Artist & Designer
Chaz is a prolific designer, film-maker, writer, lecturer, and juror with numerous awards, distinctions, and honors to his credit from around the world. The text below is adapted from an unpublished recent e-mail interview.
I had an unorthodox beginning in design in that I first started out as a trainee draughtsman for the local telecommunications corporation. While I was there I worked on a design project outside of the boundaries of my occupation, as they felt I was the only one who could 'draw' the job. When the project was completed, I was supposed to work on another similar project but the head of my department felt that I took too long on the last project and sent it out to an advertising agency.
They weren't happy with what the agency gave them so I ended up amending the job.
One day when the boss was out of his office, a colleague accidentally saw the bill from the ad agency for the job I had to redo and showed it to me. It was three times my monthly salary. I immediately realised I was in the wrong vocation. At that time Zimbabwe was colonised and discrimination was the order of the day so very few opportunities existed for me pursue anything outside of the life that a racist government had planned for me.
In 1974 I fled Zimbabwe and went to study in neighbouring Zambia, where I did my foundation course,.. then on to London where I did a degree course in graphic design at Middlesex University and my MA at the Central School of Art and Design.
On returning to Zimbabwe I formed a registered company called the 'Maviyane-Project', which at one time had a compliment of eight people. As I found myself spending more time with clients (I needed many to cover the basic overheads), I hardly spent time on the drawing board. Personally this was unsatisfying. Slowly the staff went off one at a time to travel abroad to 'expand' their horizons, so the company whittled down to one, as I did not replace them. Finally I started to work alone from a purpose-built studio above my house with a select few clients, which suits me fine.
I used a basic Mac set-up with a small scanner and an inkjet printer for visuals. I still begin all my work with thumbnails and then larger layouts before I take them into the computer. As a lot of work involves photography I also use a digital camera mainly for visualizing.
Most of my work in Zimbabwe was local, though some of the more interesting commissions came from abroad. Sometimes this meant I had to travel, which I enjoyed as it meant I could immerse myself in another lifestyle and culture, and in most cases, better facilities.
While there was a shortage of skilled resources to draw from in my daily work, I have close relationships with a couple of photographers and other artists with whom I can work closely to achieve my objectives.
My clients are mainly non-governmental agencies, donor agencies
and a few commercial companies so the bulk of my work is still
cultural and humanitarian projects, which I prefer anyhow and
is of my own choosing. The work ranges from corporate identity,
book and magazine design, posters and annual reports to show
stand design. As the work is a visual medium I would rather let
that speak for itself.
Ultimately growing up with discrimination has resolved me to fight this virus using whatever talents I have at my disposal. To combat racial, gender, religious or political discrimination is the first step towards tolerance, which is vital if we want to co-exist on this planet.
In my mind, good design happens when a project's intent is felt and appreciated by the user or observer. If something is intended to instruct, then it should instruct. If it is meant to inform then there should be a learning experience. If it is meant to move us then we should feel the motion. Too much design out there does not meet this mandate either conceptually or aesthetically. That is why mediocrity rules. Never forget, it is artistic license coupled with intelligence that affords good design.
Whilst at college, I was always aware of my background and the role I would hope to play when I returned back to an independent Zimbabwe. I was also very influenced by the graphics of nations similar in situation to mine, especially Cuban posters. Through their colour, courage and vibrancy they expressed a freedom and vigour I was unaware of but knew existed somewhere in my subconscious. They spoke of liberation, dignity and identity.
This encounter has been lifelong in my belief that this medium could not only communicate but also decorate ones own ideas. In order for me to communicate these types of images I needed to find a dynamic and animate form to convey my images as well as the philosophy and background from where they came. This is how I began to develop my style of expression.
With regard to my writing and producing short films and documentaries, I believe that film is one of the most unexplored medium of communication. Unfortunately it is extremely expensive, therefore out of the reach of most people (including myself). I treat the process of film in almost the same way I do with my design work by using unusual images to engage and explain or tell the story that I need to convey. The formulation is obviously different but the intent is similar.
The series of posters based on 12 of the articles from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was the canvas I needed to express my design philosophy on a larger scale to a wider audience. My self-set brief grew out of the indignation I have always felt in the way that Africans are constantly portrayed. For many, 'Africa' conjures up images of a continent torn apart by hatred and brutality, corpses and corruption. Ignore these images and the continent has no other identity. And yes, as an African I've experience life on a continent where in many parts, fundamental human rights are obliterated with blood and sadness, as conflict and turmoil leave only despair and hopelessness in their wake.
Warning - continue to ignore it and we will all be destroyed by our own lack of humanity.
Envisaging this project meant:
a) I could utilize my creative ideas in the fight for human rights in Africa. Without these rights real development cannot be sustained.
b) Use it as an education in ways of seeing ~an alternative aesthetic~ by attempting to rekindle some of the images we lost when we adopted the prepackaged, off-the-shelf, foreign images that now envelope us.
c) To creatively and passionately look at our predicament through our own eyes and not only to see human rights in terms of abuse (I can let the media do that) but positively, as an integral part of the celebration of the human spirit and intelligence, thereby emphasising the cultural diversity that abounds amongst us. I hoped that the viewer would see themselves in the images and see in themselves - the essence of civilisation - inherent in all our cultures and our traditions.
