Our students are among those who will make the transition happen
Gert Staal talks with Joost Grootens,
Head of Information Design
Information Design sounds like a pretty broad title, so what is the essence? Can you describe the field of operation of your department?
We approach information design as the next incarnation of a more familiar, but almost obsolete profession, best known as graphic design. More than any other design discipline I feel somehow the evolution of graphic design has always been defined by how its tools evolved. The introduction of digital technologies in the 1990s brought another and perhaps more fundamental change to the tools and practices of the profession. Education responded by adjusting the curriculum to cover digital next to analogue skill sets.
For a while it was almost business as usual, until we started to realise that the digital revolution was not just about a different mode of work. A decisive shift happened in the relationships between authors, publishers, designers and users. The natural chain broke and each of the parties took on new roles. Designers could become publishers, and some defined themselves as authors; publishers developed business models in which they acted either as editors or – at the other end of the spectrum – as consumers of ‘packaged’ graphic products. And perhaps the ability of users (who can also be writers as well as publishers) to become designers, aided by easily accessible design software, has made the biggest impact on the profession.
The Information Design department deals with exactly this: working with information from within a professional design context. For lack of a better term, we have settled on a description that expresses the need to consider the representation of data in ways that turn them into visual information. This explains why our curriculum is built around three basic verbs: interpret, synthesize and transform.
What has changed since the department started in 2011?
We have welcomed a total of 100 students since then. Many of them disenchanted with the narrowing confines of graphic design. From the start, we envisioned a specific type of information design student: critical and deeply interested in the possibilities of digital tools. This year the seventh generation of students has entered the department. If you look at them one thing stands out quite clearly: their natural ability to work with the technologies that created the shift in the first place. It’s sometimes hard to remember how fast our perceptions have changed. In the early days of the department there was no such thing as Instagram, and although we were probably surrounded by it, the term ‘fake news’ still needed to be coined in 2011. Now we are working with a group of students for whom the term ‘digital natives’ only half expresses the ease and fluency with which they operate in the digital realm. The skills they still need to master are beyond tools. Today it is about collaboration and communication: writing, editing, presentation and the possibilities of storytelling through the use of moving images.
Is this based on some mental image of what the future has in store?
I think we have to be careful here. Making predictions about the future is not something we should do. Evidently it has become harder to define what graphic or information design is, and how it is related to the digital society. From day one we have said to our students: together we’ll try to find out what our territory is. Much as it might sound like a lame excuse for failing to come up with a clear profile, I am convinced that it is far more productive to investigate the changing role of design through the work we do collectively – tutors and students. We can only understand where the borders of our discipline are if we try to challenge them.
The themes our students explore often deal with future challenges our society, or even mankind is facing. In those cases, they do not position themselves as agents of change, as designers are sometimes called; they rather use design as a tool to define and present in full clarity the challenges of the future.
There are two crucial notions in the department. Can you explain why ‘tools’ and ‘complexity’ have been chosen as the leading themes for the first-year programme?
A few years ago, I would have started explaining why tools are a primary subject of the course. Because the design of the tools we use – think of Adobe Creative Suite, the most commonly used software amongst graphic designers – defines the result we produce. And how important it is to become aware of how tools manipulate our interpretation of data, our ability to synthesize and transform. While at the same time being conscious about the provenance of our tools, who makes them, where, under what circumstances and who owns the technology? Could we design our own tools? And how? Et cetera.
Recent experiences however, made the balance shift. We noticed how current students manoeuver quite easily within the domain of their digital tools, whereas their more urgent curiosity points us towards complexity. They feel surrounded by complexity in all kinds of contexts, subjected to the same confusion we experience as a society.
It would be ridiculous to claim that we can make them understand all there is to know, but the curriculum for the first year’s at least addresses various types of complexity: from complexity in numbers (there’s too much of everything), to the complications of abstract scientific information or of journalism (accessibility, reliability and actuality), to political forms of complexity (such as issues around race, gender or privacy). We hope to stimulate a critical awareness of all these types of complexity, next to a general understanding of how power, ownership and economic structures influence our field of work. And then, suddenly tools pop back into the picture. They are not just simple extensions of the hand or the mind of the designer, but actually resources that allow us to deal with complexity. We had come full circle and concluded that the first two trimesters would be dedicated to ‘Tools of Complexity’ and ‘Complexity of Tools’.
Any other conclusions you drew from such recent experiences?
Throughout the entire master we notice how the positioning of the designer surfaces as one of the main topics of discussion. It plays an increasingly important role in the type of candidates we select and the groups we bring together, in the way we assess the students’ projects, in the types of tutors and assignments we look for, in the choice of external project we engage in... We all feel that these two years of study should at least give people a clear sense of position within their field. Because it creates confidence for the student, and recognition in the world outside the school.
