Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘advertising’

01 MAY, 2013

Brand Thinking: Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, and Other Mavens on How and Why We Define Ourselves Through Stuff


“In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?”

If you’re lucky, on a few occasions in your lifetime you will comes upon an author in whose writing you experience a rare kind of homecoming, a spiritual embrace. For me, such singular homecomings have taken place in the arms of only a handful of writers — to wit, Virginia Woolf, Ursula K. Le Guin, Italo Calvino, Susan Sontag, Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, E.B White, and, most recently, Mary Ruefle.

It is doubly exulting when one of those rare writers finds the words and rhythms with which to convey what it is, exactly, that transpires in one of those rare moments of homecoming — what reading, at its best, does for the human soul. That’s precisely what Ruefle does in the gorgeously titled 2003 piece “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World,” found in the altogether unputdownable Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (public library).

One of Maurice Sendak's little-known vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Ruefle — a prolific poet and voracious reader herself, having read an estimated 2,400 books in her life — reflects on “the mirrored erotics of this compulsive activity, reading”:

We don’t often watch people very closely when they read, though there are many famous painting of women reading (none that I know of men) in which a kind of quiet eroticism takes place, like that of nursing. Of course, it is we who are being nursed by the books, and then I think of the reader asleep, the open book on his or her chest.


We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten.

'A Young Woman Reading' by Gustave Courbet, ca. 1866–1868

In one pause-giving anecdote, Ruefle illustrates the way that reading ignites the miraculous alchemy of associations that is the hallmark of the human mind. She recalls encountering on “page 248″ of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn an interview with an English farmer who at one point says to Sebald, “I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colours of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind.”

Ruefle found it “an odd thing to say,” but made nothing of it, attributing it to the general quality of Sebald’s book as “a long walk of oddities.” But a few hours later, as she was perusing the dictionary,* she remembered the passage with a jolt as she read the multiple definitions of the word speculum — among them, “a medieval compendium of all knowledge” and “a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds.”

Illustration by Jon Klassen from 'What’s Your Favorite Animal?' Click image for more.

She marvels at the serendipitous alignment of words and worlds:

Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks’ plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one’s heart and the long years that have led to the moment.

Imagine my own shock, then, as a mere sentence later I came upon a passage that bears a striking resemblance to Alain de Botton’s recent meditation on the value of reading, and predates it by more than a decade. Ruefle:

In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and our language, which we alone created, and without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives—is that too much to ask?—retrieved, and read.

Then, De Botton:

It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

Did De Botton plagiarize the passage, consciously or not, perhaps in a bout of cryptomnesia? Or is this an honest case of the same idea occurring independently to two minds unaware of each other’s existence? Whatever the case, the very ability to ask such unanswerable questions is a gift granted by the mental cross-connections that books alone make possible.

Painting from 'My Favorite Things' by Maira Kalman. Click image for more.

But Ruefle’s most evocative point has to do with reading’s role as a dual gateway to our inner wholeness and our connectedness with the universe:

That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things — the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe — what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don’t have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can’t read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, “The giraffe speaks!” in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?

From cover to cover, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures is the kind of book that beckons the pencil to its margins. Complement it with Rebecca Solnit on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, then revisit Kafka — whom Ruefle quotes in the same essay — on what books do for the human spirit.

* Ruefle isn’t merely the type of person who reads the dictionary, but also the type who spends years planning a theoretical course called “Footnotes,” which would require students to read every book mentioned in the footnotes of a definitive text

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09 OCTOBER, 2012

Logo Life: The Visual Evolution of 100 Iconic Logos


“Newton… a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought…alone.”

