Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

05 MARCH, 2009

Sign of The Times: Data Visualization Heaven


158 years of the cultural dialog, replayed and rewritten in visual language.

Newspapers have long been a paradise of visual information — from the early 20th century isotype language pioneered by Otto Neurath, to the elaborate vintage infographics we so love. So imagine our excitement when The New York Times announced Times Open last week, an open API initiative encouraging the development of applications around The Times‘ enormous vault of data.

If you swim in the shallow end of the geek pool, fear not: Here’s the Cliff’s Notes on API — it stands for application programing interface and is pretty much what shapes the behavior of one application as it interacts with others. For example, a WordPress plugin that displays your latest tweets on your blog uses the Twitter API to work the magic.

But what makes the NYT development particularly important is that the API opens up data from the paper’s entire 158-year archive — from the Civil War to the moon landing to the latest Radiohead album reviews — allowing developers and artists alike to do just about anything with it.

And they already are.

Vancouver-based generative software artist Jer Thorp has done a series of visualizations exploring the social conversation around certain terms as reflected in The Times over the last 27 years.

From the gossip on sex and scandal, to a face-off between the most iconic superheroes, to the increasing anxiety about global warming, the series is a visual documentary of our collective concern over issues big and small, the kind of mundane chatter and momentous movements that define a culture.

San Diego artist and developer Tim Schwartz is digging even deeper with visualizations of history that use The New York Times’ entire 158-year corpus of data. His interface plots terms over time, exploring how the cultural dialog has changed as our society evolves. It’s amazing to think some of our cultural givens were virtually nonexistent less than a century ago — like, for example, homosexuality, practically unspoken about publicly until the 70’s.

But perhaps most fascinating is how this changes and almost reverses the relationship between newspapers and data visualization — traditionally, infographics in publishing are visual representations of extraneous information that complements the newspaper’s depiction of the outside world, its message. This — the visualization of meta-data about the newspaper itself — is pretty much the opposite, an introspective analysis of the medium as it shapes the message.

If you find yourself intrigued by and drawn to this world of data visualization, do check out this excellent introduction to it, a wonderful find by our friends at BBH Labs.

via Nieman Journalism Lab

03 MARCH, 2009

The Art of Identity


What bathroom signage has to do with aviator masks and our shared existential journey.

The notion of identity has always been a fundamental subject of restless exploration in art. Today, we look at 3 very different creative meditations on the tools of crafting, disguising and exposing the self — masks and costumes.


Argentinian brothers Ariel and Sebas Vocalino are a double shot of talent. The art director (Ariel) and photographer (Sebas) duo’s latest project, a digital series titled Turista, explores the existential journey each of us is on through the eyes of a lonely traveler.

The tourist is, for us, a man who knows that is on the way, who enjoys every moment and every place he walks by. The tourist is someone who lives the present very consciously. He is a person who is lonely and connects to the places through his look.

In the first part of the series, the masked voyager has traveled to places from the brothers’ own lives — their parents’ apartment, their club, downtown in their hometown of Buenos Aires — places and situations common for the brothers, into which they invite others through the tourist.

This excellent interview with the brothers sheds light on their creative process, their inspiration, and the places the tourist is yet to take them — take a look.


It’s no secret we love steampunk. Which is why we dig Ukrainian artist Bob Basset’s steampunk take on culture’s most (in)famous masks.

From aviators to doctors to gas masks, his work ranges from the bizarre to the brilliant, meticulously crafted and implicitly concerned with culture’s historical need for facewear.

Now, if he could only steampunk that Joker ski mask

via BoingBoing


In 1989, New York costume designer Yvette Helin became increasingly fascinated by the generic graphic images of people used on many types of signage — faceless figures intended to convey broader concepts. This gave birth to ongoing performance art known as The Pedestrian Project — silent performers wearing entirely black custom-made costumes modeled after the signs, roaming the streets and other public venues and mimicking the lives of everyday people.

Since the project’s inception, The Peds have toured the world, from the MoMA to the Prague Quadrennial.

The project is part visual art, part pure whimsy, part social satire that challenges onlookers to do a double-take as they see the familiar graphic icons from signs come to life.

