fr/en Mevis & Van Deursen
Why are you interested in book design?
I think one of the nice things about graphic design — not only book
design — is that it brings you into contact with other people. For each book, you start by meeting someone. It can be an artist or a writer, and you enter this other world. You start to understand the work and to think about some kind of translation, to think about what is actually the question for the book and what would be an appropriate answer. And you do that within the restrictions of a book. Because a book is kind of restricting: you always have a spine, it is made of paper. You can bind it in a few different ways but not so many… You are always aware of the possibilities but also the impossibilities of book making. We have to start with the same kind of technical limitations but still be able to customise something for someone. Each type of book must be seen as a new challenge. It is nicer when the questions are different each time, because working for different types of content gives you new ideas. What is really nice is looking everywhere for solutions. It reminds me of a book for which a photographer said ‘I only have six images and I want a book’. So how can you make a book from six images? Then you think about what could be a solution for that kind of book, and you start to think in a completely different way. You start to think about children’s books, and you make a board book. The thought process led to the response, I would never have thought about doing a book from board. So what I like is not only that you meet different people, but that they inspire you. Not so much their work, but the things they tell you. You can see it as a gift: something comes from outside, it gives you an idea that could never have come up if it was for someone else. I couldn’t imagine doing a book, and another book and another book, without this input from outside. I think we have also learned that design is not something that happens behind your computer, but while you are speaking to someone. Because, just by listening very carefully and trying to understand what they’re really saying, what you need to do becomes very clear. I think it is good to try to do your work in a simple way.
What about your interest in the technical process? Lots of your books show some kind of smart ‘tricks’ in their binding. (For example, the spine of Why Mister Why? book, the pages of Heralded as the new black…)
You try to really concentrate on what you know, but at the same time, seek out things that you think you have never seen before. You also try to invent new solutions. Of course it happens that you think you have invented something but it already exists. You go to the binder and the binder says ‘Oh yeah, we know how to do that, we have done it before’. But it is nice to think in a very fresh and open way when you work on something like a book. I think that the challenge for a book is that it is quite complicated to produce. But in this complexity, you can also find new possibilities. If you do a poster, well a poster is still just a poster. It is just a sheet of paper, all you can do is rethink your design on it. But for a book, it is much more about the physical aspect of the book. If you look at our first books, I don’t think it’s so much about the physicality of the book but more about the design, the layout of the page, and slowly we moved a bit away from that, and we started to think about the book as something you can hold in your hands.
There is a distinction between carefully choosing the paper and the binding method in order to stick to the content, and choosing a kind of binding in order to add something more to the message of the book. How much do you consider that the object is part of the message?
It is absolutely connected. It is always about structure. How do we
structure content? Can content be structured in smaller units? How each piece of this content can also be translated into some kind of a form? Most of the time, for a book — with regards to the choice of paper more than the typeface or the layout —, you can understand the structure of the book from the choices that you make due to the three dimensionality of the book. It is not so much about the object but how the content and the object can work together. Probably, if you look at all our books, you will always see similar things happening. Some kind of decisions are very readable: if we do text we only do it this way, with this kind of paper, if we do images then we do it like that…
Is the appearance of the book a way to add something to the project when you can’t do anything with the content?
Yes, I think so. In most cases, when people approach us, it is not very clear yet what the content is. There is of course a question. For example, we did a book for a fashion designer and he said: ‘Here is the fruit of 20 years of work and I want to make a book.’ So we had this whole archive, we didn’t know what to do with it, we really didn’t know how we could make it into a book. So you become an editor, because you start to pick content by making choices to fit in an idea. You are starting to take part in the content. The book itself, or the things you come up with, lead us to making choices. But if you want to make something specific, it doesn’t always work each time. Someone comes to you and expects you to be able to do anything you want with a book. It would not be good for the book because it would become something else and you loose the whole concept. So you have to come up with ideas that you can say, ‘because we have this idea, we only go for this kind of material’. And then things can become really coherent and strong. And sometimes, budget and technical limitations help you to be precise, because you can use them as criteria to make a selection and to add content. It is always about making choices.
You said that the designer is not supposed to get involved in content, but you consider that it is an interesting opportunity when you can contribute to the project. That sounds frustrating! And a bit contradictory with your status of a designer.
