Jaap Biemans / Coverjunkie: "Design is about kicking ass, not kissing ass."
He’s won just about every art direction award going for his magazine cover designs, and continues to surprise readers week in week out with his work on the Volkskrant Magazine. And yet Jaap Biemans still finds time to run Coverjunkie.com, his hugely popular online showcase for the best magazine covers in the world. It looks effortless, but according to Biemans: “Things are rarely as they seem.”
Interview by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Were you born a designer? Let’s put it this way, it was pretty clear to me from quite an early age that maths wasn’t really my cup of tea. But hand me a sketchpad and my eyes would light up. That kid in class who was always sketching? That was me. When I was 14, I even started taking extra art classes — my friends thought I was nuts.
What was your childhood like? It was wonderfully carefree: football outdoors, snogs in the bike shed, fun-filled days at the carnival, and hours on the basketball court. I grew up in Waalre, a small town near the Dutch-Belgian border, so you knew everyone and greeted one another on the streets, which I find charming — I’ve always liked that. The easy-going approach to life was what worked, and still works, for me. I hung out with a close group of friends with whom I discovered girls, the city and the Beatles, and we remain friends to this day. I was shaken out of my reverie when my parents split up, though. I was 13 at the time, and suddenly had to start figuring things out myself, which I wasn’t quite ready for.
What remains of that child today? The daydreamy approach to life. I’ve been known for taking the train home after work, only to discover that I actually drove to work that morning. Even after you’ve become a grown up, you need to allow a part of yourself to remain young and in a state of wondrous reverie.
What did your parents do for a living, and what were they like as people? My father ran a carpentry business, which he took over from my grandfather. He’s a modest and good-humoured man. I inherited his carefree disposition, along with my mother’s nimble-mindedness. They gave me and my sister all the freedom we needed to find ourselves.
Anything specific you learned from them? There’s a line of his that I cherish: "Everything’s possible if you treat others the way you’d like to be treated”. They taught me to accept my responsibilities and to have a mind of my own. That really builds your confidence — it’s something I hope to pass on to my kids. There’d be so much less bullshit in the world if everyone knew how to accept their responsibilities and think for themselves, rather than allowing their thoughts to be determined by their allegiance to a football club, religion or country.
He’s a big part of your life, your father? Indescribably so.
Does he know this? He does. I’m now more aware than ever before of just how important an influence he has been in my life, and I’ve told him how proud I am to be his son. My father is seriously ill right now, and I hope he pulls through; these are dark days. I had a cancer scare myself ten years ago, and it was the most challenging things I’ve ever had to face. When something like that happens, questions like whether to use Helvetica light or bold plummet in relevance. All that matters in situations like these is that you’re there for one another to pull each other through; that’s all that really matters in life. I wish I could turn back the clock and give him the credit he has always deserved. For instance, I was named art director of the year earlier this year — quite an honour — and accepted the award with a banal speech in which I thanked my boss; now, my boss is a lovely man, but it’s my father that I should have been thanking! What on earth was I thinking?
You graduated in 1997 from the Academy of Fine Arts (AKV St. Joost, Breda). In what ways didn’t art school prepare you for the real world of design? I knew nothing about the business end of things when I graduated, so after freelancing for a year I found myself with a €10,000 tax bill. Surely one module on financial management wouldn’t have been too much to ask? Something on what to do when someone else copies your design would also have been handy. Things like this happen in the real world, unfortunately.
Was it the right course for you, then? Oh absolutely. This was the acest place to hang. It’s at art school that I found out I wasn’t the only one who spent all his time designing fonts and photographing old neon signs. This might sound like the sort of toe-curling banality you’d expect to read on Instagram, but the revelation that design could be a way of life and not just a job made my heart leap with joy.
You knew even before graduation that you wanted to design magazines. Why magazines? My attraction to magazine comes from its fusion of all of my favourite creative disciplines: photography, illustration, typography and graphic design. They’re wonderful time capsules, magazines, and they have a sort of vibrant and uplifting buzz about them that I love. People often assume that design is merely about pimping and seducing, but navigation of information is much more important. My goal isn’t just to create something that looks nice; I want to take the reader on an adventure through my magazine. Remember that Steve Jobs line: "Design is not just what it looks like. Design is how it works.”
You started out as a graphic designer at Margriet, a women’s magazine. Yes, I did. And when you’re 25, it’s not the coolest thing in the world to work for a magazine aimed at 65-year-old women, so I didn’t exactly shout it from the rooftops. But the plan was to use it as a stepping stone to a position on my favourite magazine, Nieuwe Revu, a fab mag at the time, and a sister title within the publishing house. That uncool regard for Margriet was totally unbecoming. I learned a lot there, especially about how to adapt as a designer to fulfil the role. Hey, I'm a designer, not Ai Wei Wei!
