Detail of content types (page 54)
Detail of binding types (page 63)
Detail of pictogram types (page 72)
Detail of pattern types (page 73)
Detail of paper types graph (page 65)

A Cultural Reader: Joost Grootens, I swear I use no art at all

by Martine Syms

I fell into graphic design by way of books. I’ve always been an avid reader, one who is conscious of format, typography, paper, and layout. Before I had the language for it, I had the instinct that a publication could succeed or fail independent of its content. It wasn’t until I started making fanzines that I learned this aspect of publishing was the purview of the graphic designer. I studied film, but kept writing, designing, and publishing little books throughout college. When asked how I connect the unrelated fields I spewed off keywords: “narrative,” “composition,” “sequence.”  

Joost Grootens is a graphic designer who trained as an architect. He was drawn to the book as a visual expression and physical manifestation of the dynamic between scales. Grootens explains, “When a person holds a book in his hands there is an immediate and inevitable relationship between the human body and the book.” This might explain Amazon’s recent plateau in e-book sales. Each time I read a book on my digital reading device, it’s the same. The book design conveys no additional information. My experience is dulled. 

I swear I use no art at all (a Hamlet reference) is a detailed catalogue of every book Grootens designed between 2000 and 2010. The book uses the typology of the atlas to offer multiple ways of looking at the same information. Grootens maps his projects by chronology, publisher, financier, author, printer, geography, grid, paper, typeface, and several other ways that I won’t bother to mention.

In the third section of I swear I use no art at all, Grootens divides 18,788 pages designed over a decade across fifteen spreads. The text is flipped backwards, forcing the reader to look at the pages rather than read them. Author Jamie Ford recently said, “Books are a physical record of the human condition.” In this section Grootens proves just how much they document.

Aside from being a beautiful object, I swear I use no art at all is filled with enough shoptalk to satisfy even the nerdiest pixelfucker. After reading this book I feel insecure calling myself a graphic designer. I’m not worthy. I want to hide out for a few months, sharpen my saw, and come back with a complex, new grid system or an innovative book typology that saves publishing. 

Grootens’s catalogue raisonné dissects his career and, thus, the role of the graphic designer. I swear I use no art at all is the contemporary equivalent to Jan Tschichold’s mainstay The Form of the Book, with one huge difference. Grootens completely avoids taste culture and focuses on communication. He sees the designer as a medium, providing clarity and translation, with more matter and with less art.  

Martine Syms is a conceptual entrepreneur based in Los Angeles, California.