Rob Mientjes

Character and emotion: minimalism with passion

“I have written you a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one.” — Blaise Pascal (among others)

I stand firmly behind everything that quote has to offer, and rally fiercely against it. As with every quote that has to fit between two periods, the truth is a bit more complex. I have been in many discussions about this, most notably with Viktor, and I am beginning to think I have something of a point to make.

Writing is rewriting

Many things are improved by cutting bits out and refining what is there. Does this poster need this line right here? Do I really need this adverb? How much bezel can we remove around this television screen? It could be said that design is a large bowl of curation, with a teaspoon of creation. The selection shapes the final form.

In writing, the prevailing philosophy is to write until you’ve said what you want to say, and then cut until you can’t cut anymore without changing what you said. The cliche that is the title of this section, ‘Writing is rewriting’, is exactly what I want to say, but it doesn’t say all that I want to say about it. I could rewrite that title dozens of times and not get any further.

One word for two words, two words for three

Refining a text is focused on replacing words that are meaningful with fewer words that bear an equal amount of meaning, or perhaps even more. Any other edit loses the essence of the original text. Removing adverbs often tightens a text, but only so much. Cull too many, and the text is as meagerly descriptive as it gets. How you edit text is up to you. I think about text and style like this: when making a vase, you can be sloppy and leave fingerprints in the clay. If you polish the shapes too much, you lose character and definition in a hand-made object. A balance should be struck, where there is a clear hand that is not sloppy. A steady hand that is decisive, and does not leave traces of doubt.

This assumes that the original text should, for some reason, be the ultimate reference point. It should not. The reference point for the quality of a text, or indeed any thing, is floating. It floats up and down along with the many different choices that are made in the process of creation, redaction and deletion. Choices stylistic, semantic, technical, cultural, practical. Any choice is a not simply a tick on a great score card. Every choice you make is either the addition or removal of a stone in a Jenga tower.

How attractive is a purely functional thing?

Top left, the Olivetti Valentine (1969, Ettore Sottsass). Right, the Miramar Hotel in El Gouna (1995, Michael Graves). Bottom left, the Nokia Lumia (2011, Anton Fahlgren).

The Memphis Group was a collection of like-minded architects, product designers and artists, all looking for healthy new fusions between their own and other disciplines. Ettore Sottsass founded it in 1981, and their heritage is a cross-section of eighties design sensibilities. But not all the work that they produced in their own disciplines is that easily stamped an ‘eighties product’. A lot of the work is dated, but in most respects that is a fashion thing. The Belvedere console table (1982), by Aldo Cibic, has patterns on the materials that we easily discard as ‘retro’, but the shape, a half-circle with a sideboard and one leg, is so ridiculously rule-breaking that the idea outlasts the style it was rendered in irrelevant.

What caused the Memphis work to date so rapidly is probably the ornate decoration. But that decoration is a layer on top of a thing. The objects were desirable in the eighties exactly because of the layer on top. That the shapes were wildly different from what had been made before — they hark back to Bauhaus ideas of primary shapes and colours, but do so in the most extravagant way possible — makes it worthwhile to consider in a consideration of what it means for an object to be minimal.

In Memphis work, the style is not just a way of making something look different. It completely corresponded to the main drive behind the object: simple shapes in simple colours, with prints and shapes generally derived from nature — marble, leaves, fruit — but applied abstractly. It would weaken my point to simply state that the ‘outer look’ does not need to correspond to the ‘inner look’ — the shape unconnected to the paint — but that is what I am trying to do for myself. To make something out of simple shapes and colours (or make it seem simple), and let that be a guide. Simplicity, not minimalism, is key to making something people want to use. Minimalism is a stylistic choice as much as eclecticism or baroque is. Simplicity is a guiding principle to be simple, but not too simple, to be minimal but not necessarily in a style that is predefined. I think that many people who actually want simplicity try to achieve it by aiming for minimalism. It’s misguided and destructive.

If you carve a statue out of wood, there is a good chance that the material and the tool will be obvious and visible. You can hide the effects of the tool by refining and refining, but you can’t make the wood not like wood. All you can do is make the statue more like a statue. You do that by refining. That it is made of wood is simply the restricting factor. Your tool is not meant to be the point.

