Graphic Matters is a graphic design festival which takes place every two years in the South of the Netherlands in Breda, close to the Belgian border. Since 2008 (previously called Graphic Design Festival Breda until 2017) the festival has ran with the aim to celebrate graphic design specifically, but as you might expect there is some nice overlap into other design disciplines. Each year they choose a topic to explore to show the power of graphic design and how we as designers play an important role in society; one that might sometimes go unnoticed.
The topic and message for the 2017 edition was ‘Shut Up, Speak Up’ which to me, was about how we as designers can express ourselves and our opinions. Be it about people, politics or our planet either for peace, party or protest.
You can read my recap of the 2017 edition here.
However, the topic and message in 2019 was ‘Information Superpower‘ which through several exhibitions and projects explored how important data and information is and how we as designers can display such information.
Thankfully, the festival was contained in one area in Breda which meant there was a bit to see in the small space of the Belcrum neighbourhood of the city (unlike Dutch Design Week which is all over the city of Eindhoven); utilising several warehouses and re-purposed spaces.
Thankfully, I was not alone to experience the festival, I met up with ex-VBAT intern and junior designer Sean Valies. Here are some of my highlights.
The first part of the festival we checked out was the main exhibition, ‘Information Superpower’ which, across several rooms, explored the likes of visual statistics to interactive data visualisations and in general, how designers can use their superpowers to shape and educate the world.
The premise of the exhibition was also about the power of data and how data is useful to us in culture, society and communication but also how data can be dangerous in privacy, resources and politics. Over 60 examples showed “a new, deeper, wider, more complex and yet understandable view of our world today.” Also, as it was a graphic design exhibition; how can this data and information be communicated to us.
“The idea is to go from numbers to information to understanding.”
There were several themes in the exhibition such as how we use data and information to learn about things like live wind speeds across a country, how often people are Googling specific foods at specific times of the year and how can a phone book be designed democratically. The last example here is speaking specifically about Wim Crouwel’s radical and controversial design of the Dutch phonebook in 1977. Now an almost defunct object, the phone book in its day would have been highly important with every home owning one and containing a massive amount of ordered data and information.
Crouwel chose to move from three wide columns to four tight columns with all lower-case text and the phone number in front of the name to prevent skewed reading. This clean, ordered and grid-like layout is classic Crouwel who was known for his Nieuwe Zakelijkheid/New Objectivity/New Pragmatism style. This phone book design was a radical and new way to display such data; however many criticised it for its lack of legibility.
Also in this section was a great example of how data can be visualised in a very simple and analogue way; it doesn’t require advanced technology or radical design. This example, a video, shows how in 2010 the artist Iepe Rubingh and around 60 other people poured 5,000 litres of (water-based, eco-friendly) paint over an intersection in Berlin Mitte meaning whatever cars, bikes or people moved over it spread the paint through the area; showing a colourful visualisation of the traffic.
More themes explored included how once hidden data can become public and how data can be used to help and hinder us, including examples such as a handbook of tyranny, an encyclopedia of leaked passwords, illustrative storytelling maps and how 10,000 years of data can be presented in a beautiful way. This last example refers to the book by Willem van Zoetendaal, Jerzy Gawronski and Peter Kranendonk: SPUL/STUFF.
This book is the printed documentation of a small selection of the 700,000 ‘things’ discovered during the construction of the Noord-Zuid line in Amsterdam between 2003 and 2012 dating back to 10,00 years ago. Along with the accompanying website, Below the Surface, the book documents 15,000 items which have each been found, cleaned, photographed (perfectly), named, dated and categorised. The result is a highly diverse cross-section of life in Amsterdam over the years with some of the oldest things being shells, fossils, spear tips and pottery and the newest being tubes of toothpaste, credit cars, mobile phones and watches. Also mixed in are some guns, bongs, bus tickets and one huge anchor. The collection of stuff is also on show at the Rokin metro station.
NO VISUAL IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
The expression: “a picture is worth a thousand words” may be true with a photograph, meaning that complex and multiple ideas can be conveyed by a single still image more effectively than a verbal description. However, when it comes to an infographic or a visual, curator Sven Ehmann believes that the same can’t be said.
“How do I read this dataviz?” is probably a question you ask yourself when you come [across] a chart, diagram, map, manual or any other form of visualization. And this is the same for pretty much anyone. Visualizations are abstractions, they are based on visual languages and like any language it takes a bit to learn — before you can use and enjoy it.”
Thanks to illustrations by Breda based designers, Rob en Robin aka Rob van den Belt and Robin van Gurp, this small/big exhibition (small because it is only a few things, big because they are on big billboards) explains simply how data visualisations and infographics can be read and understood.
- Follow your first impression.
Every encounter starts with a first impression, trust it.
- Dig deeper and look for instructions.
Take some time to read and understand the narrative.
- Look beyond what you see.
Often visualisations and infographics look nice and the message is hidden behind this. Look beyond the image.
- Check the sources.
Every medium has a message and every story has an author, check to see who has created this: is it legit.
- Enjoy the euphoria of knowledge.
Take a step back and ask yourself, did I really get it? If not maybe more personal research is required.
Each of these statements and bits of information is paired with a humorous and clever illustration.
Rob en Robin also worked on the campaign for Graphic Matters with a series of animated graphs:
“You wouldn’t normally expect to find us in the field of Data visualization. The rigid lines of data are not usually considered sexy or attractive to us designers. Having said that… it might not be sexy, but it has a powerful and simple aesthetic to it which makes it fun to look at from different perspectives. We searched for (and found!) soul in those lifeless graphs.”
In 2017 and now in 2019, the festival carried out an open-call poster competition, inviting designers to submit their designs which they saw as data visualisation, infographics, maps and/or user manuals. Each designer was asked to use their ‘information superpower’ and for which I submitted a piece of work myself.
One evening I was reading about the Netherlands on Wikipedia and I was kind of amazed by the amount of people living in such a small country. Further research found me looking at how this many people (17 million) were spread across the country; are most people living in the Ranstad area, does anyone live in the North, how many people live on the outer islands like Texel and Vlieland. I found all this information and plotted it onto a map of the country, creating a heat-map style infographic with larger circles for larger population areas and tiny circles for tiny population areas. Set in white circles on a black background it has a kind of constellation feeling to it.
To my amazement, the poster was selected as one of 50 from around 1500 submissions! I was therefore able to see my own work on display at the festival, alongside 49 other impressive posters. Something I noticed was that my poster was one of the few which was not so ‘in-your-face’, due to the size of the information being shown it is very detailed and requires some time to look at and understand fully, however I see this as a good thing as many people glance over these ‘in-your-face’ posters nowadays and people should stop and take something in… Maybe not in the pouring rain like it was when I was there though.
If I could go back and improve this poster, I might add some lines or something to fill the gaps in, helping to show the shape of the country more, possibly.
Overall, I thought the exhibitions and festival as a whole did a great job of informing people about the importance of information. Much like the previous edition, it puts what we do as graphic designers into perspective and highlights what we are able to do as well as how important our role is in society when it comes to topics like this and many others.
Graphic Matters is a biennial event so the next edition should be in 2021, if not before.