Maak Plaats! Designing innovation in government research

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Published:  October 27, 2015
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When Alfons Hooikaas and Florian Mewes were commissioned by the Dutch Government to bring to life a research project on urban infrastructure and transit networks in North Holland, they borrowed from the countercultural visual language of the 60s to create something bold and surprising.

WORDS BY
Alfons Hooikaas and Florian Mewes

AS TOLD TO
Katia Pase

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Research and collaboration

We started talking about the Maak Plaats! project in 2012, when it was in its research phase. A year later, we started working on a small version of the publication, where we designed some diagrams and explored the possibilities for a complete publication. As more data arrived, and the province of North Holland decided to use the research as the foundation for future policies on infrastructure, there was more reason for the organisation to develop the idea further into Maak Plaats! – a brand, a 400-page publication and a conference.

We worked closely with the Dutch Government to achieve the end result, and the success of the collaboration was in part due to their openness to ideas and possibilities for the branding. The fact that the project evolved into Maak Plaats! (Make Space! in English) is a sign of the Government’s enthusiasm and belief in the strategies we proposed.

The project required a lot of input from different government parties, which meant lengthy internal discussions about the visual identity. There were a lot of existing norms to consider and we were pushing for something that challenged the existing graphical style. After years of designing, we have built up a library of ideas and visual references in our minds. Alfons has always been interested in how to create an editorial and visual world in which everything makes sense. Florian’s core interest focuses on creating recognisable branding that resonates through every detail of a project. Our collective ideas start from here, with an overall idea of ‘activation and activism’ guiding our design.

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Developing the language

Based on this central idea of activism, we developed multiple proposals at the start of the project. In one proposal, activism led to nationalism, which we explored using national colours, flags and typography etc. We also looked into Utopianism as a concept, with the overuse of collages referring to the great Utopian architectural publications from the second half of the 20th century. These were all discarded in the early stages in favour of the pure poster-like activist approach, where we found the language, typography and colour more akin to our graphical vision.

The project uses countercultural visual language from the late 60s/early 70s, and there’s a multilayered motive for this. First is that this language is socially loaded. The current policy-makers in Holland are from our parents’ generation; they were in high school or university during this era. The 60s are also known as the activism years – a period of liberation, resistance and development of youth culture. We wanted to stimulate the policy-makers to make new decisions by referencing that era.

The second reason is purely visual. Provo (from ‘provoking the authorities’) was one of the larger Dutch activist groups from that era. They used posters to distribute their messages. Their visual language was very graphic, bold and iconic, using lots of clear modernistic typography and colours. The Provo poster by Willem Langhout from 1966 is an amazing example. We needed similar visual qualities to create a recognisable brand. We wanted to create a product that would not only stand out on a policy-maker’s desk, but also appeal to his or her inner activist. Referencing 1960s non-conformist visual language in a 21st century design helped us achieve this goal.

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Activate, inform and explain

Altogether we wanted to create something that not only activated the audience in a visual sense, but also made the data really accessible and understandable – this was our real challenge. The toughest job was to visually connect the 150 diagrams, 200 maps, groups of iconography, texts, tables, and collages all within one brand that works in a book, at a conference and across any future applications. We felt that a new graphic system was necessary to show the level of research to its best degree. In the end, this is something all the parties had in common – wanting to create a language that got people excited about the potential of the research. With the same end goal in mind, people were more flexible and enthusiastic about our ideas. Our core team, including Shirin Jaffri from the province of North Holland and especially Paul Gerretsen, director of Vereniging Deltametropool (a research institute on developing metropoles in The Netherlands), were very important in the collaboration. They showed a tremendous understanding for the iconic potential of the design.

From the beginning, we thought it important to colour code the book and brand, much like the method used in old atlases. The cross-reference system in the margins of the book makes complex information more accessible, much like children’s books where you can follow your own storyline. And Superstudio works from the 70s are always a good reference for dealing with Utopian architectural collages.

At one point we proposed to divide the text into three layers (activate, inform and explain) to create a more readable and engaging relationship between content and design. The layers have a specific typographic and infographic treatment and, in order to make the text fit into the new identity, it was necessary to revisit it. The Dutch Government supported this design decision, producing updated text to complete the concept. This was something special for us, as we felt they wanted to push the project to its conceptual limits, as did we.

End goals

The most successful element of the project is a result of the most challenging part of the project: marrying the governmental and scientific content of the project with a strong and iconic visual identity, without compromising on content or design. Creating a strong design that works in a political and scientific realm is where we’ve been successful.

One important function of design is to marry recognisability with explanations and visualisations of complex information structures. By doing so, complex information can be communicated in an understandable and iconic way to both stakeholders and a general audience. Already we see this marriage happen in organisations that advise governments. Much like Vereniging Deltametropool, these organisations – in our experience both in The Netherlands as well as in the US – appreciate the clarity and iconic qualities a designer can bring to a project. For us, one of the future challenges and opportunities is to bring design strategies into more central positions in political and scientific worlds.

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CREDITS
Design by Alfons Hooikaas and Florian Mewes
Research by Vereniging Deltametropool, Provincie Noord-Holland
Photos by Roel Backaert

This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of desktop. Subscribe to the magazine here

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