guess what excites me about my work is learning and problem solving. For me its mental gymnastics.




Light reflections of the identity, as seen within Roodkpaje’s restaurant Burgertrut 




WOR: And you also work with Roodkapje? 

Of course, so Roodkapje is one of my cultural clients, who like everywhere else have now closed their doors. I began in 2018 doing a whole redesign of their house style for Burgertrut, but also for Roodkapje who were going through some changes at that time.




Roodkapje’s doors closed, entrance identity signage, with intern Finn Emmen




It was one of the first places I visited when I moved here in 2011. So, it was quite a compliment for them to ask me. They really support creatives in Rotterdam – they’re one of the only grass roots creative businesses with a strong community that really support people with their ideas and give them guidance. And, of course, they have a lovely vegan and vegetarian burger café – that mix of food and art is what makes it for me. You know, if you’ve got to feed yourself, you have to feed yourself with the right sustenance. That goes for good food but also visually.




What originally made you want to become a graphic designer and who inspires you? 

Ah, this is a difficult question, I find it hard to give a straight forward answer… When I began art school, I wanted to be a fine art painter. Really, that was my focus. Whilst studying I was asked by one of my tutors – when I was 20 at the time and incredibly stubborn – he said, “have you thought about graphic design?” and I said “nope. I’m a fine art painter.” It wasn’t until a few years of failed applications and working in dead-end jobs whilst in the mean time I was creating art work for my friends’ bands and their gigs, when somebody told me that was graphic design. I didn’t really have a clue. I never really set out to be a graphic designer, it is something I do alongside a lot of other things, but it is the main thing, which I think stems from a love of communication. 


For me there’s such a saturation of visual content, I dip into things, but I don’t need to have a feed of them. Of course, there are some great designers that I could mention who inspire me. But what inspires me is people, working with different people from one day to the next, or with challenging objectives or materials. 


I remember when I was 11 or so my dad told me the story about the Tower of Babel – where a tower is built, and God punishes the people for building a tower towards heaven by making everybody speak a different language to stop their grand gesture. This ideal of universal communication, aspiration and prosperity for me at the age of 11 was mind blowing. When I moved here in 2011 I visited the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen for the first time, I remember I turned a corner and saw the painting in front of me, which before I’d only seen in books and on screen. That was a whammy moment. I thought: “what coincidence that it’s here.” I always imagined it as this vast world and then you see the scale of it – that was a big thing, how small it was. But it made me feel like I was in the right place.


Again, with the architecture, public art, infrastructure and craftsmanship in Rotterdam – cycling around the city you feel like you’re in a museum. The art works on the street are something quite special, you can walk down the street and you’re in front of a Picasso  and then you’re next to a Franz West that you can sit on. It’s insane. For me that’s inspiring, the combination of things you find here, but also the scale, both small with a big feeling. 




“Sounds that are especially helping me…”


Agnes Obel – Late night Tales : https://www.npr.org/sections/allsongs/2018/05/21/612357081/agnes-obel-explains-her-late-night-tales-track-by-track?t=1586427189944&t=1586504566524


David Lang – Just : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTGtgvMQFm8


Foshe & Horatio Luna – Nice To Meetcha : https://foshe.bandcamp.com/


Tony Scott – Music For Zen Meditation : https://vimeo.com/74570593



How have the sanctions currently in place affected your day-to-day life and how are you working around the restrictions?

They’re not as strict as what I’m catching up on BBC Radio 4 back in Great Britain. I do think the social distancing is working, yet it’s extremely awkward. I’ m going out once a day, if that, and of course I’m a lucky one in the sense that I still have a job. Freelancers are in a completely different position. I have the benefit of having my studio at home, so that hasn’t changed much. The Willem de Kooning Acadamie is also closed, and everything has shifted online. That’s a lot of work to translate and effectively communicate and inspire through these mediums. I don’t have children at home and I have a big enough apartment. So, I’m fortunate, I really am, but I can imagine for a lot of people it’s challenging to say the least. 




Roodkapje website, mobile view – Fragile (as you hold your phone landscape) designed by Joseph Hughes, developed by Rop van de Laar.




Are there any initiatives running to connect the artistic community in Rotterdam that you’re taking part in – like online museum guides, or courses?

Of course I’m affiliated with producing the graphic work for Roodkapje and they did just launched (which has been cut short of course) the Hamburger Community of Live, which is specifically for programmers. It’s uncertain at this moment how that’s going to continue. But to be honest I’m wrapped up in work and also for the Academy, so I’m not taking part in anything outside of that. 


