John Philip Sage and Carlos Romo-Melgar on their research-focused approach in visualising surveillance
The London-based pair create visual motifs to represent surveillance for the Data Justice and COVID-19: Global Perspectives book.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 5 November 2020
London-based duo John Philip Sage and Carlos Romo-Melgar, both originally from Spain, formed the shifting cooperative practice Spreeeng after looking for a way to challenge the assumptions of what a studio should be. “In our view, this romantic approach to the design studio has only reinforced the precarity of working in the field,” Carlos explains. Learning from companies that they have worked with before, the pair decided to appropriate tactics to form what they call a situated approach: a fluid response to one’s specific conditions and backgrounds. “We see the design studio as a place for cooperation, apart from collaboration, as something that is reversible, changeable. One that grows and shrinks, relocates and joins forces for particular occasions,” Carlos continues.
The two have a background in architecture and mainly work in the field of editorial and exhibition design, taking on projects from cultural institutions and companies like the Barbican and Mozilla Foundation to Netflix and the V&A. Spreeeng is not only made up of the two of them either. A fluid format allows them to keep independent practices, while a focus on cooperation allows for shared ownership over projects depending on the needs of the assignment. “We also acknowledge that this might be the way that many other designers are working at the moment, we don’t consider this an innovation. We try our best to avoid sugarcoating the hardships of establishing a practice like this,” John adds.
Both John and Carlos take a research-focused approach to their design, looking to open debates through the processes that they create. This results in a practice that is constantly shifting and a visual language that refuses to be static. “I prefer to see my work from the way I design processes rather than the final look. John can speak on how annoying I am when it comes to developing systems and designing workflows for each of our projects,” Carlos says.
One recent collaboration is the design for a publication titled Data Justice and COVID-19: Global Perspectives. The book contains global case studies on how economic, social and political power is exerted and extended through technology, specifically in the field of surveillance and tracking technologies. The two were tasked with coming up with the design for a book filled with 38 essays and commentaries on monitoring technologies.
John and Carlos’ research-based design process is reflected in how they approached this project. Their goal was to offer ways to visualise surveillance, an act of watching from above, breaking down this concept into several visual elements. The layout of the publication is peppered with motifs related to the accuracy of tracking crosshairs, lines, targets and trackers.
Beginning each chapter with a collage, the Dispatches section is an amalgamation of CCTV footage and hyper realistic AI-generated faces created with the This Person Does Not Exist tool. As an example, this combination of publicly accessible images that expose people in the public space with the untrustworthiness of facial imagery raises questions about how publicly available information might be used and what can be trusted.
The two also wanted to introduce a haptic element to the book by screenprinting the cover with thermochromatic ink that disappears when it comes in contact with heat. “The design reminds us of the impossibility of isolating ourselves completely from the world,” the pair explain. The result is an astutely designed book that is highly sensitive to the undercurrent of technological discontent that runs through societies worldwide.
As Spreeeng the pair are currently working on a project exploring parasocial relationships – a form of one-sided relationship that is commonly found between fans and public figures, specifically in the form of fandom-based communications. “It is still early to mention ways in which we are actively formalising it, but we are very excited to learn new skills to make it happen,” John says. Regardless of the final outcome, we can expect a carefully thought-out project formed in the spirit of cooperation.
Spreeng: COVID-19: Global Perspectives (Copyright © Spreeng, 2020)
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.