Finding Freedom in Design

Nikki Gonnissen found both freedom and restriction in graphic design, as she explains it. Born and raised in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, a region known for its forward-thinking, liberal ideologies, Gonnissen witnessed the squatters’ riots, a powerful anarchist social movement in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘I wasn’t a punk and I wasn’t that outspoken, but as a child I always felt very privileged to grow up in that spirit and be part of that radical liberty and freedom,’ the boundary-pushing designer says about her childhood influences. 

Design Anthology31 May 2023

Finding Freedom in Design

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Coming from a fine arts background, the Dutch entrepreneur is a natural at finding the perfect palette for a project. Although she grew up with a passion for art and art history, honing her skills in drawing from an early age, she didn’t plan on becoming a graphic designer. When she was around 18, the young creative visited Chambre d’Amis, an exhibition curated by Jan Hoet whereby artworks were displayed in private homes around Ghent, Belgium, and were open to the public. Such outdoor exhibitions were rare, practically unheard of at the time, and Gonnissen was mesmerised by the experience. ‘I was so impressed by the energy, and I felt that I wanted to be part of that somehow,’ she says. ‘It was art in society.’ She remembers being intrigued by the exhibition signage and catalogue, and it piqued her interest in the processes behind museum and exhibition work.  


During her gap year after high school, Gonnissen took several art courses, from painting and photography to drawing and sculpture; and from there, she went to the HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. Although Gonnissen clearly had a soft spot for the arts, she says that fine arts didn’t seem like a career she could pursue as it felt a bit ‘too free’ for her. ‘I was very curious… but I didn’t feel the urge to come up with my own story to the outside world.’ Upon receiving some life-changing career advice from a teacher, Gonnissen began to experiment with her creative output  — painting record sleeves, for example — and it wasn’t long before she found her calling in graphic design. ‘I think I was looking for freedom and restriction at the same time,’ she says. ‘I found freedom when that teacher said, “You can do whatever you like with graphic design.” That gave me so much confidence.’ 


By 1993, the same year Gonnissen graduated with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, and she met her future life and business partner Thomas Widdershoven. Both in their final year (Widdershoven at the Rietveld Academy), the two hit it off and bonded over a mutual love for design. They each undertook a year-long scholarship that allowed them to explore and experiment, designing catalogues and invitations for their artist friends, which was the start of Thonik, the multidisciplinary studio they established that same year. A reaction to the postmodernism of the time, Thonik returned to a simpler, modernist approach to design, using just one typeface and bright colours to dictate an aesthetic. 


Three decades later, the Amsterdam-based studio, which specialises in visual communication, graphic identity, interaction and motion design, has a team of 15 people working with clients ranging from the Holland Festival in Amsterdam and broadcasting company VPRO to the Power Station of Art in Shanghai and Hyundai Department Stores in Seoul. Working across the globe, Gonnissen emphasises the importance of meeting her clients and visiting sites in person. ‘Exchanging cultures, sharing values and learning from each other makes us rich,’ she says. ‘We’ve always loved to travel, to meet people and reach out to other cultures and learn from them.’ 


Thonik also worked on the mega project M+ museum of visual culture in Hong Kong. The studio was tasked with creating a visual identity that worked across the institution’s physical and digital platforms. Choosing the right colour palette was important for Gonnissen, who wanted to capture the essence of Hong Kong and its dynamic landscape through a focus on its neon lights, without being too exaggerated. As she explains, they came up with a mid-tone colour concept with a palette that ranges from mid-grey to vibrant orange, cyan, purple and pink. ‘We wanted to reflect Hong Kong’s urban fabric with those colours — the grey high-rises to neon signs,’ she explains. As she describes, the colour palette is both distinctive and flexible, with thousands of options and combinations. ‘We don’t like when things are too fixed,’ she says. ‘We always want to experiment.’ 




For details about Nikki Gonnissen and Thonik, please visit:


This podcast series is produced in partnership with Design Anthology, a luxury interiors, design, architecture and urban living magazine.