Sunday, January 29, 2012

Perilous "Fun Facts"

Back in the classroom, leading a project in informational illustration in Word & Image 2. I debuted this project last year. I wrote then that I had assigned a "dream project": design-slash-illustrate a pictorial display to accompany an explanation of a scientific concept to young people. I say dream project because it combines picture-making with serious visual thinking: from my perspective, fun as can be.

The given texts appear in The Question and Answer Book of Everyday Science, by Ruth A. Sonneborn with illustrations by Robert J. Lee. (Random House, 1961.) I love this stuff. As shown below, the example demonstrates clarity, using a plastic arrangement of pictorial content and well-chosen labels to get the material across. If you want to read the text that accompanies this image, the post I wrote then provides it.

But we don't always get great texts, or useful assignments.

I spent some time looking around in my surprisingly large collection of books with explanatory illustration. Many of them were written in the decades following World War Two, when a) publishers saw an expanding educational market b) science enjoyed tremendous prestige, and c) modernist graphic design and illustration styles adapted to convey informational content. Lots of very snappy diagrammatic explanations of jet engines.

For some reason I was unable to find a really good example at the time I needed it. The disarray in my studio may have played a part here. And my copy of Our Friend the Atom (Disney, 1957, a companion to a film of the same name) was back at my office, which certainly would have sufficed.

So I went to the bookshelf and pulled out a random volume of the 1964 World Book Encyclopedia (issued just as the fifties really ended, when the Beatles showed up).

I picked H, and began flipping through it. I landed on a long article addressing the human heart (the organ, not the symbol of sentiment). In terms of visual range, the page spread devoted to Wonders of the Heart seemed promising, at least initially. Some comparative cross-sections delivered useful information.

The black-and-white halftone images plus the red-and-blue spot color capture a period style. The content is not simple stuff. I can say so, having worked on a cardiac education project; explaining how a heart works is a great deal more complicated than one might think.

But the more I looked at that World Book spread, the dopier it got. First, the conceit of the page is a giveaway that we're headed for distraction. The Wonders of the Heart serves up the heinous Fun Fact Fallacy. Pointlessly colorful statements of fact do not aid, focus or deepen our understanding. Explanations of how a thing works or why it matters will rise and fall on the quality of the writing and the art direction in the service of that content. Being told that a human being's blood vessels laid end to end would go from New York to Sydney and back five times (five times!!) accomplishes very little. Okay, so there are a lot of them. And they cover a lot of ground. But what's the difference between saying five time or two times? Round trip from New York to Sydney is a long freaking way. So twice (two times!!) sounds like really a lot. But we're talking, in that case, of a 150 percent error. What is the point? Really a lot versus really really really a lot?

How does a picture of a Valentine's Day heart holding up a tank car add to my understanding? Why not a box car? Why not seventeen elephants? And how is the fact that a tank car holds liquid relevant? Is there blood in the tank? Are we talking industrial vampirism? Why doesn't the heart have biceps, or eyeballs, or an antic personality?

Seriously? Clockwise from three o'clock? And milk bottles? The vampire thing is out of control at this point.

A quivering, meaty old heart in a dish that sends–wait–radio signals across deep time?

So it's dopey. But it's not the illustrator/designer's fault. The content itself is faulty; you can't punch it up into anything useful.

So back to the project at hand for our Word and Image 2 students. Please suppress all urges to come up with, then decorate, fun facts.

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