January 23, 2013
During President Obama’s inauguration on the Capitol steps, he stood behind a lectern, as he always does when speaking in public, adorned with the Seal of the President of the United States. Later that evening, after the ceremonies and parades, he danced across the symbol with the First Lady. It’s on the floor of the Oval Office and on stamped on the Presidential Physical Fitness Award certificate (or so I’m told). The Presidential Seal is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world and one of the few examples of American heraldry, but who designed it?
According to the Encyclopedia of the American Presidency, the modern seal was first defined on October 25, 1945, by President Harry Truman in Executive Order 9646. It depicts an Eagle holding 13 arrows in one talon and an olive branch with 13 leaves in the other, surrounded by a ring of 50 stars (Executive Order 10860 added stars for Alaska and Hawaii in 1960) and the words “Seal of the President of the United States.” The words make it official. Otherwise, it’s considered the Presidential Coat-of-Arms; without the stars, it’s basically just the Great Seal of the United States, after which the Presidential Seal is modeled. The seal existed in various iterations before Truman –several can be seen embedded in the architecture and furnishings of the White House–but the 33rd President made a critical alteration to the design: he changed the direction the eagle faced. No longer was the symbolic representation of the United States looking toward the arrows or war, but to the olive branch of peace. Significantly, at the same time, the Department of Defense officially replaced the Department of War. According to Truman biographer David McCullough, the changes were intended to be seen as a symbolic of an nation both on the march yet still dedicated to peace.
But let’s go back further. The earliest documented Presidential Seal was conceived by President Millard Fillmore in an 1850 sketch that he then sent to Edward Stabler, a nationally renown seal engraver. To say that Fillmore designed the seal would be a stretch – even to call his conception a “sketch” seems a bit generous.
The heavy lifting was definitely done by Stabler. Born in Maryland in 1794, Edward Stabler was self-taught and began his career engraving jewelry at the age of 16. By the time he retired in 1863, Stabler had designed seals for nearly every department in the Federal Government, several states, cities, and many businesses.
Stabler’s design appropriates the coat-of-arms first used on the obverse side of the Great Seal of the United States – whether or not that’s what Fillmore intended to communicate with his “eagle” sketch, we’ll never know. The Great Seal that inspired Stabler was first commissioned by a committee of our designer forefathers –Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams– during the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. However, it wasn’t formally adopted by Congress until 1782 – after a war, two more design committees, and many redesigns. Perhaps realizing after six years that a design by committee isn’t exactly the most efficient process, all the sketches, notes, and suggestions were entrusted to Charles Thompson, Secretary to the Continental Congress, who consolidated the various materials into a final design, which proved a success. So the modern Presidential Seal can be traced back to the coat-of-arms first created by Charles Thompson in 1782 for the Great Seal of the newly independent United States of America.
Thompson’s design has stood the test of time, and though the eagle has been considerably bulked up in the intervening years, it closely resembles the modern Great Seal. When Thompson submitted the seal to Congress, he included what is still the only official explanation of its symbolism.
“The Escutcheon is composed of the chief [upper part of shield] & pale [perpendicular band], the two most honorable ordinaries [figures of heraldry].The Pieces, paly [alternating pales], represent the several states all joined in one solid compact entire, supporting a Chief, which unites the whole & represents Congress.The Motto alludes to this union. The pales in the arms are kept closely united by the Chief and the Chief depends on that union & the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America & the preservation of their union through Congress.
The colours of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.The Olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace & war which is exclusively vested in Congress.The Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The Escutcheon is born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.”
Although the Great Seal is most often used as a graphic image, it is of course still a seal. In the Department of State the term “Great Seal” technically includes the entire sealing apparatus: die, counter-die, press, and mahogany housing.
