August 2, 2013
With the onset of consumer technology like desktop printing and portable mapping devices, a general interest has developed in two previously niche design fields – cartography and typography. The National Geographic Society has been in the business of both since the days when there were still frontiers to be discovered and explorers had little more than a tall ship and a star to steer her by. In the age of Google maps and GPS, old-school cartography is becoming something of a lost art. It’s easy to take maps for granted but they represent the labor of many surveyors, cartographers and designers. There amount of data represented in both geophysical and political amps is staggering. It’s no easy task to cram the names of all those cities, states, rivers, mountains, parks, highways and airports on maps. When so many different names are written in such a small space, a good typeface can make all the difference. Juan Valdés, Director of Editorial and Research for National Geographic Maps, recently revealed the history of the typefaces used on every NatGeo map dating back to the 1930s.
Before the ’30s, the maps of the National Geographic Society were true works of art. They were painstakingly hand-lettered; the unpredictable nature of movable type was unacceptable to the National Geographic Society, whose exacting standards left little latitude for imprecision and illegibility.
A former surveyor for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Society’s first Chief Cartographer, Albert H. Bumstead, worked to find an alternate solution to create a mechanical type that wouldn’t break down or blur together when it was enlarged or reduced. Bumstead, something of a tinkerer best known for inventing the sun compass used during Admiral Byrd’s 1928 Antarctic expedition, put his skills to use on the typography problem and devised a new photographic apparatus to create a more flexible, more legible map type.
After a bit of refining, his “phototypography” process was first used in a United States map included as a supplement to the May 1933 issue of National Geographic.
Soon after the successful implementation of Bumstead’s device, another society cartographer, Charles E. Riddiford, was asked to develop new typefaces with improved “photomechanical reproductive qualities”. Riddiford took his role quite seriously and wrote with a philosophical zeal about the importance of design and typography in mapmaking in the pages of the journal The Professional Geographer:
“Fine map-making is an art; it is also a science, and the one should compliment the other on equal terms. It is one thing to make an accurate and useful map, and quite another to make it presentable, attractive, pleasing to the eye…The factual content of a map is generally taken for granted; it is the visual appearance, particularly on the first impression, to which lettering contributes so much, that sometimes determines whether a map is prized or discredited. This leads me to believe that the impact of line and form on our minds in everything we see has a greater influence on us than the more tangible facts of everyday life.”
Riddiford’s dedication to his craft paid off. His designs (top image) were an instant success. In fact, they so beautifully accentuated the maps’ features and were so clearly legible that National Geographic never saw the need to change them. Even when they digitized their amazing collection of maps, the typefaces held up. So no matter how complex our mapping technology becomes, some vestiges of an early cartographic tradition will continue.
July 10, 2013
Here on Design Decoded, we love exploring the signs, symbols and codes embedded in everyday life. These nearly ubiquitous icons and ideograms are immediately identifiable and may be vaguely understood, but their full meanings are known only to a select few equipped with specialized knowledge, and their origins are often lost to history. Software engineer and writer Keith Houston loves such symbols, too. In his book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, he looks into, well, the secret life of punctuation, symbols and other typographical marks. Most of them are familiar, like “quotation marks” and the @ symbol, but others are less widely used, such as the interrobang and the manicule. The fascinating study in obscure typography opens with the single symbol that inspired the entire book, a symbol that has ties to some of the greatest events in human history, including the rise of the Catholic Church and the invention of the printing press: the pilcrow. Also known as the paragraph mark, the pilcrow, for such a humble, rarely used mark, has a surprisingly complex history. Indeed, as Houston writes, the pilcrow is “intertwined with the evolution of modern writing.”
I’ll spare you the earliest history of writing and skip to 200 A.D., when “paragraphs,” which could loosely be understood as changes in topic, speaker or stanza, were denoted by myriad symbols developed by scribes. There was little consistency. Some used unfamiliar symbols that can’t easily be translated into a typed blog post, some used something as simple as a single line – , while others used the letter K, for kaput, the Latin word for “head.” Languages change, spellings evolve, and by the 12th century, scribes abandoned the K in favor of the C, for capitulum (“little head”) to divide texts into capitula (also known as “chapters”). Like the treble clef, the pilcrow evolved due to the inconsistencies inherent in hand-drawing, and as it became more widely used, the C gained a vertical line (in keeping with the latest rubrication trends) and other, more elaborate embellishments, eventually becoming the character seen at the top of this post.
