Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

18 MARCH, 2013

A Design History of Childhood


“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real.”

“Every child is an artist,” Picasso famously proclaimed. “Every child is a scientist,” Neil deGrasse Tyson reformulated. But, as it turns out, every child is also a designer — so argues Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000 (public library), the impressive companion book to the MoMA exhibition of the same title, which explores “children as design activists in their own right, pushing against imaginative and physical limitations and constantly re-creating the world as they see it, using whatever equipment they happen to have at hand.” Remarkably researched and lavishly illustrated, the large-format tome is titled after Swedish design reformer and social theorist Ellen Key’s seminal 1900 publication presaging a new era of focus on the rights and well-being of children. Through 100 years of toys, playgrounds, classrooms, clothing, furniture, posters, animation, books, and other ephemera, it covers such expansive and interrelated subjects as genetic engineering, the role of play in cultivating creativity, the importance of children in expanding 20th-century economies, the rise of comic strips, and the cultural significance of nostalgia.

MoMA curator of Architecture and Design Juliet Kinchin writes in the introductory essay, titled “Hide and Seek: Remapping Modern Design and Childhood”:

[W]e have been periodically reminded how the forces of modernity shape design and childhood in ways that are extraordinary and exhilarating yet complex and contradictory. What has remained consistent, however, is the faith among designers in the power of aesthetic activity to shape everyday life. As an embodiment of what might be, children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real: they propel our thoughts forward. Their protean nature encourages us to think in terms of design that is flexible, inclusive, and imaginative.

Lorraine Schneider. 'War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.' 1966

Schneider, an artist and mother of four, created this poster for a print show at Pratt Institute in New York, out of concern that her eldest son would be drafted. The rough composition, with its simple sunflower and childlike scrawl, became the logo for Another Mother for Peace, an organization led in the present day by Lorraine’s daughter Carol, and went on to become one of the most ubiquitous protest images of the Vietnam War era. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Lewis Hine. Child in Carolina Cotton Mill. 1908

American photographer and sociologist Hine recorded children’s working lives on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, an organization established in 1904 to alleviate the exploitation of children, with headquarters in New York. A source of cheap labor then as now, children in factories and sweatshops assisted in the process of churning out goods designed for markets that included their middle-class peers. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin examines children’s awkward placement in the historiography of modern design:

The stereotypical perception of children as sensual and intuitive sits uneasily with the critical discourse of intellectualism and rationality that surrounds heroic modernist architecture, but with the advent of postmodern and psychoanalytic approaches to academic studies, beginning in the 1970s, many innovations in children’s design have begun to attract the critical attention they deserve, particularly in relation to comics, animation, and video games.


Bringing children from the periphery to the forefront of our attention cuts across geographical, political, and stylistic demarcations in the mapping of modern design. … Children bring into focus how modern design has straddled high and low cultural practices, from comics to architecture and urban planning. They enable us to follow threads throughout the century that connect the most disparate and apparently contradictory tendencies.

Rudolf Steiner. 'In mir ist Gott – Ich bin in Gott (God is in me – I am in God).' 1924

This drawing indicates how Steiner, one of the most influential educational theorists of the twentieth-century, would illustrate school lessons and public lectures with rapid chalk sketches on a blackboard or sheets of black paper. By means of such instantaneous mark-making, he communicated his sense of thought as living, creative energy, and of the individual as part of larger metaphysical harmonies. Steiner established his first school in 1919 for children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. Within a decade Steiner schools had been established not only in Germany and his native Switzerland, but in Austria, Britain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States, where the first one opened in New York, on East 79th Street. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Lyonel Feininger. 'The Kin-der-Kids' from Chicago Sunday Tribune. April 29, 1906

The modern mass-circulation comic appeared in Europe and the United States in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that comics and animation – two art forms initially created for children – began to have a profound impact on modern visual culture. Feininger and Winsor McCay, the two great illustrators of American comics in the opening decades of the twentieth century, conceived of the comic strip as full-page layouts with radical and inventive experiments in scale, sequence, and format. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Like Steve Jobs, who famously proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things,” and Paula Scher, who likens creativity to a slot machine, and like other theorists of creative problem-solving, Kinchin emphasized this inherent pattern-recognition gift of the child mind, also manifested in the most impactful design for children:

Designers, like children, find patterns and make connections. The importance of pattern making and creative play with material things, for children and adults, as a route to understanding spatial relations and problem-solving, as well as creating a sense of the individual in relation to larger cosmic harmonies, comes up again and again in the twentieth century.

