Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

10 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Memory of an Elephant: A Most Unusual Children’s Book for Lovers of Mid-Century Modern Design


An immeasurable treat for kids and introspective grownups alike.

Psychologists believe that our capacity for creative work hinges on our memory and the ability to draw on our mental catalog of remembered experiences and ideas. More than that, memory is our lifeline to our own selves. Indeed, can there be anything more central to identity than memory?

The Memory of an Elephant: An Unforgettable Journey (public library) is a most unusual picture-book by writer Sophie Strady and illustrator Jean-François Martin. Unusual not because it measures an impressive 15 inches in height — though that alone makes it a kind of enchanting narrative poster — but because it blends the fascination of encyclopedic curiosity with deep questions about memory, identity, and what makes a life worthwhile.

Marcel is a soulful old elephant who sets out to write an encyclopedia as his legacy. Having seen the Eiffel Tower built in 1889 and the first iMac introduced in 1998, and having filled the century between with a long lifetime of adventures and successes of his own, he undertakes “the enormous task of listing — in an enormous, illustrated encyclopedia — everything he’s learned throughout his long and exceptional life.”

But just as he is about to begin looking back on his many years and drawing on his vast memory-bank of knowledge, he finds his living room — his dedicated environment essential for writing, charmingly populated by iconic mid-century modern furniture and some unmistakable Eames designs — flooded with “a mountain of parcels wrapped in bright and patterned paper,” surprise birthday presents from his friends.

As he opens each package and plays with the present inside, the double meaning of the word “present” reveals itself. Marcel is transported to his past and the many lives compressed into his long and accomplished existence — his days as a world-famous musician, his stint as a sailor, his sabbatical in Vietnam, his time tending to the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens, his accidental participation in France’s historic Mai 1968 worker strikes and civil unrest.

Marcel comes upon the last unopened package, a large cardboard tube. Inside, he finds a poster that reads: “In May, we’ll have our way.” As he begins to ponder the strange time-travel quality of what sounds like a political slogan from the 1968 riots, he suddenly realizes it is actually May 1, the date of his birthday. Just then, his friends emerge from behind his elegant furniture for a proper birthday surprise.

Everyone has been waiting for the old elephant to open not only his presents, but the doors of his memory.

The main story is peppered with curious encyclopedic asides both about elements of Marcel’s memories, from music to technology, and about elephants themselves — we learn that an elephant sleeps very little at night, “usually standing, always on alert,” and takes standing naps throughout the day; that an adult elephant needs to drink 30 gallons of water a day and eat between 220 and 440 pounds of food depending on the season; that an elephant can’t jump and must have one foot on the ground at all times; that despite an enormous weight of about five tons, an elephant makes no noise while walking.

The Memory of an Elephant: An Unforgettable Journey is immeasurably delightful from cover to giant cover, a warmhearted story sprinkled with subtle surprises for young readers and grownup design-lovers alike.

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19 AUGUST, 2014

Thoughts on Design: Paul Rand on Beauty, Simplicity, the Power of Symbols, and Why Idealism Is Essential in Creative Work


“Catering to bad taste, which we so readily attribute to the average reader, merely perpetuates that mediocrity.”

Paul’s a gem [who] works on perfecting the exterior of a curmudgeon,” Steve Jobs reminisced about working with legendary art director and graphic designer Paul Rand (1914–1996), adding, “He’s perfected it to new heights, actually.” Indeed, Rand is remembered as much for being one of the most significant visual communicators and commercial artists in history as he is for his famous grouchiness — a fact that renders his little-known vintage children’s books a doubly intriguing paradoxical curiosity. And yet they bespeak what Jobs said of Rand in the same 1993 interview: “He’s a very deep, thoughtful person who’s tried to express in every part of his life what his principles are. And you don’t meet so many people like that today.”

At the age of only thirty-three, Rand collected these uncompromising principles and his rare brand of idealism in the influential 1947 volume Thoughts on Design (public library), which has been newly resurrected after decades in the morgue of out-of-print gems.

