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Editorial Design



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Cover L'EXPÉRIENCE DE LA VILLE EXHIBITION CATALOGUE Detail of a specifically designed city map. (October 2012)

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Quality is a synonym for precision, or vice-versa.

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Born in 1975, Nicolas Bourquin studied graphic design at the School of Design in Biel. He now lives and works as a creative director in Berlin, where he heads up the onlab graphic design agency that he founded in his native Switzerland in 2001.


The onlab team works on commissioned, collaborative as well as self-initiated projects. Nicolas works closely with art director Thibaud Thissot, who has been on board at onlab since 2007. Onlab explores ways to stage complex content and convey relevant topics while changing and playing with common perceptions. Some of the projects onlab has been involved with include the new visual identity of the city of Tramelan in Switzerland, the entire redesign of architecture magazine domus and the design and conception of the German contribution to the Architecture Biennale in Venice in September 2008. Nicolas is also co-editor and designer of the bestselling books Los, Dos and Tres Logos and Data Flow 1 + 2 (all published by Gestalten), among others. Keen to establish the missing link between academic teaching and professional practice, Nicolas has been involved in teaching and holding workshops at universities and art schools for the past few years. Since 2009 he has had a regular assignment at the University of the Arts in Bremen, and the following year Nicolas and Thibaud began visiting professorships at the Bauhaus Weimar. In 2011, Nicolas initiated the first onlab Summer School in Berlin.

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You come from a watch makers’ family and started in technical school before moving to design because you missed the creative side of things. But did that background teach you about craft and technique and precision? It is not just a craft but a focus on precision is really part of the culture of the region where I come from. Maybe it is a Swiss clichÊ, but it was very present in the way I was educated, and that probably had an influence on the way I perceived things, first as a teenager and then later when I first started to access professional life. It was clear in my mind that a real man should do a real job, which meant a job that dealt with precision. Quality is a synonym for precision, or vice-versa.

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You said your parents were disappointed that you chose to go into design. Have they mellowed now that you are successful? Actually my father was in Berlin two years ago and we were having a drink in my office after work. He said he was impressed, though not necessarily by what I am doing – because I don’t know if he really knows what I do – but by the fact that I had managed to create a company in a foreign country, in a foreign language, and was working internationally. He told me that he has been working since he was young in the watch industry and it is comprised of family companies that belong to the father of the father. It is clear in that industry that when you want to start professional life you will do the same job as your father, taking on the same clients. So that was why he was impressed.

SMART SURFACES ILLUSTRATIONS & LINOCUTS Developed, produced and published in the book "Smart Surfaces and their Application in Architecture and Design", Thorsten Klooster (Ed.), Birkhäuser Verlag. (July 2009)

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Did you move to Berlin because of its entrepreneurial spirit? Not really. I mean, Berlin has changed a lot but when I arrived 12 years ago it was not the entrepreneurial city that is now portrayed in the media. Berlin was broken. Berlin is still broken, but it was broken in a physical way. I moved to the east of the city, where everything was still not renovated and for me, coming from Switzerland, which is quite similar to Luxembourg in that everything is perfectly made and clean and there is no room left for surprise, it was wonderfully open to creating something new. That is what impressed me the most. It was easy to find an amazing space for very little money and to be able to develop ideas without thinking of the financial situation. It was extremely cheap compared to the other cultural capitals of Europe. I knew from experience in Zurich that to be able to run a company you needed to have a lot of commercial projects. Being in Berlin the parameters were different, so I was able to develop my own projects without worrying about my finances. I could focus on a few commercial projects a month, and the

rest of the time concentrate on selfinitiated projects and finance them as well. It would not have been possible to do that somewhere else, to live a normal life – which for me includes going out to parties, to the cinema or theatre – by just doing your own projects. If I wanted to do the same in Zurich or Paris or London or Amsterdam, I would not have been able to have the same lifestyle. This is what makes me stay in Berlin. I actually wanted to go further, maybe to London or New York. But here the opportunities were incredible. Of course now it has changed into a city of opportunity for business, because there is an entrepreneurial spirit. But there are negative sides. Even if it is no longer as cheap as before and although competition has developed, because it is still relatively cheap it probably lacks a financial dynamic. It is easy to survive without really selling, which creates a sort of lethargy – people can live off very little, so they don’t need to push their project so far. And we suffer a bit because of that. People don’t have this pro-active attitude to try and place their project in a commercial perspective.

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I think it is our duty to try to emphasise the quality of the printed matter.

