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Design: the social context

The ways of representing information and content are increasingly dominated by the interactive technologies of digital media. Today design professionals must navigate the constantly changing world of digital technology in order to give consumers a positive aesthetic experience. This interview bridges the gap between design and adjacent professions, which is more or less the rest of the world. Interview from the book The Digital Turn, Park Books 2012. Edited by Barbara Junge, Zane Berlin, Walter Scheiffele, Wim Westerveld and Carola Zwick.

We are living in a global village, inter-connected through digital networks and surrounded by virtual worlds.
What kind of impact does this have on social conditions in our society, in your opinion? How does the always-downloadable information influence our social, political, personal lives?

sheet with wrinkles can hold many drops of local water, where a tightened sheet makes all water run to the global lake. It happens with knowledge, fame, resources and advertisement.
In the past it was relatively easy to become a local or national hero. To be the best in a profession within someone’s lifetime, was a conceivable goal. Nowadays, with globalized sharing of knowledge, everything gets compared to global standards. That change has dramatic influence on personal and professional goals. Heroes have become competitors within a decade. Local resources are drained by Palo Alto companies and local services must compete with global providers. Combined with an increasing rate of technological development, vanishing borders and diminishing profit, people have to redefine their values. Some do that better than others. It needs a flexible mind with skills and knowledge to recognize the challenge of these changes, redefining the meaning of “have” and “have-nots”. The gap between rich and poor transform into the “knowers” and the “non-knowers”.

Radio and TV changed the world. Internet and mobile phones did the same. These phenomena changed the society. What technology or phenomena do you think will be the next big thing?

Merge, Morph and Mold

The combination of virtual and real spaces is rapidly increasing: by GPS-enabled mobile devices such as mobile phones and netbooks, we are mobile and connected, social interactions are increasingly digital.
How is the relationship between what we call ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’?

here is no difference. Not in a qualitative way. Whatever we have called “reality” during the realm of history, it is what our mind makes from observations, with some help of knowledge, skills and temper. The virtual representation, our image of the interpreted world, existed from the time that we were still animals. The spaces of memories and ideas, of plans and expectations, a game of chess, the imaginary world of spoken stories, books and movies and the abstraction of virtual webspace are just examples of recent additions to our collection of virtual worlds. The infinite mind.

Design happens in this place. Everything is possible, timeless and without limitations. It is the area where a universe of solutions can be moved by the swipe of a finger. It is the twilight zone between sleep and wake where answers for this interview like these come from. It is our infinite resource of insight, imagination and reflection.
The major disadvantage of this great tool is that it is so damn difficult to share the space with others. It is the eternal struggle of every designer to push this perfect thinking into a representation that can be shared, without the smallest amount of lateral damage to the original idea. Students who claim to have the perfect design in their heads, still need to wake up.

Recent discoveries about the way we think, reveal the extreme difference between our subconscious system (extremely fast and free parallel processing, unreliable in statistics and logic) and our conscious system (analytical, slow, sequential and lazy). More than often, these systems have opposing interests [Daniel Kahneman].

Do you think people will still write analogue letters in about 100 years?

f course. We probably will use the same words “writing”, “analogue” and “letters” in 100 years time. What remains to be seen is if words still have the meaning of today. In the decades to come, many traditional interfaces to our tools will disappear from the level of conscious awareness. The meaning of the words will adapt gradually to new circumstances. Already it needs additional clarification when “mailbox” is used to indicate the physical red box to collect envelopes. With electronic “paper” that understands our physical and mental intentions to communicate through text and image, the “letter” is still the medium that holds the message. A “letter of intent” can very well be an email. Any doubt and reluctance on these matters is the result of a short-term horizon.
And still, the exclusivity of receiving a one-and-only instance of a handwritten message will endorse its value. Just as much as handmade furniture can compete with Ikea products under the right circumstances.

Our lives are increasingly affected by digital processes, and the computer will become more invisible. Interaction design is more and more the design of actions and of experiences.

nteraction design is what designers do by definition. What they should be doing. A designer who is just interested in the support of personal gut feelings, never did and never will create a communicating product.

