Current 02/2009

Closing Windows

Microsoft implemented its standards the American way (have lunch, or be lunch), which maybe considered brutal or even illegal by some, but it certainly did the job. No international standardisation negotiations could have done what commercial force did so efficiently and fast.

Too bad that Microsoft only developed an immense commercial power and not also the design consciousness of its rival Apple. The result would have been even more impressive. Design wise, the Microsoft company started off exceedingly poor and later it earned a slightly better reputation for itself by commissioning a few talented designers. But the company never really got rid of its unoriginal and poor visual taste. Moreover - although its products were sold the world over - most designs and designers were American.


Top to bottom: the Microsoft Tag, and the much older Japanese QR code


Today, the once powerful shine of the Microsoft company is waning. The company has won major legal battles in the US that helped to fend off competition, but European courts were a bit more resilient. (Free) Open Source software is gaining ground. Microsoft's strength has never been its innovative technical power. It was its (innovative) commercial power - supported by armies of sales people and lawyers - that brought the company to its position, sometimes brutally crushing product innovators that it detected as potential competitors - after a short period of infatuated courting. But even the predatory jaws of the company have lost their original strength. Google grew unabated and Microsoft's own social network software never gained the popularity of those of its competitors. The toothless lion had to diversify its activities to stay in business and use large advertising budgets to at least keep an image of innovation. One of its latest products for instance, called Microsoft Mobile Tagging is not new at all. It was invented in 1994 (!) in Japan. It is called QR-codes (Quick Response) and has already been popular in Japan for many, many years. It is interesting to see how perplexingly fast companies can grow globally these days and establish global industry standards that may profoundly influence the lives of citizens the world over. And how frightfully much stronger and more efficient this force is than any type of (combined) governmental intervention. The same has been true for breaking the (illegal) monopoly of Microsoft. Google, Open Source and Social network software has done more to reduce its power than any court decision ever did.


Making Books

And finally the result of these two were combined in layout instructions. An important part of his job was to organise the process of all people involved: clients, photographers, illustrators, authors, lithographers, typesetters, paper manufacturers, printers and bookbinders. He took much pride when this complex piece of production coordination resulted in a pleasant  looking, accessible, and well made product, manufactured within the planned budget. He saw his work as basically rather dull, not aiming to make the heart beat faster of anyone who looked at or used the result of his work, but instead he saw his role as that of providing an essential help to the people who had a stake in making the book, the authors, the illustrators and the client. He integrated their individual objectives to reach a maximal combined effect. No simpler and more direct way to convey information as with a (well designed) book, he said. Facilitating this simple goal was his professional satisfaction. Harry Sierman was an unassuming, witty person who loved to read and was one of the best book designers of his generation.




