“Traveling to different places means you have to meet different people and talk to them and learn their culture. You have to relate to different kinds of people, even when you don’t know them. You have to ask questions.”—Laurent Baarslag

Laurent Baarslag: Exchange Student, Saint-Luc Liège / Liège, BE

“traveling to different places means you have to meet different people and talk to them and learn their culture. you have to relate to different kinds of people, even when you don’t know them. you have to ask questions.”—laurent baarslag

Can you talk about your experience coming here as an exchange student?
Especially in Belgium, the teachers have their own aesthetics, but they don’t give us their aesthetics. They try to give you your own personality through design. I think that students should go to new places and try new things when figuring out their own style. The architecture is very different in the States; Tampa Museum of Art is very European, but everything else here is very seedy. It is very cheap. America is like a video game. It is a bad stereotype. I feel like there is a guy on the street that’s just gonna kill everyone like in a video game. It’s that bad.

What was it like collaborating with your peers at USF?
We had to make a book on American culture. I learned a lot from working with Anthony. I would see how he worked, with all of the brainstorming and sketches, and I thought I should try to work more like that because you can see all of your ideas, and you don’t just go one way. American critiques are very different. In my school in Belgium, we only had three or four critiques a year, and I think having more critiques helps because when you have 22 different ideas or suggestions about your work or writing, then you learn more. Critiques are really important.

Did you do collaborative work in Belgium?
Workshops happen more in your senior year. We don’t collaborate in Belgium very much because they say we are not professionals. They prefer to give small projects, unlike in America, where we have big projects over the course of four months. Longer-term projects are nice because you can work more intensely on it. That’s something I don’t like about Belgium design work: It is too fast. For instance, in two weeks, you have to make a logo. They try to go fast, and you have to learn really quickly. In America, I like that there are so many references; the professors give you many relevant things to look at. “Here’s a website you should check out.” Our teachers in Belgium don’t say that stuff. We have to figure it out for ourselves. Before I came here, all I knew about American designers were Stefan Sagmeister and Paula Scher, but now I know 30 or 40 American graphic designers.

What other cultural things have rubbed off on you?
I will work faster and more efficiently now, because I was too slow before. I will probably sketch things out, instead of just running with the first idea that comes to mind. I will also talk to more people about my ideas, because in Belgium, everyone is in their own bubble, so you work alone and don’t really talk to anyone. I talk to my peers and teachers more in America.

I want to explore more graphic design as cultural styles. Graphic design in Peru is very interesting, because it is totally different. I’m interested in taking the opposite of what I am used to and seeing what I can do with it. I’m also interested in mixing multiple cultures into my design: American, German, Swedish, and Peruvian. You have to be able to jump around to do whatever works for a project. Having a style is really easy and boring. It all looks the same.

So do you think being exposed to different cultures has helped you become style-less?
It has made me more experimental. American design aesthetic has taught me to be more physical and play with more materiality.

What was the biggest struggle for you coming to a totally different place and having to work with people?
The hardest thing was to be understood by everyone. When I came here, my biggest fear was being in class, because everyone works very tightly as a group. When I had to write a chapter for the book, it was extra work for me, because I wrote it in French, then in English, and then I had to have someone correct it for me. The first rough that I made for the book wasn’t sarcastic enough. I had to go back through and make myself more funny in a different language. So I read more articles like that, like from Vice magazine. I had to learn how to be more aggressive and mean by reading more American articles. And that helped me.

For the book, the chapters had to be witty and smart, but writing like that is hard. You have to balance information and sarcasm between two different languages. Coming to an American school, I had to learn how to be more sarcastic. My professors taught me how to be more critical.

Going back to Belgium, will you interact with students differently, based on this experience?
Everybody is pretty isolated in the classroom in Belgium. It’s like a big square with desks around the perimeter. The professor pretty much stays to himself. I plan to talk to upperclassmen. If you stay in your own aesthetics and never speak to anyone, you will continue to do the wrong things in your work. When I create some work, I often don’t know why it is wrong. That’s what I will change: asking more questions and exploring more.

Americans are happier. When you meet someone you don’t know, French people say it is nice to meet you, and then they go on their merry way. In America, they’re instantaneously your friend. I think that’s why, in the class here, everybody is like a fraternity. They are all friends. Everyone helps each other more. Everyone in Belgium treats things like a competition.

What would you import from your Belgian school?
Better tables for collaborating, and bigger desks. You need to be able to explore all of your work. On the desk at USF, you can only hold a computer and half of your sketchbook. We need big, long desks. That’s what we have in Belgium. I think USF should just throw away their desks and start over. It also helps to have more access to books in the classroom. In my classroom in Belgium, we had about 80 books to learn from.

I think USF should take AIGA trips with the class more frequently. In Belgium, we do a trip with the graphic design students every year. We recently went to Dusseldorf, Germany. The trip isn’t just about discovering; you have to make something afterwards. I’ve also been to Barcelona. Traveling definitely helps you be a better collaborator. I’ve been to the Louvre. I’ve seen the Sagmeister show. I even have Sagmeister’s card. The card says put this on your head like a hat. It’s really, really cool.

I’ve also been to Johannesburg, South Africa to intern at a graphic design company. It was a very poor graphic design company; we worked with Windows 95. But we made really cool stuff. I learned that you can make graphic design with nothing. Johannesburg is a poor city. But I feel like the guy working at the poor company was a lot better off than the rich people there. For two dollars, we made a poster.

Thailand was very bizarre. It was like Japanese and Chinese design at the same time. They used a huge pencil with badger hair, and they put it in the ink and made huge brushstrokes. They don’t have any computers there, so they just work with their hands and make collages. That was cool. The next place I go to is Japan, in August.

Has picking up all of these different cultural identities made you more collaborative?
Yes. Traveling to different places means you have to meet different people and talk to them and learn their culture. You have to relate to different kinds of people, even when you don’t know them. You have to ask questions. I met a guy who worked with Mike Giant. His type was huge. I asked him a question in English, but my English wasn’t very good, so I used Google Translate very quickly, and asked him to talk to me really slowly. He invited me to his shop and showed me all of his stuff. He had so much stuff everywhere.

You see, in Europe, it costs five dollars to go on a train from Belgium to Paris. I met Shepard Fairey in Paris. It was funny, because nobody in Paris knew him except for me. And I was able to speak to him for ten minutes.