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How a small creative studio is redesigning the art of perception

Text by Sajeet M. Rajbhandari Tucked away within the muddy brick alleyways of old Patan lies a creative studio that is bent on disrupting the norm and not just thinking out of the box but getting rid of the box itself. A studio which strongly believes and associates with the influence that iconography and symbolism can have on the demographic; Image Ark strives to bring out socially and culturally conscious design which pairs both functionality and aesthetic design. Created first in 1993 in Kenya and later given a home in Nepal in 2012, the studio was named as a symbolic nod to Noah’s Ark because of its intention to disseminate and preserve the seeds of design.

Designing a design studio

After dedicating 30 years of her life working with the United Nations, Image Ark’s founder and creative director, Marie Ange Sylvain-Holmgren wasn’t sure if leaving the UN was the right step to take; what Marie Ange did know was that she wanted to keep doing what she did best, communicate. And so, for Marie Ange who is a filmmaker and harbors a creative outlook through and through, creating an independent space for design was the only logical step that would quench her thirst for visual expression. Hence, Image Ark came to existence as a communication agency or creative studio that works on branding, graphic design, filmmaking, and anything that would let them transform visual design into an idea. “We are not an advertisement company” explains Marie Ange, “We promote messages rather than products.”

According to the team, the first step towards creating Image Ark was to give it a physical location. The space the studio built defined what Image Ark has become. “We were planning on renting out just a floor” shares Marie Ange, “but when we found our location, it was still under construction. The owner told us that if we were willing to take three floors, we would have the liberty to design the space to our needs; and so, we got three floors.” For the studio getting this extra space proved to be like getting a blank canvas where they were free to paint whatever they wished to bring to life. Marie Ange who had initially only thought about creating a space for filmmaking and communication for development went on to discover a liking for other subjects. “I thought, if we could do filmmaking then we could do graphic designs too! From there it just grew into what it is today,” she shares. Today Image Ark functions not only as a studio space, but also as an open gallery and a showroom for products they have worked on.

The work ethic

The projects that Image Ark has taken up have always fallen on a very vivid and colourful spectrum. With works that range from incorporating design into architecture to creating functional yet aesthetic products to even conducting social events for the art community, it’s a safe bet to say that Image Ark has made a name for itself with the creative versatility that it brings to its clientele. “Making meaningful communication” is what Image Ark believes in. “When Labim Mall approached us for branding, we decided that we were going for more than just the logo,” explains Marie Ange, “We don’t believe that just making an image is branding, if you can’t communicate then your logo fails.” While a logo or an image that has been associated with a brand may seem nothing more than just a visual, designers and creators are required to put in hours of research and brainstorming before they can even start penning down their first drafts. Designs are meant to be thoughtful and functional, each curve and each palette choice is something that carries symbolic meaning; and the studio has made this an extension of their working ethos.

“As designers or creative thinkers, we carry a responsibility to send an impactful message to the public and not be detrimental to a community.” says Swojan Newa, the art director at Image Ark. With this sense of responsibility Image Ark also merges an urgency to put Nepal forward at a visual level. According to Marie Ange, “Very often, what comes from developing countries is looked upon as inferior globally.” The studio wanted to show that good design can come from anywhere in the world and train communities to acknowledge good design without any socio-economic biases. A clear example of Image Ark bringing together a cultural conscience with modern innovative design would be to look at how the team worked on the typography of the word “Nepal” for the Visit Nepal 2020 campiagn they undertook. “The visuals we made for Nepal were made to go to the rest of the world. Naturally, we included images, colours and shapes that people associate with Nepal,” tells Marie Ange, whilst showing how their take on “Nepal” incorporated shades of red and yellow along with symbolic iconography like the ‘tika’ and subtle triangle flags. However, she also adds, “While giving the typography a Nepali look is important, it is also necessary to give it a modern appeal. Not ‘modern Western’ but a ‘modern Nepali’ portrayal. So, we are always inspired by what history has done before; and then we take it and tweak it to look a little more modern.” She adds passionately, “Every country has its own character, its culture, its aesthetics, its philosophy. These in fact are the country’s brand. We can’t design Nepal to look a certain way, it already does that. What we can do is take inspiration from that identity and bundle it into a set of visuals that are palatable to an audience and under which Nepalese can rally under”.

A family first

Before it is a workplace, Image Ark is a place where creatives from all fronts can find companionship. You limit creativity when you are isolated inside your own bubble; this is what the team at Image Ark believes in. For a creative to grow and nurture themselves they must mix and exchange with one another; and this is exactly what Image Ark does, create a fusion of things, of old and new, of different genres, of different styles. Figuring out who does what best and integrating their skill into the team has proven to be a beneficial step for the studio.

“We usually start the day around ten, then we work until we’re too tired to continue,” jokes Marie Ange, when asked about how a typical day at Image Ark is for the team.“I’ve been a nomad all my life and staying at the same place doing the same thing tends to bore me; so here we are willing to keep trying to work with newer and more unconventional styles.”

She explains that there isn’t a typical day at the studio and that the team works best when they find inspiration in the air. Furthermore, in an attempt to avoid hierarchies and promote a cohesive work environment, the team shares a singular space regardless of their roles. For the close-knit team, it’s the little things that make all the difference. Things such as having lunch together at what they affectionately call ‘Rato Chowk’ while talking about seemingly mundane themes from bees and critters to whatever else the conversation leads to… “We’ve made a lot of friends and connections from having an open gallery at Image Ark and organising events like The Art Market,” adds Newa.

Working with flaws to improve

One of the first things you will notice if you visit the studio space at Image Ark is a framed message that reads, “You’ve done it all wrong, and that’s perfect.” As creatives and even more so as humans, the studio believes that people need to fail in order to succeed. “I want my team to explore and be curious,” claims Marie Ange, who wants her team to accept and overcome their flaws and failures. And you can see this with mountains of pages covered in tiny scribbles from brainstorming sessions, and drafts after drafts of trial visuals that the team is working on.

For Marie Ange, one of the most important things she wanted Image Ark to develop was lack of hierarchy and a culture where her team is encouraged to make mistakes. “I won’t trust you if you don’t make mistakes. You are not a machine,” explains Marie Ange. Embracing the principle of making mistakes and failing a couple of times along the way is vital for everybody to become better than before. “If Image Ark doesn’t make mistakes and aspires to be better than what it was before then what is the point of it all?” questions Marie Ange. She adds, “Maybe we might not be the best, but for us what matters is that we are making an effort to improve ourselves and our communities.”

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