Nikki Gonnissen: No more rotten tomatoes

The Amsterdam-based graphic designer tells us why she stepped out of her comfort zone to design for the Dutch Socialist Party.

“For us it has always been important that our profession – graphic design – has an effect on society,” says Nikki Gonnissen, director and co-founder of visual communications firm Thonik. She was drawn to working in politics by the assassination of popular right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn by a left-wing activist in 2002.

“It’s crazy that in a democratic country someone should get killed like this,” says Gonnissen.

Before, much of Thonik’s work came from clients in the cultural sector, such as museums, whose ethos mirrored their own. “Artists and designers always think freely […] They have an open mind,” she says. “In the cultural field, everybody has the same way of thinking, the same mentality.” But the changing political environment in Holland triggered them to step outside of their comfort zone.

They decided to work with the Socialist Party in the Netherlands because they could see a role for design to help the party in its desire “to bridge the gap between people and politics”.

Thonik redesigned the party’s logo depicting the notorious thrown tomato of dissent to reflect a more positive aspect of the symbol: as a nourishing offering. The designers wanted the new identity to convey the party’s shifting image – it is no longer seen only as the political opposition. Instead, the branding campaign highlights the Socialists’ new goal to provide constructive alternatives as a contributing member of parliament.

The simplicity of the design resounded well with the public, complementing the humanitarian ideology of the party. The party has experienced a meteoric rise this year, with the red SP tomato and Helvetica type becoming more and more ubiquitous on signage and merchandise.

Gonnissen once again flips a common perception on its head for the Socialist Party’s challenge to new Dutch policy governing home-based care for the elderly. The studio made a deliberately controversial protest video to grab the media’s attention and rouse the nation into action.

In the video, an elderly lady undresses until she is naked. The video is a statement about the fact that cash-strapped seniors are now forced to rely on an ever-revolving team of strangers to help them with the most intimate of tasks, resulting in an impersonal and insensitive level of care.

The film brought their indignity into the public eye and created a media storm. The outrage brought a new level of interest, saturating media outlets with the issue and dragging other parties into the debate, ensuring that the voice of the Socialist Party’s spokesperson was finally heard.

Gonnissen’s intervention worked: “The law was turned back to the old situation after some years."

We interviewed Gonnissen at AGI Open 2014 in São Paulo, the annual conference of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) that brings together prominent graphic designers in the world. Founded in Switzerland in 1954, AGI's mission is to promote graphic design by means of talks, publications and educational activities.