You stayed at Nieuwe Revu for three years. How did you convince them to take you on? I was feeling lucky one day, so pulled on my favourite sweater, walked over and asked if they had room for another designer? It’s that laid-back approach that I prefer. I caught ace art director Celine van Gennep off guard and she gave me a chance. Working at Revu was like hanging out with a fun and hilarious bunch of rebels — I often left work in stitches. And I had as much freedom as I desired to experiment with fonts and layouts. Besides the main magazine, I designed the special supplements for pop festivals and the Tour de France. That’s where I was able to try out and mess up stuff to rack up the 10,000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell says you need to become decent at what you do.
Most graphic designers never switch, but you became an art director when you moved over to Intermediair. How did you find the change? I found myself leading a team of people who were all much older than me. That took a bit of getting used to, but the editor-in-chief, Karin van Gils, had confidence in me. I had a simple benchmark: every aspect of every edition had to be way above average, and everyone had to do whatever was necessary to make this happen. Sounds demanding, but it actually wasn’t hard to achieve when you had talented people like Nico Dikstaal (the best editor ever), Kees Versluis, Karin van Gilst, Liesbeth de Wit, Marcel van Roosmalen and Bart van Oosterhout on your team. To be honest, I was able to use more of my creativity there than I do now at the Volkskrant Magazine, because Intermediair’s content was more sober, which meant I had to do more to spice things up.
What did “everything” entail for you? A two-hour journey from Eindhoven to Haarlem and back every day, which drove me crazy now that I think about it — this was all pre-iPhone era. I spent my journeys sketching covers, which, in my opinion, was where we stood the greatest chance of distinguishing ourselves from all the other mags. Our efforts were eventually rewarded with a Prix de C'Oeuvre, the award given in recognition of a magazine’s entire catalogue of covers. This was before the current usual suspects like VPRO and LINDA were granted the honour, so it meant a lot, both to me and to Intermediair.
You’ve won plaudits for your work on the Volkskrant Magazine, which you’ve art directed since 2012. We read in one interview that you mock up two or three covers for every issue. How do you manage that? I appraise each story as a potential cover story. It’s a more demanding approach, but you end up with more options. Creating a back-up cover is where it gets really interesting; they really get me going cos they’re usually more daring as you’re forced to go beyond the standard photo-text composition. The limits of your creativity are really tested when a photo shoot doesn’t work out and you have to devise plan B.
How would you describe your working methods? An open and informal approach suits me best. You know, where you’re able to just stroll over to the editor-in-chief with some rough sketches and have a relaxed chat. I’m lucky in this respect, but designing can be frustrating, too. Like everyone else, my past includes a fair share of difficult managers and pedantic editors. Things are rarely as they appear to onlookers. I don’t like settling for the safe choice, but that means I have to take people that one step further with me, which is sometimes difficult. Recently, we had a gem of a cover that I knew we simply had to run it, but getting it through was like pulling teeth, and proved impossible in the end.
What makes a good art director? The inherent willingness to set a challenging base as your default starting point. You need to keep surprising yourself on all levels. Furthermore, it is crucial to create a fine team with ace photographers and illustrators who can help you to create the right atmosphere; it's a team effort. But most important, create an environment that brings out the best in everyone as opposed to stifling their talent by boxing them in. I don’t believe in the strict, procedural approach. Allow for the craziness, spontaneity and spirit of adventure that creativity sometimes demands. A magazine is an organic thing, is it not?
Let’s talk about Coverjunkie.com, the blog you launched in 2005 to celebrate cover design. What does the blog mean to you? I absolutely love Coverjunkie — it allows me to give a shout-out to ace design. It also puts the creativity that goes into cover design front and centre without all the commercial interests that usually surround websites. I think it projects positivity, and it connects magazine creatives from all over the world.
How did it all begin? The idea arose because I hated all the talk of print being dead while I kept seeing abundant evidence of astonishing design demonstrating the opposite. But there was no platform promoting them. All I needed was a catchy name. Then out of nowhere came this extremely talented guy, Robert Zantinge, with a suggestion: “Coverjunkie”; I knew immediately then what the logo and website were going to look like. One of the side benefits of running Coverjunkie is that it keeps me up to date with developments in website tech and social media. And its "fame" in the magazine yields invitations to give talks in places like Louisville Kentucky and sit on judging panels in places like Lithuania. I don’t earn a penny from it; in fact, I fund it out of pocket, which I don’t think even my girlfriend knows.
How far would you like to take Coverjunkie? I considered exploiting it commercially, but decided early on not to; keeping it pure maintains its credibility as a place that does nothing but celebrate creativity and connect the magazine world. I’d love to do even more with it, but then, as a one-man army, I’d need 14-day weeks. Even so, given how large yet tightly defined an audience I’ve managed to reach on my own, the possibilities are endless, particular if the right publisher came along.
