Monday, December 17, 2012

Versluis | Behrens Cicada Montage

Cicada Digital Collage (2012) © David Versluis & Roy R. Behrens
Above In an earlier post, I talked about a series of digital collages (or montages) in which graphic designer David Versluis and I collaborated (exchanging files by email) during a period of several weeks in the winter of 2011-2012. I can't remember how many works were in the series (probably ten). Each work progressed through stages. Often, an earlier stage might be just as compelling as a later one. I think this is the final stage of one of my favorites. It began when David emailed me a scan of a cicada from his Iowa insect collection.


From R.V. Jones, “The theory of practical joking—its relevance to physics,” in R.L. Weber, compiler, A Random Walk in Science. London: Institute of Physics, 1973, pp. 10-11—

[American physicist] R.W. Wood is said to have spent some time in a flat in Paris where he discovered that the lady in the flat below kept a tortoise in a window pen. Wood fashioned a collecting device from a broom-handle,and bought a supply of tortoises of dispersed sizes. While the lady was out shopping, Wood replaced her tortoise by one slightly larger. He repeated this operation each day until the growth of the tortoise became so obvious to its owner that she consulted Wood who, having first played a subsidiary joke by sending her to consult a professor at the Sorbonne whom he considered to be devoid of humor, advised her to write the press. When the tortoise had grown to such a size that several pressmen were taking a daily interest, Wood then reversed the process, and in a week or so the tortoise mysteriously contracted to its original dimensions.
From Roy Paul Nelson, The Cartoonist. Eugene OR: Seven Gables Press, 1994, pp. 57-58—

Combining frequent spraying with baby talk, Margaret [a co-worker at a newspaper] worked hard to keep a bevy of plants alive in her work area. She paid special attention to a demagnetized cactus plant she kept next to her computer. This prompted a newsroom prank.
A.L. (Al) Blackerby’s wife ran the Cacti City store in New Camden. With her cooperation, Al and I sneaked back to the office each Friday night to substitute a slightly larger cactus for the one Margaret had grown used to that week. As someone with an art background, I drew the job of finding a cactus that matched the shape of the one to be replaced. The intervention of the weekend helped mask any inconsistencies. The growth change was just enough to catch her attention each Monday. She even wrote a feature, “Computer Nearness Spurs Cactus Growth,” about the phenomenon.
Then, of course, we reversed the process, making the plant grow smaller each week. Eventually we made the changes so dramatic and erratic that she couldn’t help but catch on. She traced the prank to Al and me, and, for a time, she wouldn’t speak to either of us.

One day, after we became friends again, she came to me to ask if I would teach her to drive. It was something I didn’t particularly want to do.

"What about your husband?" I asked.

"Oh, he already knows how."

Monday, December 3, 2012

Book Review | Graphic Design Process

Cover of Graphic Design Process (2012)

Graphic Design Process: From Problem to Solution
by Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell
Laurence King Publishing, London, UK, 2012
192 pp., illus. Paper, £19.95
ISBN: 978-1-85669-826-9.

A solution to a design problem (a poster, book or web design) is a noun: it is a tangible, knowable thing. But the process it develops from is closer to a verb. It is made up of constantly flowing events (like William James’ “stream of consciousness”) and is typically so faint, non-linear, and elusive that we hardly know it’s going on, much less how to grasp and define it.

While its authors admit to the challenge, this book makes a valiant attempt to shed light on the perpetually “moving target” of problem solving in design (a subject that’s closely related, of course, to innovation in any discipline), and it does so in a clever way. It does it by purposely looking aside, not unlike how stars appear more clearly at times by looking at them indirectly. It introduces 20 case studies, by discussing the widely varying work of design teams and designers from throughout the world, by talking with those designers (about their influences, work strategies and beliefs), and by looking for evidence of the process itself, however that might be discernible from thumbnail sketches, experimental studies, preparatory models, and revision proofs.

