“The situation is not as bad as it seems” – An interview with Ákos Polgárdi

Graphic designers here in Hungary are not as well-known as other artists, even though we walk past their works probably every day. I met with Ákos Polgárdi, one of the best Hungarian designers, to ask a couple of questions about his work and life as a freelancer. He worked on projects like the new signage system of Margitsziget, the font for Trefort Garden’s World War II monument or restaurant brandings like Faszaládé or Bottega Pertè.

Was there a point in your life when you decided that you wanted to be a graphic designer?
Yeah, there was. I should tell it too, right? So I was an arts student and after getting my degree I started my doctorate in philosophy and towards the end I spent one year in Norway with a research grant. And there I realised that this is my future. I kept putting off going to a design school but when I came home I finally started it.

What attracted you to this field the most?
Hm… I’m not sure. It all started with book covers – and also childhood stuff like drawing and comic books – since I was always surrounded with books beforehand. And then typography came very quickly about which I have already been reading when I was studying philosophy.


If you had to choose a school you’d like to study in, which one would that be?
In Hungary?
It can be fictive.
Like in Harry Potter?
Well in the field of design.
Maybe if I was born again and I was better in math I would study to become and architect. That would be great. I think everybody who is not an architect but works in design wants to be an architect a little bit. Right now if I could go anywhere and someone paid for it and I didn’t have to work for a year or two I would go to The Hague or Reading to study typography.

Do you have a favourite project?
Well I have to say I don’t… it’s always the current project. I don’t have a favourite project but I do have a favourite logo. I think I only designed one great logo in my life. It was a project for CEU [Central European University where he made his philosophy doctorate] Its name is Institute for Advanced study and this is their logo and I think is great. This is a three or four year old logo but I’m still working with them on different publications.


How do you start designing a brand? Do you stare at a wall and think?
I don’t have this step but it would be great but usually I’m just working on other stuff. But I’ve realised that it’s not just bullshit other designers say that they have been thinking about something for months because the sketching and designing part is actually really quick. So this is how it starts: One becomes enthusiastic because the project or the client is great – or in rare cases both – and then starts thinking and sketching. Since I can’t really draw I always do something graphically minimal or rather something typographical: I try writing it down in many different ways but I always start by hand-drawing so I rarely start something on the computer those are not really working.

You said that sometimes you are working on something different. How many ongoing projects do you usually have?
Well… too many… and then sometimes some of them become very pressing. Around six or eight projects of which three of four are going with full force and the rest of them have like two weeks till the deadline. I recently designed and exhibition which opened last week and that became very intense towards the end and I didn’t even come into the office for a couple of days.

You have been collaborating with other people on projects like Faszaládé or the Word War II monument in Trefort. How do you work with others; do you have some kind of method for that?
I don’t have one actually. Except for Trefort, the people I have worked with on such projects are nearby. Bottega and Faszaládé was made with 81font  and their office is just down the hall. This is easier, though, because the interior designers can work while the designers aren’t working and vice versa. However, we are currently working on a project for BME and it requires development so the design and development should walk hand in hand but since we are all in this office together we are very lucky because we can talk things through which would be way worse via email.


Okay, here are the random questions: Is there anything here in Hungary you’d like to redesign but we are used to it by now?
Sure and I think it’s a designer responsibility to criticise our surroundings and there are an abundance of possibilities for that here in Budapest for example BKV [Budapest Transport Plc.] The most painful however, which could have been great, is cigar stores. There are good examples too, for example I like the branding of Erzsébet-utalvány because it’s nicely put together. But then there is the post [Hungarian Post JSC]… actually all of our national organisations are bad. Although, our healthcare’s smallest problem is not having good hospital logos [laughs]. When I was walking across Moscow Square [now Széll Kálmán Square] I realised that it is so weird that it occurs to nobody to hire a designer or a design studio to make some signs to let people know where their tram departs, even though this is a huge project which causes a lot of fuming for a lot of people. I think this could help a lot and BKV is a great example: It seems that something has started and there is some kind of demand for these stuff. They have new logos and altogether a consistent branding, colours and typography. Oh yes… and also the buses when they are going into the garage and I think it says ‘not in service’ on the bus but then there is a sad smiley next to it and this is really important; you forgive it a bit quicker that it can’t take you now.

Let’s assume your field of work will not exist tomorrow. What other field would you dive into?
I would do something with industrial design but not sure what exactly. Furniture design would be interesting but everything would be actually. Since I’ve never studied in this field I never really thought about what I would like. I’ve never really worked with furniture designers but I have with architects who designed furniture and these are all so admirable. Or something that is extremely artisan. My girlfriend is an architect and I’ve been to a concrete workshop this summer and then it started to interest me and then we made a couple of lamps. It’s really great when you don’t have to sit in your office for a change.

