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Beyond Pretty Pictures: Marian Bantjes on Serendipity, Success, and the Whimsy of Design

“If you have something of interest to say, it’s OK to make people work for it. … It makes them feel triumphant when they succeed.”

In 2010, celebrated graphic artist and designer Marian Bantjes — fairy godmother of exquisite typographic magic, whose influence so clearly reverberates through the work of such design-darling wunderkinds as Jessica Hische — gave us the glorious I Wonder. Now, Bantjes is back with Pretty Pictures (public library) — a magnificent and monumental six-pound monograph that is, of course, far more than what the irreverently literal title suggests, inviting us into a life’s-work wonderland of enchantment, beauty, thoughtfulness, opinionation, and imaginative defiance of convention.

Reflecting on her signature style of bridging the refined elegance of the past with the exponentially evolving self-invention of the present, Bantjes, feisty as ever and capable of deploying the word “splorp” with such infinitely delightful precision, considers her own journey amidst a culture of oppressive and unimaginative fads:

I first became known for my interest in ornament and, if you will, fancy curves and elegant lines married to contemporary shapes: pixels and squares and geometric forms. I have never tried to recreate the past: the past was already done well. But I wanted to resurrect motifs that had been abandoned by modernism and the pseudo-modernist culture of contemporary design, without being nostalgic. I was at the beginning of a movement that rose like a wave and quickly crashed over us in a splorp of thoughtless ornamentation. In a way, ornamentation was undone in the 21st century by the same mechanization that undid it in the 19th. The Victorian era was known for the proliferation of a morass of printed ornament parts that were used and combined willy-nilly and to excess by mass-production printers. The neo-decorative movement of the past decade was similarly glutted by a laying-on of clipart curves, sprayed flowers and the vomit of organic shapes that poured out of digital paintbrushes. For the few of us who were genuinely interested in exploring the marriage of old and new, and in resurrecting and perfecting a purity of form, it was already too late. Curves and swirls are over, man. They were trampled in the digital, faddish stampede without so much as a glance towards quality or invention. Very few people seem to have an eye for a good curve, fewer still the ability to make one. Despite the genuine pleasure I still get in creating the loop-de-loop, I blocked off the arabesques quite soon — my interests were broader and more complex.

Known for her intricate designs of deliciously challenging legibility, Bantjes considers this a part of the creative game:

I strongly feel that if you have something of interest to say, it’s OK to make people work for it. People enjoy using their brains, figuring things out. It makes them feel triumphant when they succeed.

Bantjes offers her seven criteria for what makes desirable design:

  1. It should arrest and hold attention.
  2. It should then invoke curiosity.
  3. It should surprise.
  4. It should invoke wonder.
  5. It should bring joy.
  6. It should be memorable.
  7. Bonus points if it’s funny.

Echoing Debbie Millman’s assertion that “lives are shaped by chance encounters” and Steve Jobs’s famous anecdote of how he stumbled into a typography class that led him to forever change the face of computing, Bantjes recounts the serendipitous circumstances of her plunge into design — which involved walking into a second-hand bookstore to get change for the bus and encountering a small, handwritten ad for a job in a publishing company —

As an atheist, I’m not comfortable with the notion of fate, but looking back over anyone’s life, it’s possible to see those turning points, those key twists in life that turn some random act of everyday living into a crossroad.

[…]

There is no formula for success: no way to say first you do this, then that, then this. Shit happens. Shit happens to you and because of you and around you, and in the end you find yourself in some place you never expected to be.

Pretty Pictures is absolutely stunning, at once a treasure trove of visual mesmerism and a fascinating glimpse into one of the most singular, inventive, and influential minds in contemporary design.

BP

Jeanette Winterson on Adoption, Belonging, and How We Use Storytelling to Save Ourselves

“When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”

The yearning to belong is one of the greatest human longings, just as the fractures of belonging are among our most profound trauma. But English writer and modern-day queer literary icon Jeanette Winterson — who also brought us that infinitely poetic answer to a child’s question about how we fall in love — finds in these very fractures a gateway to wholeness. In her exquisite and harrowing memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (public library), Winterson plunges into the depths of her psyche to extract profound insight, at once intensely personal and poignantly universal, into how we use stories to find and save ourselves.

Adopted into an unhappy family and raised by a depressed, abusive mother, Winterson was violently flung into the depths of self-exploration, where she contemplated — had no choice but to contemplate — the essence of adoption as a formative force in human identity. Though her own experience was negative, she steps beyond it to consider the broader mechanisms of self-salvation we all confront in our quest for wholeness and belonging, which we set into motion through the stories we tell ourselves and others:

Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb. The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story — of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you — and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.

