The Scoop - Maaike Bakker

How did you find out about Open Window and how did you start working for OW?

I had a few friends that studied at Open Window so it was always on my radar. They would often share glimpses of their projects with me, so I was always interested in seeing what they were doing. Their work made an impression on me which made me curious about Open Window. At a later stage, a part-time illustration lecturer job opened up and that’s when I got the opportunity to start teaching at Open Window. Eventually, I was presented with the chance to go full-time, and here I am…

How long have you been a lecturer?

In total, I think it’s been about 12 or 13 years now. My teaching career started when I was filling in for a lecturer at another institution. I really enjoyed it as the focus was creative and it allowed me to work with people. Working as a creative can at times get lonely, so this seemed like a good balance. I think it’s my 10th or 11th year of working (and teaching) at Open Window this year. As lecturers, we can always learn from each other and from our students which makes this an interesting environment to be in. It’s rewarding to work with other creatives. Every student is different and has a different way of thinking about the world which they express through their work. As a lecturer, if you pay attention there is a lot to be gained… 

Can you briefly describe the different subjects within the VC department (illustration, photography, communication design), and how they work together to create a cohesive curriculum?

The three subjects in Visual Communication, including Communication Design, Photography and Illustration. These three subjects really complement and elevate each other. I think this is why many of our students end up pursuing a double major. 

All subjects are focused on creative problem-solving through strategic thinking. The main focus is developing visual content that is not just visually engaging and creative, but that also articulates the intended message with conceptual clarity and consideration. We encourage students to be technically proficient whilst maintaining critical thinking abilities that result in work with conceptual rigour and a solid sense of imagination. 

Photography involves the capturing and framing of a narrative. In the course, our students are presented with the opportunity to go on many exciting workshops and thus learn to shoot in a variety of settings, honing a good sense of all-around skills in their practice. They are also familiarised with the photography studio setting in our on-campus studio and learn how to use all the related equipment in a manner that allows them to arrive at imaginative and progressive results. 

Communication design is focused on a wide range of print and digital design applications in the field of branding, packaging, layout design and advertising among others while maintaining a strong focus on skills development and conceptual thinking. Our communication design students thus learn to apply their skills with great confidence and are provided with a comprehensive understanding of the field, all whilst being provided with the space to push their concepts and execution, testing what is possible within the field.

Illustration is all about creating visual storytelling and articulating carefully constructed messages through the exploration of different techniques, styles and mediums whilst maintaining conceptual clarity. Our students are taught to work as independent thinkers and are encouraged to work traditionally as well as digitally. Students have the opportunity to work on various projects, such as illustrating children’s books, developing editorial illustrations, painting illustrated murals and creating illustrated advertisements. 

In short, what we as Visual communicators do, is help shape the visual world around us by developing effective visual messages. Visuals form part of our daily lives and we encounter them in multiple places. But it is important to remember that these come from somewhere…(someone actually made this).

What career opportunities do graduates of the department typically pursue?

I would say it’s quite diverse and differs from specialisation to specialisation (or major to major) and of course also from person to person. I’m proud to say that our Visual Communication alumni have really helped to shape the South African creative landscape. Many of our alumni have become heavyweights and are now making great contributions to the creative industry, having participated with big brands and had involvement with massive projects. 

Some students go work at an agency or smaller company for a short stint and then progress to form their own studio. We have many students that go solo and freelance. Having a business comes with its own stresses, so some prefer to only focus on doing something that just allows them to focus on their creative practice. These are typically students that work at agencies or smaller companies where they contribute to a team and contribute to the creative output in a team format. We try our best to equip students for all scenarios. One thing that many alumni students are doing is forging their own unique creative career paths, taking the skills they have acquired during their studies, and then figuring out how to construct their own career path around what they can do and know and what interests them. 

Some of our students opt to continue with their studies by completing an Honours (and in some cases a Masters) in order to pursue a more academically oriented career. There are many options!

How do you prefer to stay up to date with what’s happening in the industry?

The industry is forever changing and things change at quite a fast pace. I suppose the creative industry is a very dynamic space. I enjoy researching what is happening in the creative industry on a global and local level. I have certain sites and print magazines that I like keeping up to date with (favourites are the site/blog ‘It’s nice that’ and print magazine ‘Elephant’ as well as the AIGA and AOI sites). In addition, I try to visit exhibitions and events relating to creative happenings. I also keep track of selective studios that create intelligent and creative work and try to stay up to date with the campaigns they’re working on. Beyond that, checking with people in the industry where possible is also important. Don’t just look on social media. Look beyond that and try to find out what the context of a project is. What was it for? How did the creative approach it? Other than just looking at the outcome, find out how the ideas developed and consider what the creative thinking was. This is just as important.

