Wednesday, February 13, 2008

That Little Extra


Occasionally you see strikingly well-designed relief tiles on a humble warehouse and wonder, Wow, why did they invest such effort in something so straightforward? But you never wish they hadn’t. Extra care wears well. I’d put this 8th grade math book in the same category. It provides wonderfully well-fashioned page headers.


A little background: Iroquois Publishing (Syracuse, NY) produced educational texts for elementary through high school students on a range of basic subjects for approximately fifty years ending in 1960, when the company was purchased by Prentice-Hall. (TIME Magazine reported that “behind the rush to merge and diversify is the fact that sales of textbooks and encyclopedias have doubled since 1955... The aim [of such publishing mergers] is to get ready for the market looming in the '60s, during which total industry sales of textbooks seem likely to double…”) The beginnings of the boomer market! Now it’s all about retirement plans…


But when this book was designed, just after World War Two, the textbook price point called for a one-color solution throughout the book. These headers were designed to punctuate sections by using areas of black in order to contrast with the gray value of the typesetting below. These horizontal illustrations, which were probably produced by a staff designer, often have thematic content. “Checking your Progress” relies on a progression from the history of transportation to capture the idea of linear improvement. Clear, clever, and pleasurable. Who can fail to delight in this?

Reflect for a moment on what the equivalent visual prompt in a contemporary text would look like. If drawn, the image would likely be less formal: a faux-ingratiating “friendly” scrawl in an incompletely understood cartoon language would greet the viewer. The color would be all over the place—four hues? Five? And we’d probably be looking at heinous gradients, too, all because Photoshop makes complexity easy. And surely everyone knows that gratuitous complexity is an easy fix for a simple disaster.


This is a misleading joke, in certain respects. The stills above and below (from a UPA Gerald McBoingBoing short) betray a great deal of visual savvy in an attempt to communicate mind-boggling complexity--through the use of simple means. The production designer makes use of tight control of value and color and shape and line to create an apparently confusing image which is not, finally, confusing. Truly excessive complexity cannot be organized in a glance, even a long one. (Which is why all those dueling pie charts, cheese wheels, and fat arrows in powerpoint presentations make your ears bleed.)


In truth, the discipline imposed by restricted means makes people better. In the face of awkwardness or poorly resolved design, the only choice is to select another direction altogether, make significant changes to the first option, or dig in and refine and refine until the thing works.


The intersection of restricted technological means, economic limitation, and rigorous modern design thinking created a great deal of distinguished visual work in the middle third of the last century. For example:

To cite another among many


Not to mention


Finally, we are left to admire the anonymous wit and deft touch of the creator of these seemingly throwaway images. And we should all ponder the message of the header on page 507, which urges us forward earnestly, prudently:READ THINK WORK CHECK. This advice, if taken, comes in really handy when, for example, you are thinking about invading another country.


Imges: Illustrator uncredited, page headers and cover design, Patton and Young, Iroquois New Standard Arithmetics, Grade 8, Enlarged Edition...

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