That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.

She later adds:

Whatever adoption is, it isn’t an instant family — not with the adoptive parents, and not with the rediscovered parents. … Adoption is so many things at once. And it is everything and nothing.

In this missingness Winterson finds her own answer to the eternal question of why writers write:

It’s why I am a writer — I don’t say ‘decided’ to be, or ‘became’. It was not an act of will or even a conscious choice. To avoid the narrow mesh of [my mother’s] story I had to be able to tell my own. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.

Winterson, whose mother used to punish her by locking her out of the house and leaving her sitting outside on the doorstep overnight until the milkman came, reflects on how the sense of non-belonging reverberated through her own ability to relate to others. She writes with heartbreaking — and heartbroken — wryness:

I spent most of my school years sitting on the railings outside the school gates in the breaks. I was not a popular or a likeable child; too spiky, too angry, too intense, too odd. The churchgoing didn’t encourage school friends, and school situations always pick out the misfit. Embroidering THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED on my gym bag made me easy to spot.

But even when I did make friends I made sure it went wrong . . .

If someone liked me, I waited until she was off guard, and then I told her I didn’t want to be her friend any more. I watched the confusion and upset. The tears. Then I ran off, triumphantly in control, and very fast the triumph and the control leaked away, and then I cried and cried, because I had put myself on the outside again, on the doorstep again, where I didn’t want to be.

Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe that anyone loves you for yourself.

Winterson’s present wisdom on love was hard-earned:

It has taken me a long time to learn how to love — both the giving and the receiving. I have written about love obsessively, forensically, and I know/knew it as the highest value. I loved God of course, in the early days, and God loved me. That was something. And I loved animals and nature. And poetry. People were the problem. How do you love another person? How do you trust another person to love you? I had no idea. I thought that love was loss.

She returns to how this formative experience of grappling with belonging and love shaped her as a writer by teaching her that, much like the therapeutic quality of art, the therapeutic quality of storytelling is found as much in what is told as in what is left out of the story:

Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world. … There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control.

When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.

When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.

[…]

I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words. … I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is an unspeakably fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Maya Angelou on home and belonging.

Jeanette Winterson portrait by Peter Peitsch

BP

Naomi Wolf’s Spectacular, No-Bullshit Letter of Advice to Her Younger Self

“Don’t gossip; it makes you untrustworthy. . . . Kindness is everything.”

Naomi Wolf was only twenty-six when she began writing the cult-classic The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, which went on to become a bestseller that shaped the cultural narrative on beauty and identity. Confronted with her sudden success, Wolf had to face the demon of “Fear of Having Too Much” — that peculiar ghoul of private self-doubt in the face of public affirmation and material rewards, which so often manifests itself in our conflicted relationship with money. Two years after the publication of The Beauty Myth, Wolf reflected on this demon, a downside of success to which she believes women are particularly susceptible, in her meditation on female power in the 21st century, Fire with Fire:

I reacted by moving further into the elaborate complex of stupidity about money that I had begun to pick up in college. Like many women, I went into a numbers-induced fog that enveloped me whenever I had to discuss my income. I was embarrassed talking to the woman who helped me with my taxes. I thought it was inappropriate for me to learn the least detail about handling my income.

In What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self (public library) — a heartening collection of 41 extraordinary women’s life-tested learnings, including contributions from Maya Angelou, Madeleine Albright, and Roz Chast — Wolf looks back on her early experience with success and money, offering some sage, succinct, no-bullshit advice on life that, while directed at her twenty-something self, holds refreshing and timeless wisdom for all ages and genders:

Dear Younger Self,

INVEST FIFTY BUCKS IN THE STOCK MARKET EVERY MONTH!! You don’t need to eat out so much. Think of all that compound interest!

If they don’t have beards and aren’t clean-shaven either, they make good short-term but bad long-term boyfriends. Beware.

Stop worrying about making people happy or getting people’s approval.

Forget trends; go for the classics.

Don’t gossip; it makes you untrustworthy.

Condoms, condoms, condoms.

Kindness is everything.

(For some reflections in a similar spirit from yours truly, see 7 things I’ve learned in 7 years of Brain Pickings.)

Complement What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self with Dear Me, which features luminaries’ letters to their 16-year-old selves, and The Letter Q, queer writers’ wise and wonderful letters to their young selves, then revisit Wolf’s most recent work, exploring the science of stress and orgasm.

BP

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