Forms and Functions
From “The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid.”
By STEVEN HELLER
Published: August 20, 2010
In 1847, Oliver Byrne, “surveyor of Her Majesty’s settlements in the Falkland Islands and author of numerous mathematical works,” wrote and designed an illustrated book so far ahead of its time that, with the exception of a few passé typographical details, it could have been published today. In fact, it has been published today, as a stunning boxed facsimile edition. Given its “less is more” layout and primary-color palette — red, blue, yellow, black — THE FIRST SIX BOOKS OF THE ELEMENTS OF EUCLID: In Which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols Are Used Instead of Letters for the Greater Ease of Learners (Taschen, $59.99) prefigures the art and design of 20th-century avant-garde movements. Yet although the illustration on the title page is the spitting image of a de Stijl and Bauhaus design, the mid-19th- century publishing date disqualifies it from being “modern” in the Museum of Modern Art sense of the word. Now, that’s obtuse.
From “Art of McSweeney’s”
Sure, the book may have one of those lengthy old-fashioned titles, but “The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid” is so rationalist, minimalist and aesthetically pure, every graphic designer, book lover and math nerd will be as awe-struck as I was. (It comes with a pamphlet containing an essay by Werner Oechslin, an architectural historian and theorist.) In the 1980s, the graphic-design historian Philip B. Meggs introduced me to the book through his illustrated series of articles in Print magazine called “Landmarks of Book Design.” Later, at a rare-book fair, when I saw an actual copy, with its vibrant color illustrations of geometric shapes, I decided I had to own an original. Of course, I would have had to mortgage the house, kids and dog to acquire it; so this facsimile not only satisfies my desire, it is more economical and functional in the bargain. I can actually page through the book without fear or guilt — and if it gets dog-eared, I can buy another.
Every high school student has suffered through Euclid’s fundamentals of geometry, which is why the pragmatic Byrne wrote: “The arts and sciences have become so extensive, that to facilitate their acquirement is of as much importance as to extend their boundaries. Illustration, if it does not shorten the time of study, will at least make it more agreeable.” Lo and behold, he was right. The color symbols — circles, squares, diamonds, etc. — effectively substitute for key words, rebus-style, making comprehension much simpler. By the time the complicated theorems and formulas appear, toward the end of the book, the reader is fluent in the visual language.
“This work,” Byrne continues, “has a greater aim than mere illustration; we do not introduce colors for the purpose of entertainment, or to amuse by certain combinations of tint and form, but to assist the mind in its researches after truth, to increase the facilities of instruction and to diffuse permanent knowledge.”
The time has long passed since I was forced to learn Euclidean geometry, but I believe this masterpiece of beautifully functional book design is so effective it could even help recalcitrant students today — perhaps as aniPhone app.
Byrne made complex information accessible, which is a job qualification for a graphic designer. One of the designer’s roles is to turn disorder into order, particularly when it comes to everyday documents like forms for banks, insurance companies, utilities, the census and so much more. When they are logically, rationally and, yes, handsomely designed, it could mean the difference between minutes and hours of labor. This is why THE FORM BOOK: Creating Forms for Printed and Online Use (Thames & Hudson, $65), by Borries Schwesinger, is so necessary. Not only is this an invaluable handbook for designers, it should open the eyes of anyone who produces forms.
But form users stand to benefit too, since they are probably unaware of the mundane details that go into making effective forms, details that, if ignored or rendered poorly, can lead to extreme frustration. For example, the book examines page numbering: “When a form consists of multiple pages, it is essential to number them.” Sounds obvious, but take a look at your forms and see how often page numbers are missing. And what about contact details? “They establish a practical connection with the provider, indicating who sent the form, where it should be returned.” And, naturally, typography is an overriding concern that is often ignored: “Good typography is a prerequisite for optimal legibility and demands a particular and considered approach to text. . . . Type can be austere or accessible, straight or rounded, emotive or exaggerated.”
Unless one has an obsessive- compulsive streak for filling out forms, this manual will probably seem arcane. However, one possible unintended consequence of “The Form Book,” which should concern everyone, is seeing in the numerous examples, from government agencies and private companies, just how much data — personal and otherwise — is regularly being collected from all of us. Not even good design will mitigate these privacy concerns.
There are no forms to be found in STRANGE AND WONDERFUL: An Informal Visual History of Manuscript Books and Albums (Sanctuary, $50), with an introduction by the art critic Jed Perl. But there are selections from a delightful handmade book called “Collezione di Rebus” (1820), with original watercolor drawings that replace words in sentences or phrases. This was produced 27 years before Oliver Byrne used the rebus concept in “The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid,” though there is no evidence to prove that this is where he got the idea. Doubtless not a single professional artist or designer was inspired by the journals and albums in this book, since each of them is the work of an amateur, although some were created by people who wanted to be published authors.
