Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

02 JULY, 2013

A Visual History of Magic

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What the art of levitation has to do with creative debt and the legacy of vintage graphic design.

Whether in the rites of religion, the science of reality, or the folklore of love, or the transcendence of art, or even the allure of early image manipulation, the hunger for magic has always underpinned the human experience.

Originally published in 2009 as one of Taschen’s notoriously expensive hardcover masterpieces, Magic. 1400s-1950s (public library) is now released as a drastically more affordable and no less magnificent tome of 544 pages exploring the mesmerizing visual culture of history’s greatest magicians from the Middle Ages to the 1950s. With 1,000 rare vintage posters, photographs, handbills, and engravings, it’s at once a fascinating journey into the history of performative sorcery and a priceless time-capsule of vintage graphic design and visual culture.

Accompanying the treasure trove of visual ephemera are fascinating micro-essays and historical notes contextualizing their role in the craft by magic historian Jim Steinmeyer and author, collector, and professional magician Mike Caveney.

Among the curious patterns that emerge is a chronicle of creative debt, a kind of circles of influence within the canon as we begin to see how different magicians influenced each other.

Pair Magic. 1400s-1950s with Taschen’s previous gems: the world’s best infographics, the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm, Harry Benson’s luminous photos of The Beatles, the history of menu design, and New York’s illustrated jazz scene in the roaring twenties.

Images courtesy Taschen

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26 JUNE, 2013

Iconic Graphic Designer Milton Glaser on Art, Money, Education, and the Kindness of the Universe

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“If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.”

Milton Glaser — legendary mastermind of the famous I♥NY logo, author of delightful and little-known vintage children’s books, notorious notebook-doodler, modern-day sage of art and purpose — is celebrated by many as the greatest graphic designer alive. From How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (public library) — the same fantastic anthology of conversations with creative icons that gave us Paula Scher’s slot machine metaphor for creativity and Massimo Vignelli on intellectual elegance, education, and love — comes a fascinating and remarkably heartening conversation that reveals the inner workings of this beautiful mind and beautiful spirit.

What E. B. White has done for writing — “A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down,” he memorably asserted — Glaser has done for the visual arts, a legacy Debbie Millman captures beautifully in the introduction to the interview:

While other great designers have created cool posters, beautiful book covers, and powerful logos, Milton Glaser has actually lifted this age he inhabits. Because of his integrity and his vision, he has enabled us all to walk on higher ground, and it is that for which we should be especially grateful.

In fact, this ethos is reflected in Glaser’s timeless addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

Work that goes beyond its functional intention and moves us in deep and mysterious ways we call great work.

Glaser shares the wonderful and sweetly allegorical story of how he became an artist:

The story of how I decided to become an artist is this: When I was a very little boy, a cousin of mine came to my house with a paper bag. He asked me if I wanted to see a bird. I thought he had a bird in the bag. He stuck his hand in the bag, and I realized that he had drawn a bird on the side of a bag with a pencil. I was astonished! I perceived this as being miraculous. At that moment, I decided that was what I was going to do with my life. Create miracles.

His early childhood, in fact, was a petri dish for his genesis as an artist. He recounts another memory that presaged his gift for welcoming not-knowing in order to know life more richly as the muse of his mastery, a skill that would become the guiding principle of his creative ethos:

I was eight years old, and I had rheumatic fever. I was at home and in bed for a year. In a certain sense, the only thing that kept me alive was this: Every day, my mother would bring me a wooden board and a pound of modeling clay, and I would create a little universe out of houses, tanks, warriors. At the end of the day, I would pound them into oblivion and look forward to the next day when I could recreate the world.

[…]

I think that, to some degree, this is part of my character as a designer: To keep moving and not get stuck in my own past. This is what I try very hard to do.

I think at that moment in my life, I found a peculiar path: To continually discard a lot of the things that I knew how to do in favor of finding out what I didn’t. I think this is the way you stay alive professionally.

In the context of discussing those early memories, however, Glaser offers an important disclaimer about the limitations of our memory and its imperfections:

Memory is treacherous; you can’t depend on it. It is basically always recreated to reinforce your anxiety or to make yourself look better, but whatever actually did happen is totally susceptible to subjective interpretation. I absolutely don’t trust my memory.

Glaser seconds Alan Watts’s timeless wisdom on profit vs. purpose and gets to the heart of how to find your purpose so you can worry less about money:

I never had the model of financial success as being the reason to work. When I was at Push Pin, none of the partners made enough money to live on. It took ten years for us to make as much as a junior art director in an agency. We were making $65 a week! But money has never been a motivating force in my work. I am very happy to have made enough money to live as well as I do, but I never thought of money as a reason to work. For me, work was about survival. I had to work in order to have any sense of being human. If I wasn’t working or making something, I was very nervous and unstable.

