The Shape of Fun: Dan Matutina and his playful approach to graphic design
Graphic designer and illustrator Dan Matutina describes his style as a mixture of handmade and digital, clean and dirty, old and modern aesthetics
April 2, 2020
Written by Elbert Or and Natacia Ann Esguerra
Images courtesy of Dan Matutina
For Dan Matutina, work is play and play is work. “Napansin ko lang one day na interesting pala ang mga status message ng friends ko sa Facebook,” he recalls. Picking out the status messages that caught his attention the most, he began creating digital poster illustrations out of textured basic shapes like circles and squares. The result is Status and Squares, a personal poster project that he showcased on his website in 2009 and 2010.
“I’ve always been fascinated by simple shapes and their power to communicate,” explains Matutina, describing his style as a “mixture of handmade and digital, clean and dirty, old and modern aesthetics.” He loves to play with textures and shapes in his works to make them his own.
Dan Matutina also loves working with restrictions. For his Status and Shapes project, he limited himself to using only three shapes—the square, triangle, and circle—to break down and translate his friends’ Facebook status messages. Restrictions, he explains, “make your mind work harder.”
One certainly can’t deny that Dan Matutina works hard: in addition to his self-initiated projects, he teaches graphic design and illustration classes at the University of the Philippines Diliman, and does freelance illustration and design work for both local and international clients such as Popular Mechanics, Google Asia, Coca-Cola and Nestlé. He is also co-founder of Ideals Creatives, an undertaking that creates websites, printed collaterals, motion graphics, and branding work for social causes, NGOs, and corporate foundations.
Each project he takes on, whether for clients or for himself, begins with an idea. “The first part that I try to crack is the idea, because I think that’s the hardest part,” he explains. When coming up with ideas, Dan usually steps out of the office and visits friends, or goes to malls or coffee shops to get his creative juices flowing for a fresh and new idea to give to his client. He carries with him a sketchpad or idea book, recording ideas as they come to mind. “Kasi kapag different environment, parang nare-refresh ‘yong mind,” he says.
Another source of inspiration for Dan Matutina is the internet. Instead of just art and design sites, though, he takes inspiration more from science and history websites, citing Wired.com and Arstechnica.com as two of his favorites. “Kasi ‘pag tumitingin ka lang sa mga illustration and design pieces, siyempre parang nagawa na sila ng iba. So at least, ibang sources of inspiration pinagkukuhaan ko ng idea.”
“Once I’m happy with the idea, minsan, nagre-relax na ako,” Dan says. As long as the idea is strong, he says the execution is easy. Executing his ideas usually involves creating or scanning textures (which can be made from anything, including splattering paint on various kinds of surfaces or crumpling paper), and then using a vector or digital illustration program to put everything together. Despite his preference for hand-drawn art, Dan explains that “especially for projects, it’s just more convenient if I work with digital.”
Once he’s finished with the work, he usually shows it to his sibling, who is a computer engineer. “Medyo wala siyang background in art and design, so minsan ‘pag meron akong work na kine-kuwestiyon ko kung maiintindihan siya ng audience, so kung nage-gets niya agad, Ah, yes! Nag-work!”
Throughout the entire process, Dan is driven by a strong sense of infectious enthusiasm, punctuating sentences with “Yay!” and often describing clients and projects as “fun.” He also continually looks for projects where he can be a collaborator, rather than those that require him to just follow instructions.
And when he’s not working for clients, he continues to exercise his mind and skills with personal projects. On occasion, these projects find a way to bring him rewards beyond that of self-accomplishment: his Status and Squares project eventually found its way to feature articles on international web publications like grainedit.com and Digital Arts UK. Another design exercise led to his series of Banig wallpaper—vector patterns that not only eventually saw publication in Grab Bag, a compendium of creative projects from US-based How Books, as well as being incorporated in products like shirts and headphones.
Far from being calculating about his work and its impact on society, Dan seems to relish just being able to create art and design that take on a life of their own. Driven by a love and enthusiasm for art and design, he cites a quote by poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore that serves as his guiding light: “Be brave right through and leave for the unknown.”
“I’ve always loved projects that encourage you to take risks and possibly fail,” Dan says about his work, both personal and commissioned. In all his projects, he constantly pushes himself to try new techniques or mediums. “A lot of them fail, but when you succeed, ang sarap ng feeling.”