Rand on a poster for Apple's 'Think Different' campaign in 1998

In the preface to the new edition, Pentagram’s Michael Bierut calls the celebrated volume “a manifesto, a call to arms and a ringing definition of what makes good design good.” Bierut describes it in terms that call to mind precisely those paradoxical children’s books — “almost as simple as a child’s storybook: short, clear sentences; vivid, playful illustrations” — suggesting the complete integration of Rand’s sensibility across all of his work and his unflinching clarity of vision. Rand himself once wrote of the book that its original intention was to “demonstrate the validity of those principles which, by and large, have guided artists (designers) since the time of Polycletus. And, indeed, there is remarkable timelessness to his convictions:

Visual communications of any kind … should be seen as the embodiment of form and function: the integration of the beautiful and the useful.


Ideally, beauty and utility are mutually generative.

And yet, Rand maintains, the integration of the two is at its highest, most potent form when it springs from the creator’s singular, unadulterated sensibility. Decades before crowdsourcing reached buzzword status, he admonished against the basic ethos behind it:

The system that regards esthetics as irrelevant, which separates the artist from his product, which fragments the work of the individual, which creates by committee, and which makes mincemeat of the creative process will, in the long run, diminish not only the product but the maker as well.

Cover design by Paul Rand, 1958

Rand emphasizes the fruitful combination of cross-disciplinary curiosity, technical knowledge, and intuition in the creative problem-solving process:

To achieve an effective solution to his problem, the designer must necessarily go through some sort of mental process. Conscious or not, he analyzes, interprets, formulates. He is aware of the scientific and technological developments in his own and kindred fields. He improvises, invents, or discovers new techniques and combinations. He co-ordinates and integrates his material so that he may restate his problem in terms of ideas, signs, symbols, pictures. He unifies, simplifies, and eliminates superfluities. He symbolizes — abstracts from his material by association and analogy. He intensifies and reinforces his symbol with appropriate accessories to achieve clarity and interest. He draws upon instinct and intuition. He considers the spectator, his feelings and predilections.

In fact, having come of age as Carl Jung was pioneering the role of symbols as a gateway to the unconscious, Rand made this mastery of symbolism a central tenet in his own teachings:

It is in a world of symbols that man lives. The symbol is thus the common language between artist and spectator.


The fact that some of the best symbols are simplified images merely points to the effectiveness of simplicity but not to the meaning of the word per se. In essence, it is not what it looks like but what it does that defines a symbol.

Magazine cover by Paul Rand, 1954

“Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures,” Mary Oliver wrote of poetry. Rand advocates for the artful use of repetition as kind of rhythm that imbues design and visual communication with the same powerful pleasure:

The emotional force generated by the repetition of words or pictures and the visual possibilities (as a means of creating texture, movement, rhythm, indicating equivalences for time and space) should not be minimized…

The following are but a few instances of our everyday experiences in which the magical, almost hypnotic, effects of repetition operate: the exciting spectacle of marching soldiers, in the same dress, same step, and same attitude; the fascination of neatly arranged flower beds of like color, structure, and texture; the impressive sight of crowds at football games, theaters, public demonstrations; the satisfaction we derive from the geometric patterns created by ballet dancers and chorus girls with identical costumes and movements; the feeling of order evoked by rows of methodically placed packages on the grocer’s shelf; the comforting effect of the regularity of repeat patterns in textiles and wallpapers; the excitement we experience at the sight of plane formations or birds in flight.

Package design for IBM, 1956

Decades before the listicle era, Rand makes a special case for the use of numbers as a catalyst of rhythm in communication:

[Numbers] impart to a printed piece a sense of rhythm and immediacy.

(Cue in Umberto Eco on lists and Susan Sontag on why they appeal to us.)

But while rhythm might excite the emotions, he argues that symmetry — a phenomenon that permeates our world — dulls them:

Bilateral symmetry offers the spectator too simple and too obvious a statement. it offers him little or no intellectual pleasure, no challenge. For the pleasure derived from observing asymmetric arrangements lies partly in overcoming resistances which, consciously or not, the spectator has in his own mind, thus acquiring some sort of esthetic satisfaction.