It is used with the authority of the Secretary of State to authentic documents issued by the Federal Government but it’s also used by the President when he signs documents as the representative of the United States. The Presidential Seal –distinguished by its ring of stars and text– has a much more limited use that the Great Seal. There is only one brass die in the White House –technically, speaking the only true Seal of the President of the United States– and it is reserved for the President’s personal correspondence to Congress. The official seal is probably as closely guarded as the official autopen, but the Bureau of Engraving has other seals that are used for creating sanctioned facsimiles. As for the graphic image of the seal, commercial use is prohibited, with the only exception being official fundraisers, and all use of the seal is strictly regulated to maintain the dignity of the office. For me, however, it will always be a reminder of my own lost dignity and the pull-ups I could never do to get that Presidential Physical Fitness Award in elementary school.
November 6, 2012
Americans head to the polls today to vote for the next President of the United States, as we traditionally have on November Tuesdays since 1845. However, there is no tradition dictating how we vote. In America there is no standard ballot, so depending on where voters live, they may use a pencil, pen, punchcard, lever, or computer. There are thousands of different ballots in America, and while I’m sure many ballots are clear and concise, too many are illegible and confusing. Generally speaking, voting in America is terribly designed. From the queues to the machines to the ballot itself, it seems absolutely absurd that something so important, so absolutely essential to the identity of this nation, should be given so little aesthetic and formal consideration.
“Bad design can change the results of an election,” says Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice in an recent interview with The New York Times. Bad design can lead to mistaken and invalid votes or, perhaps worse, it can deter people from voting at all. In 2008, the Brennan Center released Better Ballots, a publication documenting the ramifications of bad ballot design. After extensive research, they recommended a series of policy and design changes to improve ballot and election design. This year, the Brennan Center expanded their research to include voting machine errors and absentee ballots with a new publication, Better Design, Better Elections, in which they articulate the importance of voting and the role of design:
Some have dismissed the importance of usability in elections, arguing that voters only have themselves to blame if they fail to navigate design flaws. This misunderstands the purpose of elections. They are not a test of voters’ ability to follow confusing designs or complicated instructions; they are, instead, a mechanism by which voters express their preference for candidates and policies. No legitimate public purpose is served by designs that distort voters’ choices.
No legitimate public purpose is served by designs that distort voters’ choices. After the 2000 election, during which the infamous butterfly ballot (see top image) is thought to have distorted many voters’s choice, ballot design suddenly became something that people paid attention to – people including the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and legendary design firm IDEO.
The AIGA’s Design for Democracy initiative offers a number of resources to both ballot designers and election officials. Basic design tips include font recommendations and layout advice –use lowercase letters at no less than 12pt, avoid center type, use one typeface and make it sans-serif, etc.– while broader lessons include valuable insights into the minds of voters and officials, such as “good design is the easy part” and the difficulty only comes in when one tries to navigate the maze of governmental bureaucracy necessary to implement real voting change. The AIGA also makes the important note that voters vary in levels of literacy, quality of vision, and learning style. A well designed ballot must be accessible to everyone.
Accessibility is also the main issue addressed by the openIDEO ballot design challenge. OpenIDEO is a collaborative online platform developed by IDEO to promote and encourage design for social good. Their recent design brief called for their online community “to find ways to improve election accessibility for people with disabilities and other limitations.” Reponses came from amateurs and professionals alike, with winning concepts ranging from mobile voting vans to more elaborate online voting networks, to suggestions for the American voting app.
While these competitions are important, their speculative nature limits their real-world application (at least for now, a voting app seems inevitable). There have, however, been some actual success stories with ballot redesign, such as the redesign of the envelope for absentee voters in Minnesota.
