November 16, 2016

Visual Exploration by Graphic Designer Jonathan Sangster in His Handmade “Concept Containers”

Graphic designer Jonathan Sangster’s “Concept Containers” reminded me, in a visceral way, the fascination with compositions on paper. Line and shapes converge in each volume of Sangster’s tactile series. Here, he elaborates on this project’s purpose in the creative life of, as he put it, “a visual person.”

How did your series of “Concept Containers” originate?
The series came to life, because I needed a place for all of my impractical ideas to live. All of the ideas revolving around texture, pattern and contrast that are leftovers from other projects.

What is a Concept Container?
A Concept Container is a receptacle for the physical output of ideas that might be useful in the future. The idea for these books also came out of my thoughts on the “appropriate” use of a paper book in the digital age. My body of work, despite being made up of primarily physical objects, exists as a digital portfolio. I was educated as a print designer, and I love books, but does my portfolio need to exist as a physical book? Probably not. The Concept Container series (instances of Concept Container Volume Two below) allows me to store my ideas in a format that I am passionate about creating.

How did you make yourself committed to start 
the Concept Container series?
The commitment is something that comes out of my need to create, design and make physical artifacts. I enjoy it greatly. Curiosity has a lot to do with it. What a particular pattern looks like when it’s stretched and distorted. What two different pages look like when they are physically forced to interact. How meaning is adjusted by juxtaposing different ideas on a single spread. I’m curious about many things. I like to push myself with “what ifs.”

What’s your decision-making and workflow
in realizing a Concept Container?
The process is slow and usually spans months before I decide to combine different visual collections into a single book. I never think about the book as a whole and then make pages for it. I typically take images or print-outs from other projects and archive them. I’ll revisit them occasionally and enlarge them on a Xerox machine, overprint different pages onto each other, or take photos of pages and reprint them. This type of process allows me to work, or visually play, without pressure. After all of this, I’ll take different collections of pages and start to imagine what they’d look like in a single book. I start arranging the sections, or chapters, based on the individual themes, dominant visual similarities, or striking differences. Once I’ve arrived at a satisfying collection of chapters, I trim the pages and bind the book by hand.

What tools and materials are used to make the series? 
My hunch is that each is handmade, totally.
Your hunch is correct. I like the idea of trying to create a book using only “analogue” techniques. The constraint of making books in a digitally-minimal way is interesting to me. Sometimes I use Adobe Illustrator to create a pattern, but not typically. I use a scanner and Xerox machine pretty heavily to create the pages. Aside from that, I use scissors, scotch tape, a ruler, an X-Acto knife, a paintbrush and bookbinding glue.

What’s the frequency of making a Concept Container?
I wind up making one every few months. There isn’t a set schedule. I’d make them all the time, if I could.

Width and height? How did you settle on these dimensions?
The pages all start out as 8.5 x 11 inch pages, but they end up being a little smaller after I trim the edges. Sometimes I plan on making smaller books, but can never bring myself to eliminate so much of the original images.

Is there a set pagination? How do you determine this?
The pagination is determined by the individual visual theme of a chapter. I try to arrange them so there is a visual flow, or logic from page to page and chapter to chapter. Sometimes I arrange pages in the order of their creation. Contrast sometimes plays a larger role and sometimes similarity plays a larger role.

How many do you generate? How many pages?
I usually make many more pages than are included in the final book. I eliminate pages that I find to be redundant or pages that do not represent a theme well.

What’s rewarding about making Concept Containers? 
The idea of making something (instance of Concept Container Volume Four above) that does not necessarily have to exist is a type of luxury to me. I can be somewhat utilitarian, and these books are a type of indulgence for me.

Are there challenges in making a Concept Container?
If there are, what are they? And how do you deal with them? 
I don’t think that I would say there are challenges. Not in the making or production, anyway. The challenges are more existential, I think. As a designer, I typically create things when it is my job to do so, but I do not like to be limited in this way. So, what is a designer that isn’t creating work for communication? Where do ideas that do not have a purpose or a home exist? The challenge is determining whether questions like these need answers.

Who and/or what are your consistent creative influences?
Most of my creative influences are varied: Christopher Wool, Ryan Duggan, Shingo Okazaki, The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Empty Bottle, Carl Sagan, Oliver Sacks, Asrai Garden, David Bowie, Anthony Burrill, Jessica Hische, Starshaped Press, Cormac McCarthy, J. G. Ballard, IDEO, Jehnny Beth of Savages, Eye magazine, Cy Twombly, Edward Fella, Gemma O’Brien. It’s a long list. I think that’s enough for now.

What is your advice to nurture curiosity and turn it into a project?
Stop trying to justify curiosity. The fact that you are curious is enough to pursue an idea. Do things because you can. Do things because you enjoy them. Exploring and adventuring helps. Do that too.

At this time—and please correct me, you’re at four volumes 
of Concept Containers. Who and/or what keeps you going 
in keeping the series going?
I’m not sure that the series is going to keep going. I do know that I am enjoying making them right now. I will keep making them until I do not enjoy it any more.

What effect do you strive to achieve from making 
Concept Containers?
I like the idea of being able to hold and touch my ideas—as a way of thinking in the future. These books help preserve my past self.

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All images courtesy of Jonathan Sangster.

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