Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Pleasures of Lucidity

Purposive images perform work in several basic categories, including (but not limited to) persuasion, entertainment, and information. The least studied of these is the lattermost. Informational images lack the rhetorical flair of the persuasive and the dazzle of entertainment. But at their best they make up for these shortcomings with lucidity and a special form of communicative aplomb, even grace.

Our Word and Image 2 students are at work on a new round of projects, one of which is a museum display problem, which requires content development and design, including the use of images. I am working with students on this project, and have been trying for a week to get some time clear to develop a post on this subject for their benefit. Mostly I want to offer some clear examples for reflection. What is an informational picture?

In general, I’d argue that an informational picture exploits the cognitive transparency of seeing, the quick resort to identification and interpretation which we all a practice a thousand times a day. That is, I identify the yellow school bus just ahead and gently brake; I see the silhouetted man on the bathroom door and go in. I am trained to select these details from my visual field and act upon them. An informational image uses this cognitive habit to a communicative end, by subtracting or minimizing competing stimuli and holding up the crucial information for review. This requires the use of recognizable forms, in (say) rendered or silhouetted guises, often (but not always) in tabular or hieratic arrangements.

The chromolithograph below, an informational image that presents a variety of chicken breeds, appears in German encyclopedia from 1895. Discreet numerals are placed next to the birds and keyed to a list below. Overlapping and other spatial conventions are used to place the birds in a “real space.” But the spatial context provides no useful information, other than to convey the idea that the chickens are domesticated (not news) and that some are bigger than others (more important).

By contrast, consider this hieratic arrangement of dog breeds, which appears in a volume of the LIFE Nature Library, Evolution. This army of canines (each displayed in profile, like most but not all of the abovementioned chickens) is arrayed in columns and rows to communicate sequence and descendancy. (Is this a word? If ascendancy is a word, why can’t descendancy join the club? I claim the coinage of said mot if nobody’s beaten me to it.) That is, the dogs are there to tell a story of development. Each one is an integer in a progressive equation.

This detail shows that the illustrated dogs are solidly realized as drawings, even as they appear in a tabular context. The contrast is satisfying and informative.

Another more formalized image appears below. This spread represents an attempt to capture a process through shape, mostly silhouetted with some internal articulation. Note that the brown copy below is unintelligible, and the red copy is an instruction to the educators working on the project. This is a case in which the designer was leading the content development—the client had to catch up. This is from one of several books produced for the Monsanto-funded MySci Project, about which I have written in passing, but not in detail. The MySci teacher guides project was led by Heather Corcoran, with whom I am co-teaching the museum project.

All of the preceding images make use of color to varying degrees. In this age of cheap color and visual promiscuity of all sorts, it’s useful to look at examples that use the most restricted means possible: black lines on a white ground, without so much as a crappy halftone to make things easier.

Last summer I shared my total delight in this, the Best Book Cover Ever, as well as the Best Book Spine Ever. Both distinguished awards went to the same publication, Animals Without Backbones, published in 1938 with a revised edition in 1948 by the zoologist Ralph Buchsbaum. At the time I got my water-damaged copy of this book in an estate sale, I was quite taken by the informational illustrations inside. I have since discovered that Professor Buchsbaum was assisted in the preparation of his tome on the squishy and the spiny by his sister, Elizabeth Buchsbaum. The Professor lavishes significant praise on the various photographers who supplied images of glistening undersea woo but mentions his sister only in abbreviated terms. But as it turns out, Elizabeth was a genius of elucidation.

She articulates extremely complicated internal and external form with ease and grace, using nothing but variable line weight and a little stippling to establish surfaces, volume, and structures. This image of planaria worm as well as the hydra at the top of this post are magnificent. The hydra, particularly, astonishes because she is able to provide internal structural information in quite a bit of detail, even as she communicates the fact the animal in question is a floppy squirmy thing. The cutaway sections move along the volume of the curving arms. The planaria image below is remarkable for the graduated context provided by the progressive accumulation of anatomical detail, as well as the combination of the planar contours and volumetric tube-like passages. It's extraordinarily clear and economical.

She was obviously a printmaker, as her command of positive and negative graphic form is sure. Some of these chapter heads at least started out as relief cuts. The image of the marsh worker with the progression of a parasite lifecycle is amazingly concise: we get speciation, sequence, narrative, plus physical and cultural context in one black and white image.

Her grasshopper is handsome, too.

I can sympathize with the challenge—among the 50-odd animals I produced for my part of the MySci project was a grasshopper, here in the original gouache-painted form.

Below is a terrific example of written communication and illustration explaining a complicated thing very effectively by working together. The textual arrangment is somewhat old-fashioned—we might expect to see this in a little more sequential strip-like format today, but the clarity is undeniable.

Elizabeth Buchsbaum was born in 1909, and may have gone by the name of Elizabeth Newhall. I would like to know more about her. If anybody has any more information, I would like to hear from you. I think she is a surprisingly distinguished articulator of form for these purposes, and I bet she had a diverse and intriguing career.

Images: Elizabeth Buchsbaum, informational illustration, Hydra cutaway and gross exterior anatomy, from Animals Without Backbones [AWB], University of Chicago Press, 1938 and 1948 revised edition; chromolithograph, Chickens, from Meyer’s Lexikon, Liepzig, 1895; Sheldon Cotler, art director, The Genealogy of the Dog, in Evolution, by Ruth Moore, from the LIFE Nature Library, published 1962, revised 1971; Heather Corcoran (lead designer), animal life cycle spread, MySci curriculum guide design comprehensive, Plum Studio under arrangement with the Visual Communications Research Studio [VCRS], Washington University in St. Louis, 2005; Elizabeth Buchsbaum, Planaria worm morphology and selected internal anatomy and lead illustrations for Chapters 13 and 24, AWB, 1938; D.B. Dowd, Grasshopper, species illustration for MySci project, Ulcer City under arrangement with VCRS, 2005; Elizabeth Buchsbaum and Ralph Buchsbaum, Sequential Vacuole Illustration with Narrative, AWB, 1938.

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