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Unity in identity - thonik

13 April 2021

Team thonik ©thonik
As Dutch Design Week gears up for a new visual identity, we talk to Director and Designer Thomas Widdershoven and Designer Roy Terhorst of thonik, the design studio behind the new look.

Founded by Nikki Gonissen and Thomas Widdershoven in 1993, thonik have been behind some of the most iconic visual communication in the Netherlands (and elsewhere) ever since. Taking delight in bridging the divide between society and institutions with bold and playful communication is their mark: their humour and active participation in an ongoing relationship with their work, the flourish that identifies them - The name ‘thonik’ is a hybrid mix of the names Nikki and Thomas and reveals much of their playful character.

Social Reasoning behind the Surface

Should the success of a visual identify be measured by its iconic stature? “We discovered that we have had quite a few logo anniversaries lately, quite a few things that we’ve done are still around, they seem to be quite iconic", muses Thomas, “it's a bit of a difficult word because it means that it is so strong and so beautiful that it stands out in any situation, which is a bit different from the longevity of existing logos and designs, but still, there is an overlap.”

Thomas is talking about the visual identity thonik created twenty years ago for the Government of Amsterdam, which was implemented in 2002. The concept that the city and government share one symbol was a bold move. Yet, almost 20 years later, the identity remains in place, instantly recognisable as representing the city of Amsterdam.

Other instantly recognisable identities from thonik include Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam and Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam, both of whom reach the age of 15 this year, whilst their generative logo for Dutch broadcasting network VPRO has seen over a billion incarnations over the past 11 years.

What does a great visual identity do? “It has to represent a logic’ Thomas explains, “It has to have a reason why it looks a certain way. If you can explain it, then there is a reason why it can last a long time.”

“We feel strongly related to Eames"

Time seems to be wrapped up in the world of identity design. There is also an understanding, in thonik's case, of how society-at-large interacts with brands and institutions. Perhaps there is something in the scalability of communication, or in the deconstruction of monoliths and understanding of the human social factors at play in design that makes thonik tick? There is something of the Eames Powers of Ten film about their approach – hovering high above, then swooping down to the granular visual vision.

“We feel strongly related to Eames", laughs Thomas, “they were a couple, they built their own studio…I do think that we think of communities that we bring together around the theme or the brand. Although we would love to do more commercial, we somehow get more excited when it’s something more socially driven, where people come together, either to be governed by a city or to cherish the fact that they are all designers. I do think there is a happy and special part to what we do, and that’s also why we like the vibrant warmth of colours in our work. We really want to get some energy in these festivals and communication, even if it is from the government.”

Connecting with Empathy

Identity design is commissioned to connect people. Does thonik feel empathy with those that it represents? “We are the audience ourselves. In Amsterdam, we didn’t do any other city, we did our own city” reasons Thomas, “With our own broadcasting organisation [VPRO], which is really geared to our kind of people, like Roy and I. And now, of course, Dutch Design Week, which is also where we are in the middle: We are part of the audience and part of the makers, and that’s what we want to cherish.”

thonik have been 'in the middle of Dutch design for 28 years, longer than even Dutch Design Week. A relative newcomer, Roy Terhost has been with the studio for eight years. What has he noticed about thonik's evolution in that time?

“thonik had already doing motion design since 2000/2001 but a bit here and there, and I think when I came in, I wanted to add motion to every project, and there were clients that asked for a logo and got a moving motion design! I really love motion design, but I also think it's another [new] view on graphic design, and I think we use it in every project now.”

This new view of what graphic design can be; unstuck, fluid, generative, ever-evolving, has marked a new direction for identity design, led by thonik. This direction, in this socially-led studio, was down, in no small part, to keep the design team happy and interested in their work.

"It’s not like there is a pitch, we win it, and we work with them and make a logo and say goodbye."

Roy picks up on this point, “I think that what is interesting about making an identity is that it can grow after a while. It’s not like there is a pitch, we win it, and we work with them and make a logo and say goodbye. When we agree on the concept, then we can make beautiful stuff for years.”

Here, time, once again, reveals what make thonik tick. The Dutch Design Week logo that thonik has re-worked is already 14 years old. If the new identity lasts, as others have done, then we can expect to see the logo reaching middle age.

But it’s not just a trend of longevity. It is seeing that visual identity should be socially driven, that visual identity can be a tool that not just symbolises, but actually fosters a sense of unity that thonik really delivers on. Understanding our points of connection is what propels design onwards, thonik have just restarted the stopwatch.

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