Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interview’

18 FEBRUARY, 2013

Illustrator Sophie Blackall on Subversive Storytelling, Missed Connections, and Optimism


What Aldous Huxley’s misogyny has to do with children’s books, darkness, and modern love.

Australian illustrator Sophie Blackall remains best-known for her warm, wistful, and whimsical Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found (public library) — a visual paean to modern love by way of illustrated Craigslist missed connections, which you might recall as one of the best art and design books of 2011. If you live in New York, you’ve likely seen and admired her heart-warming subway artwork; and if you have a taste for obscure children’s books by famous adult authors, you might know and love her Aldous Huxley adaptation, one of more than thirty children’s books she has illustrated.

In a recent episode of her fantastic Design Matters show, Debbie Millman talks to Blackall about the difference between an artist and an illustrator, what makes children’s storytelling particularly exciting, the origin and afterlife of the missed connections project, and more. The interview is excellent in its entirety, but here are some favorite excerpts:

On the challenges of illustrating Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, handling its rather misogynistic undertones, and hiding a few secret jokes for the reader to find:

On darkness and optimism, echoing Maurice Sendak’s faith in children’s ability to handle the subversive, and the essence of Blackall’s work:

SB: I think children are pretty subversive creatures.

DM: It’s interesting: It’s subversive in the way that The Wizard of Oz is subversive — there’s a subtext. And that subtext has to do with love, and longing, and loss, and pain. But I guess, for me, there seems to be an innate optimism that doesn’t feel dark — yes, there’s darkness in the work, but I always get the sense that the light overcomes that darkness. … You can create a brush stroke that somehow defines wistfulness. But in that ability to see that wistfulness, I can’t help but feel understood — which … then gives me a great sense of joy.

On the curious, serendipitous genesis of the Missed Connections project:

The [missed connections] listings were intriguing because they mixed the natural desire to make a first impression and the very human need to get a second chance.

But the most tender, moving, and poetic of the stories will stop your breath:

The Whale at Coney Island

– M4M — 69


A young friend of mine recently acquainted me with the intricacies of Missed Connections, and I have decided to try to find you one final time.

Many years ago, we were friends and teachers together in New York City. Perhaps we could have been lovers too, but we were not. We used to take trips to Coney Island, especially during the spring, when we would stroll hand in hand, until our palms got too sweaty, along the boardwalk, and take refuge in the cool darkness of the aquarium. We liked to visit the whale best. One spring, it arrived from its winter home (in Florida? I can’t remember) pregnant. Everyone at the aquarium was very excited — a baby beluga whale was going to be born in New York City! You insisted that we not miss the birth, so every day after class, and on both Saturday and Sunday, we would take the D train all the way from Harlem to Coney Island.

We got there one Saturday as the aquarium opened and there was a sign posted to the glass tank. The baby beluga had been born dead. The mother, the sign read, was recovering but would be fine. We read the sign in shock and watched the single beluga whale in her tank. She was circling slowly. Neither of us could speak. Suddenly, without warning, the beluga started to throw herself against the wall of the tank. Trainers came and ushered us out. We sat on a bench outside, and suddenly I felt tears running down my face. You saw, turned my face towards yours, and kissed me. We had never kissed before, and I let my lips linger on yours for a second before I stood up and walked towards the ocean.

It was too much — the whale, the death, the kiss — and I wasn’t ready.

Forgive me — I don’t think I ever understood what an emptiness you would create when you left and I realized that that kiss on Coney Island was the first and the last.

Are you out there, dear friend?

If so, please respond. I think of you, and have thought of you often, all of these years.

The full interview is well worth a listen:

For related goodness, subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, treat yourself to Missed Connections, and watch this wonderful Etsy artist profile of Blackall:

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10 JANUARY, 2013

Iconic Designer Massimo Vignelli on Intellectual Elegance, Education, and Love


“Intellectual elegance [is] a mind that is continually refining itself with education and knowledge. Intellectual elegance is the opposite of intellectual vulgarity.”