We see the project as a brilliant metaphor for our culture of facelessness — we live in our own little bubbles, iPod earbuds shutting off the outside world, gaze glazing over the swarm of passengers on the subway. We miss the complexity of each stranger we pass by in the street, their passions, their tribulations, their everyday reality. The Peds challenge us to rethink what we dismiss as faceless and generic, to consider the private truths within the public personas we encounter.

27 FEBRUARY, 2009

Repurposed Art: The Second Life of Cardboard


The alter egos of discarded cardboard, what Edvard Munch has to do with recycling, and the only violin Itzhak Perlman can’t play.

Today, we’re looking at a ubiquitous and often overlooked material — cardboard — and fresh ways of breathing new life into it beyond the obvious call for recycling. Because reusing is great, but repurposing into something that makes a bigger cultural contribution, well, that’s immeasurably better.


Most of us see corrugated paper as a shameful piece of packaging waste, begging to be recycled — if we pay attention to it in the first place, that is. But for artist Mark Langan, it is the proverbial canvas for a truly unique kind of art.

Mark makes Corrugated Art — a celebration of “the unique properties of a highly visible manufactured product” by creatively repurposing it into fully recyclable artwork.

Mark’s commercial work includes a number of corporate logos. Some, of course, are more appropriate than others — Packaging Company of America is a no-brainer, but we fail to see how the sustainability message fits with the bottled water industry, easily among the world’s least sustainable.

We’re big fans of repurposing here — both physically, as a way to minimize waste, and conceptually, as a challenge to conceive of the ordinary in a an extraordinarily novel way. So go ahead and explore Mark’s work — you’ll never look at cardboard the same way again.


The work of British artist Chris Gilmour isn’t merely about giving old materials new life — it’s about provoking amazement and surprise and a new understanding of everyday reality.

Gilmour makes life-sized sculptures made out of packaging cardboard. But as immaculate as his craftsmanship is, his art transcends the realm of craft — it’s a commentary on the process of deconstruction and construction, an aesthetic and conceptual narrative about the routines of daily life, an exploration of the often thin line between reality and unreality.

Gilmour’s work has progressed from objects that capture the emotion and memory of first-hand experiences — a bicycle, a typewriter, a piano — to pieces of broader cultural context.

Explore Chris Gilmour‘s work and process — his sculptures are a true testament to art’s transformative power in both material and mind, inspiring new ways of thinking through new ways of doing.


Simply-named American company Cardboard Design offers all kinds of cardboard-made castles, forts, rockets, playhouses, dollhouses, teepees, dens, chairs and pods — play-therapy for kids being nursed on the sustainable lifestyle from birth. Great already. But beyond the they also have something called liquid cardboard — a line of products that move freely from one shape to another.

Each item is an absolute chameleon, with the capacity to transform into anything from a vase to a bowl to a candle holder to a stress toy — creative clay to be molded solely by your imagination.

We also love Cardboard Design‘s “Cardboard Speaks” guerrilla campaign — a quirky effort aimed at making passers-by question the mundane material and toy with the prospect of its second life.

Here’s to looking at the ordinary and envisioning the extraordinary — even if it’s “mere” cardboard we’re looking at.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2009

Similarities: Because It’s All Been Done


What Einstein has to do with copyright, where indie bands get their concert posters, and why there’s no such thing as creativity.

“Everything’s been done.”

Or so goes the adage drilled into every budding art director from the start. Now, we have proof, thanks to Similarities — a Flickr set that pits pairs of similar images against each other, exposing their striking aesthetic and conceptual similarity.

Substantiating Einstein’s bold contention that “the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources,” Similarities takes pairs of cultural artifacts, often separated by decades, and exposes anything from well-meaning homages to blatant rip-offs to the unfortunate overlaps of equally twisted minds.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that Similarities isn’t out to point the finger at the potential (and often clear) theft of ideas — rather, it’s there to shed light on the creative process, to illustrate something we very much believe here at Brain Pickings: That creativity is simply the sum total of your mental resources, the catalog of ideas you’ve accumulated over the years by being alive and alert and attentive to the outside world.

So when you explore Similarities, challenge yourself to question the subconscious influences and stealthy inspiration that creep into your own creative output. What you find may surprise you.

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