The latest episode of 99% Invisible is on one of my favorite subjects: the Acheulean hand axe, arguably the first “designed” object.
Before there was mathematics, engineering, science, art, music, poetry, philosophy, literature, religion, or even language, there was design. There was the Acheulean hand axe.
I wrote a bit about the hand axe back in 2010 and still get excited when I stumble across something about the tool.
re:form has published a fascinating essay from Lauren Archer on the history of the [x] to close button that is central to many of today’s desktop interfaces. She goes digging through the archives and finds, interestingly enough, that the earliest use of the interaction occurs in the Atari TOS:
This is a screenshot of Atari TOS 1.0. Built on top of GEM to be ported to the Atari ST in 1985, from the computers division of Atari Corp. It is the earliest example of the [x] button I’ve been able to find.
So why here? Why now?
This may be another example of Atari, an American company, borrowing from Japanese culture. The first example, of course, being the name Atari itself, a Japanese term from the game Go that means “to hit the target”.
The use of [x] for close and [o] for open could come from the Japanese symbols batsu and maru.
“The only history you can really know is your own. The only art I’m truly an expert on is art I’ve experienced firsthand. As a critic, I’m partly a research analyst, comparing and evaluating new data. But I’m also a curator of my memory, which carries traces of art encounters from over the years. A few of those encounters — with certain objects, books, buildings — have altered the atmosphere, changed how I see and joined a permanent collection that I regularly revisit.”
The Atlantic asks what makes The Wall Street Journal look like The Wall Street Journal. They most notably point out the journal’s longstanding opposition to photography, something I had no idea about:
The Journal, which turns 125 today, long resisted photography. It was a numbers paper, the thinking went, devoted to covering the financial markets and forces that shape the economy. It was text heavy and serious and there was no room—nor any real need—for images.
The Atlantic even points out that on September 12, 2001—a day literally every other paper in the world had a photo of what happened the day before—the Journal simply had a map with black dots pointing to key locations of of the terrorist attacks.
There’s also a cool bit on Dow Text, a typeface created just for the Journal to account of the amount of bleed the paper had:
From there, at 19 printing plants across the country, the Journal would be printed. And so, with each step that got the paper closer to being complete—to the point when it was transmitted to one of those 19 plants—the look of the thing warped. The contours of ink letters swelled along the way, which meant every decision about how the paper ought to look was tethered to this multistep process. It’s why the Journal used a proprietary typeface called Dow Text, because for Dow Text to appear on the page the way the paper’s leaders wanted it to, it had to bleed just enough but not too much.
Another great example of technology influencing design.
An Essay on Design
All the lights are off, save for the one on my desk. It casts a stark diagonal line separating the light and the dark across the keyboard where I type these words. I just put two ice cubes in a small glass and poured some Bulliet whiskey. I take a sip and sit down under the light.
There is a common phrase that goes writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I think Theloneous Monk said it. Or was it Elvis Costello? No one seems to really know for sure. Whoever it was, I think they meant that using one medium to discuss another medium never works—you can’t talk about one thing through another. The work must speak for itself. But it feels fitting to be writing this essay on design because I’ve started to see design and writing as the same thing—both of them are a way of forming ideas and giving ideas form. In fact, the Dutch word for designer is vormgever which translates literally to “form giver”.
Ada Calhoun—writing for The New York Times about Bjarke Ingels new Lego museum—on Lego’s history:
When Ole Kirk Kristiansen founded Lego in 1932, the company made wooden toys, but after World War II, it switched to plastic. The Lego brick as we know it today was developed in the mid-1950s. From the start, it was a feat of classic Scandinavian design: clean, practical, reliable and somewhat revolutionary with its “clutch power,” which made it easy to snap and unsnap. Today, Lego enthusiasts marvel that those first Legos still fit perfectly with the current ones, and that six identical eight-studded bricks can be combined in more than 900 million ways. “The human condition is, sadly, divisive,” the British television host James May said on an episode of his show “Toy Stories,” on which he explored a full-size house he built entirely out of Lego bricks. “But there are simple spiritual experiences that unite all of humanity in unqualified communal joy: sex, the dance, foot massage — and to those I would add the simple sensation of pressing Lego bricks together.”
Alexis Madrigal has a fascinating piece for The Atlantic on the history of ASCII art—images created from typewriter characters. The traditional history starts with BBSs days of the early web but Madrigal takes us all the way back to 1890 (!!!), taking us on a tour of typewriter art, concrete poetry, and even early pixels:
At least one scholar connected up typewriter art and pointilism as pointing the way to the idea of pixels on a screen being used to represent everything.
