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How do we understand the role and impact of the designer in a field that is under constant rapid evolution with instantaneous global repercussions? For Head of the Information Design Master’s Joost Grootens it relies on dialogue and co-evolution with students, recognising that design is a collaborative process rather than simply an object, and ongoing reflection on how our technologies and tools shape how we think and work. We design our information, and thereafter our information designs us.

Nadine Botha: You launched the Information Design Master’s in 2011, a time when social media was just starting to feel like a new normal, and before the underbelly of fake news, trolling and echo chambers were making mainstream news headlines. How does the Master’s programme navigate a field that seems not only barely established, but constantly changing?

Joost Grootens: The Master’s grew out of a hunch that visual and digital technology were shifting the nature of information. At the time, I didn’t have a language to express it, but there were so many things warranting investigation and changing so quickly, that it seemed fruitful to use education as inquiry. I remember saying to students in the first few years that I have no idea what this is, but I’m dying to find it out together with them. This is why the programme is constructed as a dialogue. The first year of study is about the complexity of tools and the tools of complexity. This means both the designer’s tools of craft and method, as well as a critical understanding of the significance of information, the complexity of information streams, the production of news, and the kind of role design plays and can play. Students are confronted with a lot of different perspectives and contradictions so that they develop their own skills and understanding. In the second year, students do their own projects, and when students begin to investigate their own interests and bring in knowledge they acquired before, they in turn impact the tutors and shape the first-year programme for the next year. Now for instance, we are seeing students are increasingly not only interested in news as information design, but also scientific and other fields of knowledge. It also stimulates the tutors to have this teaching, reflecting and dialogue alongside their professional practice, because every question you ask a student, you also ask yourself. 

NB: It must have been a very rapid dialogue over the past few months, with the COVID-19 quarantine shifting our attention and usage of digital technology and information so radically. How has the department responded?

JG: Yes, information design is constantly evolving and changing according to what’s happening out there. Every week in our meetings we try out and discuss the new changes and tools, as well as make sure to check in on each other between formal meetings. The current COVID-19 introduces its own set of radical changes that will live on with us long after quarantine. For instance, the proliferation of video conferencing tools are encouraging new protocols for interaction and communication, with us making bigger facial gestures in order to be seen in a screen of tiny thumbnails. The security and privacy questions around tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams also raise concerns. Microsoft in general is a concern, in terms of how it has already penetrated academic fields so much – all of us use Excel for budgets, PowerPoint for presentations and Word for writing. These tools direct how and what we can produce and think. We should be very aware of this, and continue to question it and investigate alternatives rather than simply accept this as an inevitable reality. That’s why I remind students that we are living in the biggest social experiment of recent years, and that like the scientists given an opportunity to research air quality or bird sounds for the first time, designers should also use this as an opportunity for investigation. 

NB: We design our tools, and thereafter tools design us. What type of tools do the Information Design students develop themselves?

JG: Developing tools is an important aspect of the programme. Some students have the capability and training to literally create their own tools, which is of course great, but that’s not the only way to approach this challenge. For instance, Adobe Creative Suite is taught at almost all design schools as the default software but if you want to be a truly original designer, you need to be aware of all the design knowledges that are formatted into the Adobe tools and recognise how that influences how you do your typography or composition. What the Master’s teaches is a kind of critical awareness of how these kinds of tools are situated and how the tools have been produced by people with different values and economic motivations, which will be disseminated if designers choose to use these tools whether they want to or not. Simply by developing a historical awareness of the origins of the tools and how they are situated in the contemporary world — for instance, in terms of economic structure and shareholders, and how these factors drive software updates more than user functionality — students can develop projects that reflect on how something is produced through mapping or dissecting the framework, or hack and ridicule the framework. On another level, designing tools is also about students developing their own methodologies and ways of working that fits each of their broad ranges of backgrounds and interests. And on yet another level, designing technological and affective tools for collaboration and communication have also become essential to make a meaningful contribution.  

NB: This notion that a design is a coproduction between designer, user, tools and processes is the essence of your recently completed PhD in Artistic Research at Leiden University. How has this thesis emerged from your career so far, in which your own studio has a recognisable graphic design agency?

JG: While I certainly can’t deny that my work has a certain approach and handwriting, I’m actually not that interested in this and find it a shortcoming that I’m not able to do different things. On the other hand, all of my projects are made with my studio of about seven people, entail collaborations – whether with an author, publisher or institution – and I often play a number of roles or define my role to fit the project. So there is certainly blurring of the typical role of the designer and whether the design is the object or process. Actually, I initially studied architecture, before turning to CD-ROMs and multimedia, and finally finding my lifelong passion of designing books. I am aware of the irony of designing books, which are often regarded as irrelevant in the face of the information revolution, but actually since the emergence of fake news people are less questioning of my practice that is aimed at producing carefully edited and crafted information tools. For me, this is artistic research: understanding the world by means of your practice and also understanding your practice by means of the world. Making books is my way of understanding the world, and so for the PhD I created a book that entails written and visual thesis examining three map-making practices of amateurs and technology companies. It considers the blurring of the producer-user divide in the production of visual information from a post-representational approach. Post-representation is the third step in cartographic thinking after the World War II, and does not consider producing and using as consecutive stages in the life of a map but as parallel tracks. Being interested in the role of the user in making maps, I approached the map not so much as an object but as a process. Applying this perspective to graphic design, the thesis also proposes an alternative history that places the emphasis more on the technology, production, distribution, editing and recording of visual information rather than the graphic designer as agent. 

NB: How do students of the Information Design Master’s engage with this decentring of the designer?

JG: Of course, students are not forced to take up this personal opinion of mine, but they cannot simply default to the role of author designer without first interrogating the role of the designer in the process. If one works as an individual designer, I don’t think it’s possible to be completely independent or neutral. Even if you approach these fields from a very functional perspective — choosing the ‘right’ colour and ‘right’ typeface to represent the ‘truth’ — there’s always still an individual expression. However, there’s also how and when we make it, for whom, and how it’s produced that influence the outcome and the reading of it. Instead of aiming for elusive neutrality or individuality, I would say it’s a good ambition to rather be very transparent and show what you are doing, while also questioning one’s own methodology. In the Information Design Master’s we really encourage expanding the notion of the designer from being a singular force creating things and driving innovation, to rather recognise the designer as co-producer. This does not negate the need for designers or strong individuals. I think designers make themselves indispensable by bringing reflection to the field, and recognizing the bigger framework of information exchange in which design is one aspect. 

Published: 18-Jun-2020 16:36

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    Photography : Annaleen Louwes