12 Questions: Meet Dragan Lonar (Belgrade, Serbia)

In our 12 Questions blog series, we feature interviews with someone from the crowdSPRING community. For these interviews, we pick people who add value to our community – in the blog, in the forums, in the projects. Plainly – activities that make crowdSPRING a better community. Be professional, treat others with respect, help us build something very special, and we’ll take notice.

We’re very proud to feature Dragan Lon?ar (crowdSPRING username: draganfly) today. Dragan lives and works in Belgrade, Serbia.

1. Please tell us about yourself.
Hi everybody! I am Dragan. I finished graphic design at Belgrade University some fourteen years ago and ever since this is mostly what I’ve been doing, getting to the level of jobs like Art and Creative Director. Apart form my inherited immediate family, I have another family, consisting of my fellow human rights defenders, and the youngsters that need some support in building self-esteem and major encouragement, since it is very difficult to be gay in Serbia. I also have enemies, but I assure you that I never did anything to turn them against me, except for my liberal sense of humour and their unfounded envy. I lived almost a year in Helsinki, Finland, and over six years in London, UK, where I had various experiences in fast paced market, even to the point of being a Creative Partner in my own company that was buried after several unpaid pitches, just after a half million pounds budget branding and launch campaign. Somebody would say that I was never bored in my life as sometimes I cannot recall all the details. Also, because my design interests and experiences are so diverse. I practice Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism as the tool of global peace movement through the SGI organisation, changing my karma and doing something what is called ‘the human revolution’. I am one of the leaders in SGI Serbia. I love cooking the mix of Mediterranean, Scandinavian, Japanese and Thai food, and love swimming and jogging. All of that, of course, when I can grab some time from super needy clients and horrible socio-political situation in Serbia. Currently I count 38 years of age, but who’s counting… I intend to stay forever young!

2. How did you become interested in design?
When I was a child, my parents were not really poor but we lived very modestly. I was never bribed with toys, or I always wanted the most expensive ones which they couldn’t afford. I was always inclined toward quality rather than quantity. Since my sister is much older than me, I could be considered as a single child who was often alone. So I spent time making castles of playing cards, or I would recycle any packaging that would come into my hands, and make furniture, cars, or anything that I could resemble or that took my fancy at given moment. Later, I don’t see if I really had a conscious choice. It was more an inclination that had to be fulfilled.

3. Which of your designs are your favorites and why?

First one is definitely the KATZ fruit aromatic brandy, a local small manufacturer brand in Serbia that use only quality ingredients. The owner’s surname is Katzenberger, which is in German ‘a cat’s hill’. The client at first suggested to use a cat and I was absolutely furious about it, thinking it would be stupid to state the obvious. But then, when I saw the bottles he pre-ordered, I though that the Art Deco would be a perfect style for it. I found on the internet some beautiful detailed illustration of a cat from the Art Deco period, so that inspired me to simplify the shape of it and create an elegant brand, representing the sophistication of the product. The packaging was displayed at several design exhibitions in Belgrade and picked some local awards. Then the controversy started from certain design university professors, stating that brandy (RAKIJA) is a national drink, and that the brand should convey the tradition which Art Deco in Serbia is not, apart from few buildings here and there. Then I realised that I poked the devil of resistance to diversity, which is probably my main mission in life.

The second one is something that I call the DIVERSITY DESIGN, and something that several international and local clients praised, but never got guts to go ahead with. In the end it is not being used, so it is up for grabs if some client have no problem of it being already published. The whole point is setting up a socially aware design practice, promoting racial and sexual diversity through packaging graphics, mostly applicable in energy drink or perfume and cosmetic industry. This application of HUGO BOSS brand on my design was sent to Procter & Gamble among others, but they were not interested. I love this because it blends my two greatest passions, design and promotion of human rights and diversity among people. Somebody will eventually pick it, realizing the promotional benefits of it.