She cites the legendary Hungarian-born Bauhaus architect and designer Breuer:

When children play with building blocks, they discover that they fit together, because they are square. . . . Then, the child discovers that the blocks are empty, that the sides turn into walls, and that there is a roof and a structure . . . . That is when the child will indeed become an architect. Manager of voids and spaces, priest of geometry.

Vladimir Lebedev. Cover of 'Vchera i segodnia (Yesterday and today)' by Samuil Marshak. 1925

Lebedev’s philosophy toward children’s books was clear: they should be, in his words, 'colorful, specific, concrete,' and find a balance between sophistication and accessibility, high and low. Though he drew on the avant-garde languages of Cubism and Suprematism, he never fully abandoned figuration, offering a familiar anchor to children while introducing them to new visual modes. Likewise, the goal of his collaborator, writer Samuil Marshak, was to create a new children’s literature, one that nourished the mind in both content and form. Lebedev and Marshak, who began working together in 1924, created dozens of books, many so popular that they were issued in massive editions of 10,000 with reprints not far behind. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Advertisement for Gymbo School & Gym Shoes. 1930

This brochure advertising Gymbo shoes emphasizes the 'absolute freedom' given to every part of the foot by the rubber-soled canvas shoes that were required for pupils in most British schools in the 1930s. With medical experts and educators endorsing the beneficial effects of physical activity on academic performance as well as general health, schools began to pay greater attention to nurturing children’s bodies through movement and exercise. Innovations in children’s clothing soon followed, with designs for activewear to accommodate this new emphasis on freedom of movement. Girls in particular benefited from the increased mobility and encouragement to participate in sport or dance that challenged conventional constructions of femininity. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin points to the unburdened optimism of the child as a beacon of modernist thought:

Children, with their perception uncluttered by the baggage of social and cultural conventions, have long symbolized the visionary modernist focus of the future. In this respect they belong at the heart of utopian thought, and they inspire us to demand a different, better, brighter future.

Frankie Faruzza. Cover of the book 'Children and the City,' by Olga Adams. 1952

Adams, one of the best-known kindergarten teachers in the United States in the 1950s, initiated a classroom project called 'Our City' at the Laboratory School in Chicago to stimulate children’s appreciation of how cities worked. Following extensive discussion about how they interacted with and understood the city, the pupils imagined a model town, and then went on to develop their ideas into a cardboard community that they governed themselves. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Times Wide World Photos. 'A Famous School of Dance Has a Birthday,' class at an Isadora Duncan dance school. 1929

A quasimystical belief in the psychological and therapeutic power of expressive movement inspired pioneers of modern dance education in Europe and the United States, among them Isadora Duncan and Margaret Morris, each of whom established private schools for children. Classes were frequently conducted outdoors, and emphasized a natural athleticism. Touring troupes of scantily clad girls trained by Duncan performed with bare feet and loose hair, causing a public sensation before and after World War I. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

“The skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars who can link the unlinkable,” science educator Ainissa Ramirez argued in her manifesto for saving science education, and Kinchin sees an equally pressing urgency in how the intersection of design and education evolves in the future:

It now seems as urgent to drastically shift our conception of education and modern design as it did in 1900. What is necessary for this to happen … is a new generation equipped with new ways of thinking. … The need to foster the young child’s innate capacity for divergent thinking — the ability to come up with lots of different answers — brings us back to the early-twentieth-century pioneers of the kindergarten movement and the concept of open-ended play as a strategy for learning and design innovation … If there is one lesson that adults should learn from children, it is that at a time of environmental and economic crisis, play is a crucial point of connection to the physical and imaginative world. We need to give ourselves time and space for play, space in which the unpredictable can happen.

Froebel Gift 2. 1890

Intent on fostering the curiosity and creativity of young minds, Froebel devised a series of twenty playthings, which he called 'Gifts.' These objects formed the core of his pioneering model of early childhood education, anchoring sessions of play that were either directed by teachers or instigated by the children themselves. Gifts one through ten included crocheted balls in different colors, wooden building blocks, geometric shapes, and steel rings that could be arranged in numerous temporary configurations. Gifts eleven through twenty provided the materials for focused activities, such as multicolored sheets of paper for cutting, weaving, and folding. By the early twentieth century, this system was so popular that Froebel Gifts were being manufactured on a large scale in both Europe and the United States. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack. 'Optical Color-Mixer.' 1924

Experience with toy design, often as a result of idealistic attempts to bring up their own children in a new and creative manner, was common among staff and students of the progressive Bauhaus school. These spinning disks, also known as the Optische Farbmischer (Optical color mixer), adhered to the emerging Bauhaus aesthetic of simple geometric forms and unmodulated primary colors, which was due in part to a method of teaching inspired by the kindergarten movement. Toys like the spinning disks and Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s construction blocks sold well, providing an important source of income for the new institution. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

The introduction opens with a beautiful quote from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (free ebook):

The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’ For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed: the spirit now wills his own will.

