Photo: Ana Petak joined Studio Cuculić in 2015 | Vanja Cuculić, Founder
Studio Cuculić is an award-winning graphic design studio from Zagreb, recognised for its work in culture, specifically theatrical posters, wine labels, and the branding of cultural and tourist destinations. The Studio established itself as a respectable partner with only two full-time employees, thanks to its approach to design and good partnerships with professionals in complementary fields.
Different approaches to growing design work
Most designers that we hear about are following a similar journey, starting as a freelancer, opening a studio, growing a team and then becoming an agency. When the agency becomes ‘big enough’, it attracts more prominent clients and immediately gets media exposure and recognition with the broader public.
Yet, there is an alternative way to grow as a designer and become recognised among peers and clients, and Vanja Cuculić’s journey took this different approach.
He established Studio Cuculić in 2005, five years after graduating from the School of Design at the Faculty of Architecture in Zagreb. In five years between his graduation and opening his studio, he worked as a designer and later art director for BBDO Zagreb and co-founded the studio with his former partner, before parting ways and continuing on his own.
Their work approach at Studio Cuculić is flexible and personal, so the first meeting with a client usually starts with a relaxed conversation over coffee. They enjoy the kick-off stage, and, in later phases of work, the client can be sure that the work is done with utmost devotion since the whole process is in the studio owner’s hands.
Besides working for the theatre and winemakers, Studio Cuculić works on larger branding projects such as destinations and institutions. For instance, the Ivana’s House of Fairytales in Ogulin, the Ethnographic Museum of Istria and Nature Park Kopački Rit. These kinds of projects need to be well rounded and have an interdisciplinary approach, making it imperative to have reliable partners and performing as a unified team.
We used this opportunity to ask Vanja a few questions about their partnerships of choice, well-recognised theatre projects that have set a standard for theatre visual communications in Croatia and award-winning wine labels.
Who are your go-to partners when you, for instance, land a job that requires spatial design, since you once said that you professionally don’t have an interest in expanding your work as a graphic designer in other media?
It’s true; I have no aspirations to expand the Studio in terms of some new areas of activity. But I have creative aspirations. We do many multidisciplinary projects: setting up museums and interpretation centres and designing signage. We always rely on proven partners in mentioned projects, and Studio Clinica is our partner of choice for projects that require a spatial design. With larger projects, the team often grows to about 15 people of various specialisations such as graphic designers, product designers, photographers, songwriters, illustrators, strategists, a colourful bunch.
While having an impressive portfolio of branding projects, Cuculić design is most known for the Gavella theatre posters and labels for several established Croatian winemakers.
At the beginning of last year, the Croatian Design Society held an exhibition dedicated to Vanja’s fifteen years of work for Gavella theatre in Zagreb. Over the years, he made dozens of posters, shaping Gavella’s visual identity and making it recognisable.
The high level of trust between the client and the designer allows them to take calculated risks together and bring more value in the long run. We wanted to find out what conditions must be met to create such an opus, and for what the designer and the client must be ready to achieve.
Looking at your Gavella posters, the style changed over the years, but it is consistently strong and differs from mainstream trends. How do you start to build client-designer trust, and what factors need to be satisfied to get your client’s green light in case you want to take a different direction?
The trust is built over time. Of course, assuming that both the client and the designer participate equally in the process, for mutual benefit. I don’t mean just the financial aspect but joint creative growth. At Gavella, several excellent preconditions for long-term cooperation coincided. A great team in the theatre, a shared vision and an awareness that posters are not just the equipment of a play, but that in the long run, they can be an extremely powerful tool for building a visual identity, and of course, my commitment. As for experimenting with different styles, it’s part of that process. I worked for Gavella for 15 years, and it’s a lot of posters, and, naturally, they have changed in style. What we want to communicate is much more important than the graphic style.
How do you find the balance between showing enough and not telling everything about the play?
The poster should capture the idea of the dramatic text. I always try to find some visual code that will lead the viewer to the play. On one level, the poster is a kind of a graphic prologue to what we are going to see in a theatre. It lures the potential audience, seeks attention and calls for participation. The second level is reached after the viewer has seen the play. Only then, can the poster be comprehended completely.
Your collaboration with the Gavella theatre ended after 15 years, making it one of the most extended partnerships of that kind in Croatia. Do you see yourself in the future doing something similar?
Yes, I would like to work for a theatre company with an extensive repertoire. With about fifteen premieres a year, with insights into a schedule for half a year in advance, which would allow me to create a well-rounded series.
A theatre poster is usually isolated, making it impossible to miss while walking by. Wine bottles, usually placed on packed retailer’s shelves, are surrounded by other brands, so a label is often a deciding buying factor.
Since Studio Cuculić specialises in designing wine labels, we wanted to know more about the process. The Studio works with large producers, like Badel 1862, and designs for small Croatian wineries from different geographical regions. International awards, like the prestigious Red Dot for the Korlat wine series by Badel, chosen among six thousand entries, are proof that Cuculić’s wine labels certainly stand out among the competition.
How do you approach designing a new wine label? Do you rely more on the client insight, or do you do your own visual research?
Wine label design is a very interesting area. I see them as small (in dimensions) narratives that tell a story about the winemaker, the variety and the climate. Sometimes, it is a story about a wealthy family tradition, sometimes about an entirely new business concept. There is almost no pattern. That’s why the research part is essential, and it usually comes from the client.
If that insight lacks, we create a project task ourselves. For instance, we are currently working on redesigning a wine collection from the island of Vis. We decided to put the winemaker’s signature in the background and use the labels to tell the story through the destination branding since Vis is the oldest Croatian wine region.
What is the difference between working for larger companies vs small producers?
I enjoy working for small winemakers. These are mostly boutique wineries that do not have placement problems because they do not produce large quantities. The design can be more relaxed, more original, crazier.
On the other hand, a designer loves a good challenge. For instance, large, mainstream manufacturers have huge competition and are very susceptible to numbers and customer feedback. About ten years ago, we designed Korlat Wines for Benkovac Winery, owned by Badel 1862. It is a respectable winery with a great wine story, and we managed to make a well-received design. This is my favourite wine project because that design stands out from the rest of the Croatian wine scene.
We are looking forward to seeing the result of the new project with the Vis winery, and if you are interested in finding more about Studio Cuculić’s work, maybe the best way to do so is with a glass, or two, of some of the best Croatian wines with Cuculić’s signature.