Monday, October 19, 2009

Jean-Paul Fuzzy Wuzzy

On Friday night I went to see Where the Wild Things Are with the family. A fascinating film. I have gotten the sense that people break one way or the other on it: positive response to Spike Jonze's extension of Sendak's premise, or negative reaction to the ambiguity of the narrative. Everybody in our clan liked it, but no small children are included in that group by now. There was some disagreement about how much analysis was warranted: Can't you just enjoy the movie!?

Well, yes and no. Mostly no, because the film does not ask to be enjoyed. I would like to see it again, after a while. But Wild Things struck me as a Sartrean meditation on the difficulty life with others: hell is other people, with fur. Troubled Max is doubled by Carol, the Gandolfini-voiced monster. Carol refashions his world as a make-believe sculptural landscape, and later bashes it in a rage. The interpersonal world of the wild things is richly managed. Needs, fears, uncertainties and frustrations play out in life on the island. Max fails in his reign as king, inflicting wounds in the process. I was reminded of Daniel Keyes famous short story "Flowers for Algernon." Carol's sadness and rage mirror Max's, but do they also prefigure the boy's trajectory into adult life? Things will not be easy for Max. I found myself pondering the evocations and intimations of mental illness in Carol's unraveling.

Don't go expecting a fuzzy grinning happyfest. But the ambiguity is worth it–is it, in fact. And wonderful to look at, too.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rounding Things Out: Three Arrays

Finally, three dissimilar artifacts–an advertisement, an easel painting, an informational bookplate–unified by related approaches. Each of these pictures differentiates between items by constructing a tabular array of images, forms, items. Above, a fabulous illustration from a promotional brochure for the 1960 Dodge Polaris, plainly aimed at an audience of postwar wives (courtesy of the folks at Plan 59). Relevant aspects of the car are presented to The Missus. Has an internal combustion engine ever looked so clean and snappy? Uses the classical rhetorical device of amplification: an assembly of particulars to extend a general topic.

Next, Henri Matisse's famous Red Studio from 1911, a de-spaced selection of objects which retain their positions in a room otherwise flattened out of existence by high-keyed color.

Finally, a set of specimens from a book of English fossil finds; "Eocene Shells at Bracklesham" from The Geology and Fossils of the Tertiary and Cretaceous Formations of Sussex, by Frederick Dixon. 1850. This (and a thousand other printed pictorial excavations) at the wonderful blog Bibliodyssey. Like a stone wall built from tiny pebbles and varied rocks, mortared with negative space.

Spaced Out Cartography

Okay, another map. This one–a tip from Bob Flynn–is a National Geographic map of NASA missions from 1960 to the present. Above, a detail; below, an overview.

The project was a collaboration between illustrator Sean McNaughton at National Geographic and Samuel Velasco at 5W Infographics.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Maps and Information: Words & Pictures Part Two

Following up yesterday's post on maps, I offer a handful of image-driven representations of places, things and processes.

If I noticed anything in Monday's class meetings, it was a sense of deflation: "You mean, I'm supposed to show just what a [blank] is and what it looks like, how it works or what parts it has?" As if the problem of communicating, say, insecthood, were stupefyingly easy. As it turns out, such things are surprisingly difficult to do somewhat well, let alone authoritatively. Not all these samples are maps, strictly speaking, but we're not using the term in a narrow way. Each of these examples is relevant.

London to Dover road map (1801) a forerunner of the AAA Triptik, a fond memory from family car trips. Such maps capture the linear quality of traveling in a compartment. You get in, you go for awhile, you stop; you get out in a new environment. You don't navigate terrain on a highway. You proceed along a path established by engineers. From Tufte's Envisioning Information.

Also reproduced in Tufte: this illustration showing the parts and assembly of an IBM Series III copier, drawn by Gary Graham. 1976. I've pulled a detail. Affectless, elegant articulation.