How do you balance teaching technical skills with fostering creativity and critical thinking in students?

Generally, our degree is structured in a way that allows students in the first year to mainly focus on acquiring new skills and obtaining an overview of the field. Once these more basic skills and overall understanding of the subject are in place, they go on to refine these skills, applying them to new, more advanced creative problems. Here the focus is no longer mostly focused on direct skill application but also on furthering conceptual development, making space for creative exploration and experimentation. This is then taken further, where students are encouraged to hone their own distinct creative voice. We (vc lecturers) want students to have strong technical skills in place, but they must also be able to share their thinking/the story behind the work. How can you make it meaningful to others? 

Can you speak to any recent personal projects that you’re particularly proud of?

Sure. I create work as a visual artist as well as as an illustrator (in a more commercial capacity). Last year I had an exhibition ‘An answer to an unknown project’ at David Krut Projects (printmaking studio) in which I got to share a body of monotype prints and etchings that  I developed in collaboration with their master printmakers in their workshop. This was a lot of fun as I was given the opportunity to develop new skills and also given complete freedom to try out new things within my practice. 

In terms of more commercially oriented work, I also had the chance to work on a Nedbank campaign at the end of last year. Despite tight industry deadlines, this also allowed for a lot of creative freedom and it was exactly the type of brief I enjoy executing. 

Top 5 favourite bands at the moment?

Whoa, this is a tough one. I’m a massive music fan so this is a tricky one to answer. A few bands/musicians I am listening to at the moment are Fever Ray, Young Fathers, Low, Yves Tumor and Tim Hecker.

Top 3 Podcasts?

At the moment I’m bingeing ‘Bandsplain’ (a podcast which explores the history and development of some key alternative/rock bands), the art podcast ‘Was mit Kunst?’(which features artist interviews with gallerist Johann König) and then I recently listened to the New Yorker podcast ‘Rabbit Hole’ (about what the internet is doing to us), which was also fascinating. 

Can you suggest any great resources for students in the VC department?

True Grit offers some free digital brushes and textures which are great to use. 

To our students and those with Adobe licences, there are also many great Kyle Webster brushes on Adobe as well as Adobe Fonts. In addition, to help get your work out there, there is the Adobe Portfolio that also links up with your Behance profile and is an easy tool to get your work out there in a professional manner. 

Our students also have access to Skillshare which offers a lot of great tutorials.

What’s your go-to creative snack?

Blueberries (always) and that baked mustard pretzel snack from Woolworths.

Any favourite hobbies?

Walking my dog (and generally going for long, brisk walks). I really enjoy reading fiction but not sure that really counts as a hobby. Trying out new recipes and interesting food (mostly the eating part, not so much the cooking). I guess also making art, looking at art (or any creative work) and illustrating, but these are more than hobbies to me.

​​How do you envision the VC department evolving or growing in the future?

I see us embracing experimentation more going forward. This involves looking at ways in which we can more actively use the Open Window Maker space and its offerings in our projects. This can hopefully invoke a stronger sense of play, exploration and curiosity in us and our students. 

In addition, we are looking to offer a postgraduate diploma soon which will allow students to complete an additional year before entering the industry. This is not only restricted to VC but will be available to all students. I am excited about this opportunity as I believe it will give students the possibility to expand their portfolio, further refine/exercise some of their practical skills, hone a new skill and obtain some entrepreneurial knowledge that will give them an advantage. Despite being well equipped to enter the industry after completing a 3-year degree, this might provide students with the chance to leave OW with an even more robust skill set and advanced creative thinking skills. 

Do you have any advice for prospective students that are looking into doing their Bachelor of Arts in Visual Communication?

As everywhere, there is a lot of competition in the creative industry, so if you know that this is for you, then work hard. Don’t worry about whether your work is good enough or compare what you are doing to what others are making. Just make as much as you can. That’s what matters. In terms of your work, do not be afraid to try new/different things as that is what studying is for. Know that creativity is not always easy. It requires discipline. Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration. Get busy!