Rand’s most timeless wisdom, however, has to do not with the techniques and tropes of visual communication but with his higher-order idealism — the deeper moral motives and responsibilities of the creator. What E.B. White famously proclaimed of the writer’s responsibility, Rand asserts of the designer’s:

Even if it is true that the average man seems most comfortable with the commonplace and familiar, it is equally true that catering to bad taste, which we so readily attribute to the average reader, merely perpetuates that mediocrity and denies the reader one of the most easily accessible means for esthetic development and eventual enjoyment.

Complement Thoughts on Design with Rand on the role of the imagination, then revisit the wonderful vintage picture-books he created with his then-wife Ann.

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17 JULY, 2014

The Book of Trees: 800 Years of Visualizing Science, Religion, and Knowledge in Symbolic Diagrams


How the humble tree became our most powerful visual metaphor for organizing information and distilling our understanding of the world.

Why is it that when we behold the oldest living trees in the world, primeval awe runs down our spine? We are entwined with trees in an elemental embrace, both biological and symbolic, depending on them for the very air we breathe as well as for our deepest metaphors, millennia in the making. They permeate our mythology and our understanding of evolution. They enchant our greatest poets and rivet our greatest scientists. Even our language reflects that relationship — it’s an idea that has taken “root” in nearly every “branch” of knowledge.

How and why this came to be is what designer and information visualization scholar Manuel Lima explores in The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge (public library) — a magnificent 800-year history of the tree diagram, from Descartes to data visualization, medieval manuscripts to modern information design, and the follow-up to Lima’s excellent Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth from Encyclopédie (1780)

A remarkable tree featured as a foldout frontispiece in a later 1780 edition of the French Encyclopédie by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, first published in 1751. The book was a bastion of the French Enlightenment and one of the largest encyclopedias produced at that time. This tree depicts the genealogical structure of knowledge, with its three prominent branches following the classification set forth by Francis Bacon in 'The Advancement of Learning' in 1605: memory and history (left), reason and philosophy (center), and imagination and poetry (right). The tree bears fruit in the form of roundels of varying sizes, representing the domains of science known to man and featured in the encyclopedia.

'Notabilia' by Mortiz Stefaner, Dario Taraborelli, and Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia (2011)

A visualization of the 100 longest online discussions on Wikipedia articles up for deletion, part of the collaborative editing process that defines the encyclopedia of our time. These discussions last for at least seven days, until consensus is reached on which of a series of proposed actions (such as keep, merge, rename, or delete) should be performed on a page. Starting from a common root, this visualization maps each of the 100 articles as an individual branch, with color segments and shape determined by the sequence of 'keep' (green) and 'delete' (purple) votes. The final arch of each branch indicates the voting results, bending toward either left (keep) or to the right (delete).

'Tree of virtues' by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250

Palm tree illustration from the 'Liber floridus (Book of flowers),' one of the oldest, most beautiful, and best-known encyclopedias of the Middle Ages. Compiled between the years 1090 and 1120 by Lambert, a canon of the Church of Our Lady in Saint-Omer, the work gathers extracts from 192 different texts and manuscripts to portray a universal history or chronological record of the most significant events up to the year 1119. This mystical palm tree, also known as the 'palm of the church,' depicts a set of virtues (fronds) sprouting from a central bulb. The palm tree was a popular early Christian motif, rich in moral and symbolic associations, often used to represent the heavens or paradise.

'Plan of Organization of New York and Erie Railroad' by Daniel Craig McCallum (1855)

Diagram viewed by economists as one of the first organizational charts. The plan represents the division of administrative duties and the number and class of employees engaged in each department of the New York and Erie Railroad. Developed by the railroad's manager, the engineer Daniel Craig McCallum, and his associates, the scheme features a total of 4,715 employees distributed among its five main branches (operating divisions) and remaining boughs (passenger and freight departments). At the roots of the imposing tree, in a circular layout, are the president and the board of directors.

Lima writes in the introduction:

In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history — and indeed still do.


