Designing a portfolio website for the artist Tom Heerschop

The assignment consisted in designing a portfolio website for the Amsterdam-based artist Tom Heerschop that does not only display his tremendous amount of work but also enables the viewer to see the relations between his artworks and his life story being characterized by dramatic ups and downs.


About Tom Heerschop
Tom studied fine art at the Rietveld Academy and the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, which are said to belong to the most prestigious art academies in the Netherlands, and was deemed a very promising artist. Though at the age of 25, when everything seemed to be right on track – he was successfully working as an artist and started a family – soon his life went off the rails. His behavior was marked by agression, violence, lethargy, depression, impulsivity, memory loss as well as a lack of empathy and ambition. Upon insistence by his wife, he did several therapies but there was no improvement in sight. Though he was very productive in the beginning of this period – producing and selling more than 100 artworks per year – his condition got worse until he was not able to work anymore and the situation became unbearable for his family.

In September 2008, it was discovered that a benign tumor has been growing in his head for at least ten years.  The diagnosis was rather a release than a shock as it proved that he is not crazy but ill. After the tumor has been removed he was almost euphoric, resulting in a very productive phase. But, after things have settled back into their everyday routine, his usual workflow vanished and he fell back into old behavior patterns. A couple of months later, another specialist in neurology discovered that he has a considerable brain impairment that has been caused by the tumor. Although Tom is on the mend again, he is forced to slow down for several years and has to learn to live with the limitations of his brain injury. Looking back at his work,  his illness had a huge influence on his work. The human brain, overload and explosion are topics that always recur in his artworks.


Getting started
Tom and his girlfriend (and manager) Bregje, came to our studio in search of an online presence that does not only display the heaps of artwork Tom produced in the past but also tells his story and draws attention to his comeback. We were immediately exited about the project due to his intriguing story and personality but also because it was a long desired wish for us to work for a contemporary visual artist.

As Tom’s story already offered numerous possibilities, we hardly needed any references or inspirational material. Bram and Maurits started with a conversation about the projects during lunch and went out for a walk. In this initial stage, they asked themselves how they could stand out from the crowd and would present themselves if they were a visual artist.


Concept and design
It was clear form the beginning that Tom’s story will play a central role in the concept, as you have to understand him to understand his work. The concept is based on the following three components that highly influenced his work: His brain tumor, his sheer productivity and the fact that he always draws right away without knowing beforehand what he is going to create.

Our initial idea of a narrative concept that takes you into Tom’s world directly met Tom and his wife’s expectations 

In contrast to many other visual artists that are rather reserved and keep themselves in the background, we’ve decided to make Tom present throughout the whole website. He is looking you straight in the eye from the moment you get to the website which surely makes the visit really intense and something you haven’t seen before. By clicking on his head, the ideas floating arond in his head become visible in the form of different animations. Even though Tom still has to be very careful with his energy, we asked him to actively contribute to the animations. For this reason, all of them are the result of a strong collaboration between our studio and Tom. In total, the website displays 50 customized animations that can be divided into four different types: GIF animations, SVG animations and animated collages. 
The portfolio is divided into different series that are displayed in chronological order. In this way, you can track back the different phases of his life, put them into context with his artistic development and discover the variety of his work. However, if you come to the end of each series or the whole portfolio, there is a loop bringing you back to the start. This of course has functional reasons but also alludes to Tom as an unstoppable maker and the seemingly endless loop of creation he is situated in.


Behind the scenes
During the concept development phase, we made certain changes bringing along some unexpected challenges. In the beginning, we thought about splitting the website into an introduction page with the animations popping off Tom’s head. Once we decided that Tom should be visible even in the deepest part of the website, we had to master some technical challenges, especially as we had to somehow place the massive amount of around 1200 artworks around his head. Also the amount of animations kept us busy, especially the rather complex ones consisting of more than 200 drawings and 24 frames per second. And as you can imagine, every now and then an inadvertent mistake happened such as a stroke that couldn’t be programmed or not connecting the laptop with the charger forcing us to start all over again.


Thanks Tom not only for sharing your personal story with us but also for putting so much energy in this project! 


