Tobias Gebert.Reducing the Obvious
How is it that we as designers always have grids and clear, reduced designs instilled in us and yet our world out there comes along much more diversified and unordered than planned?
In his bachelor thesis, “Reducing the Obvious” (at the FH Mainz), Tobias Gebert has examined the reflex of reduction in design. Over 500 pages he questions and considers the necessity of the principles of order in our environment and which can still be of interest. We discussed the content and design of his work with him.
1. How is “Reducing the Obvious” structured?
In the first two chapters, I address creating reductive approaches as one of the basic reflexes of humans structuring their environment. This is no different between “normal” people and designers. So creating a design grid on a piece of paper is the same process as the straight path in the jungle that explorers need to make new, unknown spaces accessible to them. In principle, it is just a reflex that serves to mask chaos in our environment and which comes from a time when we were not able to understand the processes around us. In the subsequent chapters, I then look at structuring processes in our environment and their apparent parallels to our designs. For example, in developing networks, group behaviour or organic town structures.
The theme of my bachelor thesis can be summarised in this contradiction between order and self-created chaos. The title of “Reducing the Obvious” reflects this theme and describes the focus, reducing specific components of the obvious around us.
2. What statements do you make? What is the core of your publication?
There are essentially two core theses. On the one hand, I question the drive towards reductionist design and, on the other, I demonstrate the similarity between self-created complexity and the environment hidden by reduction. So this means that the drive toward reduction and clarity come from a period in which it was difficult to understand the processes. Through reduction and focussing on specific elements in our environment, we have, however, generated knowledge which allows us to understand these processes. Reduction in itself can no longer fulfill its desired purpose any more.
Then comes the analytical look at the different structures of our environment that differ greatly from ordered approaches. The same is found in design, such as when several designers are allowed to express themselves in a public space, as is the case with graffiti. Our complex world out there requires us to look at new approaches which reductionist design can only partially supply, and which I attempt to find through consciously including the once greyed out processes in our environment.
3. In your epilogue, you write, “Therefore at this point, there is a call to the reader himself to use the environment with all its processes as a source of ideas, as it offers far greater identity than reductionist design”. Would it be fair to say that your work is a call for more variety? Is it the fact that the design matches each theme and each statement can be understood from the content – and should turn out quite differently, so differently and diversely as the themes themselves?
I have drawn my inspiration from observing the environment and questioning the prevailing contradictions which I have then processed by looking at the prevailing ordering processes. My epilogue is therefore directed straight at the reader and challenges him to walk through the world with his eyes open and to draw his inspiration from the environment. For both radical order and uncontrollable chaos can be found everywhere.
Of course, it is possible to see my work as a call for a more adapted, more individual design. The conscious renunciation of reduction in design in the last chapter particularly has led me to new approaches in the design universe that I have analysed and listed. Especially in terms of generativity an approach for more individuality could lie in this regard. So, as one of the examples I show the corporate identity design for the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, that has been inspired by the principles of evolution and constantly changes. In this case, you could say that reduced design would not be appropriate or expedient. But this can change again in every context.
I see my work more of an incentive to question one’s own point of view and to reconsider it. Whether or not there must be a diversified design at the end of the day is something that I leave open to interpretation quite consciously. Perhaps the approaches I pursue overtax the reader and he finds the reductive design attractive precisely for this reason. I’m just saying that there are these processes, the parallels are obvious and that they can provide valuable inspiration - what relevance they will have for the reader in the end and its future design, that is something I can’t influence.
4. Which design grid did you use in your work?
I have always been able to be enthusiastic about strong design grids and the conscious break from them. Several papers before my bachelor’s thesis point out these characteristics. My bachelor thesis’s grid is based on examples that Josef Müller-Brockmann explains in his book “Grid Systems in Graphic Design/Raster Systeme Fur Die Visuele Gestaltung”. The individual grid fields are based on the basic line grid of the continuous text. And this is how a relatively large variance is ensured for both images and for text. I then implement the break with the grid by means of a conscious migration of individual elements according to physical rules, such as gravitation. While in the first chapter, all the elements are in their established place, they then migrate throughout the book ever further from this path. This migration of the elements only becomes clear in retrospect by the shift to the grid lines. A little trick that I use to directly apply the rules discussed in the content on the one hand, and on the other, to transform the statics of a book to a modular system.
5. What is the name of the colour that you used for the cover? And why did you specifically choose this one?
The stripe that I drew with a brush across the front and back covers is made with a cyanotype emulsion. In sunlight, this changes colour from yellow to turquoise to a dark blue. In good light conditions, the reaction lasts almost an hour. Originally, this emulsion was one of the first techniques used to produce long-lasting photographs. The emulsion itself consists of two salt solutions which are mixed together 1:1 from which point they are light sensitive.
The stripe makes the book a recipient of outside influences and takes – like the migration of the layout elements - the statics of the medium and transforms the book into an object which is able to interact. This fact and the individual ductus of each individual stripe make each book unique. The stripe also picks up on the return to more individuality mentioned in the content.
