Interview: Catalogtree

Catalogtree is a graphic design studio in the Netherlands comprised of designers Daniel Gross and Jori Maltha.

What are your design backgrounds?

We met at the Werkplaats Typografie – a two year MA program in Graphic Design – in 1999. The main medium of WT is undoubtedly print. We shared a strong interest in programming and media independent design – we somewhat ill-fitted that environment in that sense. So we worked on some projects together and continued doing so after graduation. Still, our approach and attitude have some WT roots: Technique is not seen as a necessity only but as a source of inspiration, too.

How do you see the design in the Netherlands differing from American design?

Difficult to compare: Our American clients are mostly magazines, our Dutch clients mostly not. We enjoy the directness and speed of magazine work but could not say if this is typically American. In the Netherlands, the projects we work on tend to be slower.

But slow or not, it does not directly change our approach. Self-organization of content is an important tool to us. Instead of telling each word or data point where to go and what to look like exactly, we devise a set of rules by which content should behave. Form = Behaviour. We believe this way, a design can be more than the sum of its parts. It is exiting when a design has some ‘swarming behaviour’ and becomes, much like a flock of birds, a new organism in it self.

Info-graphics demand this approach of self-organization because graphic devises such as position, colour and size have a quantitative meaning first. Data-visualisation as a term is therefore almost a tautology: many info-graphics are just a visual version of a data-set. But we try to let content of books and websites ‘self-organize’ as well. To us, design is losing control in a controlled way, it is putting your hands in the air on a roller coaster and hope you don’t derail.

Catalogtree is one of the more progressive studios around, is that something you are conscious of or does it just happen by accident?

Because we like slow production techniques such as woodcut and screen-print, our work is often seen as retro actually. Choosing production techniques are such important design decisions to us, we are a little obsessed with not using Adobe (which we still use a lot of course) because it is such a default. We create our own hard- or software tools in an attempt to stay in control in a you-are-what-you-eat kind of way. Marshall McLuhans famous quote ‘we shape our tools and our tools in turn shape us’ (or whatever the exact quotation might be) serves as a warning sign for whenever we get all to comfortable in one way of working. This way of working is progressive in it self but not necessarily in outcome. We still hope it is though…

Also, we try to balance commissioned projects and free work: Commissioned work has its’ benefits: there is a deadline, there is a budget and there are the clients wishes. Design projects are nicely one-dimensional sometimes. We do the job, clear our desks and go home. You can play loud music in the background while doing this. We have our own vocabulary when we discuss these projects, we could say: ‘lets do fat arrows with transurban patterns showing change’ or something, and we understand each other. We think up designs over the phone like that.

The effort lies in creating this vocabulary. This is to us the purpose of our free work, to take the time to concentrate on new ways of processing and visualizing content and to create the tools to do that with. When we pursue new techniques and visualizations the atmosphere in our studio changes to quiet anticipation: will the plan work?

What inspires you?

We tend to skip the graphic design section in a book store and are hooked on natural self-organizing systems such as swarms, Penrose tilings, People standing in line, Voronoi patterns, Traffic jams, stock markets, cellular automata and the like.

You are known for doing some of the best info graphics and handling data, do you have any specific philosophies or approaches to these projects that make them so successful?

We think Graphic Design should trigger some emotional response. Also Info-graphics. Which has to do with a misconception of objectivity or rather, the miss-informed idea that a subjective view is the same as lying. It is often stated that data should be presented as objective as possible, but to our mind this leads to an exact reproduction of the original data set. When you’re visualizing a top ten of best-selling books this might be a good idea, but when the visualization represents tens of thousands of data-points, this approach makes quick interpretation impossible. Also, the authors of a book or the editors of a magazine use scientific research often to illustrate a certain story or a point of view. So the context in which a info-graphic is placed plays a role in determining the best visual form of the design. These editorial steps and design decisions help to interpret research without republishing the original paper.

So we are aiming at designs a viewer can relate to (that might as well count as an emotional response right?) in order to make things clear.

What is one thing you know now, that you wish you knew as a design student?

Being professional is not a virtue.

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