Yet: what role do the material and material innovations play within the context of digitalization and miniaturization in design? Will they lose their importance?

uilding with Lego is easy. It needs neither instruction nor manual. Kids can do it. Meanwhile, building with Lego requires creative thinking. The low resolution of the bricks does not support arbitrary shapes. Optimal design solutions must be translated into the nearest digitized form. When requirements are strict and resources are scarce, this transformation can be a difficult task. Easy tools, that offer limited choices, are hard to use when seeking for optimal result. The tough design process of typefaces for pixel screens is the literal example of this. As the amount of pixels get lower for reduced type sizes, it gets harder to create a good design. This a paradox. The digitized chess board is easy to explain in a couple of minutes. But it takes more than a lifetime to explore even the tiniest part of all possible chess games.

Miniaturization in design, increasing the resolution, reducing the size of the Lego bricks, will not solve the paradox. In high resolution, anything is possible, but only designers know how to select the best solutions. Designing page layout without a grid gives more freedom, but does not necessarily lead to a better-designed page. It takes more skills and effort to design by a free hand than it does in a snapping environment. The low resolution problem, rounding to the nearest grid line, is replaced by a much bigger problem: how to choose the right solution from infinity.

Making this work, independent of resolution, typically is where the designer shows the difference from laymen and the unskilled. When time is not a restriction, anyone can compete with the trained athlete by running a marathon.

his leads to the challenge of education. Art and design schools are always the targets of criticism. As it should be. As long as the discussion is conducted using the same definition of the words. Unfortunately that is not always the case. Statements such as “all designers should be programmers” and “image culture is the new typography” define the tone of voice, but they don’t create music. Without consensus about meaning, everyone is right. The artificial contradiction between practice and theory, between image and typography and between design and programming is just as polarizing as the lazy vision that there are just left wing and right wing people and only good and bad religions. Design schools that emphasize differences, don’t build coherent designers.

The problem is that terms like “expressive power” and “self-critical reflection” are used for testing the competences, but they hardly get developed in graphic design. Where performing arts, such as acting, dance, music and sports, develop their skills and ability by mere repetition (rehearsal, exercise and training), this seems to be superfluous in graphic design. On the contrary: design students who complain about pressure and deadlines find themselves rewarded with a reduced curriculum. As if allowing a musician to play the B-scale only once. Or letting the Olympic candidate run a single track, to avoid tiredness. Skills and power develop by repetition. Graphic design students complain when they are asked again to design a poster: “We already did that last year”.

If combined with the inability of many teachers to evaluate the process or to judge the results, the scale of the real crisis in graphic design education gets visible. Students should study. Designers should study. A design assignment of 8 weeks – without additional instruction and requirements for how to plan such a beast – is just as insane as the assignment to “play the violin any way you want, we’ll tell you afterwards if we liked it” or “run as fast as you can, then we will decide if you qualified for the Olympics”. Educating musicians and athletes is a profession. Educating graphic design students often isn’t.

he real design school stimulates fresh designers to develop their skills, to increase their ability to design their future profession. Not just for their graduation exhibition, but for the 40+ years afterwards. This requires control over process and tools, the skill of transforming problems into working solutions, into functioning results. A designer has the skills to use all of recursion, taste, research, meaning and change seamlessly in the process. The designer owns these tools by any aspect. Just as the musician fuses with instrument and scores, and the athlete melts into training schedule and track. These skills can only be acquired by repetition and self-reflection on the process of learning. Taste and talent may facilitate a head start, but will never replace the need for hard training. Mid-term reviews give insight on the development of the students, but it gets even more interesting if the development of the review models is part of the given task. What is the best method to judge each other’s work? How to divide an assignment into parts, if the total requires more than a day to finish? How to disassemble? And how to reassemble the components into a working model? And how to present all this?

A real design school does it the right way, improving the process of education there where it doesn’t work. Innovation in teaching is not necessary because it is required by the accreditation committee. It is, because otherwise design education is nothing more than a flat production process, creating fresh producers instead of fresh designers.

If not—how will the materials themselves change in the future? Ideally, in what form should they come and with what properties should they be equipped?

n a world where every product comes from a 3D printer, mass production blends with cottage industry. If every product is customizable (from personal websites to printed kidneys) there is no way to differentiate between a target group and a target person. So the notion that this is an important issue will gradually disappear.

