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Links to articles I’ve written for Smashing Magazine:

Five Principles For Choosing and Using Typefaces »

Clichés and Idea Generation »

A Social History of Jamaican Album Covers »



The following are a few design-related posts from my blog:

Futurism and the Musee Mechanique

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, when F.T. Marinetti (the self-proclaimed ‘most modern man in Europe’ at the time) introduced his cult of dynamism to the world through a combination of incendiary rhetoric, genius publicity stunts and Fascist agitating. The Futurists were fascinated by speed, technology, war, Mussollini, masculinity, action and loud noise; they were contemptuous of civility, history, culture, women, and everything else they associated with polite society and the existing status quo. The only avant-garde art movement I’m aware of with a strong right-wing orientation, Futurism remains weirdly alluring and seriously off-putting.

As Futurists were obsessed with the dynamics of the early machine age, I had the idea a few years ago to illustrate their manifesto with photos taken from San Francisco’s Musee Mecanique, a highly-enjoyable collection of antique arcade machines. The common link is that both the Manifesto and the MM collection show the imaginative possibilities of the early machine age, and both produce results that are both appealing and monstrous. I printed a few copies of this as accordion-folds.










Student project, 2004. Self-published as an accordion-fold edition of 12.


Mad Men and Doyle Dane Bernbach

Believe it or not, I’ve just started watching Mad Men. I’m all the way back at Season 1, Episode 4– so far behind that I can read TK’s posts on the current episodes without spoiling anything for myself as the plot has moved on to completely alien terrain from what I’m familiar with.

I was delighted to see Episode 3 open with Don Draper looking at the Volkswagen ‘Think Small’ ad— a campaign that changed advertising to the degree that I show it to my graphic design history students— and thought that the campaign was cleverly used in the episode to amplify some of the larger points of the show. I should hedge this last comment by saying that I haven’t really seen enough of the show to weigh in authoritatively yet on what the larger themes of the show actually are, but so far I take it as a snapshot of the last days of trying to have a top-down, hierarchical society in America before pluralism stepped in and turned everything on its head. If you accept that as an underlying theme of Mad Men, you can definitely say that the appearance of Doyle Dane Bernbach– the agency behind the VW campaign– marked a tipping point in the real-life narrative.

Doyle Dane Bernbach opened its doors in 1949 and became known for its determination to ‘take the exclamation point out of advertising’– meaning, among other things, less nuptial script, grinning Stepford wives and long-winded copy stuffed full with promises (1940s ads were really, really long on copy). By the early 1960s, removing the exclamation point had become imperative: the murmurs of a civil rights movement and engagement in Vietnam increased the public’s appetite for real reportage and decreased its tolerance for Eisenhower-era fluff. TV revenues, meanwhile, had cut into magazine revenues to the point that budgets and physical formats were smaller, meaning the exclamation points couldn’t ever be as large or glamorous again as they had been in the past. Finally, I imagine that TV, by the nature of its very medium, probably inspired a move towards intelligent advertising: in print, you can keep making the same corny over-promises over and over again and never get called on it. But, in the world of TV, you have to have an actual live person making these claims (‘gum that cleans and straightens your teeth!’). I’m guessing that the humiliation gleaned from this experience- for all parties involved- partly inspired a move towards more intelligent advertising on some psychological level.

DDB was the first agency of note to try selling stuff by leveling with the audience and appealing to its intelligence. The ‘Think Small’ ad spoke directly to a potential product liability and used a white space in a surprising way to stand apart from the crowd:

Subsequent ads in the campaign– which I just noticed was voted best of the century by something called– included the car with a caption ‘Lemon’:

… and a play on the homeliness of the lunar module:

I loved the verdict delivered in the Mad Men episode, where all the characters basically dump on it (‘They only used a half-page ad for a full-page buy… you can’t even see the product!’) but then Draper points out, ‘Love it or hate it, we’ve been talking about it now for 20 minutes’.

The corporate structure in Mad Men was also typical of most ad agencies of the day: as is shown several times in the first few episodes, account execs and writers develop the concept, then hand it off to the art department which is responsible for bringing it to life without any creative input. Again: top-down, hierarchical. DDB pioneered what became known as the ‘creative revolution’, where project teams including an art director and writer would brainstorm together to develop the idea, effectively forcing a synergistic relationship between word and image.

My favorite DDB campaign is one they did for Levy’s, an account they had held for several years without highlighting the ethnic angle until this poster appeared in subways in 1961:

Update: for serious type nerds, reader MM passes on this typo analysis of Mad Men from Mark Simonson’s blog.


The Longhairs of Weimar

Before there was the band Bauhaus, there was the Bauhaus Band:

In the documentary Bauhaus: The Face of the 20th Century, former student Kurt Kranz talks about the school band and student life there:

“The Bauhaus Band was a sort of cross between Dixieland and… let’s say, something partly inspired by Hindemith and his electric piano. When we dared to go out onto the streets– especially the girl weavers who wore trousers– there was always uproar. “Impossible!” people would say. When we came along with ponytails, mothers warned daughters ‘Don’t look! They’re from the Bauhaus!’ We were the punks of Dessau!”