I do see a surge of institutions shifting to online now. But there’s already a huge saturation of content, online courses, talks, seminars, videos etc… Which makes it difficult for me to have the same relation to this content without the physical environment/ opening/ exhibition as I had before. I guess we’re all adjusting but it feels more like a collective community without proximity. 




Are you finding new inspirations for your work as a result of these uncertain times?

I hope I’m not alone with this, but I think what we’ve been blessed with now is the huge amount of time. Maybe not if you’ve got children, but there’s a great deal of time for introspection and inspection of the immediate. 


For me, it’s made me connect a lot more with people and talk about projects. There’s no barrier now and there’s time to organise it as well. But I’ve seen a lot of creative capitalism around Coronavirus – like jewellery and the like… Contrasting this there’s also been a huge demand for Corona graphic design like shop signage, spacing markers, directional aids, simple way finding systems. Most of which aren’t created by graphic designers. There made by shop owners out of necessity. This is my kind of inspiration.  




What’s the best piece of advice you can offer to creatives, or your students, who may be struggling to produce?

WDKA graduating / students have a meme Instagram account:

https://www.instagram.com/wdkamemes/ + https://www.instagram.com/wdka.graduation.memes/


I take this as a source of general feeling. It gives you a really good insight into what they’re facing, how they think, if people are feeling the same. They’re facing a hugely challenging time , I think there’s a lot of pressure – they don’t have a community anymore and they don’t have the facilities so readily available, so that’s a big issue.



WdKA Meme account – post on Corona.




I think anybody who is expecting to produce their best work in these times should just lower their expectations. Often when I’m stuck I will go and do something completely different and the answer usually works itself out. So we just had the super pink moon, if your pointing at the moon for somebody to look at, then they’re looking at your finger and not at the moon. So, if you’re focusing on the answer or solution, it’s not going to come. Often nothing good comes from something that’s forced. When I’m doing the washing up, cooking or making bread – it’s these automatic procedures that we do that gives us the answers we’re stuck with. It comes when it comes – like buses in London; when you’re waiting for one it won’t come for ages but then two will come along at once.




How can the Rotterdam community help to support creatives now and in the future?

Well, the community in Rotterdam is completely different to any other city I’ve experienced. I think it supports people well. But, the concept ‘community’ is hard to think about when it’s not a physical mass of face to face interaction – I think for now how it can support the collective (and it’s an obvious one) is to abide by the sanctions that are being put into place, because that’s the only way it’s things are going to get better. Otherwise, we’re going to start to see a more intense lockdown, or penalties that we really don’t want, which would really crush a lot of spirits.


We need to look after each other’s mental health too. A huge amount of issues will crop up in different circumstances, whatever they might be, so I think it’s one of the most important things. Even just having a chat with somebody that you haven’t been in touch with for a while. It’s good to check up on people.




What do you hope to take away from this experience, moving forward?

I hope to be a bit more positive. There’s a Chinese saying that from every crisis comes opportunity. So, I think we can rethink a lot of ways that stuff works, or the way you work for yourself, or the role that you play in your immediate surroundings. What we should take away is just how precarious everything is, and take nothing for granted. I can remember the last time I went out before the lockdown. I was at the market on Blaak. It was beautiful, sunny, early March. I’d had a coffee with a friend and we spoke about a project that we wanted to do together. It was lovely and I’m happy to have that memory now. 


Hopefully we can permanently change the way we look at life in a way that reminds us what is really important and stay connected and human in these times. Otherwise we go back to the way it was before – if everyone starts rushing to get back to normal, we have to take a second and think what it is that we’re rushing back to. In the meantime, here’s some music that’s getting me through the great confinement.






“Some things Joseph can’t live without…”


Food tip #1:

Poor man’s pesto

Good for: Sandwiches / toasties / pasta dishes / salads and as a regular dip 



Ingredients: 20 gr. peanuts, 2 garlic gloves, Salt + Pepper, 10ml olive oil and 200gr Spinach 


Method: First blend everything but the spinach, Then blend the spinach with the peanut / garlic / oil mix. As ever you can play around with these amounts to your taste. 



Food tip #2:

Free sourdough starter

I make my own sourdough bread, way before the epidemic began… So, if any in the Rotterdam area would like some starter and tips for this, then get in touch.



A great tip for beginning is Sourdough Tim https://www.instagram.com/sourdough_tim/?hl=en from my home town in London. He’s recently just released his private account with videos and notes to help people begin making real bread. 


Take a look here: https://www.instagram.com/serious_about_sourdough/?hl=en





View Joseph’s work:









Interview by Rosanna Pycraft

Love the We Own Rotterdam crew x