Some people have an allergic reaction to the new media. Maybe they are ‘prejudiced’, but apparently they miss something compared to the traditional media. What could that be, and how should we cope with it?

any people fear failure [Milton Glaser]. Their value is in what they already know and already are. Their value is not in what they can learn or could become. It is fear of change itself that makes them respond with defense and conservation, independent of the topic or the medium. The same people would prefer personal contact over the former new scary media such as telephones.  It is the difference between the kind of people who want stay in their notorious cottage and the elite of entrepreneurs, who explore the challenges of the future.

What role does a designer have in this context? What should be part of his/her mission statement?

Designers—the creative minds in any profession—develop new areas for building new notorious cottages.

The changing process of reading, writing and transfer of knowledge

The way people read and write is changing rapidly. Messages have a short life and are more compact. Text is being replaced by symbols and images. Do we still need text in future?

f course. There is a common assumption that text is being replaced by symbols and images. But is that really true? The amount of generated text never has been as large as it is today. And what are words other than symbols? What are letters other than a modular construction kit to create new symbols on the fly? Except for Chinese and Kanji, all attempts to replace text based communication by images has failed [isotype by Gerd Arns, C.K. Bliss] . “Car”, “boat” and “tree” are the easy ones to solve in a pictorial language. But how to visualize “confidence”, “many reliable boats” and “failing pictorial languages” in an unambiguous way? Which cannot only be read, but also be written? And how about inventing new words, not existing in any dictionary, yet with immediate understanding by anyone, such as “noncomunnication” [misspelling intended].
Asking the question “Do we still need text in the future?” is answering it: who could generate the question itself, just by using pictures with the same level of unambiguous communication? The real question is: are people reading different? The success of e-book readers does not seem to support or validate the question. How different is the reading of the traditional offset-print-on-paper-book and a digital Kindle page anyway, if the current excitement on fashionable new technologies has faded into daily life?

The media industry is experiencing a huge revolution because of mobile reading devices: paper is being replaced by screens. What influence do networked, time-based and interactive media have on the ‘knowledge transfer’ in our society and on our view of the world?

he replacement of paper by screens may be a temporary observation. Bending, foldable screens that can be bound as a stack of sheets could technically be called a “computer”, but it’s more likely that this will be called a “book” by future users, similarly to the way the iPad is no longer referred to as lap computer. Downloading the content of classic books, newspapers and magazines in physical dummies is an example of how computers will vanish. It is in the narrow window between availability and losing interest where these issues are worth discussing. Today’s reflection on the influence of radio in social life or the function of the telephone in corporate communication would be considered sentimental activities.
Instead of discussing the medium itself, there is a much more important issue. Any medium in history has been time based, but since most transformations are so slow, changes can hardly be noticed. Where two centuries ago the development of new tools took extensively longer than a lifetime, there was no direct need for innovation. A carpenter could learn the skills from parent or master, and perform the task for the rest of his or her years. In the world of today, tools last for 2 years at best. Updates are more frequent than the time it takes to acquire the skills to operate them. There is no time to learn a tool, before it becomes obsolete.

A fresh designer, graduating from academy today, is supposed to be designer until retirement, 40 years from now. What will that designer be doing at that time? With a modest increase in the speed of 2.5 times, one should have an opinion in 1900 about the profession of today. No computers in existence then, but even more so: not even a notion that they ever would.

In this reasoning, 10 years from now—the time it takes for a fresh designer to get settled and gain some experience—is similar to envisioning today’s world back in 1985, the year that phototypesetting transformed into Desktop Publishing. No internet, no social media, no wearable communication.

And even with the most modest prediction, 2 years from now—the time that current students graduate—is like 5 years ago, when there was no sign of iPads.
Anyone who claims the ability to predict the future longer than this period is analyzing the crystal ball. Yet, lecturers need to have this vision in order to prepare students for their upcoming 40 years of professional life.
The only answer is to add layers of abstraction. Learn students how to learn. Teach them how to teach. Educate them how to design the design process.