The omnipresence of these symbols reveals an inherently human connection and fascination with trees that traverse time and space and go well beyond religious devotion. This fascination has seized philosophers, scientists, and artists, who were drawn equally by the tree’s inscrutabilities and its raw, forthright, and resilient beauty. Trees have a remarkably evocative and expressive quality that makes them conducive to all types of depiction. They are easily drawn by children and beginning painters, but they also have been the main subjects of renowned artists throughout the ages.

'The Tree of Life' by Gustav Klimt (1901), one of the most reproduced oil paintings in human history

Among the legions of artists captivated by trees was the great Leonardo da Vinci. Shortly before his death, in one of his voluminous notebooks, Da Vinci worked out a mathematical formula for the relationship between the size of a tree’s trunk and that of its branches — he found that as a tree grows, the total cross-sectional area of all new branches is roughly equal to the area of the mother trunk or branch, no matter the height of the tree. Centuries later, scientific tests using computer-generated models of trees have not only found Leonardo’s formula to hold up across nearly every tree species, but also to explain trees’ remarkable resilience to wind and other external forces.

'Tree Branching' by Leonardo da Vinci (ca. 1515)

Study of a tree branching. Leonardo's rule is fairly simple, stating that 'Every year when the boughs of a tree have made an end of maturing their growth, they will have made, when put together, a thickness equal to that of the main stem.'

Indeed, Leonardo’s formula touched on the very thing that makes the tree such a powerful metaphor for organizing knowledge — its natural function not merely as a static object, but also as a system of relational dynamics. Lima writes:

Our primordial, symbolic relationship with the tree can elucidate why its branched schema has provided not only an important iconographic motif for art and religion, but also an important metaphor for knowledge-classification systems. Throughout human history the tree structure has been used to explain almost every facet of life: from consanguinity ties to cardinal virtues, systems of laws to domains of science, biological association to database systems. It has been such a successful model for graphically displaying relationships because it pragmatically expresses the materialization of multiplicity (represented by its succession of boughs, branches, twigs, and leaves) out of unity (its central foundational trunk, which is in turn connected to a common root, source, or origin.)

Anonymous, 'Yggdrasil tree' (ca. 1680)

A depiction of the world tree or cosmic ash tree, from an Icelandic manuscript containing several illustrations from Norse mythology. Yggdrasil is drawn surrounded by various animals, which live in and on it. Of particular relevance is Ratatoskr, a green squirrel on the bottom left, who, according to Norse mythology, runs up and down Yggdrasil to carry messages between the eagle, shown at the top, and the dragon, Niohöggr, who gnaws at the roots.

Kabbalistic tree of life from 'Oedipus AEgyptiaus' (1652)

Illustration by the Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher. Kabbalah is a Jewish mystical tradition; the term translates as 'received,' in reference to teachings passed through generations or directly from God. A pivotal element of the Kabbalah wisdom is the tree of life, an image composed of a diagram of ten circles, symbolizing ten pulses, or emanations, of divine energy.

'Vortices' by René Descartes, from Principia Philosophiae (1644)

A model of the universe that was widely accepted in the 17th century, based on the Cartesian system of vortices: large whirlpools of tenuous or ethereal matter that were thought to move the planets and their satellites by contact.

'Voronoi treemap' by Michael Balzer, (2005)

A pioneering alternative to conventional rectangular treemaps that relied on Voronoi tessellation to map hierarchies. In contrast to layout algorithms based on rectangular subdivisions, the Voronoi treemap layout algorithm was the first to generate flexible polygonal subdivisions, eliminating analogous shapes and aspect ratios, while also producing extremely alluring organic layouts.

I was delighted to see a longtime favorite among the selections — Stefanie Posavec’s brilliant Writing Without Words project, a hand-drawn visualization of the “literary organism” in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, depicting the sentences, words, and rhythm structures in the book.

'Writing Without Words' by Stefanie Posavec, (2008)

The Book of Trees is a treasure trove of visual literacy, symbolic history, and cultural insight. Complement it with this visual history of tree diagrams explaining evolution and these glorious drawings of trees from Indian mythology, then revisit Rachel Sussman’s gorgeous photographs of Earth’s oldest living trees.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

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