Echoing Frank Lloyd Wright’s aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows,'” Glaser rejoices in the glory of keeping the internal fire of learning ever-ablaze:

That is a great feeling: when you feel the possibility of learning. It’s a terrible feeling to feel you can’t learn or have reached the end of your potential.

Touching on Sister Corita Kent’s 10 rules for learning and Bertrand Russell’s commandments for teachers, Glaser — a revered educator himself — goes on to offer an articulate vision for what the art of education really means:

What you teach is what you are. You don’t teach by telling people things.

[…]

I believe that you convey your ideas by the authenticity of your being. Not by glibly telling someone what to do or how to do it. I believe that this is why so much teaching is ineffective. … Good teaching is merely having an encounter with someone who has an idea of what life is that you admire and want to emulate.

Echoing Rilke’s counsel to live the questions, Richard Feynman’s advocacy of allowing for doubt, John Keats’s insistence on the power of “negative capability”, and Anaïs Nin’s faith in the richness of living with ambiguity, Glaser reflects on the immutable impermanence of everything, the very thing he once intuited in his childhood experience of sculpting and destroying his modeling clay creations:

There is no security in the world, or in life. I don’t mind living with some ambiguity and realizing that eventually, everything changes.

But the most powerful aspect of Glaser’s ethos, one all the more necessary as a lifeboat amidst today’s flood of cynicism, is his unrelenting optimism — an essential antidote to the zero-sum-game mentality of success that plagues so much of our modern thinking:

If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be. And I never thought of the universe as one of scarcity. I always thought that there was enough of everything to go around — that there are enough ideas in the universe and enough nourishment.

In extending this conviction to the most tender aspiration of the human heart, our longing to belong, he echoes Ted Hughes’s poignant reflection on our inner child and adds to literary history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

Do you perceive you live your life through love or fear? They are very different manifestations. My favorite quote is by the English novelist Iris Murdoch. She said, “Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.” I like the idea that all that love is, is acknowledging another’s reality.

Acknowledging that the world exists, and that you are not the only participant in it, is a profound step. The impulse towards narcissism or self-interest is so profound, particularly when you have a worry of injury or fear. It’s very hard to move beyond the idea that there is not enough to go around, to move beyond that sense of “I better get mine before anybody else takes it away from me.”

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer remains indispensable from cover to cover. Complement it with this lovely short film on Glaser by the late and great Hillman Curtis.

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25 JUNE, 2013

Bill Moggridge, Designer of the First Laptop, on Human-Centered Design

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“It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed — that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed.”

Legendary British industrial designer and educator Bill Moggridge (June 25, 1943–September 8, 2012) championed interaction design, co-founded IDEO, served as Director the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and designed the very first laptop. In Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (public library) — the same compendium of fascinating interviews on life in a material world with such celebrated thinkers as Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, and Wally OlinsDebbie Millman sat down with Moggridge in 2010 to peel the curtain on the extraordinary mind that heralded the modern movement of human-centered design and brought into focus the relationship between people and objects.

Of his fascination with what people want from everyday things, Moggridge says:

If there is a simple, easy principle that binds together everything I’ve done, it’s my interest in people and their relationship to things. … I’m interested in why people like things, and what gives them a feeling of long-term reward, what gives them pleasure, and what excites them. Ultimately, my interest centers on the effect that design has on someone.

Brands, Moggridge argues, are the vehicle for precisely those relationships:

DM: Why do you think people like certain brands or certain things? What is the primary reason someone will choose one thing over another?

BM: I think you build a relationship with something that you know and use. At the moment you buy it, you may not be quite certain about it. But as you get to know it better, if your relationship gets better, then you enjoy it more. You may not notice the change, but after a time, a sort of satisfactory relationship between you and that thing emerges. That is the foundation for a brand relationship.

More than a mere relationship, however, Moggridge sees the brand as a sensemaking and navigation tool that eases our cognitive load amidst the paradox of choice that is modern life:

DM: I recently read that the average supermarket has about thirty-five thousand different products in it, and that— believe it or not— there are over one hundred brands of nationally advertised water.

BM: When you do a Google search, it’s very tempting to go for the “I’m feeling lucky” option, so you get the single page that comes up. Similarly, the brand is the thing that allows you to recognize that particular kind of water that you had before, and that you probably don’t mind having again.

So it simplifies your relationship to this confusing morass of possibilities. And although I wish that water wasn’t bottled, the fact that there’s a choice of brand helps us get through that confusion.