So how did the pilcrow, once an essential, though ornate, part of any text, become an invisible character scribbled by editors on manuscript drafts or relegated to the background of word-processing programs? As Houston writes, “It committed typographical suicide.” In late medieval writing, the pilcrow had become an ornamental symbol drawn in elaborate style, often in a bright red ink, by specialized rubricators, after a manuscript had been copied by scribes, who left spaces in the document explicitly for such embellishments. Well, sometimes even the most skilled rubricator ran out of time, leaving pages filled with empty white spaces. As Emile Zola wrote, “One forges one’s style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines.” Apparently the written word itself can be forged on the same anvil. The problem was only exacerbated by the invention of the printing press. Early printed books were designed to accommodate hand-drawn rubrications, including spaces at the beginning of each section for a pilcrow. As demand grew for the printed word and production increased, rubricators just couldn’t keep up and the pilcrow was abandoned, though the spaces remained.
This brief overview only touches on the pilcrow’s fascinating history. If you like our articles on music notation, Benjamin Franklin’s phonetic alphabet or even the secret language of cattle branding, check out Shady Characters.
May 14, 2013
It’s one of the most recognizable book covers in the history of American literature: two sad female eyes and bright red lips adrift in the deep blue of a night sky, hovering ominously above a skyline that glows like a carnival. Evocative of sorrow and excess, this haunting image has become so inextricably linked to The Great Gatsby that it still adorns the cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece 88 years after its debut. This iconic work of art was created by Spanish artist Francis Cugat.
Little is known about Cugat –also known as Francisco Coradal-Cougat– and the Gatsby cover, for which he was paid the princely sum of $100, was the only one he ever designed. In a 1991 essay discussing the connections between the book and its cover, publishing scion Charles Scribner III, who revived the cover after a 40 year absence for his classic edition of the book in 1979, charted the development of the work from its original conception to the final gouache painting of the detached gaze. Scribner notes that its origin is somewhat unusual in that the cover art was designed before the manuscript was finished, resulting in a sort of collaboration between the artist and writer that may have yielded one of the more prominent literary symbols in American literature.
In a letter to editor Max Perkins, Fitzgerald, whose manuscript was late, requested that the art be held for him. “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote, “I’ve written it into the book.” It’s not clear exactly what Fitzgerald meant by this, but it is generally believed that that Cugat’s haunting image was realized in the form of the recurring billboard for oculist Dr. T.J. Eckleburg that watches over one of the climactic moments of Fitzgerald’s work:
“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”
Of course, there are several obvious differences between the final cover art and the bespectacled billboard, but if this is the connection, then the floating, faceless eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg serve as testament to the talent of each artist, as well as to the value of such collaborations. But the familiar cover art may not, in fact, have been what captured Fitzgerald’s imagination. Rather, it’s possible that he saw a much different, early cover sketch by Cugat, several of which were only discovered in 1990:
Because the manuscript was not complete, it’s likely that Cugat based his design on a conversation with Perkins about Fitzgerald’s working text, then titled Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, and a description of one of the books settings – a “valley of ashes” where “About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land.” In one of these early design proposals, the valley of ashes is presided over by several small faceless eyes and lips floating like clouds. It seems likely that this early draft inspired Fitzgerald to create his own eyes above the desolate landscape in the form of the Eckleburg billboard. As Cugat’s design developed, he focused more on those floating eyes that seem to have enthralled Fitzgerald. The landscape became more abstract and the country road way was abandoned in favor of a cityscape that recalls the glowing lights of Times Square and Coney Island.
Although it seems likely that the billboard really is the manifestation of Cugat’s eyes, without any definitive proof it remains something of an open question. Scribner cites another theory for “those who still find the derivation troublesome” – that the cover image was actually integrated into the text as Nick Carraway’s vision of Daisy as the “girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs….”