There are many ways to approach even the simplest of problems, and many of those approaches are more complex than the problem you’re trying to solve

The creative act is a business of culling, cutting, carving, stripping, scrapping, removing, reducing and destroying. I personally am consistently distracted by work that shows a lack of destruction. Work that showcases the tool more than the idea, the story, the Thing. Things with a capital ‘T’ are the story to tell, not the way they were created.

Minimalists try to hide behind the Thing they’re designing. I want to glorify and humanise all Things. A Thing should be fun to use. That should be the goal. Not to obscure but to enlighten. To add character where there is a need for it, and to strip it there where it is extraneous. Simplicity as the principle, leading to minimalism with a heart.

Studio Dispatch #6

I no longer need to keep this one a secret, so here it is: I am moving to Oslo on March the first. In April I start working at Nordaaker, clients and friends for six years now. This is exciting for me. I will be doing what I’ve always been doing: user interfaces and front-end development.

This move had been under consideration for some time already. After Iceland, Geertje and I really wanted to see more nature and live in calmer cities. She will continue her photography project, and I will work on my typefaces in my spare time. Business as usual. Except for the business part, that is. I will take on fewer clients under my own name, as I’ll be working a pretty steady nine to five at Nordaaker.

It’s probably not surprising that I’ve mainly been busy with moving out of my place in The Hague, and storing everything we’re not taking in the plane. In terms of work, things are progressing slowly but steadily. Some clients are quick to reply, some aren’t. Some are enthusiastic about my ideas, some absolutely not. (Why come to me?, I often wonder. Why stay with me?, I also wonder.)

What else do you do these days?

The typefaces used in the banner for this post are two experiments of building fonts on a common skeleton. A Didot from memory was the first. Then I made the hairline, by reducing the thickness of the thick parts to be equal to that of the thin parts. After that, I went back to the contrasty one and reduced that to a skeleton and made everything as thick as the thick parts, removing serifs and other things that became unwieldy.

It’s a good piece of practice. I learn a lot about my drawing skills by drawing something that has a strong historical precedent, and since the concept is only really logical on paper, I have to optically deviate a lot from the rules. The sans-serif that rolls out of it has no serifs, and a different optical weight. To compensate for that, the spacing needs to be tightened. The hairline isn’t a simple heartline that runs through the original Didot: it’s adjusted to keep the same curves and the same bends. If you look at the ‘a’ in the top line of the sample, you can see this. To visually remain relatives, the three fonts have to adjust to the nature of their design.

This kind of systems design is my biggest passion. The same logic applies to websites, storytelling and cooking. Everything as a design, intentional or otherwise.

Studio Dispatch #5

It’s been quiet, because it’s been busy. Do I really need to explain that anymore?

Here’s what I’ve been doing. As mentioned in the previous Dispatch, I was part of a very special occasion in Rotterdam. ULTRA2012 was the first public show of the band Minny Pops in 30 years. Minny Pops kick started an influential movement around 1980, called ULTRA, and thought it time to build a stage for the new generation. The new generation was exemplified by a handful of bands, a few artists and a general sense of open-mindedness and the search for new things. Just the way the band intended. I was invited to participate in the group show of artwork on the walls. I contributed four prints. The set’s called ‘Lost Relics of Questionable Value’.

Four prints (40×30cm). Each features the opening title to a different B-movie. (On the right is Viktor’s work.)

Cosmos, made in Iceland

It hasn’t been a secret, but I lived and worked in Iceland for three months in 2011. During August, September and October my girlfriend and I lived in an apartment one half of the week, and the other half we spent traveling around the country and sleeping in a tent. It had all of the hallmarks of a good vacation, except that we both also worked very hard. I did some of my most rewarding development work there, and Geertje created something that I’m proud to add to my portfolio. ‘Cosmos, made in Iceland’ is Geertje’s first photography book, and chockfull of beautiful scenes, views and exceptional natural phenomena.

So what do I have to do with that? Well, I can’t take photos like that. But I can make typefaces, websites and books, which is exactly what I did. I designed a typeface, currently called Cosmos, which is an attempt at taking new liberties with monospaced fonts. I then designed both the book and the website with it as the only typeface. The typeface will get its page in the portfolio soon enough — for now, you can see it in use on the website, and if you like the photos, you can buy the book. I highly recommend you check this one out. I might be biased, but I love it.