Besides the iconic New York City subway map, for which he remains best-known, the great Massimo Vignelli has worked on some of the twentieth century’s most memorable packaging, identity, and public signage for clients like IBM, American Airlines, and Bloomingdale’s, and has earned some of the creative industry’s most prestigious awards, including the AIGA Gold Medal (1983), the New York State Governor’s Award for Excellence (1993), the National Arts Club Gold Medal for Design (2004), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum (2005). But nowhere do Vignelli’s eloquence, wisdom, earnestness, and sensitivity shine more brilliantly than in How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (public library) — the same fantastic anthology of Debbie Millman‘s interviews with creative icons that gave us Paula Scher’s slot machine metaphor for creativity.

A champion of “intellectual elegance,” Vignelli explains his lifelong crusade against vulgarity:

MV: When I talk about elegance, I mean intellectual elegance. Elegance of the mind.

DM: How would you define elegance of the mind?

MV: I would define intellectual elegance as a mind that is continually refining itself with education and knowledge. Intellectual elegance is the opposite of intellectual vulgarity. We all know vulgarity very well. Elegance is the opposite.

DM: I have to ask: What would you consider to be vulgar?

MV: Vulgarity is something underneath culture and education. Anything that is not refined.


DM: Why do you think people are fascinated by vulgarity?

MV: Because it is easier to absorb. Elegance is about education and refinement, and it is a by-product of a continual search for the best and for the sublime. And it is a continuous refusal of indulging in anything that is vulgar. It’s a job.

He offers an articulate definition of what design is really about:

It is to decrease the amount of vulgarity in the world. It is to make the world a better place to be. But everything is relative. There is a certain amount of latitude between what is good, what is elegant, and what is refined that can take many, many manifestations. It doesn’t have to be one style. We’re not talking about style, we’re talking about quality. Style is tangible, quality is intangible. I am talking about creating for everything that surrounds us a level of quality.

Like Steve Jobs famously did, Vignelli has profound disdain for focus groups and, like Millman herself, advocates for not letting limited imagination shrink the boundaries of the possible:

I don’t believe in market research. I don’t believe in marketing the way it’s done in America. The American way of marketing is to answer to the wants of the customer instead of answering to the needs of the customer. The purpose of marketing should be to find needs — not to find wants.

People do not know what they want. They barely know what they need, but they definitely do not know what they want. They’re conditioned by the limited imagination of what is possible. … Most of the time, focus groups are built on the pressure of ignorance.

Vignelli adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

MV: Love is a cake that comes in layers. The top layer is the most appealing one. This is the one you see first. Then you cut into it and you see many different layers. They’re all beautiful, but some are sweeter than others.

How do I define love? I define it as a very intense passion on the one hand, and a very steady level on the other. The first layer, the one of passion, is the most troublesome. God, it’s a pain.

DM: Why?

MV: Because the more you love, the more jealous you get. You become jealous of everything, the air around the person, the people, a look, even the way they look at something. Then there is the extreme pleasure of writing about love, as well. This is fascinating to me. The layer of correspondence — and the anxiety to receive answers. That is great.

Finally you come to the physical layer. The emotion of receiving and conveying pleasure is sensational. It’s unbelievable how your entire body becomes a messenger. Your fingers, lips, eyes, smells. Your whole body becomes involved.

Then there is the layer of suffering. Distance, remoteness, no presence, horror. The suffering of not seeing who you want to see, and not being with whom you love. This is another painful aspect of love. We are talking about pain. All these layers define love. I think that is why it’s so great and so extremely complex.

Like other great creators, including Paula Scher, William Gibson, and Henry Miller, Vignelli recognizes the combinatorial quality of creative work as a sum-total of one’s lived experience:

One of the great advantages of being so concentrated on your work is that it is all there is. Everything I do comes into this and enriches me. Everything, even every book I read, enriches me.

On the life of purpose:

DM: Do you think that there’s a common denominator to people who can make a great contribution? Do you think that there’s something that–

MV: Unites them? Yes. What in Greek is called sympathy, the synchronization of pathos. You feel this incredible level of connection with these people. To a certain extent, it is equally comparable to love.

On the poetics of New York, echoing Anaïs Nin:

New York is a fabulous city. It’s like a magnet. I can’t leave anymore. There is nothing that can compare to New York. And it is not even beautiful. There are hundreds, thousands of other cities that are much more beautiful. But there is only one New York.

On design vs. art:

DM: How do you generally start a project?