Nigel Henderson. Untitled, from Chisenhale Road Series. 1951

In 1953 architects Peter and Alison Smithson collaborated with photographer Nigel Henderson on this influential visual statement of their new approach to urban planning. As seen in this mapping of urban experience – from house to street, and district to city – it is children at play who embody the Smithsons’ guiding principle of social connectivity that underpins the concept of a 'cluster city.' The Smithsons were critical of the prevailing modernist orthodoxy of the rational, zoned city; instead they searched for new architectural equivalents to the more intuitive unfolding of spatial relationships that they observed in children’s play. Their approach brought them together with Aldo van Eyck and other dissenting architects within CIAM. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Werner John. 'Kinder Verkehrs Garten (Children’s traffic garden),' poster advertising a children’s traffic school. 1959

The graphic simplicity of John’s poster design succinctly references both the abstract forms of children’s construction toys and modern styles of road signage being introduced internationally. In the 1950s and ’60s, the proliferation of motorized vehicles was creating concern about children’s public safety and liberty. One response was to merge traffic and play in the form of children’s traffic schools. For play advocates, however, the lack of public space allocated to children and the overbearing presence of cars were indications of adults’ lack of respect for children’s freedom and basic human rights. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Walt Disney with original aerial-view painting of Disneyland, produced for ABC Television. October 1954

Walt Disney introduced Disneyland to the public with this bird’s-eye rendering by Ellenshaw, an artist and designer. The park, which opened in 1955, was a physical extension of Disney’s cinematic and television projects; it was originally intended as a kiddieland adjacent to the Burbank television studios but grew to become one of the most iconic statements of twentieth-century American popular culture. Disney planned the park as a miniature city that followed the layout of the world’s fairs of the 1930s, with a nostalgic Main Street based on his boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri, linking four distinct areas of what he called his 'magic kingdom' – Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, and Tomorrowland. Together these elements contrasted a sentimental image of nineteenth-century America with the modern, exotic, and futuristic. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Boys in a Glasgow back court show off their Christmas presents, which include astronaut suits and Space Hoppers. 1970

Outer space, a new frontier, was sufficiently vast and mysterious to allow designers and toy manufacturers near-complete freedom of imagination and creation. One rather enigmatic but popular product was Mettoy’s Space Hopper. These bright orange vinyl bouncing balls, two feet in diameter, with kangaroolike faces and handles that resembled horns, are said to have been inspired by children bouncing on fishing buoys in Norway. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin concludes with a conception of the child as a sort of antidote to the pretense of the present:

For designers seeking to reconcile in their work the tensions and ambiguities of modern life, children seemed an inexhaustible source of renewal, evoking both a paradise lost in the remote past and the future possibility of an ideal city or state. … In directing their attention to children, many educators and designers sought to recover an authenticity of expression that they felt had been lost with the innovations of modern life.

Century of the Child goes on to explore the paradoxical role of children as both targets of consumer culture and cogs in its machinery by providing cheap industrial labor, tracing how the New Art movement catalyzed a new culture of relating to childhood alongside an evolving conception of pedagogy, covering such cultural revolutions as the rise of kindergarten, the golden age of the playground, playtime in the avant-garde era, and the body politics of the child. Complement it with Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, another fantastic and mind-expanding companion to an eponymous MoMA exhibition by Paola Antonelli.

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15 MARCH, 2013

Lessons in Design and Strategy from China’s First Emperor


How to standardize, enforce accountability, and employ design thinking in coining your image and legacy.

The questions of what makes good design, what it should aspire to be, why it’s essential to culture, and how it harmonizes with human life have long occupied modern thinkers and pundits. That’s precisely what Herald Tribune design critic and writer extraordinaire Alice Rawsthorn sets out to answer in the newly released Hello World: Where Design Meets Life.

Rawsthorn begins with a necessary definition of the essence and cultural significance of design, so often misunderstood and diminished to mere decoration:

Design is a complex, often elusive phenomenon that has changed dramatically over time by adopting different guises, meanings and objectives in different contexts, but its elemental role is to act as an agent of change, which can help us to make sense of what is happening around us, and to turn it to our advantage. Every design exercise sets out to change something, whether its intention is to transform the lives of millions of people, or to make a marginal difference to one, and it does so systematically. At its best, design can ensure that changes of any type — whether they are scientific, technological, cultural, political, economic, social, environmental or behavioral — are introduced to the world in ways that are positive and empowering, rather than inhibiting or destructive.