Other work further down the pipeline are some more websites, a significant update to this website and an article about minimalism and emotion. Read all about it in a next update. Keep your ear to the ground!

Studio Dispatch #4

Delayed more than usual, it’s the…

Studio Dispatch 4: back in Holland, ULTRA, COSMOS, and my graduation project

The flight back, after three amazing months in Iceland, was pleasant. I was over-dressed, however. Upon landing we quickly discovered that it was still solidly autumn in Holland. We were just about accustomed to the harsh winds that blew in from the Reykjavik harbour, and now people were walking around in shirts, eating outdoors and going to the beach. The sad news is, I’ve had to say goodbye to a beautiful country. The good news is, my girlfriend made a book there. It’s full of amazing photos and I’m proud to mention that I got to design it (I even designed a bespoke typeface, because that’s just how I roll). The website will be online in a few days; you will not be able to miss it when it launches.

Then, I was asked to participate in the ULTRA2012 event of December 3rd. ULTRA was a Dutch punk movement from around the early 1980s, and has influenced the Dutch music scene like few other things before and after it. As my friend Viktor said, it made ULTRA “as rigorous and valuable as De Stijl, in my opinion the only other example of a raw Dutch experimental movement”. I will be showcasing a few new works, exclusive to the show, but available for sale in limited supply after. If you know me in any capacity, you’ll have an inkling of how specific it will get.

Belated but important

As some eagle-eyed readers may have noticed, I graduated in July from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. It was a fun ride, and I made a lot of friends. I say that’s a fine score. If you couldn’t make it to my graduation show, there’s now a page showcasing it all, with details and a lot of information. I designed, hand-made and sold quite a few things: three button-down shirts, six pairs of cufflinks, seven neckties, a short novella, and a typeface. Some of these items — particularly the typeface and the book — are available for sale. The rest, sadly, sold out in one week. If you’re interested, let’s talk.

I am working on a few things, but can’t share too much. I would if I could. In the next few weeks, I should be able to update you with some actual recent work. Until then, I suppose I will be working hard.

Studio Dispatch #3

The third week of September, 2011. A perfect week for a new…

Studio Dispatch #3: News from the frontier

Business as usual. A new design opportunity appeared basically in my lap, for Norwegian music veteran Sivert Høyem, and I could not say no. We made a site that showcases his oeuvre and style, we think, pretty completely. Some major things are still awry, but that happens with a tight deadline and a lot of content. It should level out in the next two weeks. For now, explore. It’s mostly mobile first, with a lot of really neat enhancement in place.

I finally designed a masthead and invoice for my business. It still features my temporary logo. At some point I will finish that deco typeface I’ve been drawing for ages, and then my branding could be all in my own fonts. Until then…

My invoice as of September 2011. Finally a design I like, and something fitting in my general design style.

And lastly, Vogons!

Yes, there was plenty of panic last week. The Vogons were out to get me. I hitchhiked by myself to Þingvellir (the Assembly Plains), on my way to Geysir, but stranded in a town I need not mention by name. I waited. And waited. For three hours I waited for someone to stop and take me to Geysir, but apparently I did not imbibe any of the drivers with any amount of trust. It got dark, and I pitched a tent.

In the morning, I tried again. And waited for two more hours. Despondently, I decided to hike the 30 kilometers back to Þingvellir, meanwhile hoping that someone would be more merciful on this hot hot day, to a sole traveler on a deserted road. I was lucky. After about two kilometers, just twenty minutes out of the town boundaries, a man picked me up who proceeded to bombard me with exciting facts about the gigantic Atlantic-European rift that runs right through Iceland. My day was saved. My trip ruined, because of the Vogons.

Development on my monospaced sans-serif is on track, and should be ready for print in October. By then, more news on that.

Studio Dispatch #2

It’s been a week since I landed in Reykjavík, and four days since I almost fell down a glacier. Time for a studio dispatch!

I went to Landmannalaugar this weekend. We were climbing a mountain in search of the spring of the river running past our camp, and lost track of it somewhere between rocks and moss. We passed over the top, taking a few photos of the incredible view all around us, and then made our way down again, following the path of a new brook, the humble beginnings of a loud river. I spotted a glacier a few hundred metres to the north, and decided to walk up to it.