Turning to the heart of his philosophy, Moggridge defines what he means by “human-centered design”:

If you think of innovation as being depicted by a Venn diagram, human- centered design is the overlap between technology, business, and people. If you look at people who are going to business schools, they tend to start with a business proposition, but in order to innovate successfully, they have to find the right technology and the right customers. If you look at people in science and technology, they tend to start with a new technology, which is true of many Silicon Valley companies. Then they go to a venture capitalist and try to get some money, and they think about what kind of customer is right for the product. We were interested in the “people first” point of view.

In fact, one of the greatest affronts to the social value of design is the solipsism with which many of its practitioners approach it, placing ego over empathy:

[A]s designers and engineers in general, we’re guilty of designing for ourselves too often. One of the things that we have to be careful to remember is the very simple principle that not everybody is like us. For example, if you’re designing something like a chair, you’re not going to design the height of the seat only for the average person, are you? You’re going to design it for an adjustment, so that it can accommodate the smallest person that might sit in it, or the tallest, as well as the heaviest person and the lightest person. So, we’re always looking at a range that accommodates extremes, and for that reason, looking at the extremes is usually very useful.

One of Moggridge’s most timeless and timely insights has to do with that peculiar way in which new technology can flounder, only to flourish once reintroduced at a later time — proof that “successful innovation requires the meeting of the right people at the right place with just the right problem.” He observes:

This is often the case with new technologies. They seem as if they’re about to work, and somebody creates an experimental version that looks great. But then nothing happens. And then the right time comes along, and the right set of attributes come together, and suddenly the new technology flourishes.

Among Moggridge’s greatest accomplishments, however, is his remarkable legacy as an educator and the persistence with which he invited the general public to understand the profound value of design as a cross-pollinator of art, science, and everyday life. He tells Millman:

The important characteristic of design is that it creates a bridge between the sciences and the arts. People understand the necessity of education for the sciences, and there is a renewed movement to bring that back into education. They understand something about the arts. But I don’t think many people understand the power of design to join these two things together. Why do you think that there is such a barrier to the public’s understanding of design? I don’t think that anyone has really told them what design is. It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed — that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed. Even foods are designed now.

[…]
… So in the process of helping people understand this, making them more aware of the fact that the world around us is something that somebody has control of, perhaps they can feel some sense of control too. That’s a nice ambition.

At the crux of interaction design, which Moggridge helped pioneer, lies a deep understanding how necessary cross-disciplinary collaboration is to innovation and creative progress. Moggridge reflects on the crucial role of leadership in fostering that:

I’d like everyone to have the mind-set that whenever you have a challenging, seemingly intractable problem, then you need to solve that problem with an interdisciplinary team. No individual can succeed alone. In order to help business leaders succeed, we need to put together those interdisciplinary teams, and they need to use design processes. We can help explain that and help make leadership aware of it.

Referencing Moggridge’s oft-cited assertion from his groundbreaking Design Interactions“What makes humans special first and foremost is that we can model the world, and we can predict the future. Then we can imagine the future.” — Millman inquires about his own vision for the future, to which he responds with a beautiful model for design’s concentric circles of cultural relevance:

I think the context of design is changing and expanding. And you can think of that in three concentric circles.

Think of the inside circle as the individual. The second circle is the built environment, and the one around that is the overall, holistic environment. Each concentric circle is changing and moving in a design context that is itself expanding.

In the past, we thought about designing things for the circle at the center. So your PDA, for example, is something that you use as an individual.

The slightly more expansive context is to think about the health and well-being of the individual, rather than the specific things the individual uses. This more comprehensive view requires broader thinking about people. Rather than thinking about the things in isolation, we’re thinking about the whole person.

Similarly, when you think about the built environment, we historically have thought about architecture. But as we move towards an expanding context for design, we find that we’re thinking more about social interactions and innovations as well as buildings. It’s not that one is replacing the other — it’s that the context is simply expanding. Now we’re thinking about social connections as well as the built environment we’re living in.

And then when we think about the larger circle, sustainability is the big issue. In the past, we thought of sustainability as being about materials: choosing the best material and designing for disassembly. But now it’s absolutely clear that a sustainable planet is one that’s completely connected.

Globalization has shown us that the effect of industrialization on the world is of planetary concern. We can’t just think about designing materials, we have to include a consideration of the entire planet. And that, again, is an expansion of context.

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, the follow-up to the equally fantastic 2007 anthology How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, is indispensable in its entirety. Pair it with Moggridge on design, knowledge, and human intelligence and his fantastic final book, Designing Media.

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