The third one is a campaign for ALEXANDAR NIKOLICH, a Serbian native fashion designer currently based in New York, with Branka Katic, also Serbian native actress who two years ago had a break in Hollywood, starring alongside Johnny Depp in ‘Public Enemies’. The idea is to revamp the 30s Hollywood glamour, communicating sophistication of the garments and a touch of constructivism characteristic for Art Deco style. I love it because Branka is such a darling who offered to put her face in front of the last year’s promotion of Pride Parade in Belgrade, still a very controversial subject. Also, I did a lot of fashion editorials, but I love when they blend with celebrity portraiture, something like with Cate Blanchett or Tilda Swinton.

The fourth one like the second one never saw the light of the day, which is probably my biggest regret, but I had no influence over the outcome of the project. The symbol is finally registered to ROTARY WATCHES who was my client, but it was under a four year intellectual property dispute, because Cartier unjustly claimed some rights on inspiration derived from ancient Chinese symbols used in their Le Baiser Du Dragon series, although there is no resemblance, apart from the historic background which I believe cannot be copyrighted. In this project, I designed the five watch faces and the packaging as well, but the market went unstable and there was this dispute to block the whole process. The main catch is in the logo I created as an inspiration from my visit to the Oriental section of the British Museum in London, because I was able to integrate numbers 12, 3, 6 and 9 into a Chinese circular symbol. It is also a product of my Buddhist practice, and apart from the unjust controversy, this is the reason why it is so dear to me.

The fifth one was packaging for the ORCHARD snack bars, awarded here on crowdSPRING two years ago, and I am so glad that the buyer had an eye for something that is not the typical perception of what a healthy snack bar should look like. They always make them too busy with design, probably to confuse the consumer and grab the money.

The sixth one was for PRIDE BELGRADE designed last year, having the idea of establishing it as traditional symbol. It features a statue of VICTOR, a symbol of Belgrade as letter I, and the concept is to have each year different design elements in rainbow colour to accompany it. Another reason I chose the VICTOR statue is that it waited for 15 years to be put in the main street of Belgrade in 1920s and at the end it was placed 17 metres high in the corner of the hill, not to be seen by the Serbian girls because of its nudity. Morality… bah!

The seventh is identity done for the NATIONAL MATHEMATICS PARTNERSHIP in the UK, here displayed on the website, where the letterhead contains instructions to fold an origami dove instead of trashing it when not needed.

The eight is a pixel tree, picked a month ago here on the crowdSPRING by THE SUSTAINABILITY OPERATIONS SUMMIT, after being offered to dozen other green initiatives before, that at one point I started doubting the originality of it… but I was proven wrong. I like to be proven wrong in such instances.

The ninth design is the identity for IMTEL, a local Serbian computer manufacturer and their building with the store called CUBE. The branding was partially used, due to the fact that the client have bitten more than they can chew, and I am really sad that it never got to look like I presented here, with glass blocks of the building randomly lighting up, lit plexy-glass square metre cube in the entrance, and display furniture that you can read from the distance.

The tenth design is for the purpose of not presenting myself as complete failure, a catalogue for CERTINA, Swiss watch manufacturer. The strangest thing about this is that I designed it in 2002 when I was hired by the Spirit advertising agency in London, I got paid for initial concepts and never heard about it ever since. I returned to Belgrade in 2006 and my then boss dragged me into a watch shop. I have some thing about the watches, also bad experience with the watches, so I generally avoided the watch shops. I was quickly deceived to get in, and the first thing that I saw was completed watch catalogue based on my art direction. I couldn’t believe it.

4. Who/what are some of the biggest influences on your design work?
I always pick dribs and drabs from anything around me, be it an influence from the nature or from the urban existence. I couldn’t pick anyone or anything in particular, because I would accuse myself of copying someone. I don’t stick to any defined style, because I consider myself as wide as the universe, and I always have in mind what each individual business or organisation needs, rather than forcing my own style. But, certainly there are people in the past and present that I admire, like Michelangelo Caravaggio, Alvar Aalto, Antoni Gaudi, Philip Stark, Ross Lovegrove, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Tobin, Stefan Sagmaister, who either do a minimalist style or structured chaos, and they could be considered more as the influence in the thought process rather than for the style itself. Musically Björk, and literary Ursula Le Guin.