It takes a special kind of creative alchemy to transmute image into icon and catalyze a cultural cult driven by a commanding brand identity. Logo Life: Life Histories of 100 Famous Logos (public library) from Dutch publisher BIS and creative director Ron van der Vlugt offers exactly what it says on the tin, covering brands as diverse yet uniformly enduring as Apple, LEGO, adidas, Google, Xerox, and VISA. Each short chapter traces the visual evolution the respective brand logo, zooms in on noteworthy milestones in the company’s trajectory, and highlights first-hand accounts and curious anecdotes by the logo designers.

Apple (1976-2007)

Van der Vlugt tells the story of one of today’s most ubiquitous and recognizable brand identities:

Apple’s first logo was complex picture, a tribute to Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree, with a phrase from Wordsworth: ‘Newton… a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought…alone’, along with the name Apple Computer Co.

Hard to reproduce, it was soon replaced by Rob Janoff’s ‘Rainbow Apple’ logo, with the introduction of the Apple II in 1997. In a later interview, Janoff said that there was no real brief. Steve Jobs only told him not to make it ‘too cute’. Ironically, the logo was designed by hand, using pencils and strips of paper.

The colors represented the monitor’s ability to reproduce colors, a unique selling point at the time. Its bright colors were intended to be appealing to young people.

The bite was added so that people would still recognize it as an apple rather than a cherry. According to Janoff, it does not represent the computing term ‘byte’, nor is there any biblical reference. Also, the bite fit snugly around the first letter of the brand name in Motter Tektura, a typeface that was considered cutting-edge at the time.

In 1984, with the introduction of the Apple Macintosh, the less than mathematically precise curves of the original logo were refined. The brand name was dropped at that point, since the apple alone proved to be an iconic symbol for the company.

From 1998 on, with the roll-out of the colorful iMacs, the stylish monochromatic themes of the logo were used, which perfectly matched the innovative character of the products.

LEGO (1934-1998)

Bayer (1881-2010)

BP (1920-2000)

3M (1948-1978)

Pirelli (1906-1945)

For a related treat, complement Logo Life with brand memory game from the same publisher.

Some images via designboom; thanks, Paola

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28 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Ways of Seeing: John Berger’s Classic 1972 BBC Critique of Consumer Culture


Gender roles, the elusive promises of advertising, and what oil painting has to do with the publicity machine.

Forty years ago this year, BBC premiered a series of four 30-minute films written and anchored by art critic and author John Berger. Soon adapted into a book, Ways of Seeing (public library) went on to become a landmark postmodernist critique of Western cultural aesthetics, exploring not only how visual culture came to dominate society but also how ideologies are created and transmitted via images — a subject of pressing timeliness in that golden age of photography.

In the third episode of the series, Berger looks at oil painting and its formative role in the creation of consumer culture, showing that paintings are, before anything else, objects to be bought and sold, and admonishing that “we should be somewhat wary of a love of art”:

Berger writes in the book:

Publicity is the culture of the consumer society. It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself. There are several reasons why these images use the language of oil painting.

Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have. It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.

The final installment in the series explores the world of advertising and its perpetual promise of an even-elusive alternative way of life, depicted through a language of words and images that never cease to seduce us.

This series began by considering the tradition of the European oil painting. It has ended by us looking at publicity images today. Because I believe that, in many respects, these images continue that tradition. I’ve been critical of many things in that tradition, of our culture, of some of the values which it celebrates, and I’ve illustrated my arguments by using the modern means of reproduction. But, finally, what I’ve show and what I’ve said, like everything else that is shown or said through these means of reproduction, must be judged against your own experience.

But one of Berger’s most memorable and lasting contributions is the discussion of how media culture shapes gender politics and woman as object. Though the series was produced four decades ago — shortly after the Good Girls Revolt, a time of tectonic shifts for women’s rights — and much has changed since, it remains a priceless piece of cultural anthropology, as well as a stark reminder of how deep-seated some of our cultural conditioning is, and how much more is still to change if we are to transcend those burdensome bequests:

To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women is developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Ways of Seeing is part The Century of the Self, part Christ to Coke: How Image Became Icon, and wholly recommended in its entirety.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.