Wednesday, February 13, 2008

That Little Extra

Occasionally you see strikingly well-designed relief tiles on a humble warehouse and wonder, Wow, why did they invest such effort in something so straightforward? But you never wish they hadn’t. Extra care wears well. I’d put this 8th grade math book in the same category. It provides wonderfully well-fashioned page headers.

A little background: Iroquois Publishing (Syracuse, NY) produced educational texts for elementary through high school students on a range of basic subjects for approximately fifty years ending in 1960, when the company was purchased by Prentice-Hall. (TIME Magazine reported that “behind the rush to merge and diversify is the fact that sales of textbooks and encyclopedias have doubled since 1955... The aim [of such publishing mergers] is to get ready for the market looming in the '60s, during which total industry sales of textbooks seem likely to double…”) The beginnings of the boomer market! Now it’s all about retirement plans…

But when this book was designed, just after World War Two, the textbook price point called for a one-color solution throughout the book. These headers were designed to punctuate sections by using areas of black in order to contrast with the gray value of the typesetting below. These horizontal illustrations, which were probably produced by a staff designer, often have thematic content. “Checking your Progress” relies on a progression from the history of transportation to capture the idea of linear improvement. Clear, clever, and pleasurable. Who can fail to delight in this?

Reflect for a moment on what the equivalent visual prompt in a contemporary text would look like. If drawn, the image would likely be less formal: a faux-ingratiating “friendly” scrawl in an incompletely understood cartoon language would greet the viewer. The color would be all over the place—four hues? Five? And we’d probably be looking at heinous gradients, too, all because Photoshop makes complexity easy. And surely everyone knows that gratuitous complexity is an easy fix for a simple disaster.

This is a misleading joke, in certain respects. The stills above and below (from a UPA Gerald McBoingBoing short) betray a great deal of visual savvy in an attempt to communicate mind-boggling complexity--through the use of simple means. The production designer makes use of tight control of value and color and shape and line to create an apparently confusing image which is not, finally, confusing. Truly excessive complexity cannot be organized in a glance, even a long one. (Which is why all those dueling pie charts, cheese wheels, and fat arrows in powerpoint presentations make your ears bleed.)

In truth, the discipline imposed by restricted means makes people better. In the face of awkwardness or poorly resolved design, the only choice is to select another direction altogether, make significant changes to the first option, or dig in and refine and refine until the thing works.

The intersection of restricted technological means, economic limitation, and rigorous modern design thinking created a great deal of distinguished visual work in the middle third of the last century. For example:

To cite another among many

Not to mention

Finally, we are left to admire the anonymous wit and deft touch of the creator of these seemingly throwaway images. And we should all ponder the message of the header on page 507, which urges us forward earnestly, prudently:READ THINK WORK CHECK. This advice, if taken, comes in really handy when, for example, you are thinking about invading another country.

Imges: Illustrator uncredited, page headers and cover design, Patton and Young, Iroquois New Standard Arithmetics, Grade 8, Enlarged Edition...


Rob Dunlavey said...

Thanks for this post. Limitations are fantastic organizational forces. People hunger for it. There is, however, a style that is rampant today that uses very complicated technological means to simulate the look achieved with old limited graphic printing processes.

But, I suspect, this is a topic for another day!

DB Dowd said...

Rob, I agree. My own work draws on the tradition of 2 and 3 (spot) color printing, as well as premodern chiarascuro woodcuts. I use Adobe illustrator to do it, in part because cutting blocks is so time-consuming and unforgiving. My color sense is totally based in my training as a printmaker. Printmaking is of course the repository of obsolete commercial printing technologies.

But do you mean the straightforwardly Illustrator-ish work out there, or the simulation of abraded printed surfaces, out of register benday dots, etc?

Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe said...

As someone who has done illustrations for educational texts, I found this post very encouraging. Often I receive notes back from the client asking for "more colours" or "more shading". It's an uphill battle trying to convince them that a purposefully limited design is often punchier and more pleasing to the eye. You really have to fight for simplicity these days.

Thanks for the great post!

DB Dowd said...

Joe, I spent some time today working my way through educational and information images and thought of you and your clients! Check it out, especially those invertebrates! Best,

Rob Dunlavey said...

Yes DB. I like all the texture, benday dots, and the attendant palettes that they seem to come with. I too create most of my work digitally and, like you, I think my most important art training came from printmaking and creating my own separations for offset lithography pre-Macintosh and Adobe.
People say that the modern equivalent of this look is evidence of a cultural yearning for authenticity. I might agree, but since I'm a creator, I am compelled to admit that digital tools make it easy to pick and choose and combine disparate "technologies" (it also helps me avoid using gradients!). Hopefully, our work has a resounding ring of it's (and our!) integrity. I imagine, that the day will come when digital (whatever the heck that is!) looks quaint.

Note to Joe: you have an interesting experience. Good luck with your "uphill battle". I couldn't sympathize more!

babyblue said...

What a hoot! My mom worked at Iroquois Publishing as a young illustrator in the early 1950s. I'm going to see her next week and will enjoy sharing this post with her. While it's likely not her work, she'll surely recognize the style.

Thanks for sharing!