5. Please tell us about your creative process.
When I was younger, I used to be a person who would think and think the perfect design and then get frustrated because nothing would later work in reality. Throughout 15 years of experience I learnt that I should try to do at least a little bit, and then through my own self-censorship method check what would actually work. I always try to do the hardest thing to see if it is possible, which is always time consuming and often not rewarding, but I never regret time spent even if it doesn’t pay off. As with everything else in my life, I couldn’t cope if my conscious is not clear that I attempted ‘the impossible’.

6. Mac or PC?
Ooooh, definitely Mac! I like the sophistication both of the hardware and software. I find Windows clunky and chunky (and clumsy) which is not an option for a subtle soul like mine. And I like the openness of the Mac platform not being restrained to the full screen, although now they are more and more similar. Mac interface is visually non-intrusive, and since don’t I consider myself as I fool, I don’t need a foolproof design. In the software area, I mostly stick to Adobe, Illustrator for vectors and Photoshop for colour correction and image intervention. I use InDesign when I have a huge job or something with many pages. Sometimes I flirt with Poser, Flash and AfterEffects, when the job description requires renderings or motion of some kind. I just love Mac office suite, especially Keynote and handy tools like Font Book and Dictionary… And, of course, the iTunes are always on.

7. In what ways have you dedicated your life to human rights?
I am a person who has always been sensitive to injustice. Being born left handed and gay, I was perceived as some kind of freak, despite my calm demeanor and non-conflicting personality. So, when I realised that it is my responsibility to defend diversity, it took me quite a while to see what I could actually do in that area, rather than just sit frustrated because my ideal world is not possible. I was born in former Yugoslavia, and at the age of 19 I was robbed from my country, being left in Serbia with rising nationalism that I detest. I found myself in surroundings where the whole world is becoming a global village, and yet my country is shrinking into a hole. I tried escaping my responsibility by leaving first to Finland and than to the UK, but after seven years I returned to face whatever I was running away from. Although I was involved in London for several years with Pink Singers, gay and lesbian community choir and Absolute Freedom Group, a LGBT part of the SGI Buddhist organisation that I belong to, somehow I wasn’t satisfied knowing that there are still huge problems in the country where I am from. So I returned and found a great organisation, Gay Straight Alliance in Belgrade, where I have been very active in the past three years. In the last two years, we were able to shift things from forbidden annual report presentation in the local cultural building, to this years presentation in the City Hall together with Mayor as the speaker. We organised the first successful Pride Parade in Belgrade last year, for which I also did the visual identity and creative direction. It is still a huge struggle, since system of values in Serbia is heavily distorted so there is a corruption even in the LGBT movement, and we lack funding for education of the general population to achieve our goals. But still I dedicate huge amount of my time to encourage young people to take up a peaceful struggle for human rights, that I learnt from my mentor Daisaku Ikeda, president of the lay Buddhist organisation SGI, despite all the external and internal obstacles that I and my friends face.
8. What is the design industry like in Serbia?
Huh… I don’t wish to sound negative toward my country and surroundings, but I must be realistic and preserve my honest and truthful approach. Serbia is still very politicised country, and since it is still in some form of economic ghetto, there is no real quality based competition on the market. There is a share of what’s going on distributed to those who indebted certain political parties, and there are still many people who get jobs just because they are someone’s relative or friend, regardless of their capabilities. The corruption index is still very high, so the rules of the healthy or open market usually don’t apply. Therefore, there is not much work around, especially not quality work, so designers who were in position to be fortunate, do anything in their power to prevent others to be seen or heard of. Some sort of elitist aura is very typical for Serbia. On the other hand, for the people who have no idea of importance of design, they would usually say ‘I have a nephew who is good with computer so he can do it for 50 Euros’. Small businesses are not encouraged by the government, where you have to pay more taxes than you are able to charge for your work, everybody is owing money to everybody, and that chain goes on. When I was working in creative department of one publishing house, so many times I was given a business card to scan the logo because the client had a fight with designer for not paying, so the designer didn’t deliver the original files. Intellectual work is considered something that should be given for free, and it happened to me so many times that I could only charge creative service 10% above the fee for pre-press. There is usually no planning, so many times you have to break your neck to create something ‘for yesterday’, and I cannot stand sloppy work. Often, when the client hears of sustainable print solutions, they want to be in trend and boastful, but when they realise it will cost them even a 100 Euros more, they easily forget about the preservation of the planet. Now I’m trying to think of any positive experiences as a counterbalance, but I cannot really find one, so there you go.