Your infographic work for Reflex magazine is stunning. How do you work with the editorial team at the magazine? Are you in constant contact, or do you work on a project by project basis? We work with them now on an almost daily basis. But the way we work differs all the time. Sometimes they have certain topics they need to publish and they come to us with really clear data and give us the brief and leave it up to us to tell a story from that data. Other times they simply give us the subject and ask us for proposals regarding the data we could collect. Or sometimes they will say they need an infographic for a specific magazine and ask us for a proposal. During the process we constantly have an exchange with the editorial team. Maybe we have found something in the data that we would like to dig deeper into, or we feel we are missing some data or we would like them to do more research. Sometimes we even have to tell them that we cannot visualize the data they have given us in an appealing way.

As soon as we have defined the rules and regulations of the infographic, there is a lot of discussion about how we will visualize things…whether it is clear and recognizable, readable. On the other hand, as soon as you start to visualize data new topics can arise – the journalists might see something new and ask us to develop in another direction. For Reflex the ‘Track & Field: The Best Results’ infographic is a beautiful integrated 3D image, whereas ‘How The Swiss Die’ was flat and involved lots of different, more traditional methods of presenting data. Why the difference? Often 3D is not necessary. It can bring a new way of displaying data that could lead the reader into a misunderstanding. For instance we have just done something about oil sourcing in the USA. They are trying to dig up as much petrol as they can and we are visualizing it in just one state. But if we do that in 3D it could be confusing for the reader, so some of it is 3D and some is represented flat.

L'EXPÉRIENCE DE LA VILLE EXHIBITION CATALOGUE Cover detail of one of the 3 books. (October 2012)

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It was a lot of work and we weren’t paid for it, but it is something that adds value to the product.

The ”L’expérience de la ville” books you produced for the city of La Chauxde-Fonds are very special. They also include an infographic. How did that come about?

The jackets of those books are linen with a different dust slip for each of the three photographic collections. They are very tactile, is that important for the reader?

Three photographers were commissioned to document the city and our job was to make a book out of the results. Our proposal was to show the difference between the three points of view of the photographers in book form. We included a map, which was not part of the client’s commission, because we thought it would be interesting for the reader to see where the photographer took the photos in each book. First we placed that manually on a map, but we thought it would be more interesting not to display the whole city with dots for each photo, but to just show the city that is shown in the book. Everything that is not photographed is not displayed; so much of the city is in darkness on the map. It was a lot of work and we weren’t paid for it, but it is something that adds value to the product.

It is not necessary particularly for the reader, but it is for the print media industry. I think it is our duty to try to emphasise the quality of the printed matter. I think it is our task as designers to try to understand how it is possible to make printed products interesting for the buyer, the reader, and to create added value to the printed matter compared to what you would have on an iPad or a mobile device or online. Printed products are now receiving new attention. And that is why we do this job, because we love the book as an object because it is something very sensitive and something very intimate.


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You are now concerned about the financial viability of infographics. What is the main challenge in this area? This is a subject I have been addressing at universities I have visited in the past few months. Professors have been telling their students that infographics is the future of graphic design, because of the way that data has such a presence on the internet and is influencing our business. But as an outfit working in this business we have experienced that it is not possible to do just infographics. It is an extremely complex process – it is not just about visualizing information. It is about understanding the topic, filtering, researching, developing and analysing… and then putting all that into a visual language that may even be changed during the process. The big problem we face right now, and this is something we have figured out in the last few years, is that clients are coming back to us with a wish and need to be as transparent as possible; to communicate data and processes to their own clients and users.

That is great for us, of course. It is an opportunity to develop. But these clients still have the same budgets they had in the past. So they calculate the visual for a publication or product as if it were an illustration or a photograph. Whereas, in reality, we work on an infographic for several days, or sometimes several weeks, using skills as a journalist, programmer, designer. This makes it very difficult. We have to convince clients to create enough budget for data visualization, because it is a process that needs a lot of manpower and time and attention. We have to communicate that. At onlab, just one of the infographic projects we have worked on has been financially viable. The rest we all did at a loss.

Infographics is a new, huge business with a lot of potential but we need to redefine the way we work, the way we collaborate, how we work with clients. And this is all based on changes in our society. So I try to make it clear to my students that they need to take into consideration the financial aspect of a task, to find the right methods to do the job with regards to the budget. This is all about strategies, crowd funding, understanding the power of open source working. But I also tell them that maybe they need to change their perspective on their career – that maybe what they learn is not how they will work later.

So I have to tell students that even though their professors may tell them that infographics is the future, that it cannot be their financial future, that they cannot make a living doing just infographics. This upsets the professors, who tell me I should not tell the students that; that university should be a place where reality doesn’t intrude.