Big mistake. The whole area above the glacier was composed of wet mud and feet-deep gravel. We slipped, and got stuck. While my girlfriend made it back up, I kept sliding down, eventually stopping on the edge of a heavyish rock. My legs were scraped and my arms were sore at this point, and two French fellow climbers saw us struggle with the steep slope from across the valley. They stopped, and when an Englishman also came across us, he decided to get the rescue team. He ran across a huge river delta to help me. I thanked him a billion times afterwards.

The rescue effort was relatively simple. I was stuck on a steep slope, my feet on a rock and my hands in gravel-dense moss. I couldn’t move. I could’ve made it if only I’d be able to stand, but any attempt at getting up would’ve dislodged the rock. A few metres above me, two camp employees and the dashing superhero Englishman were holding a long rope, and a few metres to my side a big and serious-looking Icelander was approaching me, carefully trudging through the gravel. With all that, it was easy to get up. I walked up the slope and didn’t know where to look. I was torn between ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’, and more embarrassed than I’m inclined to admit. A humbling experience, and a good lesson for the future.

I’ve been working on the calendar problem from the previous dispatch, and some new tidbits. Mostly colour changes, trying to make it suitable for many different people, but maintaining a sense of universality. That’s the greatest challenge of designing a tool, I think: to be distinguishing while blending in. That’s a cliché I have to struggle with almost daily.

Studio Dispatch #1

What has been keeping my mind occupied for the past while? Item number zero on that list is my formal announcement of the formation of my company. I’ve incorporated, under my own name and with the same crew as always: myself.

With that out of the way, here’s what I’ve been up to.

What can or can I not do to a typeface? I mean, legally. (Physically, I could definitely take on a few of the lighter weights of H&FJ’s Knockout. I’m bantamweight myself.) The legal battle around the copyright of Paul Renner’s Futura is fought in a foggy marsh. Linotype and Bitstream have Futuras. So do Neufville Digital and ParaType (and I bet URW has one). And The Foundry’s Architype Renner qualifies as a Futura, no? So what’s the status? Do I call Paul Renner’s grandson and ask him, hey, are you cool with me drawing something that looks like, but totally messes with, Futura? What will he say? I’m not so sure. Have a look. I adjusted a few things in the design that make it more fun to typeset.

Next, a table that should look good with one item in it. I’ve been working with Espen Antonsen, who runs MakePlans, on a new front-facing design for his web app. It’s simple enough: a small business wants its clients to easily book a time slot for any given service. Here’s what the current version has.

A table with days on one axis and time slots on the other. This could get unwieldy for, say, 15-minute-intervals.

We ripped the whole existing table apart. Days are now separated along a selection bar — a week overview is more data than most clients need. Time slots are still a table, but now they’re divided and spread proportionally. It should look good with two or twenty or forty time slots, and only show what’s relevant.

As a plus, the selection interface is now a whole lot smaller, and it can easily reflow on smaller displays. The selected date and time are also displayed in natural language.

Last but not least is my upcoming trip to Iceland. A rather long trip. I’ll be in Reykjavik (and various other parts of the country) for three months. I intend to continue working as usual, but a change of pace and place will suit me well. Graduating has taken a toll on my creative ‘mood’, and a bit of Nordic fun (i.e. cold, far away and with alcohol to keep me warm) looks like the best antidote.

Comic Serif, comic relief

It had to come to this at some point.

It’s an obvious joke, I admit that upfront. But it makes me laugh every now and then, and that’s why I share it. I love messing around with existing type. I have a “hacked” Quadraat that adds common misspellings to your otherwise flawless typing (through OpenType magic). I have a very thin version of Arnold Boecklin that looks as much like a joke as it sounds. I’m no stranger to breaking the font licence, clearly.

But Comic Serif here, that’s different. Comic Sans has become such a hated cliché in the design world and outside of it. It’s the obvious victim of mockery in type. I hope this sheds a different light on the original, much-maligned sans. I added serifs to the original skeleton, and only adjusted the a and g and added a contextual alternate to imbue it with some type legacy.

Four details in comparison: the two-storey g and a, serifs on all caps and extensive “serifing” on the lowercase characters.

