Brain Pickings

How McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore Created a New Visual Vernacular for the Information Age

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The rise of the experimental paperback and how ‘typophotography’ paved the information superhighway.

One faithful day in 1965, the most monumental and legendary typo in media history took place: someone switched a letter in the title of what soon became an era-defining book by legendary media theorist Marshall McLuhan*, best known for coining the catchphrase “the medium is the message.” Thus The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects was born, thanks to a unintentional error most McLuhan biographers sweep under the carpet. But, the legend goes, once McLuhan saw the typo, he exclaimed, “Leave it alone! It’s great and right on target!” The title of the book was suddenly open to four possible interpretations — a play on “Message” and “Mess Age,” or “Massage and “Mass Age.” The book soon came to be referred to simply as Massage. But what is most curious — and least known — about it is that it was developed explicitly for young readers, relying on graphic materials to engage younger audiences with big-idea nonfiction. (Sound familiar?)

Massage, however, was part of a bigger and much more significant picture — it was one of eight books developed by Jerome Agel (1930-2007), a kind of transmedia, cross-disciplinary publishing puppeteer, who collaborated with trailblazing graphic designer Quentin Fiore to distill the complex and important ideas of thinkers like Buckminster Fuller, Carl Sagan, Herman Kahn, and Marshall McLuhan into digestible and viscerally absorbing narratives for the general-interest reader. These paperback books had a wholly novel visual vocabulary and a new way of entering the mass market as full-spectrum media events that, long before the days of sleek book trailers, boasted $100,000 publicity budgets.

The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan / Agel / Fiore and the Experimental Paperback tells the fascinating story of these collaborations and how they created a new media form “designed to put into popular form, or into more understandable form, some of the greatest ideas of our time.” Zooming in on the nine-year window of innovation in mass-market publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, Stanford Humanities Lab founder Jeffrey T. Schnapp peels away at the sociocultural and technological factors that gave rise of this bold new graphics-driven storytelling and transformed the paperback into a kind of stage and screen for “typographic pyrotechnics.” The promise of that story is a deeper understanding of contemporary visual culture, the convergence of highbrow and lowbrow, the vernacular of advertising, the dynamics of newspaper and magazine publishing, the creation of avant-garde mass culture, and a wealth in between.

The purpose of this inventory is to draw a circle around a body of objects; to take stock of their common properties; and to tell a story about where they came from, what they were, and where they led. Their variety is such as to sustain a multiplicity of narrative threads: about the rise of a new photo-driven graphic vernacular; about the triumph of a certain cognitive/cultural style; about criss-crossing between high and low, the erudite and the mass cultural; about the shifting boundaries between books, magazines, music, television, and film.”

Together, McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore engendered a sweeping shift in the filed of mass communication, whose impact still reverberates in the present wave of publishing disruption. But among the trio’s greatest feats was the radical reshuffling and remixing of traditional specialized silos, wherein writers write in solitude, editors edit against impossible deadlines, designers design with purely aesthetic concerns, and booksellers sell based on rigid categories engineered around a stale market. In the foreword, Adam Michaels observes the “pedagogical prejudices” that have created a chasm between education in design and education in writing:

Most educational superstructures ensure that the art student and the liberal arts student shall never meet. The alienation between text and image production is learned early on and reinforced by increased professionalization over the course of life.”

(For the ultimate testament to higher education’s failures to foster this cross-pollination of disciplines, look no further than Steve Jobs’ iconic 2005 Stanford commencement address, in which he recounts the serendipitous breach of this chasm that sparked the founding philosophy of Apple.)

McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore embraced “the book’s intrinsic strengths as a site for synthesis and surprise,” as Michaels eloquently puts it, and forged a visionary model in which the unconventional intertwining of form and content engaged audiences with new, almost cinematic modes of delivery.

Fiore also redefined the role of the designer as author** and pioneered a new visual genre that came to be known as “typophotography,” a neologism coined by media theorist László Moholy-Nagy to describe “the visually most exact rendering of communication,” an elastic new form of visceral storytelling. Steven Heller writes in the introduction:

[Fiore] strongly believed in experimentation and was not just attempting to navigate through McLuhan’s disjointed prognostications, sarcastically mocked by [critics]: he was actually attempting to construct what eventually evolved into a primitive iteration of ‘the information superhighway,’ using the paperback book as its bedrock foundation.”

As for Agel, what made him an exceptional visionary were his faceted interests. (Something Jackson Pollock’s dad would approve.)

Jerome Agel […] had a keen appreciation for photography and narrative as fine arts. But he was, first and foremost, a journalist equipped with a mile-a-minute, omnivorous mind and a genius for public relations.”

Agel and Fiore’s most celebrated graphic masterpiece was their 1970 collaboration with Buckminster Fuller, I Seem to Be a Verb: Environment and Man’s Future, which repeated the formula of Massage — a bold and highly visual distillation of big ideas for young people — with even greater precision.

Agel saw the book as part of show business and McLuhan was among the first to recognize the cultural significance of this paradigm shift. In the modern bible Understanding Media, he wrote of “the phenomenon of the paperback”:

[It is] the book in ‘cool’ version … transformation of book culture into something else… The paperback itself has become a vast mosaic world in depth, expressive of the changed sense-life of Americans, for whom depth experience in words, as in physics, has become entirely acceptable, and even sought after.”

A foretaste of the technique in question can be found in the September 1965 issue of Books, the front page of which led with 'The McLuhan Galaxy,' a montage of cartoons and quotations radiating outward from a book-slaying, television-antenna-crowned McLuhan. It was accompanied by a lengthy 'interview' that hails Understanding Media as the 'must read book in the country today' and implements what will later become the method of the McLuhan/Agel/Fiore inventorying of media effects: a sequence of quotations fired one after the other, interrupted only by questions -- 'why is everyone reading field Marshall McLuhan?' 'what the hell is going on?' 'OK, WHAT'S THE MESSAGE?' -- and designed to swarm the reader with information. In the interview's midst, Agel dutifully inserts McLuhan's call for the 'fresh air reeducation of book culture.'

Ultimately, The Electric Information Age Book is about what made this collaborative book innovation — which McLuhan called “the mosaic of instantaneous communication,” “the process rather than the complete product of discovery” — extraordinary at the time, but also about how it paved the way for the tectonic shifts happening in media today, with our customizable iEverything and highly visual neo-magazines a-la-Flipboard. Schnapp observes:

[These inventory books] all communicate some version of the following script to the reader: even if this book is ‘by’ a major thinker, you fill in the blanks, you connect the dots, you navigate the book forward or backward to find the tasty tidbits; look for the patterns, ideas, and story line yourself They tender the promise that, if you follow these instructions, in return, you will discover that not only is this ook about you, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your world, but also about how to make them yours.

* For more on McLuhan, see Douglas Coupland’s excellent almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, as well as this 1984 biographical TV segment on McLuhan by none other than Tom Wolfe.

** For a contemporary meditation on the evolving role of the designer as Internet futurist and entrepreneur, see Cameron Koczon’s necessary article, “An Important Time for Design.”

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