The rhizome-like structure of the network is significantly different from the conventional linear structure of texts in books. What does it mean for the process of reading?

ext is not linear at all, never has been. During reading, the reader remembers traces of earlier statements, lines of reasoning and possible developments of the plot. He or she is aware of upcoming images, the availability of captions and footnotes, the position in a paragraph, approaching graphs, the relative position to inherited headings and the promise of restful whitespace, all visual in the corner of the reading eyes. Reading has never been possible without building a mental network. Technological developments just add to the amount of network nodes that we can handle in our mental space, increasing complexity, changing in time and manipulating more data than ever before. But that is a quantitative change, not a a qualitative one.
The increase in our processing capacity does create a difference, since it speeds up the iteration rate of acquiring skills and gaining insight. Where more information is available in every cycle, substantiated decisions can be made, which lead to shorter overall design time.

Not only is the way to ‘consume’ content changing, but also the way content is developed. In a connected world, consumers no longer passively consume but produce, share, and publish content.

ue to automation, the iteration cycle of alternative versions now includes the production of complete products and the testing by end users. It makes the design process much more transparent for the outside world. Yet, people who think linearly, who are used to measuring decisiveness by the linearity of the process, won’t get it. These are the hardest customers to convince that the quality of a designs comes from professional opportunism and artificial ignorance. When everything needs to be measurable upfront, no new insights can emerge.
“Consumers” are a hybrid group, a mix of people who don’t get it and people who appreciate the ongoing struggle to make things better than they where before, including all the failures. It is the distinction between people who complain about the iPhone 4 reception bug and the people that appreciate the tons of new functionality it offers.

This is not just the case for journalists, but also for designers. A strict distinction between ‘professionals’ and ‘amateurs’ is hardly possible – is the so-called ‘user generated content’ a serious competition for designers?
And do designers need to be editors as well?

esigners need to be anything. And in reverse, anyone improving skills and results must be handling a design process. How can a journalist be professional by not improving abilities and skills, by not spending any time developing techniques to communicate the story? The mere difference is that designers made it a living naming these skills.

Texts need to be edited before they are published. A text prepared for a digital medium requires a different way of editing than a text for a classical print medium, due to different circumstances and opportunities.
For example: compare the printed newspaper with the online version. The online version requires permanent editing.
Do you think that the possibilities are well exploited? (Good examples, bad examples).

ext prepared for a classical print medium requires different ways of editing, due to different circumstances and opportunities. The distinction between digital and classic is only valid from today’s perspective. Owning an iPad is only relevant during this small window of time between availability and the moment most people possess one. After that it is no longer worth mentioning.
Yet, the design problem this phenomenon creates is hard to tackle. Since the size of this window of newness grew shorter than the time it takes to educate a fresh design student, the question is what to educate. Values of today are relics by the time they graduate. Design schools that fail to adjust and generalize, deliver designers that can only solve problems that no longer exist.

Design and typography

Graphic design deals with the communication of content—it used to be especially on paper. How does digitization affect traditional areas such as illustrations, infographics, photography and poster design?

What difference is there? What relevance is there to categorize with blurring borders?

The future of the printed media: what will become useless and superfluous, what will remain?

Slate-cut type still exists today: in gravestone inscriptions.

After a period dominated by mouse and screen, the digital technology will return to the world of touchable things. What are the implications of this tendency on design disciplines such as graphic design, product design and textile and surface design, and how will we deal with the need to redefine the traditional boundaries?

he purpose of boundaries ceases to exist. Built by scared designers to protect their work from villains, the adjective “graphic” added to design becomes a prison. Where reality happens outside, the graphic designer is locked in, pretending that the world is not changing and that life is as good as it ever was before.
The result is that their role is reduced to the choice button colors, where they used to orchestrate the suppliers and behave as the architect of the process.
With boundaries removed, the acquisition of the widest range of skills is the only strategy for designers to survive. Multi-specialism is the only solution to communicate with neighboring professions.

How will the design process transform / is already transforming in response to these developments?

nything that can be automated, will be automated, with the exception of arts & crafts. Any time in history people felt confident that their profession would never become obsolete, the statement proved wrong. But designers are in the lucky position that they can solve the riddle by careful definition. The statement “design is anything that cannot be automated” makes the profession invincible. A similar definition, “Design is anything that you do for the first time,” shows the independence even better. Designers who are scared to death of the destruction their jobs, may not have been doing design work at all. Even if they thought it was.