Do you have some advice for young people who’d like to start their careers in design?
I think the situation is not as bad as it seems. Based on my experiences this whole thing was a pleasant surprise so far but it can easily be that I won’t have anything next year. I, personally, did not take part in this whole agency / studio stuff but not because I think it’s degrading but because it was just not part of my life. I don’t really miss it though because I have worked for an MNC where there was teamwork and these organizational structures which make these jobs different than freelancing but it can be useful to go through these things. To my mind, if one is somewhat creative – and I won’t say self-realisation – but yes… so if they have a need for this, which is rather exhibitionism, they have no playing field as employees, especially not in advertising agencies. But I do have a lot of designer friends who are comfortable with this because they love being with their family or gardening or I don’t know and they go to their 8-4 jobs, okay this is not so typical in advertising agencies, and essentially they don’t live for their job which is great. But if you do live for your job or it is really important for you then it’s a really shitty environment. Year by year you’re working on projects that you can’t feel it’s really yours and it’s not even presentable. And then there are one or two projects per agency in a year that you do during the nights or on the weekends which will be sent to a contest and it has nothing to do with your actual work because it’s a fictive project for a fictive client but then and there you can put all your creativity into it. So it has its drawbacks but also its benefits because you get a salary and things like that. So both things could work. What I don’t know how could work is when someone is fresh out of university and is waiting for someone to seek them out and get a project. But there are examples for this too, however, it is more like someone getting their degree and prior to that they’ve already worked for three or four years.


Could there be some kind of job which would make you give up freelancing?
No. [laughs] Or I don’t know… I’m sure there is something but not in Hungary. On one hand, there are life situations where it’s simply more important to be secure and have a decent salary than accomplishing your dreams. On the other hand, there are certain projects… but this whole workplace thing is kind of an anachronism. Like, it could have been awesome being responsible for a whole brand or visual branding at Braun or Apple like twenty years ago but now this whole thing is less concentrated. It could be a goal, as small Hungarian design studios or freelancers, to have projects from western, eastern or any international scenes for great clients. For me this is the only alluring part [in big companies]. Okay, it is also good being here and doing branding for restaurants and such. But after I while it would be more exciting to do things for which there are no examples here [in Hungary] but it has started emerging in west Europe; Spain and Portugal or even in Mediterranean countries like Greece. There are small studios with two or three people with extremely characteristic style and they do amazing stuff and Nike can go there and say that we have this project which, compared to Nike, is still a low-budget thing. But it’s great and Nike went there to get exactly that visual style that particular studio does and this is what we should go towards. This is the limit of freelancing that Nike will never come to Kiss Miklós let alone me because if they want something they simply won’t give it to only one person.

What would you like to achieve in the next ten years?
Well… this. Or rather this is the most you can achieve here. Of course there is the alternative to make a design studio which is not so attractive to me. Or there is something we are thinking about which would be some kind of loose collaboration and not at all institutional, where everybody has to work in an office, rather some kind of defined cooperation between people from different fields. Or we could say that we are a design studio with two or three killer designers and the development is outsourced, or that we are a creative agency which is, again, a disgusting expression. But for these kind of projects that we do a lot of, “design” like art direction, branding or interior design, it could be great to put together because this is not so common here in Hungary. Because usually designers are pretending to be architects or interior designers and vice versa architects or interior designers are doing the branding. There are a lot of examples for this, for what there are no examples, are the little agencies with people who are experts in their field.


And lastly… have you ever thought about moving abroad?
I thought about it once. [laughs] I even applied for a job then. I already forgot the name of the magazine but I’m fairly into publications and I’d like to design such things. And there is this ComputerArts magazine which has the biggest print runs, not the best design journal but it’s good enough but it is actually kinda like an “industry standard”, I don’t know how to say that in Hungarian. And they were hiring desktop publishers and I applied but I wasn’t hired. Well, I got to a certain level so there was an interview. This was the only time I was thinking that: okay we should try and at least it will be great for testing my skills. But I wasn’t sure about actually moving out and the biggest argument because of which I wouldn’t have moved out even if [I got the job], of course it’s easy to say this now, was that the office is in Bath. And I think if someone moves to England clearly they will move to London but obviously whole England is fucking great compared to Hungary. But otherwise I haven’t [thought about moving out] but if I was working as an employee there are such design studios abroad…there are still design studios I should rather say, where I suppose I could do great stuff. We’ll see.

By Klaudia Simon
translated from Hungarian
all images from akospolgardi.com


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