In 2008, more than 4,000 absentee votes were not counted in Minnesota, largely because voters failed to sign their ballot. The senate contest that year was decided by 312 votes. Those 4,000 votes could have swung the election either way. These numbers made it explicitly clear: every vote counts, and every vote must be counted. To help prevent similar problems in the future, the state government worked with design professionals and usability experts to redesign their voter submission envelope (above image). The improvement is obvious and the results are inarguable. After the redesign, the number of unsigned absentee ballots in 2010 decreased by almost 79 percent. Other problems persisted, however, and the ballot went through some minor design revisions this year. This is an example of how it should work: Professional design reviews and performance analysis lead to redesigned ballots, more accurate results, and a fair election. As one of the more famous voting incidents in recent history, the Minnesota ballot serves as an excellent case study illustrating how design can prevent votes from being dismissed by a technicality.
Since the 2000 election controversy, it seems that a few jurisdictions have caught on and it is becoming more common for election officials to consult design experts. However, it still seems strange that while pundits talk about hacking electronic machines, misleading voters, discounting valid votes, and every other kind of voter fraud imaginable, there is relatively little discussion about voting regulation and design. Will future voters elect the next president with a national ballot or a text message or an app? Only time will tell. A lot of time. Because while change is coming, it only comes in small increments every election cycle.
October 31, 2012
2012 is the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s death. Although we now know him best as the author of Dracula, Stoker was better known, at the time of his death in 1912, as the manager and biographer of the great Shakespearian actor Sir Henry Irving. In fact, in an editorial accompanying Stoker’s obituary, his “fantastic fictions” were described as “not of a memorable quality.” History would prove otherwise. Stoker’s immortal Dracula has proven to be a truly timeless work of literature that has forever defined the idea and aesthetic of the vampire.
A few weeks ago, at New York Comic Con, I attended a panel on the origin and evolution of the famous blood sucker. Speakers included Dacre C. Stoker, the great-grandnephew and biographer of Bram; and John Edgar Browning, a professor at SUNY Buffalo with expertise in Dracula and gothic literature. Dacre Stoker presented a sort of deconstruction of Dracula, reverse-engineering the text to reveal what he called its “semi-autobiographical” origins, the product of a “perfect storm” of events that started when Stoker was just a sickly boy from a family of medical professionals who likely practiced bloodletting on the unfortunate youth. In this trauma, Dacre speculates, are the origins of Dracula. There are other parallels between Stoker’s life and the book. For instance, while the author was vacationing in Whitby, a wrecked ship, the Dmitri, washed ashore. In Dracula, the “Demeter” wrecks, its crew ravaged by Dracula. Of course, all authors draw from their life experience, but Stoker’s very biography seems infused into the text, which was published in 1897.
Dacre Stoker presented excerpts from his great-granduncle’s journal, showing page after page of notes on mysticism and mesmerism and many possible “rules” for Dracula, including his lack of reflection, his superhuman strength, and his ability to take different forms. One page even includes an alternate name for Count Dracula, “Count Wampyr.” The name Dracula only came later, suggesting that the links between Dracula and the historic Vlad Dracul (aka “Vlad the Impaler”) are superficial at best. Bram’s book notes were drawn from the mythologies of dozens of cultures, but his journal also featured ostensibly banal diary entries, as well as extensive train and ship schedules.
As both a lawyer and theatrical manager, Stoker traveled often, methodically documenting and scheduling everything. He used this information to make his book seem as real as possible; to ensure nothing would jar the reader out of the story. The journal includes thousands of “memos” that Stoker would write to himself –memos that closely resembled Jonathan Harker’s own missives– as well as extensive notes written by Stoker’s brother, an experimental surgeon. His brother was likely the influence for the character Abraham Van Helsing, which helped ensure that every medical procedure described in Dracula would be as technically accurate as possible.
But what of Dracula himself? In the text, the dreaded Count is described only vaguely, first as an old man:
Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere. He held in his hand an antique silver lamp, in which the flame burned without a chimney or globe of any kind, throwing long quivering shadows as it flickered in the draught of the open door. The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation.
And later, as he magically de-ages, a young man:
a tall, thin man, with a beaky nose and black moustache and pointed beard….His face was not a good face. It was hard, and cruel, and sensual, and big white teeth, that looked all the whiter because his lips were so red, were pointed like an animal’s.
