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23 JULY, 2012

Cultural History Gem: Saul Bass’s Original Pitch for the Bell Systems Logo Redesign, 1969

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The greatest graphic designer of all time traces the evolution of consumer culture via the telephone.

For many of us, Saul Bass endures as the greatest graphic designer of all time and an unmatched master of the film title sequence. But Bass was also a keen branding savant, who helped shape the identities of clients as diverse as Continental Airlines, The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Minolta, Quaker Oats, Kleenex, and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

In 1969, Bass was tasked with reimagining the visual identity of the American Bell Telephone Company, commonly referred to as “Ma Bell,” in an effort to modernize the old-timey bell-and-circle logo by eliminating its datedness but preserving its comforting familiarity. This rare footage captures the full half-hour of Bass and his team’s original pitch to Bell, which envisioned an entire ecosystem of identity well beyond the logo — signage, print, outdoor, and even executive cufflinks. The pitch could well have been masterminded by Don Draper, itself a fascinating and layered piece of cultural history covering the evolution of consumerism through the story of the telephone and the larger context of changing social expectations.

We’re fighting a war. Making a peace. Integrating. Segregating. Getting richer. Getting poorer. It’s quite a time to be alive.

Business has its particular problems — young people refusing good jobs; investors are more influenced by publicity than performance; customers complaining about the finest products produced anywhere in the world….Many of us here today remember when it was quite different. The pursuit of happiness had ground to a halt. Survival was the goal — just to have a job, but to have a job with security: That was the prize in 1933. How long a product lasted was more important than how well it looked. Wall Street had forgotten blue sky and was now talking blue chip. Down-to-earth, safe — that was the place to be.

[…]

How a thing looks today is as important as how well it works. As never before, people are influenced by what they see.

In 1983, after the breakup of Bell Systems, Bass also designed the famous AT&T “globe” logo, which AT&T didn’t update until 2005. (And, many have said, never should have.)

For a glimpse of how logo design has changed since the age of Bass, see this fantastic recent PBS Off Book micro-documentary, featuring Brain Pickings favorites Kelli Anderson and Steven Heller, complete with a Curator’s Code mention:

[A logo] is informed and reinforced by the things we see every day, and it’s important to acknowledge that entire invisible vocabulary.” ~ Kelli Anderson

For the ultimate Bass gold, don’t miss the indispensable Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design, one of the best art and design books of 2011 and quite possibly among the best of all time.

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20 JULY, 2012

Susan Sontag on Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom

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“Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking.”

In devouring the newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), I came across two passages addressing something that concerns me daily — the reckless reduction of complex ideas into sticky soundbites and catchphrases, a practice that in the three decades since Sontag’s writings has become not merely an accepted cultural standard, but a profitable business model in the “ideas economy.” Under such commodification of thought, after a while, all these bite-sized ideas begin to sound, look and, eventually, act the same.

In an entry dated April 26, 1980, Sontag offers a short but brilliant meditation on aphorisms — the ultimate soundbitification of thinking:

Aphorisms are rogue ideas.

Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.

To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority. Which, in one great tradition, conceals (shapes) the aphorist’s secret pursuit of spiritual salvation. The paradoxes of salvation. We know at the end, when the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.

Then, ten days later, on May 6, she continues:

With the (1943) epigraph of Canetti. ‘The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other very well.’

One wonders why. Can it be that the literature of aphorisms teaches us the sameness of wisdom (as anthropology teaches us the diversity of culture)? The wisdom of pessimism. Or should we rather conclude that the form of the aphorism, of abbreviated or condensed or rogue thought, is a historically-colored voice which, when adopted, inevitably suggests certain attitudes; is the vehicle of a common thematics?

The traditional thematics of the aphorist: the hypocrisies of societies, the vanities of human wishes, the shallowness + deviousness of women; the sham of love; the pleasures (and necessity) of solitude; + the intricacies of one’s own thought processes.

[…]

Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking: by its very brevity or concentratedness, it presupposes a superior standard …

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is a remarkable read in its entirety. Sample it further with Sontag on writing, sex, boredom, and censorship, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated wisdom on art and on love.

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20 JULY, 2012

Good Morning, Mr. Orwell: John Cage, George Plimpton, and the World’s First Satellite “Installation”

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Countering George Orwell’s dystopian vision with improvisational music and experimental art.

In a comment on the recent celebration of John Cage’s creative legacy, a reader flags this superb segment from the 1984 TV special Good Morning, Mr. Orwell — the first international satellite “installation” by South-Korean-born American artist Nam Jun Paik, a conceptual rebuttal to George Orwell’s famous 1984. Besides Cage’s improvisational performance “playing” cacti and other plants with a feather, an antecedent of more recent experiments with unusual instruments, we hear from legendary Paris Review co-founder and editor George Plimpton, who hosted the show.

It’s been said that listening to John Cage’s music is like chewing sand.” ~ George Plimpton

For more on the famous Cageian magic, don’t miss the recent gem Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.

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20 JULY, 2012

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

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How the economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception.

I like to believe the role of public media — of good public media, at least — is to frame for people what matters in the world and why. E. B. White, ever the idealist, famously said that the role of the writer should be “to lift people up, not lower them down” because “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” But the currencies of what’s essentially a question of motive change dramatically when public media become big business, and the kind of life they inform and shape can become a gross and dangerous aberration of reality, of what really matters from a humanistic perspective. Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (public library) by Ryan Holiday lives somewhere between The Influencing Machine, The Filter Bubble, and The Information Diet, exploring precisely what happens when these motives become business motives and not motives of civic responsibility. And Holiday should know — former media strategist for clients of Dov Charney’s notoriety and current marketing director of American Apparel, the college-dropout-turned-communications-mastermind has been, as he puts it, “paid to deceive” on behalf of world-famous authors, musicians, movie moguls, and politicians alike.

Holiday proudly professes:

Usually, it is a simple hustle. Someone pays me, I manufacture a story for them, and we trade it up the chain — from a tiny blog to Gawker to a website of a local news network to the Huffington Post to the major newspapers to cable news and back again, until the unreal becomes real. Sometimes I start by planting a story. Sometimes I put out a press release or ask a friend to break a story on their blog. Sometimes I ‘leak’ a document. Sometimes I fabricate a document and leak that. Really, it can be anything, from vandalizing a Wikipedia page to producing an expensive viral video. However the play starts, the end is the same: The economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception — and sell product.

If it sounds appalling and revolting and like the end of the free press, it’s because it is — but lest we forget, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator is also a product, and if selling it requires a calculated maneuver of scandalization, then it’s both fair game and meta-commentary on the very system within which Holiday plays.

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