Download and legal details

Here is the font file, a zipped-up OpenType .ttf, hopefully compatible with your Microsoft Office and Adobe CS packages. Regarding licensing, I realise this is probably far out of the grey area and well into illegal, but let’s consider it a remix. Use it freely and go nuts. Just don’t sell it. If you make something with it, e-mail me; I’d love for people to do something fun with it. It’s been lying on my dusty shelves for so long.

I’ll close with words by Vince Connare, the original designer, when interviewed about the popular disdain for his most famous creation:

If you love it, you don’t know much about typography,” Mr. Connare says. But, he adds, “if you hate it, you really don’t know much about typography, either, and you should get another hobby.”

The Save Metaphor

I’ve designed and pixel-pushed more “Save” icons than I can remember, and they were all floppy disks. I haven’t held a floppy disk since the first time I drew one, but I will always remember what they look like thanks to all the icons signifying “save this document”. Apple ditched the format in 1998 when they launched the first generation of iMacs. No computer I’ve seen in the past five years contained a floppy drive. Few documents I create these days fit on a floppy disk, actually. Only the documents I write (plain text files) stay below the 1.44 MB limit, but file size, well, it hasn’t been an issue for years now. For “carrying around data”, I use Dropbox, which automatically syncs my most important files to my two computers and my iPhone, and includes, for free, a web interface to these files. And “Save” is still a floppy disk.

This is different from, say, “Print”, “Settings” or “Phone number”. These are three wholly different categories, but they, all three, still carry roughly the same set of three visual clichés, maximum. I’ve collected a few examples of Print, Settings and Save icons to illustrate.

Print metaphors

From left to right, here, we see an icon from the Tango Icon Library, the printer icon in Windows XP, an older Windows icon, a random Google hit which amuses me to no end, and the icon for the Print function in Floorplanner, as drawn by myself. No matter what the perspective, as long as it’s not too colourful and seems to be a big grey box that outputs a sheet of something, it’s a printer. Comforting, to be honest. Maybe you’ve never seen a printer like that fourth one, but you know it’s a printer and not a box of tissues.

Printers are a generic product anyway. They’re not a product you want to show off with, so it has to be toned down. The grey box is a printer. Straightforward.

Settings metaphors

Left to right: the same Tango Icon Library, the settings in Mac OS 10.5 and upwards, the Windows XP settings icon, the settings icon in an open-source project Webmail (it’s hard to tell which branch or distro) and, again, the icon I drew for Floorplanner. Windows is the odd one out by not being about tools and gears. The guys at the Iconfactory may have a point here: the tick mark looks much more friendly and actually resembles the controls most settings apps use anyway. The switch is a nice variation, but suffers from fidelity problems. Scale it down a bit more and it becomes mushy. The only association at that point is “hey, that white-ish thing with the stuff in it”.

Tools as the metaphor seem to be understandable for a lot of people: you change the thing you’re using. Here too, however, colour is dangerous. Tools and gears are always grey and blue in the eyes of the icon designer.

Save metaphors

Left to right, once more. The Tango Icon Library goes out on a limb. The second one has been in at least three different Windows versions. The third is my approach for Floorplanner. And… that’s it. There might be more variations on the theme, but they’re all floppies or arrows-to-disks (and those are really only common in Linux distributions, and do not make any more sense than a floppy in web applications). Fascinating.

A good way to learn about new ideas in interface design is by checking out the vanguard of the field. Let’s take a look at the way the iPhone and iPad solve this.

They have none! Whereas the iPhone at least has the convention to label the Save function with just the word, the iPad has nothing of the sort. Nothing at all. None of the applications seem to do.

An entire generation already knows “Save” only as the square thing with the stuff in it. Click the square to save it. It’s not a floppy disk, it’s Save. Now Apple is slowly moving away from that metaphor. They’re removing the clunky idea of saving — who ever “saved” a document he was writing on (by hand, that is)? — and making it the foundation of the products. There’s no save. As an icon designer, a burden might slowly lift from my shoulders.

The fixed design

I’ve built probably a dozen portfolio sites by now. Every time I grew tired of them after a week or two. As a result, I ended up neglecting them and after three months, the work in my portfolio was three months behind. That wasn’t what I had in mind.

