Academic research helps us understand our contemporary condition. Because of its complex nature, the subject matter often demands a form of ‘translation’ so that it can reach a wider audience. The attraction of interpreting complex content is precisely what draws SJG to work with academic writers, researchers and institutions. We approach these publications as information tools, and together with scholars and publishers we explore the most effective modes of representation for their specific subjects. By introducing non-linear forms of storytelling, the use of graphic tools such as visual indexes and illustrations, and through sheer organisation of information we strive to add a visual argumentation to the theoretical arguments of the writers. Because we are well aware of the history in certain domains – first and foremost in architecture – we feel an obligation to also reflect on the legacy of institutions and the wealth of publications when we design our representation of contemporary research.
After five years of intensive R&D the redesign of the leading Dutch language dictionary Dikke Van Dale was launched in the fall of 2015. SJG worked on a new design concept for the traditional printed edition – a set of three volumes with nearly 5.000 pages – and for the dictionary’s online publications: a desktop version that functions as a writing aid and a mobile app aimed at offering quick definitions.
The 15th edition of the dictionary required serious reinterpretation of the existing format. Several remnants of a long history had to disappear. To improve the dictionary’s functionality a primarily typographic design commission was turned into a graphic design approach. This is reflected in the introduction of new navigational elements like colour and illustration and in the design of a special typeface that includes symbols. Knowing how search routines have changed in the digital age, it became a major challenge to strengthen the cultural significance of the printed book. Its pearly white book cover presents a major break with the familiar dark hues of green and grey traditionally used by Van Dale. This signals the current association between the pursuit of knowledge and our use of white and silver digital devices as portals to information. Less visible but just as important for an efficient production process of the dictionary was the design of a script that automatically typesets the pages from an xml-coded database in which the editors worked.
The project is nominated for the Design of the Year award, organised by the Design Museum in London (UK) and for the Dutch Design Award, Eindhoven (NL).
Ceremony is a typeface drawn for use in small sizes. It combines a full extended latin character set with 178 pictograms, all encapsulated in 77 different positive and negative geometric shapes. The typeface resulted from a gradual process of development, starting around 2008. Work on an atlas required an ordering system of single and double digit numbers for which existing fonts did not provide a satisfactory answer. SJG started drawing its own solution. From there on Ceremony grew organically to include letters and in the final stage – while the studio was working on new projects – a library of pictograms was added. SJG investigated how a set of 21st century icons can represent contemporary concepts such as same-sex couples and smart devices. Since 2015 Ceremony is published by the Optimo Type Foundry in Switzerland and has now become a typographic tool for all.
More than any other typology in graphic design the atlas is about visually translating data and knowledge. Over the course of its history the format has developed a very strict set of rules: a code that determines the visual language with which a designer can work. Although these conventions still provide valid points of departure (and sometimes even reappraisal), it is the responsibility of today’s designers to adapt the atlas to the availability of almost unlimited digital data streams and sophisticated representation technologies. Situated in between the rich historical heritage and these high tech tools and sources, designing atlases presented a field of discovery to SJG. In recent years we produced examples of what a contemporary atlas should be: designs that give an intuitive quality to the information they present. They paved the way for similar explorations in other typologies such as the monograph and the dictionary.
Work on several atlases revealed to us the rhetorical powers of the map. The condensed presentation of different types of information within one layered image appeals instantly to the reader’s imagination. Maps allow us to clarify complex structures and to disclose stories contained in the data. Maps can highlight subtleties that could easily be overlooked in a verbal account. Mapmaking always involves further research, even if the source material has been diligently put together. Considering framing, scaling and indexing is but part of that extra effort. Probably the most decisive step in the process is the filtering of the editorial content. We make charts to grasp the story a map can tell. And we also consider the implications of the political and cultural context in which the map is read. Existing types of visual mapping, like Isotype, no longer suffice to portray topical developments. For that reason SJG has ventured into a range of self-initiated projects – made public for instance in the Venice Architecture Biennial, the Süddeutsche Zeitung and a book about airstrikes during the Kosovo war – in which we explore and develop new tools. Our research on the use of maps and the role of the mapmaker in selecting and translating data into visual representations aims to uncover complex power structures. At the same time we investigate the rhetorical and conceptual limits of existing typologies like maps, timelines and atlases.
Every design for a monograph starts with questioning the attitude of the artist, designer or studio that is portrayed. What is the nature of the work and which are the graphic challenges (and thus opportunities) it presents? We will look for these specific limitations before we decide on our approach. This explains why, over the years, the results have been so diverse. ‘I swear I use no art at all’, a monograph made on ten years of work by SJG, explores a format that would probably not fit any other studio. But, whatever the subject of a contemporary monograph, there is an important shift that needs to be recognized. The monograph has long been a shop window for the studio or artist, meant to attract new clients, collectors or audiences. Now that artists and designers communicate through websites and digital platforms, the publication of a printed book needs a different motivation. We see the contemporary monograph as a strategic instrument in which the subject explains future ambitions, shows its tools and engages in a debate about the position of the work in the context of its discipline. Its potential as a cultural artefact will determine the survival of tomorrow’s monograph.
Recent commissions by several Dutch museums have provided us with a chance to experiment with the visual representation of a collection. For Museum Boijmans van Beuningen (Rotterdam) this led to a collection book that was then turned into an exhibition. For the Municipal Museum in Schiedam and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven SJG was asked to give a graphic translation of the collection in the exhibition space, connected to the actual art works. All three assignments demanded an approach in which we regard the physical collection as data that are made accessible by the application of certain filters. Every filter can disclose another reading of the collection. Defining and applying these filters was our main design tool. In Schiedam this has led to a series of spatial infographics in the museum galleries that show how the collection has expanded over the last fifteen years. The continuous collaboration with the Van Abbemuseum gave us the opportunity to design installations on how the politics of collecting has influenced the profile of the collection, and thus the story this museum tells about the evolution of modern art.