Not a year has gone by since 2008 where you haven’t won an award – and you were recently named Art Director of the Year. What are the personal pros? Haha, at first I hated awards until I won one — and yes, it’s true what they say; it always takes a team. I’m proud that the recognition has been for my work across all the magazines I’ve worked on, not just the one.
Considering your success, is it safe to assume you’re constantly fighting off offers? My dream job has yet to materialise, otherwise I’d be doing this interview by Skype from Claremont Ave, between 122th and 123th in New York. I lived there once when I interned at Onoma Design (under Roger van den Bergh), and it was one of the highlights of my life, so I remain drawn to the city, and fly over once a year just to keep up my friendship with the place.
I am approached every now and again for something, not as often as you’d think, but so far not for anything that’s been tempting enough for me to leave what is by and large a nice magazine to work for. Besides, I really like the Volkskrant Magazine. But can I just take this opportunity to call attention to all the talented art directors out there looking for a gig? There are so many good ones, and at the same time I keep seeing lots of visually incoherent magazines. What’s wrong with this picture?
If you could work for or collaborate with any magazine, company or publisher, which would it be and why? This may come as a surprise, given the precarious position in which journalism finds itself these days, but I’d love to work with news; could be a newsy mag, paper or website. Why does newspaper design have to be so samey and timid, when it could be presented with more urgency, depth and flavour? Especially in these times — come on! Even better would be to kick some contemporary vibe into the design department of a big company. I think it’d be great to try to break new ground with an enthusiastic team of designers. Or maybe even start an agency with some good folks.
And personal projects? Oh yes. Exciting things happening in this area, cos I’ll be crossing something off my bucket list in a few weeks. PostNL have asked me to design a series of stamps. Boy was I delighted when I got the news. I’d also like to produce a Coverjunkie coffee table book, as a follow-up to the magazine I put out five years ago. And I’d love to start a news medium, something raw, optimistic and different. This could be for an international audience or even for the clientele of my favourite restaurant, Hotel de Goudfazant in Amsterdam Noord. ‘Oh, and perhaps a couple more kids?’ That’s my girlfriend shouting.
People have been crying “print is dead!” for years; and yet print is very much alive. In fact, you claimed in a recent interview with Fontanel that print is making a comeback. Is it? Believe me, print isn’t dying. In fact, we need to stop uttering that line, or turn it on its head and ask: Is Twitter, the cesspool of society, living up to expectations? Evan Williams, the founder of Twitter, himself said the internet is broken. And do people really want to allow cookies and algorithms to determine the content on which they base their opinions so that they end up in echo chambers of their prejudices? Gimme a break! Chance is part of what gives life its colour, and friction is part of life. People have fallen into the habit of parroting one another, and it’s such a pity.
So you’re opposed to the internet? Come on it's great! [Big smile] For news and mags, the internet offers speed and archiving capacity, but it can’t touch print for charm or for a medium’s capacity to hold the reader’s sustained attention. So they complement one another quite well. Print’s numbers may have fallen, but it’ll never disappear. In fact, I’d say without hesitation that the future of digital is print. I’d have been dismissed as a dinosaur if I’d said that five years ago, but more and more people are slowly rediscovering the joys of print. Don’t get me wrong: Coverjunkie needs both, as does the Volkskrant, but we mustn’t let all those dogmatic hallelujah declarations about the online world blind us to its limitations.
What would surprise someone who knew you as a 10-year-old if they saw you today? How about we turn that around: what would it be like to come face to face with your 10-year-old self today? Would he like what you’ve become? More importantly: would you be able to look him in the eye? I think I’d be able to do so; I've stayed true to myself, morally sound. Sketching and playing basketball are still a big part of my life; and even my hairstyle’s the same – I think we’d recognise each other easily.
You’ve got two daughters, Bobbie and Charlie. In what way has fatherhood changed you as a designer and as a person? My children make me laugh. Creating new life and helping it blossom is wonderful. This might make your readers yawn but all clichés are true. There’s lot of love in the house. My girlfriend, Moniek, is my primary source of inspiration. She makes my heart sing. As a psychiatrist and medical director, she should be the one winning awards, because she deals with issues of life and death every day. Family life hasn’t changed me as a designer, although being surrounded by girls makes the comical absurdity of macho behaviour even more recognisable.
What advice would you give aspiring graphic designers hoping to make a living in magazines or printed media? Design is about kicking ass, not kissing ass. And follow your intuition to wherever it detects fun and opportunities for genuine engagement.
Let’s end with a hypothetical question: say print were to die five years from now and you had to change careers, what would you do? I’d open a café and serve mean espressos from my 1950s Faema Urania, easily the most gorgeous espresso machine ever built. Come and get your fix, and of course peruse the mags and newspapers laid out all over the place.