i have been asked to submit some work for the upcoming issue of idn magazine and do a short interview on tactile illustration via email, it’s always a little difficult to get a feeling on what they are wanting to say on the subject doing it all via mail but however these are the questions they asked me and my spontaneous reactions, i thought it might be worth sharing…
(update the magazine has now been published: see here)
IdN: What is your view towards Tactile Illustration?
The term ‘tactile illustration’ has become something of a trend in the past few years and a quick look around on the web shows that many people have started playing with ‘tactility’ in their work. Trends in graphic design tend to be a bit ‘transient’, especially now that the internet provides easy access for everyone, on the other hand the move towards ‘tactile’ design is, I believe, more than just a quick trend that will pass… precisely because of the technology you mention in your next question.
Tactile illustration is not a new phenomenon of course, if you look at the Bauhaus, Russian constructivism or people like ‘Piet Zwart’ in the 30’s for example it’s always been around. The field of graphic design has always been subject to fashion and the times we live in.
Some of the people who have inspired me personally in this type of work are Piet Zwart, UK designer Vaughn Oliver (in the late 80’s), Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, Julien Valée, Studio Dumbar, Isidro Ferrer and UK photographer Dominic Davies.
IdN: Do you think somewhat the growth of technology increases peoples’ appreciation towards tactile / crafted design? How do you see the effect these two have towards each other?
Yes i do, technology is a great thing, computers and the web have helped propel graphic design & communication forward at an amazing speed, the number of people making high quality work all over the planet, right now just surprises me sometimes. But at the same time, the computer has also become our worst enemy, we have to work quicker, the competition is tougher and the internet means that people can quickly ‘copy’ or assimilate a style of design from somewhere or someone else at the touch of a button. This is perhaps the reason that we seem to be making a move away from just relying on the computer and the digital world. In my case this is certainly so. The move away from the screen and back to using my hands more has been a liberating experience and one which has taken my work in new directions. It slows things down, makes room for making mistakes again (which is necessary) and it often results in work which just looks and feels more original. We all have the same computers but my hands and mind are not the same as yours. The word ‘tactile’ refers to touch and feeling, these are the senses which are often missing in a lot of purely digital work.
IdN: What is the most interesting element you’ve found from Tactile Illustration trigger your initial interest to practice such style?
The move into ‘tactile’ work wasn’t really a conscious decision i think, but it came about from two different types of projects i do.
Firstly my work for the Dutch National Ballet, i spend a lot of time in photography studios, art-directing photo shoots and after a while i wanted to become somehow more involved in the process and to actually influence the way that we go about making images. Firstly through having a direct influence on the idea and what the image will communicate and ‘feel’ like but also by trying to blur the lines between the art-director and the photographer who presses the button. I have worked intensely in the past few years with photographer ‘Ruud Baan’ on this project, who felt the same way. We started to play around with the way we acheived a result and who did what in the process. Sometimes this meant building a very complex set, spending a lot of time on the design of the whole rather than concentrating on just the moment when the dancers are on the set. On the other hand we sometimes try to leave room for the ‘unexpected’ and only take the idea half way, allowing room for things to just happen as we go along. This has made the process of art-directing photography a lot more fun and experimental for me.
The second area which affected my choice for tactile work is the corporate identity work. The tools you have as a designer to create a unique identity for a brand or an organisation are often quite limited. We make a logo or mark, we have type and colour etc. In my identity projects a few years ago I was looking for a new direction to take the idea of an identity and the world of ‘tactile’ seemed to provide a new area to play around and give an identity more feeling or depth. More personality, which after all is the essence of what an identity aims to be.
Again this made my work more interesting and opened up a lot of space to play around, be less formal in my thinking about what an identity is and fortunately, the clients i work for seemed to be ready to go along with me.
There has been a definite shift in our understanding of what constitutes an identity in the past few years, brands have become much more flexible and seem to be relying less and less on rigid parameters than they used to. Tactile work seems to me to fit well in that new thinking. The use of a particular type of material or the way things are put together or combined can suddenly be an essential part of the look and the consistency within an identity.
On the other hand i think that the current trend for ‘tactile’ work will die down and pass on. In fact it probably already is. The challenge for me personally is to apply that thinking to all areas of my work. It doesn’t necessarily mean having to make stuff by hand using paper and objects to make ‘3D looking’ images. It’s more about trying to find your own voice and constantly searching for a new way to express an idea or give your work a personal and genuine feel. If we can move that tactile approach into the digital world things could become even more interesting i think. The good news is that this is precisely what is happening i believe. The ipad has taken digital interfaces back to the metaphor of a book and the tactility of turning pages. This is already affecting the way the web is being consumed and and understood, it is in my opinion definitely a good thing.
IdN: When comes to talk about Tactile Illustration, paper would be the major element for props making, what would be the advantage and disadvantage of using this materials and also is there another materials you would like to use for Tactile Illustration?
Paper has been one of the big factors behind the current wave of ‘tactile’ thinking. Designers, artists and photographers have rediscovered it as a material and redefined it’s place in our toolkit of possibilities. Last year i made a book using rolls of coloured paper to illustrate the whole book and give it a unique look. For me some of the other materials which i have ‘re’discovered are:
string: In the past year alone one project using ‘kite’ string to make typography for a magazine illustration, led me into using string to build three dimensional sound waves as a set for a photo and then on to using string typography as the starting point in a motion-design project i am currently working on, the material itself was fun to play around with and see what possibilities it offers but was also even an inspiration in my choice of which projects i wanted to do and how to approach them… The choice of materials therefore isn’t necessarily just the medium you use to construct your idea, it can also be a part of the idea.
Other materials have been sugar cubes, i used these for an identity project and they are great fun to play with, they lend themselves well to the metaphor of a pixel for example and i have created several illustrations and even a whole font using this principle. Also ‘found’ objects (monodot identity) plastic letter templates, icing sugar letters that go on cakes, cheese letters, advertising billboards cut up into letters, letters made from melted ice, writing on human skin, cutting up playing cards, using shadows, projection on walls, and creating images using woven paper and photos, the list just goes on and on, the more i look… the more stuff there is waiting to be abused, distorted and ‘played’ with….
IdN: In terms of art directing, what would be the major differences you found from working on craft illustration than any other graphic design work?
Well i think that my answers above partly explain that.
In terms of how it affects my work, ‘tactile’ design is by it’s very nature more time-consuming: for example if you ‘build’ a word by hand using sugar cubes compared to typing that same word into the computer. It requires more time and energy to get a result, but the extra effort has in my experience so far, always been worthwhile. Sure it means a lot more work for the money you earn and so on but it also means more fun and learning new things too which i luckily find more important than being able to work quickly or save time.
The second way it affects my work has been the obvious shift to a more autonomous and personal relationship with what i make. If you rely more on your hands and the way the materials ‘direct’ you to work it becomes a much more emotional and human experience. I wonder ‘whether this will work or not?’, it allows things to become more uncertain and reminds you to use intuition and your childishness in a constructive way, have fun. I love my computer and what it allows me to do but it musn’t start to become the boss and force me to fit into it’s own digital dogma, i’m still in charge hopefully….