The story of steam power, narrated in a paragraph but captured in a visual set of surprising variety and control. From Our Friend the Atom, a bookification of a Walt Disney film of the same name. 1956. A stunning reminder of midcentury comfort with, and admiration for, science. Mickey Mouse was a positivist with personality.

At the top of this post, a representation of molecular behavior in water at room temperature versus near the boiling point. What clarity, ease, and abstract presence for a straightforwardly informational picture! Also from Atom, 1956.

Two process images: Clam Respiration, by Elizabeth Buchsbaum for Animals Without Backbones, 1938. A genius of lucidity. I have written admiringly of her work before.

And above, Norman Rockwell does heredity. The Family Tree, 1959. The metamorphosis of "data" into anecdote–typically, the exact opposite of informational work.

Finally, the earliest printed medical illustration: a human skeleton printed in Nuremberg in 1493. A striking combination of a visual/typographic vocabulary we associate with religous works, offered in the service of scientific knowledge.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Maps and Information: Words & Pictures Part One

I am teaching a class called Word & Image 1 this fall with the excellently dry + smart graphic designer Heather Corcoran, a longtime colleague. Heather, a writer and designer for information, strategic and brand contexts, is a great teacher–I get a huge charge out of working with her. Our course stresses creative methodology and 2-dimensional design while also working on a diagnostic level to help students identify whether theirs is a more design-centric or image-centric approach to visual communication. (And yes, that pairing begs a few questions; no time to dwell on the vocabulary today.) Sometimes Heather and I run parallel projects, and sometimes we work together on a single one.

At the moment, we are working with students on a shared project: a Zoo System Map, which asks the group to construct a map (understood broadly) using the St. Louis Zoo as a source or a point of departure. The project sheet reads in part:

Like other zoos around the world, the Saint Louis Zoo is a complex place. You might think about it as a system made up of many smaller systems, visible and invisible. These systems organize animals, grounds, employees, and visitors. They include things that curators consider such as as taxonomies of animals and species, and
evolutionary systems. Systems also include things that visitors experience such as walking and train routes and stroller rental programs. There are systems for donor signage, food distribution, and animal health.

The project calls for an oversize printed project, greater than 10" x 16".

As the course title suggests, these maps will have to engage both words and images. Some will emphasize one more than another. Some will be more schematic than depictive; others will stress the pictorial.

As an aid to the group, we are using this space to provide a set of examples. This post will be devoted to the first set, curated and captioned by Ms. Corcoran. These represent a diverse set of maps, which include geographical, numerical and narrative information to varying degrees.

At the top of this post: Example 1. A Glimpse into our Carbon-Filled Future, Good Magazine. Ironic presentation of information; comfortable, friendly, almost childlike presentation belies negative predictions for the future. Note how each axis (x and y) are used; time is horizontal while emissions are vertical, moving from the ground up.

Example 2. Country by Country Abortion Laws, Good Magazine. Map functions partially as a table of information. Compression of geographic detail in favor of clear shapes that are easy for the eye to perceive and compare. Hue changes at each level, as does value.

(Note: I was unfamiliar with Good Magazine. Four of Heather's examples come from that publication, so I looked it up. The editorial statement reads as follows: "GOOD - a platform for people who want to do well by doing good. We stand as independent media in the form of a bold, visually stimulating magazine and website that blend wit and relevant information. We engage and challenge the people, ideas and institutions driving change in the world." The web-delivered infographic section is called Transparency.)

Example 3. Health Care Costs Vary Widely by Region, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Effective use of value to convey intensity of spending. (Posted to a useful blog about Information Design, Flowing Data.)

Example 4. On News, Good Magazine. Typographic solution; size of word conveys significance of topic in the headlines. Position of words in composition is random, but size and color are carefully controlled.

Example 5. The First Garden, Good Magazine. Geographic map using illustrative icons.

Example 6. The Sad Tally, designed by Todd Trumbull for the San Francisco Chronicle. Schematic map that combines geographic and other forms of data.