Is that something one can learn?
Yes, definitely. The more we are aware of the urgency to question their choice of position, the more you will see how people grow during their stay. Age plays a role here, I’m sure. Many of them are in their early twenties, a flexible age when a small nudge can be enough to create a huge move.
You started small in 2011. Since then the department has gradually grown. Now you have 20 students in the first year, and 16 students who are supposed to graduate in 2018. Does it change your approach?
The size of the group is a constant concern. When you’re too small in comparison to the other masters, you run the risk of staying invisible. All the more so, because we’re situated in a product design school with a large contingent of BA students. Plus, to foster a productive dynamic within the department, a certain critical mass is helpful. If you’re too big, the department might turn into an Island of Strangers (to borrow the title of the graduation project by Chen Jhen, one of our alumni). Since the school policy is to attract even more master students, I think we need to develop a realistic scenario. Should we continue to grow at the current rate, then the teaching will be affected. One-on-one conversations between students and tutors, the model for our second year, is essential to how we do our work. The quality of this human interaction creates the value of the department. In order to safeguard the coherence, and to further strengthen the outcomes I feel we need to limit the size of the operation. Adding a new pathway might be a sound solution if future growth is compulsory.
Talking of teaching: how do you select your tutors?
Just as I do when I put together next year’s group of students, I look for diversity. Different ages, different genders, different professional positions, different fields of expertise. There are three generations of tutors, including several alumni who are in charge of a series of workshops. They introduce ‘upcoming’ professional practices. A second group of tutors consists of prolific mid-career designers, publicists and photographers. And then there are those tutors whose age shouldn’t be mentioned in public: they have gathered a ton of experience on how to deal with complex bodies of information and objects. All in all, there is a balance and it seems to function rather well.
You have already touched upon a tricky development in the market for graphic design. The traditional studio is losing ground fast. How do you perceive the chances of alumni when they enter the professional world?
We succeed in providing relevant knowledge, on the basis of which our students can define relevant positions. Sadly, the old studio culture no longer provides easy access for the graduates, but it’s a matter of urgency for the entire profession to define new critical practices that will replace this outdated model. And I do believe that our students are among those who will make the transition happen, because of the attitude they have developed.
You frequently work with international schools for architecture and design, either as a designer of one of their publications, or as a guest lecturer. What do these contacts tell you about the position of the Information Design department?
It is hard to suppress feeling jealous when you visit a BA graphic design school in Switzerland. Everything is so attractive and simple. They know exactly what graphic design is: a book, a poster, a typeface… And they achieve an impressive level of work, don’t be mistaken. What is less clear to them is that they are sitting on an island, and while they enjoy its peace and quiet the island is actually shrinking. We lack the simplicity, clarity and limitation of their typologies. Instead of repeating the familiar, we are trying to substantiate the unfamiliar. That’s hard work, but hopefully our territory will grow as we proceed.
Architecture is a completely different world. Students at ETH Zürich or KADK Copenhagen have the capacity to process highly complex sets of data. They have been trained to think on a meta-level, with a bird’s eye view on the world they will reshape. Their Achilles heel could be a lack of competence when it comes to giving a visual translation to their outcomes. When the question is, where we are in this picture, then I would say: precisely in between the confined clarity of a spohisticated approach to graphic design and the boundless curiosity of the architectural perspective.
Joost Grootens is a graphic designer, researcher and educator. His studio SJG designs books, maps, typefaces, spatial installations and digital information environments for publishers like Lars Müller Publishers, nai010 publishers, Park Books, Phaidon press, Van Dale Publishers; educational institutions like ETH Zürich, Future Cities Laboratory Singapore, KADK Copenhagen, TU Delft; and museums such as Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum Rotterdam, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven. SJG won numerous prizes for its designs. Among them the ‘Goldene Letter’ and two Gold Medals in the Best Book Design from all over the World competition in Leipzig and the Rotterdam Design Prize. A monograph about SJG’s work titled ‘I swear I use no art at all’ was published by 010 Publishers in 2010.
Joost Grootens leads the masters programme Information Design at Design Academy Eindhoven. He also taught at Berlage Institute Rotterdam, Gerrit Rietveld Academy Amsterdam, MaHKU Utrecht; and is a visiting tutor at the Architectural Association London, BAS Bergen, écal Lausanne, ENSAD Paris, ETH Zürich, HEAD Geneva, ISIA Urbino, KADK Copenhagen, TSU Austin, TU München, ZHdK Zürich.
Since 2015 Joost Grootens is PhD candidate at the PhDArts programme of Leiden University and KABK The Hague.