Dacre Sucre believed it was possible that Bram’s portrayal of Dracula a charming devil was inspired by Irving’s portrayal of Mephistopheles in Faust. But little is said about Dracula’s attire. So where does the populist imaginary of Dracula come from? How do we explain the incredible consistency of Dracula Halloween costumes?
The tuxedo. The cape. The medallion. The aristocratic demeanor. These are the tropes we have come to associate with Count Dracula. However, according to John Browning’s NYCC crash course in the visual representation of Dracula, they are a far cry from the first appearance of Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire.
In the early 1920s, two cinematic versions of Dracula were released: the hungarian film Dracula’s Death and the German Nosferatu. These were the first visual representations of Dracula in history and they presented a very different vampire from the one we know and fear today. Dracula’s Death has the honor of being the first adaptation –a very, very loose adaptation– of Stoker’s Dracula that has, unfortunately, been lost to history. Nosferatu, however, is a classic, thanks in part to a 1979 remake by Werner Herzog. The vampire in Nosferatu is a horrible monster dressed in drab Eastern European clothing – a far cry from the populist Dracula of Halloween costumes. Though not as celebrated as later interpretations of Dracula, the legacy of the pale, monstrous Nosferatu continues in contemporary popular culture, as evidenced by the super-vampire known as The Master in Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
In 1924, Dracula premiered on stage in London, adapted by Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane. This production introduced the world to the charming, well-coifed, tuxedo-clad Count Dracula, as portrayed by Raymond Huntley (who allegedly provided his own costume). Without the subtleties a novel provides, Count Dracula’s sophisticated demeanor and seductive nature was communicated more explicitly for the stage.
This is the origin of the Halloween Dracula. When the play was brought to America in the late 1920s, Bela Lugosi played the title role, a role he would make famous in the 1931 Universal film. If the stage show invented the image of Dracula, the Universal movie cemented it. Lugosi contributed his own flair to Dracula’s costume with the mysterious addition of an ornamental medal worn on his chest that, depending on who you ask, may or may not have been his own personal possession. Interesting fact about the “dracula medallion“: it’s actually based on the real medal awarded to Count Victor von Dracula during the Vampire Wars of the 14th century.
That’s not true, actually. So please don’t cite this post in your term paper on supernatural military campaigns or undead numismatics.
The origins of the medallion are, however, somewhat mysterious. It only appears in two scenes, including the first onscreen appearance of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula (see top image). Despite its meager screen time, the medallion is Lugosi’s signature piece and has become an integral part of the visual identity of Dracula. Lugosi was allegedly buried with one version of the medal, and the other version –if it ever existed– was lost during the production of the film. For years, the medal has been the focus of speculation among Dracula fans. What did it mean? What happened to it? What did it look like? Some of that speculation has been answered with the recent release of an official replica created using new sculpts painstakingly crafted with the aid of image-enhancement and color-recovery software. Lugosi’s iconic performance and wardrobe formalized the tropes first established in the play to create the familiar image of Dracula that we know and love today.
Browning noted that vampires always do well during tough economic times, as evidenced by the flourishing popularity of Dracula from the 1920s into the 1930s. By the 1940s, Dracula became something of a joke and by the 1950s, he was pretty much completely abandoned in favor of atomic monsters and nuclear fears. In the 1970s, just in time for another economic crisis, Dracula returned to the mainstream and, as the rights to drac entered the public domain, myriad spinoffs emerged: Blackula, Japula, even Deafula, an all sign language film. In the 80s, Dracula popularity waned and he was relegated to cartoons and comic books, though almost always appearing as the Huntley/Lugosi Dracula. During this most recent recession, vampires have once again come to dominate popular culture. While Dracula himself hasn’t been around too much, newer, sparkly, slightly less dangerous and more casual vampires have a strangle hold on the hearts, minds, and carotid arteries of the young.
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.
