fr/en Joost Grootens
What interests you in raw information? You said that lists have a poetry of their own.
I think that lists have a beauty, I don’t know why. A lot of the time I think,
as a designer, what do I need? Do I have to add something? It is already there. There are two possibilities. One of them, my personal preference is with lists and raw information. On the other hand, I am interested in books that are tools of information. I take readers seriously. I don’t want to spell out a story or give them a narrative. I want to give them the facts without controlling how they use it, so they find out for themselves: 1 + 1 = 2. Often, readers are much more intelligent than me. If I just present it, they draw their own conclusions, ones that I would not have thought of myself.
The amount of information is one thing, but the angle through which you interpret it is another. And that is probably what makes the difference with simple data visualisation.
A lot of data visualisation seems to me as being just making a quantity of
information beautiful. It is just beauty for beauty’s sake. We could call it ‘data pornography’. I want to make the information intuitive, so that you understand it without reading the information. That if I look at it from a meter away, things are readable: that you can understand that this colour here has something to do with this information here. It is very simple things like that. For example in the book of the Metropolitan World Atlas, the orange colour is constantly used throughout the book to represent urban areas. And the more orange the pages are, whether it is a map page or data, the more urban a city is. So it can mean, either that it is a built up area, or that some of these values that are used (for instance population, intensity of traffic, economy…) score highly. All these linked values are ingredients for a city and they help you understand that. So rather than immediately visualising the information, I first want to take a step back and see how we can make it intuitive. That is the goal of what we do with the design.
How do you make decisions? For example, for I swear I use no art at all, there were plenty of other ways to treat the subject. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all these possibilities?
Yes, it is true. It is also frustrating. Because this is one solution, but you
could have made 20 different books from the same subject that would have been completely different and equally valid. But that is the nice thing with this frustration, that design is not one single solution. Am I overwhelmed? Yes, I can be. A lot of the time, I start by doing research into other books. If I make a book like ‘I swear’ or a book like Metropolitan World Atlas, I start to look at other atlases or monographs and I basically react to my first impressions. What is a monograph? How is it treated? What is on the cover? What is the best size for it? Sometimes I want to follow on from that, sometimes I want to react against it. I look at the context of the book. For Metropolitan World Atlas, I did a lot of research on the internet. For me it is a kind of book about websites, new ways of looking at information. This is about google maps and you could say, in a way, that this book represents Google Earth. With the ‘I swear’ book, I was looking at other books and I wrote a lot of notes. I didn’t want to make a book that was just an elogy, but I wanted to make it into a memory of the studio, of the things that we have done. And it was for me much more interesting that we can use it literally as a tool: as a phone book or with recipes of what grids or typefaces to use. And then if you have this clear concept, then all the sections fall into place from there. So there is an overwhelming amount of possibilities, but to look at the context of the book and to think of what kind of concept fits it, makes it much easier for me to work on the design.
Also the book is a way to limit information…
Yes, in a sense. We are now in a world crisscrossed with information
flows. A book somehow freezes it. It frames it, it stops it and it makes it into a simplified version of our complex reality.
More than just clearly representing information, you create a story. Aren’t you leaving the neutral zone to enter the manipulation of information?
I don’t think it is at all possible to be neutral but it is a nice aim to try.
I have acknowledged that it is almost impossible. In the book where I tried to be as neutral as possible – Atlas of the Conflict – I don’t think it was important for the reader to know what I thought about these conflicts. So I tried to be neutral by having a very simple design that does not distract from the content. That is my way of neutrality, try to give the reader the opportunity to make his own decisions. What I also did, was to write an introduction to this book, ‘notes on the design’, which explains all the design decisions I took. So as a reader, you know ‘ah, this book has been designed. The content won’t be unbiased’. That is kind of my disclaimer.
The way you treat information is global, from its graphical representation to its materiality. So it is truly information design through the medium of the book. All the choices are made in the service of information (colour, paper). So is the designer’s subjectivity not only absent in the content, but also in the shape?
I think these books are very much designed. There are a lot of design
decisions that have been taken. My aim was to try to give the reader as many chances as possible to look at the content. I cannot deny that I have been designing it. It is not some kind of a default setting of an edited work. As a designer you should also try to translate a project into a series of design decisions. The design decision is: what paper fits best, what kind of inks are chosen because I want to have this very specific orange colour? It should stand out. In the Atlas of the Conflict book, the size is very specific. It is very narrow because it fits the map.
So design is linked to the data, and not the other way round.
It is form following content not content following form. In that sense,
yes. And some of these decisions are purely related to economics. It is working within the restrictions of budget, and possibility, but in a way that the reader does not feel that there has been a problem.
You have an architectural background. Does it influence the way you consider and elaborate a book?
For me it is very easy to zoom in and zoom out of the content, to work on different scales. It is very easy to have both an overview and an eye for the details. That helps. It also makes a difference that, for me, the most important thing in an architectural drawing is information, and not the image itself, unlike a photograph or a painting. So if I use an architectural drawing, I often play with it, I can change it, I can tweak it… I did a book earlier this year for an architectural office (MVRDV Buildings). We decided that it was important to colour all the drawings. And that is something I dared to do because, for me, it is not something special. It is just information and by colouring it, it would create an easier link between the photographs and the drawings. And the third thing is, I would say, that I can more easily talk to architects because I know what they mean, I know a bit about the references, the books they have read…
What stimulates you outside graphic design?
I like reading. Watching movies. I like visiting buildings and sites, I am an architectural tourist. Those are the kind of things that inspire me.
According to you, how far does the evolution of our societies have an impact on the way we represent information?
I think that we graphic artists, that is to say people who are aware of social movements, should be constantly aware of what’s happening. I feel a responsibility that books I make should be contemporary. In my work, I react a lot to new developments in society. In this way, in the small book, Atlas of the Conflict, that you hold close and that you have an intimate relation with, is something almost opposite to what is happening in reality saturated with information. On the other hand we are also using our smart phones, so we are used to small objects. Also, I teach, and one of the most important questions I ask my students is: Why is your design important right now? Why are you doing this right now? Why would you have made something different two years ago and why would you make something different again in 5 years? I think we have an obligation to be contemporary.
What about the way we represent information? Because representing information 20 years ago was maybe different to how it is now?
Yes, that’s true. Readers of books have different information experiences
outside of books. They work with smart phones, they organise on their computers, they look at Google images, so they are much more image literate than 20 years ago. For the book MVRDV Buildings for example, we chose not only to represent the buildings by regular architectural photographers but also by photographs taken by amateurs, by the users of the building. There are a lot of non-architectural photographs, you have snapshots and images from tourists. It is also a lot of images. I think that people can now handle many more images at the same time. You have these overviews which are a bit more of a ‘google images’ designed kind of page. It is more spatial in a sense. We have to be aware that even though you make a very classic and old fashioned thing, like a book, the reader of the book is a person of the digital world.
Do you have any advice for a young graphic designer?
You are part of an international world. Try to visit places and travel
around. Try to study abroad, try to speak other languages and meet other people. Because it is a more global world. I am very happy that we have here in the studio five nationalities. The other thing is that in this global world where everything tends to become more uniform, we all use the same typeface, we all use the same software, we all look at the same blogs as a kind of reference… so it is very important to stay close to yourself, to be unique. So use your own experiences and background in your work.