Brain Pickings

Grim Colberty Tales: Maurice Sendak’s Last Video Appearance

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“I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

The world is a little dimmer this week at the news that Maurice Sendak has died at the age of 83, he who gave us such cultural treasures as Where The Wild Things Are and such hidden gems as these little-known Velveteen Rabbit illustrations. It is perhaps some kind of cosmic joke that this week also marks the release of Stephen Colbert’s first children’s book, I Am A Pole (And So Can You!), which features possibly the best book blurb of all time, by none other than Sendak himself:

The sad thing is, I like it.

In this two-part interview titled Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak, recorded in January 2012, Sendak makes his last known video appearance and banters with Colbert, lucid and wryly witty as ever, about everything from the state of children’s literature today to the free market to being gay.

COLBERT: Why do you write for children?

SENDAK: I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’ I didn’t set out to make children happy or make life better for them, or easier for them.

COLBERT: Do you like them?

SENDAK: I like them as few and far between as I do adults — maybe a bit more, because I really don’t like adults at all.

Maurice Sendak (left) and Stephen Colbert draw a pole. Sendak's drawing, true to his signature wit, depicts a Polish woman holding a pole.

In the second part, Colbert reads from I Am A Pole (And So Can You!) and gets a drawing lesson from Sendak.

COLBERT: What does it take for a celebrity to make a successful (children’s) book, what do I gotta do?

SENDAK: You’ve started already by being an idiot. That is the very first demand.

Top photo via MSNBC

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Carl Sagan on Books

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How to reach across the millennia and access magic.

The love of books and the advocacy of reading are running themes around here, as is the love of Carl Sagan. Naturally, this excerpt from the 11th episode of his legendary 1980s Cosmos series, titled “The Persistence of Memory,” is making my heart sing in more ways than the universe can hold:

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

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100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design

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From visual puns to the grid, or what Edward Tufte has to do with the invention of the fine print.

Design history books abound, but they tend to be organized by chronology and focused on concrete -isms. From publisher Laurence King, who brought us the epic Saul Bass monograph, and the prolific design writer Steven Heller with design critic Veronique Vienne comes 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design — a thoughtfully curated inventory of abstract concepts that defined and shaped the art and craft of graphic design, each illustrated with exemplary images and historical context.

From concepts like manifestos (#25), pictograms (#45), propaganda (#22), found typography (#38), and the Dieter-Rams-coined philosophy that “less is more” (#73) to favorite creators like Alex Steinweiss, Noma Bar, Saul Bass, Paula Scher, and Stefan Sagmeister, the sum of these carefully constructed parts amounts to an astute lens not only on what design is and does, but also on what it should be and do.

Idea # 16: METAPHORIC LETTERING

Trying to Look Good Limits My Life (2004), part of Stefan Sagmeister’s typographic project '20 Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far.' Words are formed from natural and industrial materials and composed in situ.

Idea # 83: PSYCHEDELIA

Gebrauchsgraphik (1968). The youth style influenced by drugs and rock and roll quickly became a commercial visual vocabulary. Founded in San Francisco, this German version smoothed out some of the rough edges.

Idea # 31: RED WITH BLACK

A Season in Hell (1944), a black-and-red assemblage of stark and wobbly forms characteristic of Alvin Lustig’s highly abstract visual vocabulary, is a graphic equivalent of the tormented prose of poet Arthur Rimbaud.

Heller and Vienne write in the introduction:

[Big ideas] are notions, conceptions, inventions, and inspirations — formal, pragmatic, and conceptual — that have been employed by graphic designers to enhance all genres of visual communication. These ideas have become, through synthesis and continual application, the ambient language(s) of graphic design. They constitute the technological, philosophical, forma, and aesthetic constructs of graphic design.

Idea # 19: VISUAL PUNS

Gun Crime (2010), illustrated by Noma Bar, is a commentary on the tragic toll of gun-related violence in the UK. The trigger serves as the mechanism and outcome of gun attacks.

Idea # 17: PASTICHE

Chez Panisse Second Birthday Celebration (1973), a poster designed by David Lance Goines in an homage to the Jugendstil style of the Vienna Workshops and Vienna Secession movement.

Idea # 80: TEEN MAGAZINES

Teenagers Ingenue (1962) capitalized on the developing female teenage commercial market for fashion, cosmetics, and other beauty aids. Teens were now treated as young adults.

Idea # 35: EXPRESSION OF SPEED

Rainboeing the Skies (1971), an ad introducing the new Boeing 747 to El Al Israeli Airlines by graphic designer Dan Reisinger. This iconic image is at the center of an Internet controversy, with some claiming that it was in fact an Air Canada poster.

Idea # 25: MANIFESTOS

First Things First (1964), published by British designer Ken Garland, who intended to radicalize the design practice that was fast becoming a subset of advertising. In 2000 an updated version was printed in cutting-edge magazines including Adbusters, Emigré, Items, and Eye.

Idea # 38: FOUND TYPOGRAPHY

Alphabet with Tools (1977), by Mervyn Kurlansky, takes everyday objects found in homes and workshops and transforms them into the letters of the Western alphabet.

From how rub-on lettering democratized design by fueling the DIY movement and engaging people who knew nothing about typography to how the concept of the “teenager” was invented after World War II as a new market for advertisers, many of the ideas are mother-of-invention parables. Together, they converge into a cohesive meditation on the fundamental mechanism of graphic design — to draw a narrative with a point of view, and then construct that narrative through the design process and experience.

Idea # 15: ENTREPRENEURSHIP

A Catalog of Roycroft Books (1905?), designed at the Roycroft workshop in East Aurora, New York. Influenced by William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement, Elbert Hubbard established a crafts colony that sold books, textiles, and other products.

Idea # 48: TRIANGULATION

The Best of Jazz (1979), a typographical masterpiece by Paula Scher, was done when she was discovering Aleksander Rodchenko and El Lissitsky. She recalls her work being acclaimed as 'new wave' and 'postmodern' when in fact it was a private homage to the pioneers of the Russian avant garde.

Idea # 37: DUST JACKETS

Ulysses (1934), hand-lettered and designed by Ernst Reichl, was said to be influenced by the paintings of Piet Mondrian.

Idea # 66: PUBLIC SERVICE CAMPAIGNS

Give a Hand to Wild Life (2008), by Saatchi & Saatchi Simko agency in Geneva, is a series of clever and beautiful photographs of human hands camouflaged as wild animals by bodypainter Guido Daniele.

On the latest episode of Debbie Millman’s invariably excellent Design Matters podcast, Heller talks about the process and rationale behind 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design:

History, as we all know, is written by the survivors. And there are certain historical facts that never get covered. And, in graphic design, it’s fascinating how many things don’t get covered until somebody uncovers them.

Images courtesy of Laurence King

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