Dutch graphic designer Richard Niessen describes his experimental ongoing project The Palace of Typographic Masonry, a finalist of the 2017 Dutch Design Awards, as “an institute dedicated to the richness and variety of the world’s graphic languages.” In practice, The Palace is not a bricks and mortar construction, but rather a method for Niessen to gather and structure all his design values, sources, and inspiration into one mental location. It’s an imaginary structure akin to Memory Palaces, that favored mnemonic device of visual learners, which helps people to memorize vast amounts of data by locating facts within different rooms, passages, and other locations within a pretend building.
As Niessen explains, “Although the Palace is imaginary, I fantasize about its spaces and structure. It consists of nine departments: Sign, Symbol & Ornament; Construction, Poetics & Play; and Dialogue, Craft & Order. Within these departments you can find spaces like the Building Set Storage, The Gate of Cyphers and Codes, The Gridded Section, and Tracing Board Treasury.”
In one physical manifestation of the Palace, at the 2014 graphic design festival Une Saison Graphique in Le Havre, France, Niessen created an installation of 26 posters, each measuring 33″ by 46″, mounted on boldly striped wooden sticks whose intersections formed a dimensional alphabet. For the show’s catalog, Niessen bound the posters together using a simple elastic band so the pages could be reconfigured and reordered to create a variety of narrative journeys—a modular format that, in his latest installation, the Labyrinth of Scripts, he continues to explore. This time, his focus is on the world’s rich variety of spoken and written languages.
Unlike the mythological labyrinth built to contain a monster, the game-like Labyrinth of Scripts, on exhibit this November at Expobar Nautilus in Amsterdam, provides a far more pleasant experience: a journey through a selection of the world’s writing systems, creating diverse individual narratives and exploring similarities and differences in the world’s scripts as you go.
Niessen says, “For four spaces so far—The Masonic Lobby, the Asemic Cabinet, Palatial Examples, and The Labyrinth of Scripts—I made representative installations that function as educational tools, with game-like structures that invite the viewer to play and learn. All are made up of modular parts that can be disassembled and fit into one (A0) box. Just like drawers in a collector’s cabinet, the boxes contain a specific part of the complete collection, and all boxes together form the Palace.”
To create Labyrinth of Scripts, the designer gathered together a collection of 45 of the world’s writing systems, from Aztec to Xia-xia, and Arabic to Zapotec. The project consists of tiles (similar to dominoes) printed with texts in varying languages that a user can arrange on a playing board. Niessen designed the component pieces in black and white to render them more legible, then packaged them in a box bursting with vivid saturated hues.
It’s hard to imagine narrowing down the world’s 7,000 languages to representations of just 45 of them. When asked about the editing process, Niessen says, “I could have easily selected 100 or 200 languages, but I limited myself to five storylines, or branches, of scripts: European-Middle Eastern, Indian, South and North American, Asian and African.” For three of the scripts, the storylines follow their development and evolution—from cuneiform to Latin, for instance. In the case of American and African scripts, the designer chose to showcase their variety by providing examples of different dialects.
From a design perspective, The Labyrinth of Scripts breaks down and re-examines language—one of the defining characteristics of our human-ness—in a methodical yet playful way. The modular pieces allow for elements of chance and serendipity (or logical arrangement, if one prefers) to enter into the exploration of a paradox: On a larger scale, language is what all humans have in common, and yet it can be the very thing that divides us if we don’t understand one another. Niessen’s work is wide-ranging in its scope yet almost microscopic in its focus.