Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

18 JANUARY, 2013

David Byrne’s Hand-Drawn Pencil Diagrams of the Human Condition

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“Science’s job is to map our ignorance.”

David Byrne may have authored both one of last year’s best albums and best music books, but he is also one of the sharpest thinkers of our time and a kind of visual philosopher. About a decade ago, Byrne began making “mental maps of imaginary territory” in a little notebook based on self-directed instructions to draw anything from a Venn diagram about relationships to an evolutionary tree of pleasure — part Wendy MacNaughton, part Julian Hibbard, yet wholly unlike anything else. In 2006, Byrne released Arboretum (UK; public library), a collection of these thoughtful, funny, cynical, poetic, and altogether brilliant pencil sketches — some very abstract, some very concrete — drawn in the style of evolutionary diagrams and mapping everything from the roots of philosophy to the tangles of romantic destiny to the ecosystem of the performing arts.

Möbius Structure of Relationships

Writing in the introductory essay simply titled “Why?,” Byrne considers our remarkable capacity for rationalization and the role of the non-rational in science:

Maybe it was a sort of self-therapy that worked by allowing the hand to ‘say’ what the voice could not.

Irrational logic — I’ve heard it called that. The application of logical scientific rigor and form to basically irrational premises. To proceed, carefully and deliberately, from nonsense with a a straight face, often arriving at a new kind of sense.

But how can nonsense ever emerge as sense? No matter how convoluted or folded, it will still always be nonsense, won’t it?

I happen to believe that a lot of scientific and rational premises are irrational to begin with — that the work of much science and academic inquiry is, deep down, merely the elaborate justification of desire, bias, whim, and glory. I sense that to some extent the rational ‘thinking’ areas of our brains are superrationalization engines. They provide us with means and justifications for our more animal impulses. They allow us to justify them both to ourselves and then, when that has been accomplished, to others.

Social Information Flow

Human Content

Hidden Roots

More than half a century after Vannevar Bush’s timeless meditation on the value of connections in the knowledge economy, Byrne echoes Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky and contributes a beautiful addition to history’s finest definitions of science:

If you can draw a relationship, it can exist. The world keeps opening up, unfolding, and just when we expect it to be closed — to be a sealed sensible box — it shows us something completely surprising. In fact, the result and possibly unacknowledged aim of science may be to know how much it is that we don’t know, rather than what we do think we know. What we think we know we probably aren’t really sure of anyway. At least if can get a sense of what we don’t know, we don’t be guilty of the hubris of thinking we know any of it. Science’s job is to map our ignorance.

The Legacy of Good Habits

Morally Repugnant

Gustatory Rainbow

Imaginary Social Relationships

Christian Subcultures

Yes Means No

Psychological History

One of the diagrams from Arboretum, Roots of War in Popular Song (forest of no return), appears in the Art Pickings pop-up gallery and is available from 20×200. (In fact, it graces the wall I wake up to every morning.)

Thanks, Wendy

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16 JANUARY, 2013

Gorgeous Vintage British Road Safety Ads, 1939-1946

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“Lookout in the blackout — think before you cross the road.”

Vintage visual communication has a special kind of mesmerism — from travel posters to political infographics to science ads. But beautifully designed vintage PSAs and public-interest propaganda stand as a particularly striking echelon of design as a mind-mover, and perhaps a bittersweet testament to the downhill spiral of similarly intentioned modern-day creative efforts. On the heels of this 1969 bike safety manual come a series of stunning vintage road safety from the UK National Archives.

'Shine your torch downwards when crossing the road' (1939-1946)

Artist: Tom Gentleman

Pastel and gouache on paper. Graphite lines, numbers and inscriptions.

'Drivers; make sure you can always pull up within the range of your headlights' (1939-1946)

Artist: Tom Gentleman

Pastel and gouache on paper. Graphite lines, numbers and inscriptions.

'Cyclists; make sure you can be seen in the black-out' (1939-1946)

Artist: Tom Gentleman

Pastel and gouache on paper. Graphite lines, numbers and inscriptions.

Female and male figures walking at night (1939-1946)

Artist: Tom Gentleman

Pastel and gouache on paper. Graphite lines, numbers and inscriptions.

'Take no chances. Keep death off the road' (1939-1946)

Artist: Ashley

'Lookout in the blackout. Think before you cross the road' (1939-1946)

Artist: Pat Keely

Gouache appears to have been applied to thick paper stuck to a board support. Ink has possibly been used for the technique of air-brushing.

'Look out in the blackout. Until your eyes get used to the darkness take it easy' (1939-1946)

Artist: Pat Keely

Gouache appears to have been applied to thick paper stuck to a board support. Ink has possibly been used for the technique of air-brushing.

'Cross only at the lights' (1939-1946)

Artist: Pat Keely

Gouache appears to have been applied to thick paper stuck to a board support. Ink has possibly been used for the technique of air-brushing. There is a graphite mark on the board.

'Lookout in the blackout - think before you cross the road' (1939-1946)

Artist: Pat Keely

Gouache appears to have been applied to thick paper stuck to a board support. Ink has possibly been used for the technique of air-brushing. There is a graphite mark on the board.

'Walk left of the pavement' (1939-1946)

Artist: Pat Keely

Gouache appears to have been applied to thick paper stuck to a board support. Ink has possibly been used for the technique of air-brushing.

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14 JANUARY, 2013

Head Garden: A Lyrical Animated Film by Lilli Carré

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I’ve been a longtime admirer of Chicago-based artist Lilli Carré’s tender illustration and clever comics, but only recently came across her film Head Garden — a lyrical, surreal, mesmerizing exegesis of what it’s like to lose your head.

Heads or Tails (public library), a sublime collection of Carré’s short story comics from the past five years, was published last November and is an absolute treat:

Complement with the musical animated film Iterations.

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11 JANUARY, 2013

How People Earn and Use Money: Vibrant Vintage Illustrations from 1968

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“Before spending money a person should be sure he is doing the right thing.”

With the fiscal cliff towering over the mainstream media, one has to wonder how America cultivated its relationship with money and the economic mindset that got us where we are today. In 1968, at the peak of “the century of the self” and the consumerism of the Mad Men era, while Alan Watts was busy bringing Eastern philosophy to the West and trying to convince Americans to seek purpose beyond money, a primary school supplement titled How People Earn and Use Money (UK; public library) — from the same Social Studies Program series that gave us How People Live in the Suburbs and How We Use Maps and Globes — set out to explain to children the basics of economic theory and its implications for everyday life.

But far from a mere educational tool, the vibrant vintage primary-color illustrations by artist Jack Faulkner and words by Muriel Stanek capture both the era’s characteristic biases and the naiveté of an overly simplistic view of the market economy — from the gender stereotypes dictating what types of jobs are appropriate for men and women to the blind faith in banks that seems in retrospect a caricature of the recent global recession to the tragic conditioning that work for money alone is the only kind of work.

(The woman speaking with the male credit manager, of course, isn’t there to get a loan for a new business venture, but for a new fridge and stove.)

How People Earn and Use Money, sadly long out of print, was part of a Basic Understanding series of primary school supplements, also including such out-of-print treasures as How People Earn and Use Money, How Farms Help Us, and How Our Government Helps Us.

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