The works in the book are highly diverse, in part because graphic design is no longer as tightly defined as it was. Today, as the authors remind us, it “spans many media, offers exposure to endless subject material, and reaches into countless other disciplines for inspiration.” Even more distinctions arise because “there is no single way to conduct a design practice” and “every project demands its own way of working.”

The structure of this book reflects the often-bewildering manner in which problems progress toward solutions, sometimes by loopy, meandering routes. The book begins by focusing on two widely shared initial concerns, “research” and “inspiration” (which can and do take many forms), and concludes with “collaboration.” Propped up by these structural bookends are four other sections that deal with more specific means for exploring potential solutions: “drawing,” “narrative,” “abstraction,” and “development.”

What struck the authors (they are teachers as well as designers) is how seemingly little agreement they found among the 23 designers, whose primary zones of concurrence were three: “[T]he busier a designer is, the more ideas mix in the mind for inventive solutions; ideas usually come when a designer least expects them; and exposure to visual art at a young age, through a relative, teacher, or friend, opened a path to design.” more…

Book Review | Nostaglia

Emir of Bukhara in Bukhara (1911), from Nostalgia

Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II. The Russia of Czar Nicholas II in laboriously restored historical color photographs by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii; Robert Klanten, Editor
Gestalten, Berlin, 2012

In 1914 the Russian Empire was among the Allied Powers who went to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Central Powers. Three years later, in the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution, Czar Nicholas II abdicated, Russia withdrew from the conflict, and in 1918, the czar and his family were murdered.

That same year, among the native Russians who left the country, was a chemist and pioneering photographer named Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944). He was wise to leave because his family had ties to the aristocracy and the military, and in recent years, he had been working for the czar. Beginning in 1909, he had been given financial support, a mobile darkroom, and unusually lenient permission to travel, for the purpose of documenting the people, architecture, landmarks and natural surroundings of what was then the largest, most diverse empire in history. That achievement in itself is amazing, but there is another dimension that makes it more extraordinary—Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs were made in color, at a time when color photography was rudimentary. Indeed, it would not be widely available for another 25 years.

This impressive volume is a large-sized “coffee table book” in which are collected (in maximum page size) more than 300 of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs. There are also informative essays about the purpose and range of his travels. Many of these photographs can only be said to be stunning, because of their richness of color, of course, but also because they provide us with eyewitness views of what it was like to be alive under the rule of Nicholas II, as distinct from the later infamous regimes of the Communists. more>>>

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Walt Whitman | Sarah Hedeen

Portrait of Walt Whitman (2012) © Sarah Hedeen

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. Sarah Hedeen chose to portray American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the so-called "father of free verse."


Roy Paul Nelson, The Cartoonist: An Illustrated Story. Eugene OR: Seven Gables Press, 1994, p. 55—

Suddenly he got up, walked to the door, looked out, closed the door, bolted it, and came back in conspiratorial silence. He unfolded a worn sheet to reveal an elaborate but poorly drawn diagram of the male reproduction system with lots of marginal notes.

"This is for an idea I have for a new contraceptive to be taken by men the morning after," he explained. "Don't say anything about this to Mrs. Griffith."

Amelia Earhart | Megan Lehman

Portrait of Amelia Earhart (2012) © Megan Lehman

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. Megan Lehman chose American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), who died when she was 39.


Roy Paul Nelson, The Cartoonist: An Illustrated Story. Eugene OR: Seven Gables Press, 1994, pp. 66-67—

At the time a graduate student in engineering, Ryan had once worked for an American automaker, but he was fired for installing the steering wheels on the right sides of the dashboards. That was his first inkling that he had dyslexia. Fortunately, he got a job with an automaker in England, where he did quite well.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Film Review | Herbert Matter

The Visual Language of Herbert Matter
by Reto Caduff, Director and Writer
PiXiu Films, Zurich, Switzerland, 2011
DVD. 79 mins. Sales, $29.95
Distributor’s website:


In 1927, a twenty-five-year-old American aviator named Charles Lindbergh successfully crossed the Atlantic in a single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Flying non-stop from New York to Paris, Lindbergh was met on his arrival by 150,000 spectators. As revealed in this film biography, in the enormous, frenzied crowd that day was a young Swiss graphic designer (five years younger than Lindbergh) named Herbert Matter.