9. Please describe your typical work day.
Firstly, I never in my life had a privilege to have a typical work day. Maybe for one year when I was working in McCann Erickson advertising agency. But even there I took on some non-commercial internal art project that I was doing in my free time, when I finished servicing L’Oreal, Maybelline and Fanta, as I was an Art Director in charge of them. Since I became a freelancer, my life is a complete mess, paying off the mortgage, chasing the clients and doing the human rights activism. So, sometimes, to get myself from immediate financial danger, I hang on crowdSPRING from morning to late at night in hope that I would secure at least few awards from dozens of submissions I send. On the better days, when I have secured paid work, I get more relaxed, so I have time for healthy cooking and jogging, to repair the damage of my arse turning into a chair shaped potato. It is tough living in Serbia without any client to stick with you, despite fantastic references. So, now I am constantly on the buzzer, and even though I tell myself so many times that I won’t accommodate certain unreasonable requests, I have to stick 24-7 because I have to sustain my life to be able to complete social missions.

10. What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being a
graphic designer?
Many clients or buyers here on crowdSPRING tell me that I am ahead of the time in my concepts. I noticed general lack of risk taking in branding, the opposite of something that was so characteristic for the 80s (something that built the Apple or Benetton brands). Everybody want to ‘play safe’ now and to ‘stick out from the crowd’ at the same time, which is contradictory even in thought, let alone in reality. So, the most rewarding part is when the client or the buyer recognise the branding potential and uniqueness that I offer and take the courage to put in in practice. The challenging part of the whole process is people who know that they don’t want many things, but they cannot put their finger to what they want. Then I have to drag out of them something from their subconscious mind, and that’s when my profession turns into a psychologist (or a mind reader), which can be so draining. Also, in Serbia, getting paid for the work done is almost an artistic form of itself that takes so much time and energy that could be used for creative process instead.

11. What advice would you offer to someone considering graphics design
as a career?
‘Become a lawyer, my son!’ Hehehehe… No, really… no matter how sometimes hard it is, I love my profession. I wouldn’t feel confident to charge the fee for anything else, even though I enabled myself with other skills I can do professionally. There is a sort of urge in some people to create beauty or order, and this is something that is not a matter of career choice, but the choice of life. I never thought I really had a choice. I have been considering some other options, but they never seemed right. So, go ahead with your dreams! It is a huge risk, more obstacles on the way than the rewards, but once you get the reward, you feel like you got ten. If you are seeking security, then become a lawyer or a bank clerk, and watch your soul craving for excitement disintegrate between facts and figures. Not giving up your dreams is the key! No matter what happens…

12. What do you do with your free time?
Free time? You must be joking! There was a great advertising campaign in the UK for Virgin Mobile: “No rest for the wicked thumbs!”. Being a very alert person, I see everything that needs to be fixed. What I really enjoy for relaxation, I usually don’t get. So, I don’t lament about it anymore. In my free time I currently write an interview for crowdSPRING even though I have a pile of work waiting, so even if this is not really my free time, I want to do it. And not for the purpose of self promotion, but as some kind of legacy for any fragile soul caught in between wants an needs. My lovely friend Marko will come this evening, so we’ll chant together and grab some bite… probably watch some film. I love movies and simplicity in life, since I’m usually surrounded by chaos (latest update, we moved socialising for tomorrow).


Hvala, Dragan!