By Gabrielle Kennedy
Content may well be king, but it can also be used to drive design solutions – an oft-embraced position of Studio Joost Grootens where authorship stems from hitting the right synthesis between content, client collaboration, and design. The studio specializes in designing digital information environments, maps, typefaces and spatial installations mostly in the field of book design. Seen as a collection, the look of almost all the books coming out of SJG feels unavoidable, a logical consequence of each object’s content.
One of the studio’s latest projects - the15th edition of the classic Dutch dictionary, Dikke Van Dale – was the recipient of the Communication category at the 2016 Dutch Design Awards. This reinterpretation of the most fundamental, oldest and largest book-of-words includes 241,558 entries on 4880 pages and took five years to complete. As well as the book SJG also designed the web version.
Alongside his studio, Joost Grootens heads Design Academy Eindhoven’s Information Design (MA) department. There technology abounds – students are hungry to digitalize the world, to create beauty from chaos and meaning from overload.
It might seem curious then that in his own practice Grootens remains not monogamous, but reasonably faithful to the paper page.
“I don’t feel the need to defend the book,” says Grootens, “but I always am. I’ll fight to protect it and its importance as a functional information tool, but also as a cultural object.”
And it is towards his clients that Grootens poses the toughest questions about the contemporary status of the book. “I always ask, ‘But should this even be a book?’” he says. “Because I am not against the Internet. It is always interesting to see the interactive possibilities of technology. Plus, the absence of hierarchy in interfaces and apps can be fascinating to work with.
“But of course there is a haste and superficiality online that a book can solve,” he continues. “Books bring delay and depth. A book offers a memory, a stepping outside of the pace into a more concentrated, controlled and careful message. And in a world with an over-abundance of everything, this has become really important.”
So a solid defense of the book needs to be said and then repeated. “A book should serve a solid purpose,” Grootens says, “They function and serve the content, they reflect on the field of design and connect to tradition … They then take that field a step further and all the while are dealing and connecting with the contemporary conditions of society.”
What a book isn’t or shouldn’t be is a nostalgic object. “Every book I make is contemporary,” says Grootens. “Historically dictionaries have always been serious, heavy and dense books set in a serif type face, printed in black, with a hard dark red or green cover material. This look and feel established its authority.”
The first Dikke Van Dale dictionary was published in 1864. Today the majority of us access information digitally, and even writers – if truth be told – are more likely to use Apple’s system dictionary than reach for the dusty English Oxford. The decision by Van Dale’s publisher then to maintain a printed edition is a fascinating one. The book – its clear - still matters, albeit with modifications that reflect evolving attitudes towards knowledge, information and accessibility. Modifications which SJG spent years researching and experimenting with.
“Once the publishers approached me, the decision to go with a book had already been made,” says Grootens. “I wasn’t part of that decision-making process, but I know they did a lot of research and decided that despite the huge economic investment, they wanted to do it again.
“Because basically people still want a book,” Grootens continues. “I think it is as simple as that. Obviously the book has a different role in the totality of things, and I am sure aspects of this project changed throughout the process. For example, I think the book and web versions probably started off as equal projects, but the digital quickly overtook. But still the book has attracted the most attention, which I think justifies the publisher’s initial belief in it.”
75,000 Dikke van Dale books were printed and it has sold better than expected. Whether this 15th edition is the last is impossible to tell. “Eight years ago we had the iPad, and we never knew then the impact it would have on how we access and use information,” say Grootens. “Since the beginning of the new millennium we have seen so many changes in how we access information. It started in 2001 with the introduction of Wikipedia. Later there was Facebook (2004), then Google Earth (2005), Twitter (2006), iPhones (2007), and in 2010 we got iPads and Instagram. I think the 14th edition of the Dike Van Dale was introduced somewhere between Facebook and Google Earth. Viewed as a timeline, one can see how the whole information landscape, which is how we read, access and perceive information, has changed.”
The design process for this edition started with a thorough European-wide research into dictionaries. “We really wanted to get a good understanding of the history of this object,” says Grootens. “We visited a lot of libraries and took a lot of photocopies.”
Throughout, the focus was on improving the ease of use, the clarity, and the layout. To get there Grootens opted for the use of colours, the introduction of illustrations, and a new typeface for numbers and symbols. A script was developed to streamline the layout process. “We did not typeset each page individually, but rather we froze the database and then used a computer generated programme to create the pages. It took over one year to translate the design into coding and then another year and half of testing. After that we had to marry the needs of the web, mobile and book versions.”
Central to the success of this project was the very positive relationship Grootens managed to forge with the publisher. “I worked really hard on every presentation making sure the entire package was always really clear and beautiful,” he says. “I worked to earn their trust and each time we met they got more and more enthusiastic. For a project like this to work, you need to be carried by the whole company. The trust has to be real.”
It was this trust that created the necessary authority for Grootens to introduce some of his more radical ideas, like the cover, for which he developed a new material to get just the right amount of shine.
“The story of the cover is interesting,” he says. “Initially the publisher had the idea to use two designers – one for the content design and one for the cover because they had two different perspectives they wanted to meet – an internal one for language professionals that use a dictionary as a functional tool, and another for professionals who use a set of dictionaries as a visible symbol of power – like a lawyer, for example. But I never distinguished the two and always saw one combined objective. To me a dictionary is also a cultural object, not just a functional one.”
Although he was asked to present three options for the cover, Grootens entered the final meeting with one proposal. “I told them I could make two more, but I said I was confident that this was good,” he says. “They agreed, but that was the result of a process. It took three years to dare to reveal my idea and it worked because of that built-up trust.”
The final 2016 Dicke van Dale is a website, a mobile app, and a three-volume book with a pale grey cover in four PMS colours. “The four colours are used as a sort of navigation,” Grootens says. “At some point this project switched from a typographic assignment to a graphic assignment because of all the illustrations and symbols.”
The Dutch Design Awards jury report specifically noted the cover, connecting it to the iPhone and iPad that were both released after the 14th edition of the dictionary. There were a lot of opinions about the usual dark green, red, brown and blue traditionally used for dictionary covers as an outdated image of knowledge being heavy and even inaccessible.
“With the developments of technology our perception of technology has changed,” the report reads. “Two devices that have been introduced since the previous edition, the iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010), are significant indicators that we associate knowledge nowadays with lightness and the touch of the hand.”
And the awards’ selection committee praised the end result for its daring design decisions. “A publication perfect down to the smallest detail,” it read. “… design at its best.”
Dikke van Dale has been nominated in the Graphics category for the Designs of the Year by the new Design Museum in London. On show till February 19.