Information design:
in practice, an informed theory

InformForm is an international platform for information design, which celebrates and explores both practical and theoretical experimentation within the field of design. It prides itself on showcasing relevant examples of work by students, for students. Read More

Interview: Catalogtree

by InformForm

Flocking Diplomats – Poster series on Parking Violations by Diplomats in New York City, 1997-2005

Catalogtree is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Arnhem. In this instance, multidisciplinary means the combining of several, usually separate, fields of expertise. What does this word mean in practice to you?

Perhaps we aren’t so much multidisciplinary as a medium independent. To us, designing is about having a certain attitude that can work across many forms of media. The equation form = behaviour sums up our attitude best. Instead of dictating where each element of the design should go, and what it should look like, our designs are often generated by algorithms that take care of these decisions. The algorithm can be a set of rules that we discuss over the phone, jot down on a scrap of paper or it can be embedded in a piece of software. We always aim for a design that’s more than the sum of its parts. Starting from text, our designs are often finished before they become visual, and so the best moment in any design process is when we ‘run’ the algorithm and say: so this is what it looks like!

Your approach to materials and production techniques is refreshingly non-default —from pen plotters to crystal radios to light sensing vibrobots. When and how do these considerations get introduced during a typical design process? Is this something you were exploring during your studies?

The trick is to spend time on something you like, or you’ll become a master of something that you don’t want to do. We like technology as a means to an end but also for its own sake, and we like it best when the use of a certain technique becomes part of the graphic vocabulary of the project.Nevertheless the technique is fixed for most jobs: magazines are off-set printed, websites are live on a server. This places certain demands on the design that are hard to change. However, when we see the chance to tell a story with a technique we haven’t used before, we never pass. We feel it’s completely liberating to be working simultaneously on projects that are cast in concrete, cut from vinyl, off-set printed or cmc milled.

Technology was already very much a theme in 1999, during our studies at the Werkplaats Typografie (our MA typography course). We learned to see an ‘off-set press’ as more than a machine to reproduce finished designs; It’s a device to layer ink, and can therefore be a part of the design process. We tried to apply this change in perspective to other fields that we work in too. Our first web designs were strongly dependent on screen sizes, operating systems and browsers. We wanted everything to look different on different machines! As you can imagine, it made our clients mad because they demanded a more consistent look. So our recent web projects are not that experimental and shifty as they had been before. What has remained is the attempt to make content, medium and tool one and the same thing.

No design is ever neutral or objective. What are your thoughts on the responsibilities of the designer in regards to subjectivity and ‘truth’ when dealing with data?

Experts don’t need visualisation to read data. A musician can hear the music as he reads a score. The rest is at the mercy of graphics and audio. Data is not objective. In the very least, when someone collects a data set, they leave another data set un-collected. And rightly so, collecting data is not about reproducing reality, it’s about looking for answers to specific questions, or telling a certain story. And choosing to collect what is most relevant to that angle. A frequent misconception in data visualisation is that by treating data subjectively, it’s tantamount to lying. We reject this notion completely. It’s also often said that data must be presented as objectively as possible, but to our minds that leads to an exact reproduction of the original data set. That is perhaps the best method if you’re dealing with top ten best-selling books. But if the visualisation represents tens of thousands of pieces of data that makes a ‘good’ interpretation impossible. Data is not information. In order to inform someone it is necessary to place the emphasis somewhere, to make an editorial choice, so that the reader understands what is being told without having to be an ‘expert’.

What role does collaboration play outside/inside Catalogtree?

Our studio is small, with only three people and the occasional intern. We collaborate on everything except making lunch for the studio, which we take in turns. When working on larger projects we forge collaborations with developers or documentary makers, with scientists or architects. Over the years, as our projects have grown, we’ve been working on this type of collaboration more and more. To be part of a team, and to develop a project from the start, is quite satisfying. It has strengthened our belief in the idea that to be a good designer, it’s essential to be a good editor.

Here at InformForm we believe that learning never stops. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned since you graduated? And how does this relate to the teaching/workshops you also do?

We are amateurs by choice. To develop, you should try and push the limits of what you know and wander off the map. Right now, we are scanning a plot of land at an abandoned airfield using ground radar. We’ve never done that before and have no idea what the project might lead to. It is forcing us to use new tools, and come up with new visualisation methods that open up new vistas. Hopefully, this way of working will prevent us from staying in one place and becoming experts at one thing. We never want to get to the situation where people asked, ‘What is it you do best?’ And we could only possibly answer, ‘Kerning headlines.’

Finally do you have any advice for students studying the subject?

The best sites are just off the reservation.

Posted in Articles
August 1, 2015
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