Type Romance 01 → Eksell Display

Type Romance is a monthly reoccurring post about, you guessed it, our love for type. When it comes to typefaces, we keep falling in love. Every now and then you spot her, that special one with the extra curves. There are show-off types, who love to be on display all day long. But we also have a genuine love for the more basic types, because we wouldn’t know what to do without them. So this is a little ode to the beautiful shapes that we call fonts! By yours truly, Studio AIRPORT.

This time: Eksell Display

Eksell Display is a typeface that stands out because of it’s characteristic curves. This firm letter was hand-drawn by Olle Eksell in 1962 and was digitised by the font foundry Letters From Sweden.

The balancing act between artistic self-actualization and customer requirements

Common problems that need to be mastered in a design studio are, among others, lack of time, a low budget, keeping usability in mind within the design process as well as switching between projects that require a more functional solutions and those that require more creative ones. But the most challenging task design studios have to cope with, might be to reconcile the customer’s requirements with their own artistic vision.


What is the difference between art and design?
For Studio AIRPORT – as a design studio with a strong artistic orientation – this topic is of special interest. When asked about their opinion on what distinguishes design from art, they quickly agreed that for them design is applied and assignment-based. However, art and design sometimes fuse together and complement each other. Bram tried to explain this with a story: A carver is indisputable an artist as he produces sculptures. But as soon as somebody asks him to make a statue for him he also partly becomes a designer since he was not just asked to create an artwork but received the assignment to create a sculpture.


Discovering the artistic boundaries of an assignment
The tension between client’s demands and artistic self-actualization is especially noticeable in projects with a rather commercial goal which have to be picked every now and then as they pay the rent. But “that is part of running a company”, said Bram. Still, in his opinion, there has to be something interesting in every assignment. Joost, graphic designer at Studio AIRPORT, added that you can always make working on a certain project fun for yourself and tried to explain it by saying that every new assignment “is like discovering boundaries”. Though the assignment has to be carried out in accordance with the clients expectations, they always try to fill the given space with their creativity to the fullest potential. Bram emphasized that designing is not purely about artistic freedom but using your artistic talent and knowledge which you have developed over time to carry out an assignment.


Restrictions trigger creativity
Even though sometimes there are only limited possibilities to express themselves artistically in more commercial projects, there are two major benefits: Firstly, they create financial security that allows Studio AIRPORT to pick up projects that are personally appealing and in which they can invest more time. Secondly, such assignments can serve as a learning experience and promote artistic development in this way. According to Martijn, “the learning experience is sort of an answer to artistic self-actualization” and also Bram believes that “one sets the other in action”. Restrictions of a client may initially seem to narrow down artistic freedom when they actually challenge the designer to be even more creative. For this reason Bram considers the existing tension between artistic self-actualization and commercialization as a good thing since it impels the designer to search for alternative creative ways to solve a problem. In this way, they develop a broader skill set enabling them to put more value and depth into future projects. The willingness to learn is reflected in Studio AIRPORT various types of assignments and the broad application of different types of media and subjects. Nonetheless, it varies with each individual assignment how far the boundaries can be stretched. When working with companies operating in the creative industry or even artists themselves, the design of Studio AIRPPORT also comes closer to art. Read more about this in our post about working together with the artist Tom Heerschop.


A definition of being artistic
It is often argued that it lies in the nature of art to provoke and address controversial issues and that design does not reflect this as most design solutions are seldom of a critical but rather an aesthetic nature. But Bram argues that exactly the opposite is the case: Studio AIRPORT has been working on multiple social engaged projects, namely the Hart Island Project and Beyond Prison, both questioning societal issues. Though content and design are certainly two different things, design decisions can support and emphasize content in a more critical way, said Bram. Choosing to highlight a piece of content and putting it in a certain context influences the perception of the reader immensely. In the case of Hart Island, the largest tax funded cemetery in the world where mostly unclaimed and unidentified people are buried in mass graves that are inaccessible to the public, the design has been well thought of. Studio AIRPORT did not choose to highlight heavy blows of fate of individuals buried on the Island but to measure the time they have been buried there by visualizing it with the ‘clocks of anonymity’. This design decision surely underlined the project’s reprehensible nature. And exactly this ability – to think about the essence of a story and to visualize it correspondingly – is what Studio AIRPORT considers being artistic.


We are excited to hear your story.