Interview with Niels Schrader – Mind Design, Amsterdam

Niels Schrader is a concept-driven information designer with a fascination for numbers and data. He is founder of the Amsterdam-based design studio Mind Design and member of the AGI – Alliance Graphique Internationale. Currently he lectures at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and ArtEZ – Academy of Art & Design in Arnhem.
This interview was made on September the 18th in Mind Design studio in Amsterdam.

Hinterm Mond (Behind the Moon), 2008

Institute of Network Cultures: When and how did your interest in book design begin?

Niels: Hinterm Mond is the first book I developed. By develop I mean not only the design, but also the content of the book. It includes some reflections on the relationship between front and back sides in general, not only book’s. The publication presents everyday artifacts, front and back of which are printed on the two sides of a sheet. Turning the pages reveals a sort of truth or story behind the objects, sometimes in a very literal and sometimes in a more metaphorical way.

It all started when I was studying. During the course of semiotics, my dear professor Dieter Fuder, presented me with a challenging assignment: write a paper on ‘The Semantic Void’. What I delivered was a little provocation, an empty sheet of paper. My philosophical approach was simple. As the empty sheet speaks for itself, I can actually tell the story, but I don’t need to write it down. So I delivered the empty paper and in return my professor said: “Which side do I have to look at, the front side or the back side?” That was a good question indeed and the moment when I first thought: “What do front and back sides have in common, and how do they differ?” And so I decided to explore this issue further.

Hinterm Mond gathers all types of fronts and backs, both of graphic and photographic nature. It cross-faces their meanings and appearances by playing with the reader’s tendency to perceive a book as facing pages.
The title of the book is a historic reference to the 1959 exposure of the far side of the moon, when for the first time in mankind a spacecraft returned never-before-seen views of its rear side to earth.

Since digital media and screens only show the front and we can never see the other side, I asked myself: “Do they have the back side at all?” That was when I started collecting back sides, looking for inspiration and answers. I had this feeling that I had to look and gather as much as possible to get to know what the back or front side of an object really was. And that is exactly what this book is about. I realized that some back sides match multiple fronts: it’s not always necessary to attach a back to its apparent front, sometimes the concept of truth may simply shift to a more semantic interpretation. So I came up with the idea of turning the pages as a metaphor of revealing the true story.

The book is an archive that starts very simply and gradually becomes more and more philosophical. It combines for example Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the ‘Vitruvian Man’ with Christ on the cross, and so a symbol of science is juxtaposed with a symbol of religion. The book is accompanied by an interesting essay that analyses whether spoken words can lie by applying the same concept to the world of language.


INC: Where does the difference between a book and an e-book reside?

N: I am a book lover and I think that any book is about exchanging knowledge. On this level of abstraction, ebooks and traditional books are about the same. As much as the printed book has the tactile quality, the advantage of the e-book is its dynamic character.

INC: The concept of front and back sides made me think about a Leo Steinberg’s art essay called ‘Other Criteria’ (1972), in which he describes the work of some painters like Rauschenberg, and states those to had a very new way to conceive the spatial concept inside pictorial representation and the activity of reading an image: something that had always been vertical for the first time became planar, and therefore, this completely changed the meaning of how images are perceived in one’s mind. I see the concept behind your first book as similar, because you’ve been talking about screens and digital media and how the concept of back sides is missing or changes…

N: Yes, you’re right: what started as a simple search became a long-lasting obsession and I still haven’t found the answer to that question. It’s an ongoing process and I have to admit that still every time I discover a new back side I take a picture of it with the idea that I will finally find the answer, and eventually make a new book. I think it would be an exciting challenge to publish it digitally, as its original concept was conceived for paper and the physical experience of turning the pages.

INC: Let’s get more into books and ebooks. In which ways do you think traditional publishing and digital publishing can coexist and intertwine?

N: I definitely see a future for both of them. Since design is mainly about finding a way to structure and present information, both traditional and e-books seem to be of a similar kind. What makes them different is the nature of the platform itself: printed books are linear whereas e-books allow for non-linear reading of the text.

The concept of non-linear storytelling, native to but not yet much exploited in e-books, is actually being already applied to various other media. Just consider these old books you might remember from your childhood, where every page would offer you a choice how to continue the story: “If you want John to go to the beach, continue the story on page 71”. You could have a very personal experience in reading the book going as far as creating your own plot. We can also find examples of non-linear story telling in cinema, e.g. in movies like Robert Altman’s ‘Short Cuts’ (1993), Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Magnolia’ (1999) or Olivier Otten’s recent ‘Order’ (2012).

It seems that different media try to take inspiration from each other, mimic its features. But these are merely little steps in evolving the concept of non-linear storytelling. In my opinion, all the various media still coexist as they provide different qualities, all of them essential and valid on their own. We will only get to the point where e-books have a chance to replace the printed books, when the audience has fully mastered the non-linear reading and the content in e-books is presented accordingly.

In this video: Mondriaan Foundation annual report, 2008
The Mondriaan Foundation supports exceptional projects of visual art, design and cultural heritage of the Netherlands. As the organization manages an annual budget of approximately 23 million euros, the annual report is published not only to review the organization’s current activities but also to comply with public accountability and transparency requirements.


INC: The relation between text and image has always been one of the core matters in visual communication. How has it changed with the digital? What are the new problems and chances? What do you think about the relationship with book structure, storytelling and multimedia content? And what about the whole design process?

N: Deconstructing the linear code of a story entails learning to read and write again. The storyline has now turned into a network, a hyper-structure. In a book, for instance, a network could be a structure that connects different pieces of content through different types of hyperlinks: referring to the same topic, presenting a related thought or even changing the whole narrative.