With a big Hollywood movie now in theaters, some recent printings of the book have abandoned the classic cover in favor of one that ties in more closely with the film. So high school students working their way through the summer reading list this year will be hard pressed to find a copy without Leondardo DiCaprio standing front and center among the movie’s beautiful cast and art deco ornamentation. While the new cover is controversial among readers and retailers, Scribner himself enjoys it. In a recent letter to The New York Times, he wrote, ”I confess to liking the Leonardo DiCaprio cover, too (the new movie tie-in). I would not be ashamed to be seen reading it on the subway, but then I’m a Gemini.”
Although there have been many covers since its first publication in 1925, today, none are more suited to The Great Gatsby than the celestial eyes of Francis Cugat, so perfectly do the image and text seem align. Perhaps its appropriate that the true meaning of the celestial eyes remain somewhat mysterious. After all, if I remember my own summer reading of The Great Gatsby, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg ultimately serve as a reminder that signs are devoid of any meaning save that which we give them.
December 6, 2012
In preparation for the holiday season, we’ve put together a selection of gift ideas related to some of our favorite Design Decoded posts. The following items are all some combination of useful, beautiful, clever and iconic. We’ll let you decide which is which. Have a very designy holiday!
Home 3D Printer: After writing about 3D-printed footwear, you might be inspired to try fabricating your own products at home. Currently, domestic-scale 3D printers are not cheap, but the number of models available is increasing, and the price may drop as this becomes a more common practice.
Music for Airports: Brian Eno coined the term “ambient” to describe this seminal soundscape. The ebbs and flows of the minimalist composition are slow and deliberate; at once haunting and comforting. “I had in my mind this ideal airport where it’s late at night; you’re sitting there and there are not many people around you,” Eno says of the album’s origin. “You’re just seeing planes take off through the smoked windows.” What could be better for the frequent traveler in your life?
Winter Citrus Boxes: Growing up in Colorado, it was tradition that each winter, a big box of grapefruits and oranges would arrive on our snowbound porch, sent by grandmother from Florida. Perhaps that is the origin of my interest in fruit. This year’s design-related explorations into mandarins (or clementines) focused on California, but I’ve always had fond thoughts for Florida citrus-by-mail (reinforced through John McPhee’s wonderful writing on the Indian River in his book, Oranges). For die-hard locavores, you can skip the long-distance produce and just buy McPhee’s book.
Sherlock Series 1 & 2: Since its debut in 2010, Steven Moffat’s brilliant re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes has introduced the detective to an entirely new generation. Each episode is an incredibly clever spin on a classic tale from Arthur Conan Doyle, with enough unique twists to keep even the most ardent Sherlockian guessing.
Building Stories: Chris Ware’s masterful tale of life and architecture is so much more than a comic. Unwrapping this box of refined comics will be like opening 14 smaller, incredibly well-crafted gifts. Be warned, if you’re inclined to holiday depression, this collection of true-to-life tales, while beautiful, does not exactly inspire hope.
Dracula Medallion: The Medal that Made Dracula Famous. The limited edition replica is identical to that worn by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Universal feature Dracula. Despite only appearing in two scenes, the medallion is Lugosi’s signature piece and has become an integral part of the visual identity of Dracula.
Travel Tiffin: Airlines may be designing more efficient meal trays, but few are on the upswing when it comes to the quality and tastiness of their in-flight offerings. A carry-on snack is a good way to steer clear of terrible food or worse hunger, and these melamine tiffins are a nice way to pack it. Stainless steel versions are available (and more traditional), but the non-metal option seems like a more security-friendly way to go.
October 18, 2012
I learned to read so I could figure out why Batman was throwing his costume into a fireplace on the cover of one of my dad’s old comic books. Ever since then I’ve been hooked on comics. And so I was incredibly excited to once again attend New York Comic Con this past weekend where, among the standard superhero fare and the novelty 25 cent comics, I picked up a breathtaking new, very un-Batman-like comic by one of my favorite creators, Chris Ware. Ostensibly, Building Stories is a comic book chronicling the lives of the occupants of a three-story apartment building. But it’s so much more than that. At once expansive and intimate, it is a masterpiece of storytelling, a fragmentary collection of sad and beautiful vignettes that began more than a decade ago as a series of comics serialized across several popular publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.