Matter (1907-1984) was born and raised in Engelberg, Switzerland, an Alpine village and mountain resort where his family owned a bakery and tearoom. Initially, he studied art in Geneva, but in 1927 (the year of Lindbergh’s famous flight) he moved to Paris, where he studied with French artists Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant, and worked with architect Le Corbusier (who was Ozenfant’s associate in their quasi-cubist movement called Purism).

Of greater consequence, Matter also worked with graphic designer A.M. Cassandre. It was during those same years in Paris that he was lastingly influenced by Russian Constructivism, DeStijl, the Bauhaus, and Surrealism. To some extent, his later achievements as a designer, illustrator, photographer and filmmaker can be seen as an individualized blend of selected aspects and attitudes from these earlier, once precarious styles. more>>>

Film Review | Linotype: The Film

Linotype type casting machine

Linotype: The Film
by Douglas Wilson, Director and Producer
Onpaperwings Productions
Springfield, MO, 2012
 DVD, 1 hours 17 mins.
Distributor's website:


I have had “printing” in my blood since I was ten or eleven. One summer at about that age, having read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, I sped downtown on my 20-inch Hiawatha bicycle, strolled into the local “job printing” firm, and inquired of the aging (and greatly amused) owner if he might be willing to take me on as a “printer’s devil.” Kindly, he responded “no” (I was far too young) but he did talk to me for awhile and gave me a tour of the “tools of the trade.” This was about fifty-five years ago, yet, even now, I still remember the moment that day when I saw a linotype type casting machine for the first time. 

I myself don’t know a way to describe how it feels to stand next to a functioning linotype (much less to actually operate one, which can be hazardous at times because of the hot molten metal it spurts). In general, one could simply say that it is a huge complex mechanism for casting metal type that was invented in 1884 by Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899), a U.S. German immigrant. Amazingly, it revolutionized printing to such an extent that its inventor is sometimes said to have been “the second Gutenberg.” But that is at best an inadequate way to convey the feeling of standing in the presence of this clackety, stinky, hot, intimidating, almost room-sized monster that casts lines of hot lead type—one line at a time, hence its quaint historic name “line-o’-type.” more>>>

Al Capone | Jenni Lehmann

Portrait of Al Capone (2012) © Jenni Lehmann

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung, heroic or not. Jenni Lehmann chose Chicago gangster Al Capone.


Saul Steinberg—

People who see a drawing in the New Yorker will think automatically that it's funny because it is a cartoon. If they see it in a museum, they think it is artistic; and if they find it in a fortune cookie, they think it is a prediction.



At a local auction, he bought an antique writing desk. When he got home, he opened it up, and a dozen people fell out. It was a missing persons bureau.

Frank Lloyd Wright | Benjamin Uhl

Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright (2012) © Benjamin Uhl

Above In a class about designing digital images, I asked my students to invent "interpretive portraits" of extraordinary men or women from the past, sung or unsung. This is Ben Uhl's provocative portrayal of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).


Henry Miller, quoted in Robert Snyder, ed., This is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn. Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1974, p. 25—

My mother did the first terrible thing for which I never forgave her, y'know…my mother…She says to me, "Henry, I have a wart." I'm only four years old and I'm sitting in this little chair and she says, "Henry, what shall I do with this?" And I say, "Cut it off. With a scissors." Two days later she got blood poisoning and she says, "And you told me to cut it off!" and bang bang bang she slaps me, for telling her to do this. How do you like a mother who'd do that?

See also: Roy R. Behrens, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (2016).