MV: By listening as much as I can. I am convinced the solution is always in the problem. You could do a design that you like, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Design must solve a problem. Then, the design is exciting. But I find it extremely difficult. This is why I respect artists. Without a problem, I don’t exist. Artists are lucky; they can work by themselves. They don’t need a problem.

Three years after the publication of How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, Vignelli joined Millman on her inimitable Design Matters podcast, which was recently awarded the People’s Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards. The interview is well worth a listen in its entirety, but here are some of the most stimulating bits:

On the designer’s responsibility to elevate people rather than lower them down, echoing E. B. White on the responsibility of the writer:

Marketing people look down to people. Instead, a good designer or a good, responsible client looks up to people. … One has to believe in the redeeming factor of education, in the redeeming factor of not spreading vulgarity. … Commercial things are done by people that want to exploit other people and couldn’t care less about quality. We are interested [in] quality. … Nobility is our life — isn’t that great?

On combating vulgarity with intellectual refinement and education as a filtration tool:

Knowledge brings you sifting ability.

On print vs. digital books:

Good things will have permanence. Good books will probably stay as a printed form.

A superb definition of “junk”:

Something which is trendy, which is not lasting value, something which is just phony, something which is just insensitive in the details, something which is not elegant, something which is not strong…

On the three pillars of the future of design education:

A designer without a sense of history is worth nothing.

Two years later, in 2012, Millman interviewed Vignelli in this beautiful short film directed by the late and great Hillman Curtis:

Good design is ubiquitous and forever. Bad design is localized and temporary, ephemeral.

You can subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, download The Vignelli Canon as a free PDF or grab a proper print beauty, and treat yourself to How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer.

IMAGE: Painting of Massimo Vignelli by Jessica Helfand via Design Observer

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14 DECEMBER, 2012

Adrienne Rich on Creative Process, Love, Loss, and Public vs. Private Happiness


“No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone… The accidents happen.”

We recently lost beloved poet, essayist, feminist, and MacArthur “genius” Adrienne Rich. After last week’s beautiful reading of her 1968 poem “Gabriel,” I revisited the wonderful PennSound archive at the Kelly Writers House, my alma mater, which houses an extensive collection of Rich poetry readings, conversations, and interviews.

Below, I’ve edited several excerpts from a 2005 discussion revealing a rare glimpse of Rich’s creative process and her relationship with art, love, and loss.

Rich adds to history’s finest definitions of art:

One of the great functions of art is to help us imagine what it is like to be not ourselves, what it is like to be someone or something else, what it is like to live in another skin, what it is like to live in another body, and in that sense to surpass ourselves, to go out beyond ourselves.

On love and loss as the foundation of all art:

Behind all art is an element of desire. … Love of life, of existence, love of another human being, love of human beings is in some way behind all art — even the most angry, even the darkest, even the most grief-stricken, and even the most embittered art has that element somewhere behind it. Because how could you be so despairing, so embittered, if you had not had something you loved that you lost?

On public vs. private happiness:

The question always is there, ‘What kind of a privilege is it just to be able to feel purely and simply happy?’ But we can, and in spite of so much — and in spite of so much knowledge. And, for me, there’s always this issue of private and public happiness.

On her creative process, echoing Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling on where ideas come from:

A poem can come out of something seen, something overheard, listening to music, an article in a newspaper, a book, a combination of all these… There’s a kind of emotional release that I then find in the act of writing the poem. It’s not, ‘I’m now going to sit down and write a poem about this.’

Lastly — because true art is in the doing and not the talking — at a 1985 event at Cornell University, Rich reads from her sublime and sensual Twenty-One Love Poems, found in the fantastic volume The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (UK; public library):

No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone.
The accidents happen, we’re not heroines,
they happen in our lives like car crashes,
books that change us, neighborhoods
we move into and come to love.
Tristan und Isolde is scarcely the story,
women at least should know the difference
between love and death. No poison cup,
no penance. Merely a notion that the tape-recorder
should have caught some ghost of us: that tape-recorder
not merely played but should have listened to us,
and could instruct those after us:
this we were, this is how we tried to love,
and these are the forces they had ranged against us,
and these are the forces we had ranged within us,
within us and against us, against us and within us.

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