"Seen from a distance, the hundreds of dots, in virtue of the visual phenomenon known as persistence of vision, coalesced into larger figures," applied mathematician Philip Davis wrote of Georges Seurat’s pointilism. "When in the 1880s typewriters became commonplace, this kind of image was done on the typewriter with letters or blank spaces, was known as typewriter art. In the first generation of computers, typewriter art was automated, and pictures of Washington, Lincoln, Harry Truman etc., were produced in this way. When computer output moved from the typed page to the television or video screen, the whole screen was subdivided into a certain large number, say 1,024 x 1,024 = 1,048,576 areas or so-called ‘pixels’, each of which could be addressed, shaded, coloured or otherwise transformed or manipulated."
In other words, the decomposition of images into lots and lots of little marks was a conceptual step towards the pixel. In this telling, typewriter art is not merely an ancestor of ASCII art, but of everything that goes on a screen. The television, the CRT monitor, the iPhone.
"People like converting text into pictures and vice versa," he writes, "There’s an inherent pleasure to making one type of symbol into another." Madrigal notes that all of us do this every time we sit down in front of a keyboard and transform a parenthesis and colon into a human emotion. :)
Graphic Design Needs a New Revolution
“Every generation needs a new revolution.” —Thomas Jefferson
In the early nineties, desktop publishing dramatically changed how designers approached their work. Typesetting and pasting together comps became a thing of the past. The work began to take shape on screens. But bringing desktop publishing to the masses also induced a fear that the careers of working designers would become irrelevant. The tools of the trade were now available to all, prompting designers to rethink their own approaches.
Around the same time, a surfer-turned-designer in southern California named David Carson started designing the alternative arts and music magazine Ray Gun. Never formally trained in design, Carson used desktop publishing programs to experiment with typography and layouts that matched the irreverance of the magazine’s content, including the now-famous article he set entirely in Dingbat. Looking at Carson and others’ emerging style built around this freedom the computer provided, Steven Heller wrote a scathing piece for Eye Magazine titled The Cult of Ugly where he wrote this new work had a “self-indulgence that informs some of the worst experimental fine art.”
I was so enraptured by the latest episode of 99% Invisible this morning that I’ve already listened to it twice. The episode looked at Wallace Neff’s “bubble houses” and it is completely fascinating.
Wallace Neff—an architect I had never heard of until today—was known for designing homes for celebrities in the 1930s. At the end of World War II, anticipating a housing shortage, Neff developed an idea for low-cost housing using air. With a new building method called airform, Neff designed these bubble houses that were twice as strong as concrete. Though Neff tried to create bubble house communities, the idea never took off and all have been demolished except for the one Neff lived in himself, located in Pasedena, CA. Looking at them now, they still have a strange, futuristic feel to them. It’s a shame many are no longer standing.
Listen to the whole episode—it’s a good one.
Archaeologists from the University of Liverpool have discovered that the same brain activity is used for language production and making complex tools:
Our study found correlated blood-flow patterns in the first 10 seconds of undertaking both tasks. This suggests that both tasks depend on common brain areas and is consistent with theories that tool-use and language co-evolved and share common processing networks in the brain.
Tool making and language are really just the same thing—creativity affirming our humanity.
I have an unusually vivid memory of sitting in my high school library during a photography class my senior year. We were researching photographers and I somehow stumbled down a rabbit hole leading me to discover the work of Tibor Kalman (I also remember reading about Paul Rand and Saul Bass that day).
I remember looking at the work and realizing there was a rich graphic design history. Up to that point, my design knowledge and inspiration came from contemporary, working designers and there I sat discovering for the first time the designers who came before me; the ones who helped get us to where we are today. In a weird way, that moment set me on a path towards a deep understanding and love of design history.
This week, I won a first edition copy of Tibor’s monograph on eBay. I’ve spent the morning looking through it and I was immediately taken back to my high school library, and to that unfiltered love of the craft I now get to work on every single day.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Graphic Design
“I am a designer—linguist Roman Jakobson famously quipped that asking a writer about literature was like asking an elephant about zoology—so I am inherently unqualified to talk about design.” —Michael Rock1
I’m starting to think I don’t really even know what graphic design is anymore. Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself reflecting on the graphic design profession—what we do and how we do it, our individual and collective output, and our contribution to the culture at large. I tend to turn thoughts like these over in my head every couple months—usually through the lens of my own work—but this time the thoughts were more severe, the thinking more expansive. The graphic design profession keeps getting wider and wider, our role constantly in flux, taking on new ever-changing responsibilities not to mention the occasional identity crisis (Graphic artist? Visual Communicator? Information Architect?) We can now spend just as much time designing systems and interfaces as we do typefaces and illustrations. Graphic designers can now work with moving images, interactions and sound just as much as line, color, and texture. I’m starting to think none us really know what graphic design is anymore. We’re just making it up as we go.
“We replace looking backward by looking first at ourselves and our surroundings, and replace retrospection with introspection.”