Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How Things Look, Not What They Mean

Many years ago, when trying to figure out how to teach two-dimensional design (a subject, like most I profess, I never studied in school) I became convinced that cognition can be an obstacle to seeing. I recognize that such a statement is probably physiologically nonsensical, so let me explain. We are so eager to figure out what things mean that we ignore other things in the visual field. Makes sense if you are trying to avoid being eaten by a tiger or hit by a bus. But it works against you if you are trying to assemble a whole system–a visual image or arrangement of elements. Which is too bad, because the way things are put together is a critical part of what they mean. Hierarchies and contrasts can and should be seen independent of content–e.g., by squinting–because then and only then is it possible to see how formal relationships work. The tyrant cognition suppresses vision. If the king goes unchallenged, he will make mistakes.

At the top of this post: a classic example of such an error, aided and abetted by the pretending prince of the real, photography.

I took this photograph at a Phillips 66 gas station near my home. It's an oval-shaped sticker slapped on the gasoline pump, presumably printed in a run of thousands. It seeks to warn us of dangers associated with static electricity, though it doesn't exactly say that. Rather we receive two instructions: 1) touch some metal thing other than the pump before grabbing it, and 2) don't get back in the car after you've started, because that could produce undesirable electricity. If I don't do 1 or I do do 2, will I blow up? Not sure.

Of course, the dominant message is BE SAFE WHEN FUELING, which isn't so much an instruction as an exhortation. And the goof-ass centered type that rolls around the perimeter of the oval is hard to gather into a reading experience.

In short: the copywriting, design and typsetting are awful. But that's not why I noticed the sticker in the first place, nor why I whipped out my phone to "snap" (quaint verb) the photograph.

No, I documented the sticker because of the picture within the upper portion of the oval.

One day, following a planning session for Static Electricity Liability Week, whoever art directed this thing tapped a pencil against his head and said, "We need a picture of a hand putting gas in a car." Soon after that, such a photograph was produced, possibly by the very same art director, who in all likelihood was the one guy in the office who had used Photoshop. And because he knew that was what he had done, and because he could see the picture right there, he popped that photo into a semicircular hole and called that sucker done.

Alas. The fact is, he didn't really see the photograph. He looked at it, but he didn't see it. Because the visual image shows something that is considerably less than clear. At the left side of the image we see an arm/hand holding a metallic hose-looking thing. But halfway across the format, the form of the hand abuts a dark value mass. The dark mass has a few lighter passages, most notably an elliptical light spot that reads like a cartoon nose.

It takes sustained effort to make out that the dark mass consists of black and dark blue elements. Once we figure that out, we can reason our way to a conclusion that hand is holding a black nozzle, and the dark blue must be the side of a vehicle being fueled. But that's like perceiving a toad on the brown mottled ground. If we're not looking for it, we won't see it. (If the car had been light blue or tan or red, we'd have gotten separation between the parts of the visual field: arm/hand, hose, nozzle, car, non-stuff).

A safety message has been fatally undermined by a failure to contemplate how something looks independent of what it means. Which takes me back to my original point. You can't design if you can't stop thinking about what things mean, because then you can't focus on how things look.

Informational pictures must be lucid. There's much to be said about them, including how things can be broken into parts, how space can be manipulated, how contrast can be managed, how attributes of pictures and charts can be combined successfully as well as less so.

I have been writing on informational images since I started this blog. Because our students are at work on a problem that requires them to construct such things, I've assembled a set of prior posts below.

On the basic attributes of informational pictures, see my first post on the subject, from 2007. Here, a reflection on the pleasures of lucidity. Here some writing on maps as images, and representations of processes. On making informational images as a way to gather information, an account of star-watching in the Utah desert. And finally, a set of images that present data in comparable ways, from Matisse to Chrysler.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Spartan Holiday Wordmark

A few months ago I posted on the topic of wordmarks for periodicals. At the time I was deep into the design process for my own project, Spartan Holiday. I have been loath to mention it, wanting to roll it out once the print copies were in hand. But I am in striking distance of finishing, and I have a splash page up at spartanholiday.com that I would like to show up on Google searches. At the moment, you get 300 spoofs and Christmastime at Michigan State.

There's much more to come. I am extremely excited about this project, which represents an integration of longstanding interests within a durable format. The identity was inspired by mid-century package design, and was a collaborative project between Scott Gericke and me. I'm working with Scott on the design standards for the journal, and pretty intensively on the first issue. I won't publish any images from the mag until it's out, but I can say that the image in the banner above is a crop from a page in No. 1.

The identity is designed as variable two-color system. The palette at the top is the Richard Petty version.

For now, do me a small favor and click over to Spartan Holiday to goose the search numbers as we near the release date (sometime in November). The page gives some sense of what we're up to. Thanks in advance for the click.