The first thing you’ll notice about the collected Building Stories is that it’s not a book. It’s a box. It looks more like a board game than anything else. However, inside this box, there isn’t a game board and there aren’t any pieces. Instead, there are the 14 distinct books that compose Building Stories – ranging in style from standard comics to flip books to newspapers to something that looks like a Little Golden Book. Importantly, there are no instructions on how to read them or where to begin. While these books do indeed trace the lives of a small group of people (and a honeybee), the linear narrative is irrelevant –we’re just catching glimpses of their lives– and reading through the encapsulated stories is reminiscent of flipping through a stranger’s old photo albums.
This format is critical to the experience of reading Building Stories. Everything has been carefully considered and painstakingly designed. Ware’s drawings are often diagrammatic and vaguely architectural; his page layouts read like complex maps of human experience. It’s worth noting here that Ware writes and draws everything by hand, giving the book, with its exacting precision, a sense of craftsmanship. And though it’s not always clear what path to follow, every single composition, whether clean or cluttered, has a profound effect on how the text is understood and how it resonates emotionally. Ironically, given the amount of detail in each drawing, Ware might best be described as an impressionist. A Monet painting doesn’t show us exactly what the water lilies looked like, but how it felt to see them.
If there’s a central theme to Building Stories, it is the passing of time – and our futile struggle against it. The comic book is the perfect medium to explore this idea. After all, what is a comic but sequential, narrative art? Unlike a photograph, a comic panel does not typically show a single moment in time but is, rather, a visual representation of duration. That duration might be the time it takes Superman to punch out a giant robot, the seconds that pass while a failed artist chops a carrot, or the years it takes for a single seed to travel around the world. In every comic book, time passes within the panel. More noticeably though, time passes between the panels. This is where the art of storytelling comes in. There are no rules in comics that standardize the duration of a panel or a sequence of panels. In Building Stories, sometimes milliseconds pass between panels, sometimes entire seasons, and sometimes even centuries can expire with the turn of the page. The arrangement and size of images on each page affect the mood of the story and the pace at which it’s read. This manipulation of time and space and emotion is Ware’s greatest strength. He controls every aspect of the page, how the story is told, and how the story is read. Sometimes an entire page may be dedicated to a single glorious image of a suburban street; another page may be filled with dozens of tiny boxes in an attempt to capture every second of an event and make the reader feel the passing of time. The effect is sometimes reminiscent of an Eadweard Muybridge photo sequence – except instead of a running horse, the sequence depicts a young couple struggling through an awkward conversation at the end of a first date.
In another particularly striking page, an old women who has spent her entire life in the building ages decades as she descends its stairwell. In just that single page we learn so much about her life: her frustrations, her disappointments, her disposition, and above all, her connection to the house. It is this house which is truly at the center of the book. It is the one constant that remains relatively unscathed as time ravages its occupants. As the tenants pause from their own personal stories to wonder about a sound from the floor below, or ponder the mysterious architectural remnants left by their predecessors, the building ties their lives together for a fragile, fleeting moment. As characters grow and change and move on to other cities and other buildings, they wonder if they were happier in their old lives. Throughout it all, it becomes clear that our lives are impacted –and sometimes even changed– by the spaces we occupy.
With each panel, each page, and each book, Ware builds his stories. Stories of life, death, fear, love, loss, cheating. As the author himself writes, in his typical sardonic, slightly antiquated prose, “Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else, this book is sure to sympathize with the rushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle and upper-class literary public.” If it wasn’t clear by now, this is not a fun comic. But it is undeniably emotional. We’ve been telling stories through pictures as long as there have been stories to tell. Yet even with the relative success of graphic novels such as Persepolis and the explosion of comic book films over the last ten years, comics are still treated largely as a kid’s medium, as something less than literature or the fine arts. The combination of writing and art is its own challenging and complex art form. When executed well, a comic can be as powerful as Monet’s water lilies or as poignant as Catcher in the Rye. Building Stories should be held up as a shining example of what’s possible with the medium.
Oh, and if you’re curious about that Batman story, an insane psychiatrist hypnotized him to fear bats, forcing Batman temporarily to take on another identity. Pretty typical stuff, really.