Rejane Dal Bello, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and now lives in London, has followed an unusual path to success. Accompanying her dad on his physician’s rounds, it seemed she might follow in his footsteps. Instead, she discovered a passion for art in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she was a foreign exchange student, and there was no turning back. But like Milton Glaser, with whom the designer studied at New York’s Parsons after completing high school, she also has a passion for people, particularly those suffering from illness, disease, and poverty.
She ended up in the Dutch city of Rotterdam to study at what she considered the best university for combining design and social work, and because of her pro bono work for a children’s hospital in Peru, the design studio she worked at to fund her way through school put her work on their site to give them credibility with health-centered nonprofits. It worked. The design studio scored a major campaign on Alzheimer’s, a project Dal Bello considers her finest work to date and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Unlike most of us, who give back on the side, Dal Bello is making change an integral part of her work, whether enlightening the Dutch about an often unseen disease or creating a children’s book for kids born with cleft palate: a welcome reminder that design can have an impact on people’s lives and that “good design” doesn’t always refer to the quality of a global ad campaign. But Dal Bello is also, at her core, an artist and a free spirit.
We caught up with the impassioned globe-trotting designer to talk about her travels, her arduous work process, her recent Earth Art series, and her most ambitious project to date, called Dr. Giraffe, which puts those many hours at her father’s side to good use.
You grew up in a family of scientists. Did you ever consider taking that path?
Doctors. My father is a pediatrician, my mother is a dentist, and my older brother became a doctor, and the other one became a dentist. I never went to museums growing up but did go to hospitals with my dad, so there was not much cultural upbringing in my family. My father pushed me to be a dentist but it did not work out.
How did you realize you were meant to be a designer?
For me it was eye-opening when I did a high school exchange program in Lynchburg, Virginia. I had put myself into an art class there and did art every day, so I really developed. Before that, I could not say that I had talent because I had nothing to show. People just thought I made funny drawings. At the end of the school year the school had a big audition and I won best in show. That was my first awakening that I should be doing something with the arts.
You’ve had such a global life. What made you leave Brazil again?
I finished university in 2000 and, after being really tech-focused in school, I decided I wanted to do graphic design. I didn’t have money to do a master’s, but I thought, Why not do a course with a master? So I went to New York to do a six-month continuing education class with Milton Glaser.
What was it like working with him?
We talked a lot, and had similar feelings about design. At that time people still did cigarette campaigns, and he would say that when we communicate something we have to take responsibility for it. I could relate. At my first job in Brazil they had to do a cigarette advertising campaign and I went to my boss and said, “Sorry. I don’t work on cigarettes or alcohol. I don’t believe I can sell it, even though it is my responsibility to.” Thank God my boss did not fire me. You have to have a point of view, which nowadays is normal, but back then it was not.
How did you end up in Rotterdam after that?
I did not feel that New York City was the right place for me and went back to Brazil and worked in the biggest studio in the country. My wish was to do a master’s where I could combine social work with graphic design, but Brazil did not have the means to support that field of study. I found what I was looking for in Holland, and learned it would be cheap to do a master’s. It was 1,500 euros per year – ridiculous! Also, my father’s father is an immigrant of Europe so I was able to get a passport. After six months in Holland, I got a job at Studio Dumbar, a place that, even though nobody spoke my language, they spoke my vision. We spoke to each other in our visual language. We understood each other. I stayed there for eight years.
The body of work you did there is extraordinary. Why do you think that is?
It’s quite funny you say that, because I struggled with a lot of the work I did there. Much of my work did not get used. Not the projects you’ve seen, of course; those got through. But there was one point at Studio Dumbar when it was hard to get anything approved. My work went a little bit too far; it was too pushy. I’m always the one who never does the same thing twice. It became too painful, because so much of myself went into the process. I started collecting everything, the sketchbooks, to remind myself that it wasn’t all in my head: I actually did this work.
Are there certain steps you take when you’re looking for branding solutions for a new client?
Let me just say that I hate the word branding. I like the word identity. Branding is such a big deal nowadays, commercializing. But I’m about personalizing, and I think that’s the problem I have with the design profession. Because an identity comes out of identifying what it is that makes you different and unique. Our profession is confused as to what our role is. A lot of students these days are feeling that visual identity and branding have become almost like a separate category for them, because they feel the need to always be the same.
My process is to see every client as a different entity. What I do first is understand the core of the project. Once you have the core, you need a satellite concept that will make it different from any other project. That helps you find the balance graphically.