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We have to convince clients to create enough budget for data visualization, because it is a process that needs a lot of manpower and time and attention. The two Data Flow books you produced were very well received. Did they have an influence on the industry? I think so; but not in the way we expected. Actually we were heavily criticised. When I first proposed the book to the publisher, they weren’t interested. They thought it would be super boring and said that nobody is interested in a book about curves and pie charts. But a few months later they called back and said ‘hmm, this is something that is booming now’ and they wanted to do something instantly about the topic. We worked as editors from the point of view of graphic designers. We wanted to make a panorama of what is

happening in the business on the formal side. To create an inspiration source that goes beyond the facts that are already known, because there are already good books about what an infographic is and so on. We wanted to display as brightly as possible what is going on. It was a huge commercial success, which surprised the publisher, and they asked us to make a second one. It didn’t just sell well to the infographics world, but also to architects, strategists and the creative industry in general. Indeed, the real aficionados of infographics criticised us because we displayed infographics that were not accurate or academically right, or that had used the wrong tools. But that was the purpose of the book, to open a

Pandora’s box and head in a direction that had not previously been explored – for instance what was happening with infographics in the art world or the music industry or in product design, and so on. That is why the book was interesting financially, but also it terms of discourse. I think the books now are a bit old-fashioned. But at this time it was important to do it – and it had an influence on the business because it showed there was a way to visualize information outside the box, or outside the way people had been taught in school.

WALLPAPER* MAPPING (November 2011)

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Watch the animation!

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It is about understanding the topic, filtering, researching, developing and analysing‌ and then putting all that into a visual language that may even be changed during the process. So could the acceptance of infographics as a new medium, to be treated quite separately from other image creation and use, be a matter of generational change? I think there is a paradigm change; even if in the past infographics have always been around. Even if it has been around for centuries really, and in the past there have been people like Otto Neurath and all that kind of representation. The fact is that now we have a totally different access to data. Institutions, states, cities, companies are all publishing their data and it is not just easy to collect but also easy to put together and transform it using open source tools and software, which means that everything has become more democratic.

But that doesn’t mean that data means anything. Our job is to add another layer, to cross the information, to tell a story. Data doesn’t tell you anything apart from numbers, so our role is to put it in perspective. But I think, yes, there has been a generation change in the way data is perceived and that with the growth of mobile devices and the capability we have to collect data in any situation, it is something that has become natural, which was not the case maybe with my generation. It turns out it is normal to post you entire life on different social media and to collect everything and use it on an everyday basis, which makes people more interested in reading data.


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Our job is to add another layer, to cross the information, to tell a story.

DOMUS COVERS Dark-ground-covers series (selection) (April 2008 – March 2009)

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DOMUS COVERS Portrait series (selection) (April 2009 – March 2010)

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01 CHRISTOPH NIEMANN Illustration 2009 02 MICHEL MALLARD Creative Direction 2009 03 FUN FACTORY Product Design 2009 04 ANDREAS UEBELE Signage Design 2010 05 HARRI PECCINOTTI Photography 2010 06 KUSTAA SAKSI Illustration 2010 07 5.5 DESIGNERS Product Design 2011 08 NIKLAUS TROXLER Graphic Design 2011 09 JOACHIM SAUTER Media Design 2011 10 MICHAEL JOHNSON Graphic Design 2011 11 ELVIS POMPILIO Fashion Design 2011 12 STEFAN DIEZ Industrial Design 2012 13 CHRISTIAN SCHNEIDER Sound Design 2012 14 MARIO LOMBARDO Editorial Design 2012 15 Sam Hecht Industrial Design 2012 16 Sonja Stummerer & Martin Hablesreiter Food Design 2012 17 LERNERT & SANDER Art & Design 2013 18 MURAT GÜNAK Automotive Design 2013

PUBLISHER Design Friends COORDINATION Mike Koedinger LAYOUT Joanna Grodecki INTERVIEW Duncan Roberts PRINT Faber Imprimerie PAPER Scheufelen (Heaven 42 softmatt) PRINT RUN 500 (Limited edition)

with Carrérotondes asbl Mapping August. An Infographic Challenge 2010

ISBN 978-99959-717-9-3 PRICE 5 € DESIGN FRIENDS Association sans but lucratif (Luxembourg) BOARDMEMBERS Silvano Vidale (President) Nadine Clemens (Vice-president) Anabel Witry (Secretary) Heike Fries (Treasurer) Mike Koedinger (Boardmember) Guido Kröger (Boardmember) Pit Kuffer (Boardmember) Stéphanie Rollin (Boardmember)


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12 JUNE 2013, 6.30 PM

This catalogue is published for Nicolas Bourquin's lecture at ­Mudam Luxembourg on June 12, 2013 organized by Design Friends.

Design Friends would like to thank all their members and sponsors for their support.

In collaboration with

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Nicolas Bourquin  

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