Jannis Maroscheck’s new book investigates the boundless shapes throughout design history

The expansive book, Latent Figures, is an effort to uncover the more elusive and vague shapes nestled within “pragmatic” design.

We first spoke to Jannis Maroscheck upon the release of his book Shape Grammars in 2020. The publication traced the designers obsession with graphic shapes, in a sort of dictionary format of over 150,000 symbols reflecting design automation. After seeing the impact of the book on his audience and the way it was used as a reference to the niche, Jannis started working on another book, Latent Figures. Yet again exploring shapes, this time, the project was a slow-burner, spending the majority of the succeeding two to three years in a drawer. Because, “in hindsight,” he says, “the technology wasn’t quite there yet”.

When Jannis started working on Latent Figures he wanted to try and avoid repetition. “Then it suddenly clicked,” he says, “I locked myself in for three weeks and put everything together”. Although Jannis sticks to similar monochrome visuals to Shape Grammars, Latent Figures is, in many ways, its polar opposite. The former is all about the grid and “clear and rational rules for constructing a shape”, while the latter investigates the more boundless existence of these forms, of which the graphic designer refers to as being born out of a “opaque digital soup”, and when compared on a computer science level: “it’s rule based versus machine-learning algorithms”.

When asked why he chose to investigate the symbols throughout Latent Figures, Jannis simply says, “because I wanted to see what’s hidden in-between”. He believes that the automation process that allows us to find ideas and draw shapes by outsourcing it to a machine means that the idea is neither found or drawn by the designer. “You design the framework for an idea so that it can emerge by itself,” he says. “In other words, it’s not so much about designing the screw, but about designing the conveyor belt – the manufacturing line.” And that’s how Latent Figures came about – the existence of multiple screws that made him want to investigate these supposed design one-offs, while assembling something that feels both foreign and familiar. “The language of graphic design tends to be pragmatic and carry definite information. I wanted to take elements from that language while also dissolving it into something more elusive and vague,” he adds.


Jannis Maroscheck: Latent Figures (Copyright © Jannis Maroscheck, slanted publishers, 2023)

When it comes to the specific images that Jannis compiled into a dataset – there were hundreds of thousands, going back as far as 3500 BC, spanning cultures and continents. From ancient runes and hieroglyphics to stock icons and contemporary logos. “If you scroll through the dataset you come across things like the Mesopotamian symbol for mountain, the HDPE plastic recycling mark or the lettering for Triple X,” he says. Developing the system to create a plethora of ‘archetypes’ of generative AI models, the designer then trained them, curated the output and fed it back into the loop. “This way I could direct the visual qualities, work out the aesthetics ingrained in the technology and synthesise new and unseen characters,” he adds.

The unique challenges came when trying balance the needs of the project from a design perspective and data perspective, as well as the haphazardness intrinsic to the process. “When working with generative and emergent systems,” Jannis tells us, “you always work with randomness. It’s all about finding a way to navigate the noise and use it effectively”.

“The shapes in Latent Figures often approximate something we know or understand,” Jannis says, “but their meaning doesn’t quite want to resolve, they revolve around themselves. Somewhere between meaning and nonsense,” he adds. With hopes that the book will offer a space for readers to “grow their imagination” Latent Figures is both Jannis exercising his visual vocabulary and a gift that enables us to do the same. Currently, Jannis is working on more design research and commercial projects, as well as launching a design and direction company (veryes) with Tim Lindacher, Johannes Schreiner, Simone Cihlar, Moritz Lösel.

GalleryJannis Maroscheck: Latent Figures (Copyright © Jannis Maroscheck, slanted publishers, 2023)


Jannis Maroscheck: Latent Figures Excerpt at Pool Board (Copyright © Jannis Maroscheck, 2023)

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Jannis Maroscheck: Latent Figures (Copyright © Jannis Maroscheck, slanted publishers, 2023)

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About the Author

Yaya Azariah Clarke

Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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