For me, without a concept there can be no work. Any concept is greater the sums of the parts of any design. My approach to concept is based on research and experience. My primal aim in most projects is to try and convey power, dignity and to leave a classical hallmark that will carry the design further than its time, positively. The inspiration can come from anywhere. My work has tried to embrace our own cultural dimensions whilst never forgetting it has to communicate. It has also striven to be an education in ways of seeing ~an alternative aesthetic again~ by attempting to rekindle some of the images we lost when we adopted the prepackaged, off-the-shelf, foreign images that now envelope us.
I usually begin by crediting my audience with intelligence and pride. I also try to leave a positive attitude through my concepts. Then it is my imagination's turn to take over.
I basically believe that in our quest for 'progress', we have relegated huge chunks of our culture into recesses of our subconscious, as opposed to using it to define our role in the world we want to live in. This is true of most developing countries. From an image point of view - this means that any icons or visual manifestations of our traditions and past are waylaid and considered inferio,r as we readily adopt the global (American) lifestyles and attitudes that surround us. I do not believe that we should live in the past, but we must adapt and develop our traditions and values to suit us, thus defining our truly independent future. This, with a symbolism and visual language that is meaningful not only to us, but enriching to a world that has run out of ideas other than market forces (the new world order). I try to creatively extract and adapt aspects that are seemingly lost and use them as a vehicle for communication. Even though some of my ideas might appear to be 'experimental' even by our standards, they are intended to prod and explore our own soul and sensitivity and hopefully revitalise our ways of seeing.
Besides the earlier Cuban poster work, I was also influenced by a few eastern European designers, the work of Paul Peter Piech in the U.K. and Brad Holland in America. But ultimately I always had my own vision and hoped that someday I would be able to express it.
Of the current graphic designers and educators, I respect many, but mainly: Pierre Bernard -founder of GRAPUS in France. Skill and intellegence in the service of humanity, Kenya Hara -Japanese master of sublety, sensitivity and form. Dave McKean -prolific with a dark vivid imagination and all the skills to pull it off. Neville Brody -he came, saw and conquered with his design sensibility. Dan Boyarski (at Carnegie Mellon University) & Al Gowan (at MassArt) -humanists at the service of education.
My own destiny as African designer is bound up with the necessity for profound social change. To explain / tell / represent is to give myself. Graphic design must strive for full communication and must not be thwarted on the outset so long as there is misery, illiteracy and injustice through exploitation which fosters collective imbecility through the mass media.
Designers can choose to be active or passive in what they do, regardless of their ideology - but if they think they are neutral they should be careful whose interests they really serve. We seem to be living in collective denial of our role in the deeper problems of our participation in a consumerist way of life which controls and compromises us. We are all responsible beings regardless of our occupations, therefore it implies that we should then be responsible for our actions no matter how sublime they might appear. After all we all have a choice.
I do believe my work has had some impact. While it is always difficult to quantify results in design (outside of advertising), I feel there has been a positive and supportive response to the work I do. A lot has been written about what I do from newspapers to design books. Many organisations not only employ me to do their work but also distribute and display a lot of the work in countless applications. From awareness campaigns to human rights issues to raising the wrath of dictators there is a feeling that my work is appreciated or despised in these arenas. Either way, it's usually noticed.
I recently began teaching design because I felt I needed a break from being a full time practitioner of design and wanted 'go back' to education, especially after seeing a huge trend towards a lot of thoughtless computer-driven rubbish adorning our environment.
Chance and opportunity brought me to the US. As the political situation intensified in Zimbabwe, being in somewhat the centre of a lot of activity, I felt I needed to ensure the safety of my family. I received an offer to teach at the Massachusetts College of Art, which coincided with this need for a change and a break from my routine. I hope my students gain something from me.
Unfortunately we do not have a culture in design yet in Zimbabwe, which is an occupation in its infancy, so there are no real comparisons with design there and in the US. Having said that, in September 1994 a few of us got together to form the first graphic designers association in Zimbabwe - GRAZI (which means 'window' in the Shona language). Our aims are similar to most associations around the world, but specifically to address the above ills and hopefully carve our way to where we should be. By raising the standard of design here and confronting and working with the establishment to recognise our efforts, we hope to promote design in our culture for the betterment of all.
To young designers preparing to enter the 'real world' today, I'd just say believe in yourself, really believe in yourself, research, work as hard as you can at the process and not the ends, strive to realise your vision, listen with your eyes and ears and use your soul.
And what would I like to explore in the near future? If sponsors are forthcoming, I would like to complete the poster series of the rest of the articles in the UN declaration. To compile my ideas, thoughts, dreams and designs into a book. To make a feature film.
Until then to continue with normal pursuits and hopefully some interesting commissions.
[To view some more images by Chaz, click here, and close the new window this will open in when done]
247 Garden Street, apt #10
Cambridge, MA 02138
tel: (1-617) 547 5292