One of Rawsthorn’s most illustrative examples comes from Ying Zheng, who took the throne as king of the Chinese State of Qin in his early teens in 246 BC and went on to become the first emperor of unified China in 221 BC. Today, he endures as one of the most formidable figures in world history, equally known for his military might and his uncompromising despotism, which included book-burning and burying scholars alive. Design, as it turns out, was his major ally, which he employed on various levels, from the practical to the tactical to the political.

One of his major feats, Rawsthorn tells us, was standardization:

The design of all weaponry was improved under Ying Zheng’s command. The optimum size, shape, choice of material and method of production for each piece was determined, and every effort made to ensure that weapons of the same type adhered to the chosen formula. The Qin army had used bronze spears for over a thousand years, but the blades were rendered shorter and broader. The dagger-axes were redesigned too. Putting six holes in the blades, rather than four, ensured that their bronze heads could be attached more securely and were less likely to shake loose in the frenzy of battle.

Even more important were the changes to Qin’s bows and arrows. Archers were critical in determining the outcome of every stage of combat in Ying Zheng’s era, but their weapons were made by hand, often to different specifications. If an archer ran out of arrows during a battle, it was generally impossible for him to fire another warrior’s arrows from his bow. Similarly, if he was killed or injured, his remaining ammunition would be useless to his comrades. And if a bow broke, that archer’s arrows risked being wasted. The same problems applied to more complex weapons like crossbows. The result was that an army’s progress was often impeded by weapons failure because its archers were unable to fight at full efficiency, if at all.

With standardization also came a new level of production accountability:

Ying Zheng’s forces resolved these problems by standardizing the design of their bows and arrows. The shaft of each arrow had to be a precise length, and the head to be formed in a triangular prism, always of the same size and shape. The components of longbows and crossbows were made identical too, and these design formulas were rigidly enforced. Each piece of government equipment was branded with a distinctive mark to identify who had made it and in which workshop. If a particular weapon was deemed substandard, the offending artisans would be fined, and punished more severely if the problem recurred.

But Ying Zheng didn’t stop at weaponry. Next, he rebranded his very persona, renaming himself Qin Shihuangdi, or “First Emperor of China,” and employed design in shaping various aspects of culture and commerce, from literacy to currency, even enforcing his own reputation by way of early propaganda design:

A unified system of coinage was introduced, as were standardized weights and measures, a universal legal code and common method of writing. These changes made daily life more orderly, and boosted the economy by making it easier for people from different regions to trade. They also had a symbolic importance in helping to persuade the new emperor’s subjects, many of whom had fought against his army in battle, or had family or friends who had died doing so, that they had a personal stake in his immense domain. Take the new coins. Every time a farmer or a carpenter used them, they saw a tangible reminder that they themselves were part of a dynamic new empire, and had good reason to feel grateful to its visionary founder and ruler.


He also made sure that the inhabitants of even the most remote regions knew of his power and achievements by ordering descriptions of his feats to be carved into mountains across China.

This use of design strategy, in fact, was a primitive example of the buzzworthy concept currently known as “design thinking”:

Qin Shihuangdi [identified] what he needed to do to secure the future of his regime, and to communicate the results to his subjects. There are parallels between his strategic use of design and its role in successful corporate identity programs, such as Nike’s, and communication exercises like Barack Obama’s presidential election campaigns.

But Qin Shihuangdi’s greatest design feat was the application of design as a medium of self-expression, specifically in the preservation of his legacy. He commanded the construction of a monumental burial chamber — a massive underground palace spanning over twenty square miles on Mount Li, discovered there accidentally by farmers in 1974. Its construction was so demanding and grueling that many of the workers died in the process of it and were buried on the site. Rawsthorn explains:

Just as Qin Shihuangdi had deployed design with extreme efficiency to amass wealth and power during his life, he used it to secure what he believed would be an equally resplendent death, by creating the afterlife of his fantasies, which served a practical purpose too. Building such an outlandishly extravagant burial site was so eloquent a testimony of his might that it reinforced it as effectively as his celestially planned palaces, mountain inscriptions and the new imperial currency. But it was also a physical manifestation of the inner world of his imagination, a material expression of how China’s first emperor saw himself, and wished to define his place in history, which presaged contemporary design spectacles such as Olympic Games opening ceremonies, the Arirang Festivals in North Korea and the elaborate sets of Chanel’s haute couture shows at the Grand Palais in Paris.


Yet unlike latter-day design tacticians such as Apple, Chanel, Nike, Barack Obama’s campaign advisors and the despotic Kim dynasty, Qin Shihuangdi conceived and executed his design feats entirely instinctively.