July 20, 2012
Of all the instances in which graphic communication is necessary to transcend language barriers, the Olympic Games are, if not the most important, probably the most visible. We take the little icons of swimmers and sprinters as a given aspect of Olympic design, but the pictograms were a mid-20th Century invention—first employed, in fact, the last time London hosted the games, in 1948 (some pictographic gestures were made at the 1936 Berlin games, though their mark on international memory has been permitted to fade because of their association with Third Reich ideology).
The 1948 London pictograms were not a system of communication so much as a series of illustrations depicting each of the competitive sports, as well as the arts competition, which existed from 1912 to 1952 and included architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. In 1964, the Tokyo games took pictogram design to the next level by creating a complete system of typography, colors and symbols that would be applied across Olympic communications platforms.
Since Japan had not adopted the principles of the International Traﬃc Signs, introduced at the United Nations Geneva conference in 1949 and accepted by most European countries, the Olympics were regarded by graphic designers as an opportunity to establish a more uniﬁed and internationally legible symbolic language across the country. It was along these lines, searching for universally understood visual languages, that pictograms (ekotoba, in Japanese, a word used prior to the design of pictograms) were for the ﬁrst time designed for the Olympic Games, embodying at the same time [founder of the International Olympic Committee] Baron deCoubertinʼs aspirations of universalism…A major task of the Japanese design team of the 1960s was to de-traditionalize Japanese visual languages by subscribing to the abstract, non-iconic principles of the modern movement, found also to be more appropriate for expressing the new corporate identities of postwar Japan.
The Japanese pictogram system was conceived by a team of designers led by Katsumi Masaru and inspired in part by design language development that was taking place in Vienna, masterminded by Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz. Neurath and Arntz are known for the creation of isotype, an early (and still completely current) infographic form.
The simplicity and standardization of the isotype language came more fully into the Olympic pictogram arena with the 1972 Munich Olympics, but in between came the 1968 Mexico games, where, as design critic Steven Heller put it, graphic language met traditional Mexican folk art forms and 60s op-art psychadelia. The pictograms for the ’68 games were designed by Lance Wyman, an American graphic designer who also created the Washington, D.C. metro map, which is still in use today, as well as designs for various branches of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1972, a German designer named Oli Aicher refined Olympic pictograms into the concise, clean system that most people think of today as the symbols of the games. Portuguese design professor Carlos Rosa wrote in his book, Pictografia Olímpica:
[Aicher] drew an extensive series of pictograms on a modular grid divided by horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. A very good example of German cold geometry that emerged as a complete standardised visual language due to all of his drawings being designed under strict mathematical control. Aicher’s pictograms were an unavoidable milestone in the design of pictographic systems.
Slightly modified versions (and in some cases exact replicas) of the Aicher designs were used at subsequent Olympics as the standard of universal visual language, though in the early 1990s, some designers began moving away from the simplified standard, adding embellishments that referenced the culture of the city where the games were taking place. The Sydney games played up the boomerang, the Beijing images were vaguely calligraphic, and this year, as the games return to the place where pictograms first came into common Olympic use, the London 2012 visual language takes two approaches: a set of simple silhouettes for utilitarian communication purposes, and a more “dynamic” alternate version for use in decorative applications.
Designed by a firm with the appropriately universal name SomeOne, the images move away from isotype and back toward illustration, conveying both motion and emotion through color and a sense of hand-sketching. Carlos Rosa wonders in his essay, “If pictograms have abstract characteristics, will orientation be compromised for many visitors?”
Does the utility of visual communication get lost when we reinsert the obvious complexity of human interpretation? He suggests that mobile gadgets and digital technology may obviate the need for explicit pictographic guidance, in which case artful expression and cultural flavor can come back into the mix. Between now and 2016, apps and GPS will keep getting better at telling us where we are and where to go, which means the designers who’ve most likely already been tapped to design the Rio de Janeiro Olympic language may have more creative license than their predecessors of the past 60 years.