Sucks for Southern Europe

Courtesy of one of my favorite blogs, Mondorama 2000. Somehow I suspect this would qualify as a negative event most everywhere: having a balled-up elephant the size of the former Yugoslavia land in precisely that place. Bottoms up!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Periodicals and the History of Illustration


I am teaching a group of senior illustrators and cartoonists in the Communication Design major. The class, Visual Worlds, is really a methods course in drawing. A series of “diagnostic” problems, followed by a individual tutorials played out within a group. The critical question: how and under what circumstances do I, the student, put things together well? followed by a second: how does the answer to that question help me choose what to make and with which tools? and then a third: given all that, how shall I build a direction that I own?


One of the ways to get access to a student’s predilections involves seeing through their eyes, on the basis of what they collect. We ask them to build clip files of things they love, no matter what they are. It’s quite helpful: of all the images floating around in digital ether, which ones does the student choose? There are always clues to that student’s way of seeing embedded in that set, though typically they escape her understanding at first. (I am speaking especially of the pictorial carpentry, less than an editorial p.o.v. While the latter is important, it’s more obvious; the former is more technical and harder to see, but–strictly speaking–more useful.)


From whence do these images come? Nowadays, from the interwebs; typically via Google, which offers plenty to the poser of narrow questions, less to one pursuing broader ones. (Try entering “visual art” in a search engine and see what you get.) Plus, those images arrive sans context, sans grounding of any kind, a perfect postmodern blizzard of rootless pixels.



It requires at least some background to know what to search for, whether in a library or a on a search engine. These students have taken an art history survey and a required modern art course, plus other bits of this or that art historical period. On the basis of these experiences, they know zilch of the history of illustration and cartooning, save for a brush with Daumier. Some have taken my commercial modernism course, and have a basic familiarity with their tradition, but half have not, and don’t.

As these students’ primary visual concerns are beginning to emerge, it becomes increasingly important for them to have a cultural context. To which creative strands or traditions might they belong?


Which brings me to my problem: how to provide a history of illustration in an afternoon? To be clear, I am mostly disinclined to construct such a thing, as it threatens to devolve into poor man’s art history. The narrative of Significance and Influence sets up a frame for looking at artifacts that directs attention away from the cultural transaction. I have neither space nor time to develop that theme to an appropriate degree, so it will have to wait for another day. But in an underdeveloped field, it likely that a canon will be necessary, at least as a start. Yet I stressed to my students that even as I prepared to run them through a set of things that attach to Significant Practitioners, I did so doubtfully.


As a hedge–maybe better than that–I constructed the narrative as a tale of industry: American periodical publishing. For the geeks out there: can you write a (versus the) plausible narrative of American illustration using these seven magazine covers as data points?


We could do the same with a set of advertisements or book illustrations, which would make for interesting parallel problems. In any case, in my view it's folly to look at the history of illustration as a freestanding narrative of aesthetic achievement. Rather, these images occur at the intersection of technology, commerce and social history. Aesthetics is a small part of that equation.

Images: designer unknown, ornamental typographic cover design, St. Nicholas, November 1875 (the issue in which Howard Pyle's first published illustration appeared); Jessie Willcox Smith, Mother and Child with Easter Lily, cover illustration for Collier’s, 1904; F.X. Leyendecker (troubled brother of J.C.), The Flapper, cover illustration of Life Magazine, 1922; Norman Rockwell, The Double Take, cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post, March 1, 1941; Al Parker, Groucho Marx, cover illustration for TV Guide; April 27, 1957; George Lois, art director, Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian, cover photograph for Esquire, April 1968.

Monday, October 3, 2011

John Porcellino in Town


This will be hurried. Although I will be unable to attend, I am pleased to say that the cartoon Dadaist/not-really-naif/visionary depressive/DIY pioneer John Porcellino will be appearing this evening at Subterranean Books, along with St. Louis' own Tim Lane. Porcellino created King-Cat Comix in the late 1980s pretty much with a felt-tip pen and a Xerox machine. I reproduced an early (if memory serves, the first) King-Cat page in Strips Toons and Bluesies. Though I have never met Mr. Porcellino, I admire his work, which helped establish an alternative way of being in the world as a cartoonist. He has written and drawn very perceptively on subtle topics. His new book, if I understand, is a comic-format interview with suicide attempt survivors.

The talk and book-signing will be at 7:00pm.

Students with an interest in writing, cartooning or text-image relationships: if at all possible, go to this!

There is much more to say about Tim Lane, too, but that deserves its own post. Below, the cover from his terrific visual essay for the Riverfront Times on St. Louis' homeless tent city.


Fantagraphics issued a big, thick compilation of King-Cat a few years ago. These images are taken from that volume.


Above, the endpapers for that book.

If anybody goes, please send me your impressions as a comment. I would love to hear about the event.