One of your projects at Studio Dumbar was your work for the for the organization Alzheimer Nederland, where you used disappearing or disintegrating type for phrases like “Not clear anymore” or “Not home anymore,” which you can barely make out, to convey the sense of losing one’s way, and in a sense one’s life. What went into that?
I remember that when the creative director told me about it I said, “I have to work on this.” I’d been doing pro bono work for around 14 years for a project in Peru, a children’s hospital. So Dumbar had put that work on their site’s portfolio page, to get across that they had people with design experience around diseases and hospitals.The process was great.
My first batch of sketches was about how to translate the disease, the core of the disease, because it is about communication. That’s the only way you can actually know if somebody has Alzheimer’s; it’s not a physical or visual disease, like AIDS or cancer. It doesn’t have an identifiable thing that shows itself. The person is lost. The person repeats things several times, saying or for getting things. It’s about losing yourself. So that’s why I ended up with my visual concept. Alzheimer’s is such a big problem that it needed a sensitive solution. For me visually, it was not just about making a design. It was about realizing that I had to communicate that this is something people die from. It was the project of my life.
It must have been hard to leave the Netherlands.
Overall, working at Studio Dumbar was positive, but after nine years I decided it was time to move on. It’s like your parents’ house: You love them but you have to leave. Then I got an offer to come to Wolff Olins in London. I wasn’t planning to take the job but thought about this as a challenge, a big agency in another city. I needed a fresh start.
But when I got to Wolff Olins I did not fit in; I wasn’t a good fit for their design. At Studio Dumbar I was not asked to be a creative director. Instead, I was just creating. At Wolff Olins, when you grow older you become more part of the business. You become more of a leader but you don’t do that much design anymore. I like working with others but I wanted to actually do the job myself. I realized this is not how I was going to grow, so I left after two years. I decided it was time for me to try having my own studio. I had always done my own social projects, and I wanted that again.
Tell me about the Dr. Giraffe children’s book series. The simple lines and shapes and limited palette of red, black, and white almost remind me of Dick Bruna’s work.
Thank you. The series is a social project I initiated that’s designed around health. I’m working with a doctor and a copywriter and we’re going to create a library of all the diseases. We’re starting with chickenpox and then cleft palate, which is a problem you’re born with, and then leukemia. Using the character Dr. Giraffe, we’re telling stories that parents can use to let their child learn about the progression of the disease a child has–the story of the illness in a metaphorical way. Like the Alzheimer’s project, it’s quite emotional, but it’s helping give a voice to parents, so they can talk about a disease and have a more lightweight way to tell the story.
What is an example?
My niece has a friend that’s going through leukemia, and I read the book to my niece so she could also understand what was happening with her friend. This book’s concept is that since it is a deadly disease there is a “Land of the Big” where the little giraffe wants to go, where she can grow. She travels there with her balloons, which are metaphors for the cells that become weak while she travels, and she has to do a landing in the Land of Chemo first to get stronger and wait to get better so she can continue on to the Land of the Big.
They’re hard stories to tell. With this one girl, we read it at least five times, because every time she wanted to know which stage she was at. When she first read it, she was not aware of this. But she wanted to read it again, so she could be comforted knowing that it’s going to stop, that it’s going to go away. I want to put these books out as a test, and everybody’s doing it as a pro bono. The idea is to have partnerships and investors to be able to offer this to any hospital or doctor.
You’ve also started dipping a toe into the world of fine art. How did your Earth Art project come to be?
I was going through a dark period after Wolff Olins, and I knew that I had to get out of it to survive. This project really expressed that, because I did not want to be in the present. I wanted to be somewhere else. I’d always had this obsession with Google Earth and I started collecting images from it and putting them in a folder. One night, I was looking at one of them, admiring it. And then something just came into my head – the rivers looked like strokes of paint and I could take this, because it looked like a stroke of paint, and make something else.
Then I had the idea that the images I looked at resembled the expression of an artist from a specific period of art history. One looks like Mondrian, and another one is Pollock: Pollock paints from a river in Nigeria! It looked like it was literally a Pollock painting. I wanted to make a new world – to paint images of Earth in an abstract form. It was an artistic way of showing how I saw the world and how I want my world to be: much more artistic, open, and emotional.
Do you think of London as your home at this point?
I hope I don’t have to be in one place to do design. When everything’s the same, I think it’s so sad. I’m not saying no, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I cannot say I’ve found the place. I don’t think I ever will.