6. You have done all the research yourself and written all the texts – and finally designed the publication (in two different formats). How did your schedule look?
The actual work on the thesis took about four months. The research lasted around a month and the final writing up with corrections around seven weeks. I managed to finish the actual layout in around a month and a half. Although I tried from the beginning to structure the text and content as well as possible from the beginning, I ended up getting stressed the nearer the printing deadline became. But I think it’s quite normal and necessary to pull an all-nighter when doing your bachelor’s thesis. Otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a project without expending so much lifeblood. In the end, it turned out to be 500 pages. The layout phase for which I had to design two formats for publication posed another challenge in terms of time. The different elements of publication made it necessary to have separate layouts which is why I could not simply rescale the large version. The minimum size for the continuous text for the smaller version alone made that impossible. So I worked on both formats in parallel and did everything twice over.
Naturally, selecting the topic and the discussion of it began somewhat earlier, especially as the thesis deals with topics that have I have been grappling with for some time. The outline was set out about two months before the official research phase began.
7. Why are there these two different formats of the publication? And what does the website offer, that you have designed in addition?
There is a really simple reason for having the two formats for this publication: multiplication. I have noticed with other people’s bachelor theses that the student takes a huge amount of trouble, writes the texts himself, etc. and then three copies are printed which disappear into the back of some drawer for eternity.
It was my intention from the beginning to counter this. During the research and text phases, I noticed that the thesis that I was writing was relevant to so many areas that it would be worth selling a small batch. And so this is how the two versions came about: the large version, 22 x 29.4 cm, with open thread stitching, and which had some inside colour pages and then the smaller version, 15 x 20 cm with adhesive binding, in greyscale throughout to keep the price down. In terms of content, the two versions are identical and the layout of each is almost exactly the same. The small edition was limited to 40 copies and is now out of print. Two copies have even managed to find their way to the the library at FH Mainz.
The website you mentioned is a small summary with an incentive to buy on the one hand and, on the other, an ordering platform for the small edition. It represents natural phenomena and principles of order in vertically opposite slides and takes you through nine essential theses that are dealt with in the body of the text. Above all, the images with their strong structures are supposed to have the greatest effect, which is why the informational text only appears on demand. By the way, there is something in common with the book: by concentrating on the texture and structure of an image it made it possible to use little colour so that colour did not play the primary role for understanding the image.
8. Your work has a very wide scope. Would it be fair to say that it is a result of all that you have learned and experienced in and during your studies?
Yes, I think you could say that. The thesis is indeed not the result of what I learned during my studies but it is the guide of many different questions that arose during different projects. Right from the beginning, I was interested specifically in the question of provoked coincidence and the submission of decision-making powers to unknown processes or even algorithms, The thesis itself covers many areas and answers both art-historical and philosophical questions on the one hand and also chemical, physical, biological and sociological questions on the other. These are then complemented with current themes such as the role in a network, the responsibility of the author in the design process or the big topic of generativity. So yes, it is fair to say that the thesis is a stringent and guiding discussion with all the themes that confronted me in and during my studies but also with questions that quite some time now have interested me concerning design and study.
9. Were there any crucial events/realisations in the process that steered your work on the book in a new direction?
Right at the beginning of defining my theme, I was looking for harmonious conditions which prevail both in design and in art and affect our points of view as “ideal” or “unordered” - the key phrase is “golden ratio”. Throughout the initial research stages, I then noticed that the harmonious conditions that we think are “nice” have come from patterns within our environment. This brought my own view concerning the topic of the ideal and harmony into a completely different area and finally led to the first two subchapters. Because if we accept that a person has had to find his way in an unknown area without any previous training, he will always take the environment as his model to a certain degree, even if he tries to block it out. The same reflex can then be found in font design, amongst other things, in which the letters are derived from an iconographic representation of the environment.
Harmonic conditions then led me down the the route of organisational principles, because they serve, essentially, in providing an ideal of order. The realisation that the harmonic conditions are generated from the original pursuit for order in all matter, however, and are expressed on each hierarchy in other dynamics, took me on the trail of physics, etc. I think in retrospect that it was precisely this realisation of relatedness of the thesis on the one hand has enabled the relevance for so many areas and, on the other, the answer to so many self-posed questions. Certainly, such a realisation motivates you to carry on and it was a confirmation back then that I was on the right track.
10. Are you planning to offer your work to a publisher?
Yes, publication would, of course, be the perfect conclusion for my thesis. After working on it for over six months, I am currently trying to distance myself from it so that I can look it afresh. The thesis is after all a snapshot of my research back then. The positive reception and the rapid sales of this small edition do show however that there is a good deal of interest in this topic. Naturally, it needs editing and a professional hand to do this - but yes, I would like it to be published. I would be delighted to receive enquiries from anyone who might be interested.