Looking for this hyper-structure makes the design process face a whole new challenge. It is not just the matter of design, nor only of content, ultimately the hyper-structure emerges from the both. Consequently, the responsibilities of individuals involved in the design process change. Author, designer and publisher must all work closely together. Just as the hyper-structure is by definition a non-hierarchical, interactive model, so must the production process become interactive rather than traditionally linear.

I believe the role of a designer has spanned over the tasks of an editor. His role is not limited to just combining images with text anymore. By applying the interactive hyper-structure to books, the designer has to anticipate all different choices the reader can possibly make. Therefore, the designer is responsible for layering the information and defining the structure of content.

Additionally to these changes, new media and e-books, allow not only for dynamic content but also for multi-sensory stimulation (e.g. audio or movie fragments). However, in the field of publishing, these new possibilities are not exploited as much as they could be.

In this video: Hyperbody, 2012
Hyperbody is a richly illustrated publication that documents the results of more than 10 years of academic research on interactive architecture conducted by the Hyperbody design group at Delft University of Technology. The group was set up in 2000 by Prof. Kas Oosterhuis and is pioneering in the domain of computationally driven non-standard architecture, an active, component-based system that reacts to the user and his immediate environment.


INC: I think that, in a certain way, even before Internet was created, all the elements of a design, and even knowledge’s ones, were not so separated. Now it’s just becoming more evident that communication is all about how the whole structure works simultaneously.

N: We live in times of data overload. Never before in history have functions, algorithms and databases had more impact on our daily lives than today. Computers are capable of processing huge amounts of data within a short period of time. People are slower, but have the capability to understand data and draw conclusions based on this information. Both go well together in modern communication: bitstreams need reasoning, and cognitive reflection requires processing of information. However, at present, the speed of data transfer is passing the level of understanding. Our minds have simply stopped processing all available data. So the essential question to consider when reinventing the book on the tablet is “How do we deal with this huge amount of information?”

INC: So, you’ve been talking about networks, could this topic be seen as one of the main aspects of the identity of your design projects? In which elements of the project do you think your identity as a designer resides and why?

N: Indeed, in one way or another all my work deals with the logic of network structures. I have even been called a “network designer”, and it seems there is some truth in it. Concentrating on hyper-structures comes mainly from my belief that they are the only true communication model of the information age. The growing ease of use and pace of technological developments stimulate the fragmentation of communication, which in turn is dictating more and more the style of how we interact. The ever shrinking attention span of humans and the general shortening of messages people exchange are examples of this process. The hyper-structure addresses these problems.

My fascination in hyper-structures grew actually out of my experiments with translating the information between different ‘states of aggregation’. And by states, I don’t mean media or content, but the structure. It’s all about finding the most suitable model for the information and then implementing it in the chosen medium, regardless if it’s a book or a website.

In this video: Heartbeat Iran, 2010
On the initiative of Gabriëlle Schleijpen, head of Studium Generale at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, a motley group of students, teachers and artists related to the academy traveled in 2005 and 2007 to the Islamic Republic of Iran to gain their own personal insights on the status quo of the country. While staying in the neighborhood of the world’s cradle of civilization, they have compiled a total of 16,000 photographs, some of them taken very spontaneously while others done more intentionally, some of them displaying trivial matters while others dealing with serious topics. This was the moment when the idea to publish this book was born.


INC: Definitely the research on the book as a medium can be inspired by design practice in many ways, and what about design driven research about devices and open source tools?

N: As a studio we often develop our own tools while working on our projects. I think such tools should be made available. I am a fan of the open source concept, because I believe it’s the way that technology will work in the future. Therefore, we often consider releasing a certain tool to the public. Obviously, sometimes it is a tough decision to give a way a month’s worth of work out to the world for free. So we only release our tools on non-commercial license, allowing the research world to benefit from them, but not the commerce to make money with.

INC: Do you think that open source software and open culture can affect collaborative publishing projects, and how? Can the digital offer more opportunities for that?

N: Yes, of course. If we want to tackle this paradigm shift, interdisciplinary working methods are becoming mandatory. Many of my large-scale projects for example involved close collaboration with specialists from different disciplines and cultural backgrounds, such as programmers, architects, musicians, type designers and printers. From this approach grew my idea for setting up Mind Design as a collaborative unit. It functions like a hub, where people of different backgrounds work together on various projects.

I’ve always considered myself a team player. I believe all people involved in such interdisciplinary projects have the same position in collaboration. It’s a horizontal, non-hierarchical concept, where all the members try to approach the problem from different angles. Having worked in this style for over 10 years, I am really proud of the network of specialists I’ve built.

As a contemporary designer, you simply cannot solve the given challenges on your own. You need to know your limits and have a clear view on what you are able to deliver. Only then you can execute more complex projects. It doesn’t mean that your work as a designer is less important, it’s just that meanwhile such projects require many different skills. As the complexity of the media is growing tremendously, also projects are becoming more and more sophisticated. We are not living anymore in times when the designer develops on his own something as simple as a poster!

INC: Is it becoming difficult to define oneself as a specific kind of professional? Are the boundaries and the different roles getting more and more blurred?

N: Yes, I agree that boundaries between different roles are becoming more vague. I mean, what is the difference between a sound designer, a software developer or a book designer anyway? With all of us using computers and Internet, with all the specialized tools so easily available to everyone? However, I also believe that knowing your skills and boundaries can help you define or create your own role. Even if it escapes the standard classification.

INC: Do you see the digital book as a new challenge and a thing you will try to do in the future?

N: Yes, and I see it as a very positive challenge: there is a new world to discover. This is how I would love everyone in the publishing field to see it – as a new adventure that’s starting!