Modular Matter — Rewire your prints!

Jian Haake


Modular Matter is a tool that has been developed to playfully rethink and reimagine print design using modular synthesis. It is addressed to graphic designers and other creatives who are used to working with traditional desktop publishing software and other proprietary tools. The tool’s experimental and modular approach can help to challenge long-established ways of working and provide new impulses for graphic designers and creatives alike. By critically reflecting on the context and practice associated with the tool, Modular Matter invites users to think with the tool and hopefully find some inspiration and encouragement for their own future projects.
Modular Matter was developed in the context of graphic design and printing and was heavily influenced by critical observations about the fields’ conditions, mechanisms, and sociotechnical habits.

How proprietary tools shape graphic design

Looking at the field of graphic design, it is hard to deny that certain hardware and software are used universally. Graphic designers in large companies, creative studios, institutions, and the academy all use the same commercial toolkits that are now considered the industry standard. Owned by very a few, large companies that answer only to shareholders, these products set the norms. Rather than providing a wide variety of options and niche products, the large corporate players set standards for infrastructure, protocols, interfaces, and design options.
Everyone knows how to use these tools, but no one understands how they operate. This dependency causes a lack of agency that is not questioned enough in the creative field. Instead, many creatives prefer to feel confident in their practice, switching nonchalantly from one application to the next, comforted by the fact that they know how to navigate these familiar environments. Although many graphic designers feel very much at home in these proprietary toolkits, they tend to underestimate the implicit effects that the economic conditions and ethical issues have on their creative independence and practice as a whole.
The lack of diversity in tools not only produces a common aesthetic, often resulting in “sleek” and homogeneous visual output, but it also has an influence on the perception, experience, and imagination of creatives. The tool determines what is considered possible, and the tool’s limitations likewise define the boundaries of what can be imagined.
With these conditions and implications in mind, the need for a more independent design practice becomes apparent. If tools shape practice, the natural question to ask is: How can practice shape tools?

Counter Strategies: Make your own tools!

Tools are made and shaped by human beings. They don’t exist a priori, but instead are subject to specific cultural developments and conscious design choices. The most radical way to change your tool ecologies is to start making your own tools. Developing a tool from scratch, one situated and embedded in a concrete environment and shaped according to particular premises and needs, can help to address specific peculiarities and lead to better results. While a universal tool is developed to be one-size-fits-all, a DIY tool need not be compared in the first place. This can be relevant for tasks that are considered niche, but more importantly, it takes into account marginalized perspectives and urgencies.
The DIY tool can be unconventional, playful, and fun because it answers only to personal needs. Here, poetic and vernacular qualities outweigh practical and economic interests. A small, intimate gesture may prevail over a grand universal solution. With less pressure to design securely and efficiently, DIY setups often spark happy accidents and unexpected surprises, which should be welcome in any creative process.

Making Modular Matter

The basic idea for Modular Matter is simple. It uses the well-known concept of modular synthesis, but instead of staying in its original context of sound, the operating modes are translated and applied to the realm of print publishing.
A modular synthesizer is an electronic instrument that generates electronic sounds. It consists of many different and independent physical modules that can be connected in many ways to create and manipulate sound output.
Most graphic designers are used to desktop publishing, a computer-based technology that uses a combination of hardware and software components to produce some printable outcome. The whole operation involves input devices (keyboard, camera), control devices (mouse), and output devices (printer). It relies on a graphical user interface (GUI) and WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) software. These tools and processes are so common that it is hard to even imagine a different setup.

Modular Matter is an attempt to rethink this print design workflow. Just like a modular synthesizer, the tool can be played like an instrument in order to create print layouts. This experimental and modular setup offers an unconventional, tangible approach to performing operations on text and graphics. The tool consists of several combinable hardware modules, each of which performs a specific operation with an operation-specific physical interface. The modules can be controlled by rotary knobs, slides, and switches. Patch cables can be used to connect the modules. For example, the output of one module becomes the input for another module, and so on. This is how the user creates a custom workflow for their printing project.
The physical interfaces of the hardware modules, especially in direct comparison to traditional desktop publishing, create a very unique design experience. Gestures, such as patching cables, turning knobs, and pushing (physical) buttons, are unusual with print design. This unfamiliar and at times clumsy interaction leads to a more conscious and intuitive control of the device.
In an otherwise disconnected human-computer-interaction, this hands-on approach offers an embodied experience of the underlying processes at work. The modular workflow inspires various new combinations and helps to provide a better understanding of the operations taking place. By rewiring the modules in all possible variations, the user has direct control over the infrastructure, workflow, and outcome.
This freedom to reconfigure has a profound effect. With Modular Matter, the user is basically building their own tools on the go. How the setup is configured shapes the outcome, which in turn leads to the reconfiguration of the tool, and so on. In other words, the practice feeds directly back into the shaping of the tool.