“Certain volumes are not so much finished products,” Perl writes, “as means to an end, for the authors surely hoped that what had at first been made by hand would eventually make its way through the printing press.” These specimens are organized according to genre (rather than date), from “Advertising” and “Album Amicorum” to “Walmart” and “Weaving.” None follow strict design conventions, and virtually all of them have some kind of undeniably quirky essence. “Weaving,” for instance, contains geometric patterns in red, blue and a hint of yellow, not unlike the illustrations in the Euclid book.
My favorite is the “Monograms” journal, which recalls Saul Steinberg’s fixation with official seals and monograms, yet without the satirical edge. These monograms were cut out from various sources and used as building blocks in other compositions. Likewise, the book under the heading “Emblems” reveals a fascination with the manipulation of letter forms that are similar to contemporary logos and trademarks. Some of the books are personalized how-to manuals, like the one for “Carpentry,” with detailed drawings of moldings and stairways. Others, like “Cat Story,” are maquettes for comic graphic novellas.
There is no real rhyme (though there is certainly a reason) for what the editor, Dan Wechsler, has included in “Strange and Wonderful.” But the combination of old and recent photography and drawing, some of it surreal and some of it quite real, triggers a stimulating visual, often contemplative experience. Indeed, these books are not unlike some blogs today — only it’s more fun to turn real pages.
For some bibliophiles, there is no greater pleasure than looking at smartly conceived and elegantly designed book covers and jackets. The next best thing just might be paging through PENGUIN 75: Designers, Authors, Commentary (the Good, the Bad . . .) (Penguin, paper, $25), edited by Paul Buckley, a noted creative director at Penguin.
This lushly illustrated book is a testament to the importance of design in Penguin’s publishing program. In 1946, the modernist typographer Jan Tschichold revamped its entire design scheme — though a lot has changed since then. The covers have become more conceptual and typographically variegated. Buckley also consistently uses young illustrators whose styles add contemporary luster to the books. And in recent years he’s recruited a group of graphic novelists, like Chris Ware (who wrote the foreword to this book), Jason Lambiek, Julie Doucet, Art Spiegel man and Daniel Clowes, among many others.
The book features 75 Penguin covers (in celebration of the publisher’s 75th anniversary), with the designers, illustrators and authors commenting on the process and result. The most interesting parts involve short “Rashomon”-type stories in which authors and designers tell their respective tales. But it is also nice to learn how authors feel when they see their babies — i.e., their books — wearing jackets and covers for the first time (most authors, mercifully, do not have a say in the art). I particularly liked the novelist Penelope Lively’s admission: “I am always wonderfully startled by the first sight of the jacket art for a forthcoming book — Oh! So that’s how they see it!”
Dave Eggers, who studied art and design in college, has created a distinct identity for his McSweeney’s publishing empire, based on new writing, ironic visual content and an expanding universe of artists and designers. In ART OF McSWEENEY’S (Chronicle, $45), by the editors of McSweeney’s, 11 years of alternative-publishing history are packed into 263 pages. And what comes through, as it does in “Penguin 75,” is an appreciation for good design and a preference for comics. McSweeney’s champions Chris Ware, Tony Millionaire, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns and others. The entire McSweeney’s No. 13, covered with a foldout comics page by Ware, was devoted to old and new comics and was guest-edited by Ware as well.
Comics are not the sum total of McSweeney’s graphic personality, but they play a huge role in cementing the literary and visual personas in both McSweeney’s and its sister publication, The Believer. Since many literary journals avoid a strong visual presence — perhaps because it competes with the writing — it’s refreshing that Eggers has successfully combined the two mediums and their aesthetics. McSweeney’s has become a hothouse of 21st-century editorial graphics, and this book proves it.
When the history of 21st-century popular art is written, Maira Kalman will be included alongside McSweeney’s. They embody the zeitgeist in different yet similar ways. Both use art to entertain and inform, but not in a didactic or polemical way. Whereas popular art in the ’60s was acidly satirical, even angry (and for good reason), McSweeney’s artists and Kalman offer a more laid-back worldview. Wit and humor still abound, but so does a curious, comforting optimism, especially in Kalman’s impressionistic work.
Ingrid Schaffner’s MAIRA KALMAN: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) (Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania/DelMonico/Prestel, $34.95), the catalog from Kalman’s first major museum exhibition, for the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, is also the first analytical/historical monograph devoted to her. Until now, her art has mostly been seen in her children’s and adult books, as well as in various other publications, including The New York Times (where her illustrated blogs “And the Pursuit of Happiness” and “The Principles of Uncertainty” appeared). A catalog is always going to be a different experience.
Comparing this with Kalman’s original books would not be fair. Those were total entities, with narrative arcs. This is a document (midway through her career) that records her work in a collection of independent images, and therefore lacks some of the artist’s storytelling verve. The biographical chronology is useful, and the essays, by Schaffner and other scholars, are a good foundation for further study. But the book could use Kalman’s delightfully quirky ooh-la-la voice.