The thing that really interested me about this documentary– which I just showed to my design history students– is the revelation that, along with all the endlessly-touted contributions that the school made to our architecture and interior design ( ‘Our cities it turned into rather mechanical machines, and turned our interiors into rather nice, simplifed kitchen-like instruments’ as one talking head nicely summarizes), it also created a fixture in our social landscape: the ragtag student radical. The basic elements of Kranz vignette– ponytails, androgyny, spontaneous happenings and pranks, horrified middle-class on-lookers– all sound like staples of the early 60s, but the microcosm Kranz describes happened 30 years earlier.

In a culturally chauvinistic way, I tend to assume that there was something genteel and restrained about college life the world over until the early 60s when – poof! – the student radical suddenly emerges on the American college campus on the strength of demographic factors, post-war prosperity, the social protest movements of the 60s and everything else. But, in a ‘winners write the history books’-type way, I tend to forget that the atmosphere in Germany between the wars was more politically galvanizing than anything the U.S. has ever experienced– I mean, you had a short-lived communist coup AND a fascist takeover within 14 years, and all centered around the city of Weimar where the first incarnation of the school was headquartered. Plus, the Bauhaus preached all the the free-thinking ideas– question everything, knock down gender roles, etc– that we associate with the liberal campus environment.

There’s also a nice bit about Johannes Itten, the mysterious instructor who taught a foundation course that hugely shaped the spirit of the school for its entire lifespan. You always read about Itten being a bit of a weirdo, but I hadn’t realized that he was a full-blown mystic who opened classes with chanting and dabbled in Zoroastrianism:

World’s oldest religion, baby!

Also, there’s an interesting discussion of the Nazis’ contradictory attitudes to avant-garde design– on the one hand, they persecuted the Bauhaus teachers and students and promoted a pretentiously rusticated style of furniture design. But this opposition was mainly for show– the director briefly summons an entertaining photo of Hitler lounging in a tubular steel chair as evidence of their basic hypocrisy:


Lifestyles of the Undead

One of my dissertation students turned in a nice paper on the role of graphic design in the health care industry, which was a good choice of topic. It also allowed for a brief and compelling glimpse into the history of anatomical drawing in the 16th and 17th centuries, a genre that manages to be awesomely whimsical and morbidly realistic by turns. Some of this stuff I’d run across before (usually in the context of samples of copperplate engraving), other examples were totally new to me.

These are culled from both her dissertation and my design history lectures:

Juan Valverde de Amusco, Anatomia Del Corpo Humano. A cadaver gallantly cuts off his own skin to show us the musculature underneath. The anatomical artists of this period liked to show their subjects engaged in goofy, fanciful activities in order to demonstrate a particular angle or aspect of the body.

Andreas Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica. A great spread, in which the skeleton on the left appears to mull over human mortality while the one on the right seems to be having a full-blown weeping fit. It’s a wonder nobody has yet produced a modern satire/update of this where skeletons are shown in various poses of hipster malaise, tapping on their iPads and naming their children Atticus and Rimbaud.

My favorite from De Humani Corporis Fabrica. One annotation I found claimed that this pose references an expression that saints and Jesus were often shown in, looking upwards to heaven. Whatever. With the spade and Idaho-like surroundings, it really looks to me like an exasperated ‘Aaaagh, fer cryin’ out loud!‘ gesture. I just love it.

Ok, that was fun. Now for some more gruesome stuff…

Again from De Humani Corporis Fabrica. This time, our lanky friend has been hanged from a rope in order to reveal his esophagus. The thing that looks like a manta ray stuck on the wall to his right? Good news: that’s his abdominal diaphragm, fully removed from his body.

Govard Bidloo, Ontleding Des Menschelyken Lichaams. Hands with disconnected flowing tendons and feet with horrible pokey things stuck through them. I guess you couldn’t properly grasp anatomy without these flourishes? Let’s hope so…

William Hunter, Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus. Whoa.

Just to end the post on a more upbeat note…

Fritz Kahn, Der Mensch als Industrieplast (Man as the Industrial Palace). Poster from 1926 visualizing the human digestive system as a chemical factory. Unlike De Humani Corporis Fabrica, this one did get an awesome modern update treatment by Fernando Vicente:


The Midget Folio

This is a book I once saw in the rare books room of the San Francisco Library called Quads Within Quads. It was published by an oddball British printer named Andrew W. Tuer in 1884 and contains a collection of jokes about printing.

The jokes about printing that I am capable of understanding are generally pretty corny and hard to explain and not really worth the effort of explaining anyway. Take, for example, the left-hand page pictured below: you see a caption THE NEW STEAM COMPOSITOR under a robotic figure of someone standing at a weird kind of table. The joke is that steam-powered presses had been introduced earlier in the century to speed up the printing process; compositing, meanwhile, was the thankless task of assembling metal type by hand (thus, the weird table which held the type); therefore, one expects to see some sort of newly-invented machine that automates the task of compositing but instead sees a compositing automaton. Get it? No? OK, let’s just move on…

The great thing about Quads Within Quads is that it was printed with a square section cut out from the middle pages, like where you might hide a bottle of whiskey or a roll of microfilm. So, what’s placed in the cut-away square section? A miniaturized version of the same book. Apparently, this is called a ‘midget folio’ (when you produce a mini-version of a larger book). I was a little disappointed to learn that the miniaturized version does not itself contain an even smaller version, and so on and so forth like Russian dolls.

Quads Within Quads


Top photo: both versions together. Lower photo: zoom-in on midget folio.

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