Do we need new typefaces for the new media? This question may be not relevant anymore, because new screens will be better and better, so we can deal with the ‘old’ typefaces. What is your opinion?

f course we need new typefaces for new media. Just as much as we need new typefaces for old media. The technical requirements are just one component, one restriction in the infinite amount of choices that the designer has to choose from. The discussion of “new typefaces for new media” is more than a resolution issue. The development of Unicode, OpenType Features, multiple scripts, interpolating weights, cross-platform compatibility, webfonts by @font-face, hyphenation in webpages, dynamic typography and international licensing—to name a few—are just as important in the development of new typefaces.  Each of these needs more resources than there is currently available.

Readability on the screen: when we know that the e-readers will be technically improved, the question also remains if we need new typographic rules at all. The old rules about line width, line spacing, etc, can also be applied for the new media. Can you think of reasons why we should define new readability-rules for the new media?

f course we need new typographic rules for new media. Just as much as we need new typographic rules for old media. By definition no two design tasks are identical, otherwise they would have been called production. Different tasks require different solutions. Rules of thumb are models that need to adapt to new situations. The question is how much the media change is an influence. It might well be that the variations inside one medium are much larger. How much of the media-discussion comes from our present focus? The discussion about the difference between letterpress and offset printing faded over time. The discussion about the historical difference in design for different messages remained, independent of the technique of printing.

Do we need a golden section (goldener Schnitt) or a Tschichold-method for the digital book?

e never needed the Golden Section, just as much as we don’t need Tshichold’s method. As valuable as models may be in thinking about solutions—we can only think in biased generalities, otherwise we loose track—in practice people like to think that models do replace the real world of infinite complexity. We can so easily see patterns, even if they probably don’t exist, that we believe them to be true. Worshipping the golden section is a clear example of this. Instead of the belief that anything with a golden section must be beautiful, simple analysis of this fact shows the mistake. There are roughly three types of Golden Sections:

1 True mathematical constructions, including all pentagrams;
2 Golden Sections that where deliberately added to a design [Le Corbusier];
3 An approximation of the section, which can be found in any pattern and composition, once you start searching for it.

Types 1 and 2 are not so interesting. A flower with 5 leaves has the Golden Section. Not because it is so beautiful, but because a pentagram is totally based on Golden Ratios. A flower with 6 leaves has no connection whatsoever.
Type 2 is not a proof of beauty but the presentation of an opinion.
The number of approximate sections far exceeds the others. Whatever you seek you will find. Our pattern-recognizing mind is extremely capable of doing that. But the interesting question is: how many digits of accuracy does the approximation need, in order to label it as a Golden Section? Any tolerance (measuring on the middle or side of the pillars of the Parthenon?) there, disproves the statement. Why isn’t 2/3 or 3/4 the ultimate goal of esthetics, as these values also apply to the range you get, when asking people to draw a point on a sheet of paper. Or if designers are challenged to come with an example of the Golden Section, many mention the ratio of A4. Unfortunately the A-range is based on the square root of 2, without any relation to the square root of 5, which is the foundation of the Golden Section.

What we do need is designers who understand when and why certain methods and models should be applied, independent of religious value or parrot behavior.

What is the relationship between the spoken word, video, and text? What role does text or type have in the future?

How would this interview work when spoken in video? Another area in the landscape of possible message carriers. Different, with overlap.

What is your definition of good design in the 21st century?

n order to know what good design is, we need to understand the meaning of plain “design”. And as with all words, the definition of “design” is fuzzy, very much dependent on opinion and context. Design is the modern lamp, the innovative chair, the new typeface, the car engine, the organization model, the bridge, the guided evolution theory, the interface, the layout and the fashionable jacket. Which one to take?

As undefined as the word “design” is, it’s quite clear how to get there. Different from the linearity of the production process, the design process is surprisingly generic: all of the designs above are created through a process of iterations, wandering through a space of possible solutions, getting better understanding with every step, backtracking to earlier ones if the current direction turns out to be a dead end.

Every iteration, each step in the maze of possible solutions, brings more knowledge and better understanding of what the real problem is, to be solved. The design process makes something that was not there before. And by repeating the procedure, it gets better all the time. Material, tools and requirements may change over time, but the process is fundamentally stable in this definition. The “good design” simply indicates the difference between OK design, good design, and exceptional design, a value of the relative measure of how well the design fits the developed goals.