The Product Designer: Nicolas Bourquin

Florian Heilmeyer attempts to figure out what exactly graphic designer Nicolas Bourquin does. What he discovers is a person working at disciplinary intersections, whose understanding of design extends far beyond graphics.

“So what do you do?” used to be the simplest question in the world. By now, so much has changed in disciplinary definitions and career profiles that the answer has become ever more complicated for ever more professionals. Nicolas Bourquin is a good example of one.

The short answer? He’s a graphic designer. The somewhat longer answer? He works at disciplinary intersections and, through his professional practice, has changed the very definition of the term graphic designer. Even his studies at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (School of Design) in Biel were conducted at a border—the town marks the meeting point of Switzerland’s French-speaking and German-speaking regions. Before that, he spent a year studying the old art of watchmaking at a technical school, then completed an apprenticeship at an architecture firm. The foundations for his future work as a boundary-breaker were laid.

© Photographed by Noshe

Right after graduating, he started working at MetaDesign Suisse in July 2000, an offshoot of the legendary MetaDesign agency founded in 1979 in West Berlin as an experimental graphics laboratory by Gerhard Doerrié, Florian Fischer, Dieter Heil, and Erik Spiekermann. By the time Bourquin started at Suisse, the once experimental lab had long since become an internationally operating business that saw itself as a brand consultancy. Almost all the founders had left the company; only Spiekermann remained. Bourquin worked with him for several weeks in Berlin, then watched as Spiekermann, too, finally bowed out due to “conceptual differences.” Bourquin remained just nine months at MetaDesign. He learned a lot during that time, he says politely—but also realized that he had other ideas about how he wanted to work. He didn’t want to be just a service provider; he wanted to deal more substantively with the content he was supposed to design. In summer of 2001, he returned to Berlin and founded onlab. 

© Photographed by Noshe

Berlin, one could say, welcomed his ideas with open arms; the city was full of multitaskers operating somewhere between the traditional disciplines and professions. Bourquin started collaborating with shifting constellations of friends and acquaintances. His network expanded continuously, and he initiated his own projects for the first time, using his own name for more open, artistic work as well as for photos and films, and using his company’s name for graphic works. Then and now, his designs emerge from intensive engagement with the respective content; all decisions about media formats, typographies, and materials derive from this engagement. He doesn’t, in other words, just apply a nice varnish; he discusses and molds the message and narrative style so that the graphics become part of the statement. The graphic designer thereby becomes the equal co-author of the overall project. Ultimately, the task is always to convey a story. If the narrative snags, even the most beautiful graphics can’t fix the problem; for that, you have to intervene in the narrative itself. 

© Photographed by Noshe

In that spirit, Bourquin began to work in varying projects and roles: as graphic designer, publisher, writer, and entrepreneur—and often as something in between. He developed Los Logos with Berlin’s Gestalten publishing house, the first reference book to present a systematic collection of corporate logos from around the world. It became a Gestalten classic and has been followed by six volumes so far. In 2003, Bourquin founded etc. Publications with Sven Ehmann and Krystian Woznicki, a small publishing house for “independent books” that soon attracted attention with its autonomously produced etc. series, thematic readers in newspaper format. Each elaborately designed issue focusses on a subject—some political (Genoa etc., for example, after the turbulent G8 protests, or Peace etc.), others pop cultural. The readers are really manifestos: they demonstrate exactly how Bourquin wants to work and what he wants to achieve. In every issue, the editors intertwine eloquent contributions from renowned writers with large graphic gestures and infographics. Each volume is a total narrative woven from text, image, and drawing.


Corporate identities for Soundcloud, Musée des Beaux-Arts Le Locle, Galerie C.
Corporate identities for Soundcloud, Musée des Beaux-Arts Le Locle, Galerie C.
Corporate identities for Soundcloud, Musée des Beaux-Arts Le Locle, Galerie C.
Infografics for Museum Unplugged (Marta Herford), Reporter ohne Grenzen, Reflex Magazine.
Infografics for Museum Unplugged (Marta Herford), Reporter ohne Grenzen, Reflex Magazine.

At the same time, Bourquin has been increasingly organizing onlab as a graphic agency with content expertise; in 2007, Thibaud Tissot joined as a graphic designer and eventually became a partner. Their staff is an interdisciplinary mix of graphic designers, product and web designers, journalists, photographers, and architects. Outside specialists are brought in on a project by project basis. Accordingly, onlab works in a broad variety of formats, media, and scales: on and for print and online media, for institutions, for museums, and even for entire cities—like, for example, Bourquin’s hometown of Tramelan. Its work always swings between graphic and content design: for exhibitions and books, onlab researches the content with curators and develops ideas on how to communicate the results. For the Italian architecture magazine Domus, it created a new look and feel and developed new sections and formats with the editors. “As designers,” says Bourquin, “we produce the content, create connections, tell stories, and make them legible. In other words, we create both visual and narrative qualities.

As designers, we produce the content, create connections, tell stories, and make them legible.
Nicolas Bourquin

For him, content and design cannot be separated. The emerging field of infographics has become particularly interesting for Bourquin. Here, the graphic designer acts simultaneously as an editor, reworking complex relationships, information, and the daily maelstrom of data so that they can be understood as quickly and easily as possible. The result must be graphics full of highly complicated content and messages. To seem as light, attractive, and playful as a cartoon or movie, their images, figures, and texts must be combined to make a story. In this movie, the graphic designer is responsible, so to speak, for editorial, screenplay, cinematography, direction, and editing. No wonder Bourquin produced two books on infographics, both published by Gestalten: Data Flow and Data Flow 2. It could be that Nicolas Bourquin is primarily a graphic designer with a keen interest in the political and economic relationships of the world; as a result, he cannot simply be a graphics service provider, but must inevitably grapple with his projects’ contextual positions. He aims to take up a position and formulate a stance through his graphics. It will be interesting to see how he develops this position in his work with the Autostadt. There is, after all, no established job description for this kind of “critical-cooperative graphic design.” And thus it will remain rather difficult to give a simple answer to the question, “So what does Nicolas Bourquin do?”

Florian Heilmeyer, born in 1974, works as a journalist, author, and curator in his hometown of Berlin. He explores architecture, city, and design in texts, books, lectures, and exhibitions. Since 2007, he’s worked as a freelance editor for BauNetz and MARK – Another Architecture and as a correspondent for Werk, Bauen + Wohnen.