Hello World is compelling in its entirety, spanning such varied yet interrelated illustrations of design as the London Underground and the breeding of dogs.

Coin photograph courtesy The British Museum

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14 MARCH, 2013

Cats vs. Dogs: A Poem by T. S. Eliot, with Stunning Vintage Illustrations by Dame Eileen Mayo


“You now have learned enough to see / That Cats are much like you and me / And other people whom we find / Possessed of various types of mind.”

While researching the endlessly entertaining 1982 gem A Cat-Hater’s Handbook, I came upon Best Cat Stories (public library) — a rare 1953 anthology, long out of print, edited by Michael Joseph and featuring 19 short stories about cats by some of the era’s most celebrated authors, with delightful black-and-white illustrations by English artist Dame Eileen Mayo.

Joseph writes in the introduction:

What outsiders do not understand is that we are not just infatuated worshippers at the shrine of the cat. We can scold our cats (not that it ever does anyone any good), laugh at our cats, play with them, find faults with them, and be exasperated by their unpredictable moods. The only thing we cannot do is to live without them.

So, in compiling a book for other cat-lovers, I have tried to present the cat in all moods; to show him as a cunning rascal with a nice sense of humour…; as a creature of infinite resources and courage… ; as the victim of his own perversity…; as the disciple of witchcraft; as an animal for the loss of whom a child will shed tears of inconsolable grief; the cat in fable, superstition, comedy, tragedy; the cat we all know and can never fully understand.

The final piece in the book is a lovely set of verses by beloved poet, playwright, and literary critic T. S. Eliot — a famous felinophile, whose 1939 children’s book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, inspired the iconic Broadway musical Cats — playfully contrasting cats and dogs:

From 'The Ad-Dressing of Cats' by T. S. Eliot


You’ve read of several kinds of Cat,
And my opinion now is that
You should need no interpreter
To understand their character.
You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse —
But all may be described in verse.
You’ve seen them both at work and games,
And learnt about their proper names,
Their habits and their habitat:

How would you ad-dress a Cat?

So first, your memory I’ll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.

Now Dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
Of course I’m not including Pekes,
And such fantastic canine freaks.
The usual Dog about the Town
Is much inclined to play the clown,
And far from showing too much pride
Is frequently undignified.
He’s very easily taken in —
Just chuck him underneath the chin
Or slap his back or shake his paw,
And he will gambol and guffaw.
He’s such an easy-going lout,
He’ll answer any hail or shout.

Again I must remind you that
A Dog’s a Dog — A CAT’S A CAT.

With Cats, some say, one rule is true:
Don’t speak till you are spoken to.
Myself, I do not hold with that –
I say, you should ad-dress a Cat.
But always keep in mind that he
Resents familiarity.
I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!
But if he is the Cat next door,
Whom I have often met before
(He comes to see me in my flat)
I greet him with an OOPSA CAT!
I’ve heard them call him James Buz-James —
But we’ve not got so far as names.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviare, or Strassburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste —
He’s sure to have his personal taste.
(I know a Cat, who makes a habit
Of eating nothing else but rabbit,
And when he’s finished, licks his paws
So’s not to waste the onion sauce.)
A Cat’s entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME.

So this is this, and that is that:
And there’s how you AD-DRESS A CAT.

Complement with some canine-inspired literature and art from The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of last year’s best art books.

Best Cat Stories features more of Mayo’s charming illustrations, one for each of the stories:

From 'A Little White Cat' by Dorothy Baker

From 'A Fine Place for the Cat' by Margaret Bonham

From 'Smith' by Ann Chadwick

From 'When in Doubt -- Wash' by Paul Gallico

From 'The Blue Flag' by Kay Hill

From 'God and the Little Cat' by Selwyn Jepson

From 'The Fat of the Cat' by Gottfried Keller

From 'Broomsticks' by Walter de la Mare

From 'New Conquest of the Matterhorn' by T. S. Blakeney

From 'Johnnie Poothers' by Charles Odger

From 'The Fat Cat' by Q. Patrick

From 'Kitty Kitty Kitty' by John Pudney

From 'Mr. Carmody's Safari' by Kermit Rolland

From 'Feathers' by Carl Van Vechten

From 'Cat Up a Tree' by William Sansom

From 'Calvin, the Cat' by Charles Dudley Warner

From 'The Travellers from West and East' by Sylvia Townsend Warner

From 'The Story of Webster' by P. G. Wodehouse

Pair with Muriel Spark on how a cat can boost your creativity and some heart-warming Indian folk drawings of cats, then ready a tissue — nay, a box — and read about how Hemingway shot his cat.

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