So I wrote about my design-focused blog before, and linked to an article on how to build a flexible layout. The content would be scaled according to the screen size, but with a built-in “lock”, a minimum and maximum width. This width, based on typographic units, was optimised for legibility and would scale according to the size of your type. So if you wanted the site to fill up the screen, you would just expand the window and increase the font size. It would fill up your screen and still remain legible, all without horizontal scroll bars. Since that article in 2004, I’ve built a few websites according to that logic and it has remained with me as an important part of my philosophy regarding the web.

It makes a lot of sense, I think, to build websites this way. To think about the canvas as flexible and the viewer as powerful. A website is just a poster image if it sits there in the middle of the page, surrounded by a sea of whitespace. Or worse, when it doesn’t fit in your browser window, and you end up having to scroll around to see the whole of it. While this might work, it hardly takes advantage of the fact that this machine you’re using right now is a very powerful computer. It can recalculate a layout thousands of times per second, it can calculate for you whether the image will fit or not and do something accordingly. It can do anything! Even iPhones, tiny computers in your pocket, are phenomenal at doing these things. It would be a waste not to use it, especially if it can improve your message. So I started thinking.

Two iPhones displaying a page from my website, in different orientations, showing the flexibility of the layout.

The iPhone makes rescaling invisible and ubiquitous. Most users probably don’t even notice that their window changes size and aspect ratio.

The design sticks to the window

The content and interface are entirely based on the size of the browser window. That’s the premise of this website. It will always fit. It will always be a useful portfolio, whether you’re on an iPad, a small laptop, a mobile phone or on a 30″ display at work. The work will always fit and the content is always available. This is a luxury. I consider it an enormous luxury, because I can finally stop worrying whether my design will fit to the computer my possible client might be using.

Aesthetically, things are toned down deliberately. A flashy design would detract from my work and would not show what I believe work should be, i.e. empowering content, not obfuscating it. The typography is particularly “classic”. I use a few classics in the same font stack, a bit of a travesty but nobody will see the difference. The nameplate is set in Roger Excoffon’s Antique Olive, a display favourite of mine (you can see it in use on this sandwich board and on my photo blog), and I intend to rotate, in the near future, some of my own typefaces there.

So is this the Portfolio to End All Portfolios? Probably not. I’ll iterate and refine as time goes by, and it might change drastically at some point, but right now, it can expand and it can work. It’s a new thing, and I like it.

Inaugural banter and an explanation of what is going on here

Here we go again.

Even my mom knows I’ve had more blogs than birthdays by now. First there was the Zooiblog, a once-popular venue where I could write about fancy CSS ideas and people would actually use them. Jina Bolton used the drop shadows on a previous design and it sent people my way for years after. At its apex, the blog received about 2,000 unique visits per day, something I haven’t been able to rake up anywhere since. I made friends thanks to that little blog there, real friends, friends I still see, friends who went on to do great stuff, too. It got me my first design clients. And I let it die. I probably let it die on purpose. I lost interest in writing about CSS tricks, web standards and whatever it was that actually pulled people in there. I wrote for myself for a short while and closed it officially a year ago.

Tumblr grabbed my attention for a while, and I still maintain “Rob’s Brain” there. It’s degraded into a test bed for silly ideas, a dump for funny nonsense from the web and links to things I like. It’s hardly a real blog, and I don’t put my heart in it. I noticed that, and decided to start something which required a lot of heart and even more discipline.

rbmntjs was the result. It’s my photo blog, updated Mondays and Fridays, and I’m very proud to say I’ve consistently updated it for over one hundred and fifty photos now. I don’t plan on ceasing its operation: it’s been a very solid push to keep me shooting photos at least once a week. There have been many highlights.

So why this new blog on this new domain with this new site? I like to focus. I can’t write about type design on a photo blog, and writing in-depth about visual metaphors just feels awkward on Tumblr. And I absolutely won’t Twitter about it.

What’s going to happen over here?

As the front page states, I mainly work on type, typography and user interaction. Every now and then something sparks me to talk about it, and I haven’t had the proper podium for it. This is that podium from now on. My own work, my methods, my inspirations and other things that I feel are entirely relevant to what I do. A proper blog once more, you could say.