The world of Harry Sierman is no longer around. Nobody makes books anymore the way he did. The graphic industry has been transformed profoundly in the digital age. Production costs have plummeted or have for a part disappeared altogether. The amount of book titles produced in the Western world has exploded. Northern countries are on top of the production list, approaching three new titles per 1000 inhabitants per year. The Low Lands are issuing more that 35.000 new titles annually. But this is only the beginning. As with the rest of the media, publishing or broadcasting will blur into a generic individual human activity that can no longer be measured sensibly in official statistics. Every individual will possess professional production equipment and will become a publisher and/or broadcaster of any sort and may issue many titles or broadcast many programmes in the course of their life. Eventually all media will merge into one internet source and only the way this source will be exploited and consumed will be different. In the early age of book production elaborate and tedious fabrication of tons of lead was needed to create the necessary castings to print the paper book sheets. Nobody could do this work all by himself. Today all the heavy lifting is long gone, book production has become merely a matter of arranging electrons properly. Anything you tap on your computer keyboard eventually combined with any kind of illustration you put on your screen will be printed in an unmatched graphical quality within seconds. All steps between creation and production are in fact eliminated. Obviously, levels in sophistication of production will remain, but in essence everyone can write and design books and have them produced at low or no costs. Traditional print is still relatively costly - although the cost of the paper has become the major part of its price-, print on demand costs are already very low and popularity and quality will only rise in the future and ebooks have no reproduction - or distribution - costs whatsoever. This tectonic shift in the graphic industry has made book production a fundamentally different activity. People make books to commemorate a nice trip abroad, a birthday party or even a romantic dinner for two. All designers, architects and artists make books about their work. It is seen as an essential addition to their business card. Publishers are only interested in distribution of this kind of publications if the authors will pay all the bills themselves. This principle has become widespread, not only designers see books as PR vehicles. Scientists, technicians and the medical sector produce immense amounts of printed matter each year. These so called STM publications are important tools for career and business development. The medical sector alone has an insatiable appetite for publications about their field. One publisher has found a way to exploit the large medical resources available on the internet by using search engines in a clever way and by putting the results thereof into on demand publications. A totally automated way to produce books that created hundreds of thousands of titles almost overnight. All these titles will be automatically updated with each new book purchase. Publications based on professional 'crowd-sourcing' is done everywhere. Also in the design field. 'Index' books for instance makes books by and for designers without paying anything for the content of these books. A recent article in the New York Times revealed that soon the amount of people interested in making a book will outnumber the amount of people interested in actually buying and/or reading a book. The result is that the providers that facilitate book production for individuals and self publishing are likely to do better than providers offering books for sale. Does this mean that all professional book design has gone with the wind ? No. Book production has become a business in an immensely widespread variety. Some authors still get sizable sums upfront for writing a new title and lots of attention is given to their book (cover) designs. Some graphic design students make wonderfully designed books of their final projects, year after year. Although the quantity of the book production by design schools have become rather embarrassing. The Dutch Irma Boom (AGI member) even managed to become one of the very few star book designers. But the attention has shifted away from the unassuming Harry Sierman design method. For Harry, the content shaped the carrier, for Irma it is the other way around. Her books are intended to make the heart beat faster of the people holding her products in their hands. And sometimes she succeeds wonderfully. Experiments with the visual shape of the content container are given priority over all well respected traditions of book design. Printers are seduced to use olive oil or peanut butter instead of ink and book binders to use chain-saws to cut the book blocks. Irma has produced videos of her design work giving the impression of being both a choreographer and dancer in a dynamic typographic ballet. This image is far away from dull lonely Harry Sierman slaving away sitting on his crowded worktable in his attic at home. The only thing that puzzles me about prima book ballerina (Irma) Boom with her well deserved reputation in book design is why she manifestly detests reading. An obsession for book design does not necessarily imply any longer a love and respect for reading it seems.  Surely, reading habits are changing and so is the iconic value of books. Maybe therefore the appreciation for books as exceptional objects are on the rise.

Edo Smitshuijzen

One of the many self-publishing sites



And they certainly master the timing and sequencing of the video medium. Maybe the visual polishing of graphic design is less important in making things clear than we like to think.

There is no doubt that there is an increasing need to explain the growing complexities of contemporary societies. Explanations need to be as clear and as simple - and as short - as possible in order to reach as many as possible. They have to be done 'In Plain English' to quote Commomcraft.




Information design will be a growing business. Information Architects devise structures to lead people comfortably through complex systems. Infographics are made by illustrators who make things clear in one overview or in a few illustrations. Infographics are often the work of two: an illustrator and a person with a particular didactic skill. The last can have any type of background but has made instructing from a hobby into a profession. The explainist's medium is video. Graphic quality seems of less importance in this medium. Although, using professional graphics can make a difference, also for video. It's interesting to see how the Western world is still not a culturally homogene global village. Below three examples to show the differences.

1. The typical American way of explaining by Commoncraft

Wikis in Plain English

2. The way a German designer explains.

3. The Norwegian band 'Röyksopp' had this video made to promote their song 'Remind me'. The video does not explain anything, but makes use of the typical information graphics visual language. The video pictures the life of a girl in the UK, but is made by the Parisian studio H5.


Thomas Couderc work updates

Thomas Couderc has updated their work, see it here.

Clément Vauchez work updates

Clément Vauchez has updated their work, see it here.

Alexandre Dimos work updates

Alexandre Dimos has updated their work, see it here.

Yu Guang work updates

Yu Guang has updated their work, see it here.

Alan Chan work updates

Alan Chan has updated their work, see it here.

Most Popular