It is of course a little bit out of context. It is in response to an experience we had: in some cases, the publisher comes to you and has already predefined everything (it has to be a hard cover, this dimension, this paper). And you feel that you, as a designer, are not supposed to be involved. Situations, when you start from scratch, are quite rare and hard to get. In many cases, people already have an idea of what they want and think that you can just give form to that idea, that you can just translate it in a formal way. It is hard to convince them that it is more than just doing a layout or picking a typeface. So you need to find something in the project that you can relate to. If you know what that ‘something’ is, then you also know how to deal with the images, typography, typeface… it all leads on from there. If things are pre-defined it is very difficult. It is indeed frustrating but at the same time, we try not to be confronted with that situation or we try to change it. Like for the book Why Mister Why?, the publisher arrived saying: ‘we want to do a book about this photographer, I’m thinking of a hard cover book, 60 images.’ But then, we looked at these images and we were not so sure if his images were so iconic, if you could really make a book out of them. So we asked to see the photographer and look at his work. You just try to change the whole brief and then I think you also just shape the brief in a way that it can work for this kind of content. But it is not always possible. We are now working on a book for the Stedelijk Museum on Kazimir Malevich. The publisher, before he approached us, asked us to look at books published by the Tate, which are rather standard and not that good. It is really hard to do a book when someone has a clear idea in mind, whereas we want to do something completely different. It is more challenging to do the book and try to resolve things in a way that the book can actually satisfy the design as well as the client. Making a book is always a collaboration.
Another point that can lead to conflict: the little things that the client asks you to change.
When you do a book, you have a few ideas, but out of these ideas, there are few which are very important as they really anchor the book within the project. And there are other ideas that are less important: a book will not change completely by only changing something like the size of the typeface, if the main idea can still exist and not be harmed by making these small changes. I sometimes see it as currency. You work with someone, that person doesn’t like this or that, and you always have these possibilities to make changes without affecting the book too much. It is some kind of negotiation. You can say ‘we cannot change this idea but if you don’t like the typography we can look into it’.
Not paying attention to these details, isn’t it being a bit lax with typography?
On the one hand, one might think we don’t think details are important. Of course they are important and we pay a lot of attention to all the details. But at the same time, we are also super flexible. To make typography that looks very good can be done in many different ways. So we have the possibility to change it and still do good typography. I don’t think our books depend so much on those decisions, they won’t fall apart just by changing the typography. Making changes doesn’t mean that we don’t pay attention to details but it means more that we have an ability to change it and make something else which is equally as good. I think, from experience, it is much more about other things. It is the interaction between the bigger decisions (in term of the size, the paper, the binding) and going into the details. In the end you want it all to work together.
What stimulates you outside graphic design?
Nice weather [laughs]. The thing I enjoy most, in connection to my work, is to see exhibitions of conceptual artists. That gives me the most in terms of inspiration and ideas. It is interesting to see how an idea is related to a form, and how little form you actually need to bring an idea across. If you dress it up too much, the idea gets lost in the form, because you are too distracted by all other kinds of things. It is better to try to do as little as possible instead of as much as possible. At the same time, it is nice to think about form that can be used in different ways, how to translate content in different ways. You always have to be very creative and open in terms of form, and that should always be related to what you really want and need to do, to say. In art, maybe you can see that better, whereas in design, there is a danger, that when you sit behind your computer, anything is possible. In that sense, just by looking at works from different artists, I learn a lot: with how little you can do a lot. And when I look at art that I really like, it is about ideas, and the form is the result of that idea. I like that kind of notion, that the idea gives you the form already, that you don’t have to think about form because the idea formulates where you should go. If you are working for someone else, that person gives you an idea of what you could do, the form actually results in the outcome of that idea. In a way, it’s really simple.
Do you have any advice for a young graphic designer?
Go to a good school [laughs]. No, I am joking. There are lots of things, but I think it is super important to be in an inspirational environment when you are studying. Good school, good teachers, good students around you, being part of a group of students who are motivated and driven, who want to do things. Of course it doesn’t always happen like that, you also have to be an instigator and to take initiative in a group. It is all about learning where you want to be as a graphic designer. You have to know who you are, who are the people that are interesting for you. So if you like this designer better than the other, you can think about what it is that you really like in that work and how you can achieve it in your work. Even if you want to achieve it in your work, what do you need to do to get there? I think it gives you some kind of idea in which direction you can go.
Also, understand what your strong points are and equally, what are your weak points. It is really good if you know and understand your weaknesses. You don’t have to try to erradicate them, because they give an indication of things you can’t do, which means there are other things you can do. If you know your strong points, then you can go deeper in a certain direction instead of trying to be good at everything. You cannot just leave art school and say ‘Here I am, I am a graphic designer, I can do everything’. No, I think people want to understand who you are, how you would approach something, why would they choose you and not someone else. So if you say that you can do everything and can make everybody happy, it is not going to work, because it is too general. You have to say ‘I am actually good at this, this is what I really do, so if you need someone for this kind of job, you have to come to me’.
In my teaching at the Werkplaats, all the students who come get this question, four times during their two-year course: ‘What is your work actually about? What things really interest you?’. In a way, it is a question for them during their studies, but also after. The clearer you know what you want, the better you know where to find it, and the more chance you have to get it.