Posts Tagged ‘NOTES ON COMICS AND INFORMATION DESIGN’
Yesterday I read this little paragraph in Roger Ebert’s response to claims that he gives out too many stars:
The only rating system that makes any sense is the Little Man of the San Franciscio Chronicle, who is seen (1) jumping out of his seat and applauding wildly; (2) sitting up happily and applauding; (3) sitting attentively; (4) asleep in his seat; or (5) gone from his seat….The blessing of the Little Man system is that it offers a true middle position, like three on a five-star scale.
So I did a little research. The Little Man was the creation of Chronicle artist Warren Goodrich in the early 40s:
On the occasion of the Little Man’s 50th birthday, Goodrich recalled it was just another assignment that he dashed off quickly, noting, “I’m surprised (it) continued.”…Goodrich, who died last year, once recalled that a woman (possibly a disgruntled actress) once hit him on the head with her umbrella and said, “I hate the Little Man!”
The woman isn’t alone. Many of the writers at the Chronicle hate The Little Man. They boo-hoo that the picture already tells the story!
The beloved icon of this newspaper’s entertainment sections is, in fact, a complete nuisance to criticism….That’s because the Little Man gives you a visual clue to what you’re about to read.
And they complain about what Ebert loves: the middle man on the scale—the man with ambiguous feelings.
[T]he message is often unclear…when he’s merely sitting in his chair, watching. Not clapping. Not jumping out of his seat and clapping. Not slumped in his seat. Not out of his seat. Just sitting there.
I suppose a comment could be made here about how people can’t handle ambiguity in their lives: they want things to be black and white, with no shades of grey. As Ebert quotes Siskel,
“What’s the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don’t want a speech on the director’s career. Thumbs up–yes. Thumbs down–no.”
In fact, the editorial staff was so bothered by the neutral middle man that they had him redesigned:
Few are aware that the L.M. was retrofitted about 10 years ago with a more benign expression. The Little Man pose in between the politely applauding and the snoozing Little Man was redesigned in a microscopic makeover: the “alert viewer” Little Man’s expressionless mouth was tweaked with a slight upturned curve, to indicate a hint of a Mona Lisa smile, suggesting a vague amusement. His raised eyebrows indicate interest but not quite approval, denoting mixed feelings. After artistic spinal fusion, he also sat up more alertly, signifying a mixed review.
All of this came after Talmudic editorial discussions about the meaning of the enigmatic No. 3 Little Man: Did his indecipherable gaze indicate intrigue or ennui? Polite diffidence or glazed-eyed apathy? As a Datebook editor noted, “He’s the middle child, and the most unmanageable.”
I say: 3 on a 1 out of 5 scale should be ambiguous and neutral. Instead, he’s upright as if he’s engaged and smiling, as if he’s liking it. His back should be against the chair:
And to be totally ambiguous, his mouth should be a straight line (or no line at all), with no eyebrows. A blank face:
An ambiguous visual calls for explanatory text! And so, the neutral man is a friend to the good critic: if the visual is ambiguous, then the reader should be more tempted to investigate the article text to get the writer’s take!
Note: this was a repost from my tumblelog. Apologies for doubling up.
From Ontwerpwerk design:
The Gerd Arntz archive at the Municipal Museum The Hague contains more than 4000 pictograms and small illustrations designed by Gerd Arntz for Isotype, the pioneering method of visual statistics developed by Otto Neurath in the 1920s and ’30s. This archive has now been completely digitized by the Memory of the Netherlands Foundation. A comprehensive and inspiring selection of Arntz’ ‘signatures’ is now internationally accessible on the Gerd Arntz web archive www.gerdarntz.org.
You might remember me writing about Gerd Arntz and the origins of the stick figure. This new site is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Arntz and Isotype. Just one of the gems—Arntz’s original linocut for one of the symbols:
Incredible! (Thanks to Christopher Clay for the link.)
Powerpoint (or Keynote) slide software solves the problem of presenting an audience with a narrative that demands both verbal and visual elements. A slide presentation succeeds when the visual display works with the verbal communication of the speaker to create a narrative in the audience’s mind. The juxtaposition of pictures and words conjure connections and meaning that pictures or words alone could not.
Some of the best uses of Powerpoint come from the masters of verbal/visual, picture/word communication: cartoonists.
On her tour for Fun Home, Alison Bechdel projected panels from the graphic novel as she read the narration aloud:
Scott McCloud uses an epic slideshow to take his audience through his theory of comics:
Chris Ware and radio host Ira Glass have collaborated on “Lost Buildings“—basically a radio story accompanied by a slideshow:
My advice to all who want to use slide software for stronger presentations: read some good comics. Pay attention to pacing, sequence, and the way cartoonists weave verbal and visual elements to tell a story.
Trash the templates, abandon the bullet points, and find the right combination of pictures (your slides) and words (your voice) to communicate your narrative.
Any other cartoonists I’m missing here? What are the best slide presentations you’ve witnessed?
This is a really great book for folks wanting to get into typography. It not only teaches the basic principles (what’s an x-height? what’s a descender?), it also gives a good bit of the history and theory. I really dug it, and for $14, I’m thinking about adding it to my library.
Be patient with me: I have the feeling the next week or so is going to be filled with a lot of posts about my newfound obsession with Otto Neurath and his ISOTYPE system of pictograms.
Poking around Google scholar and JSTOR, I came across an article on ISOTYPE by graphic designer Ellen Lupton called “Reading Isotype.” (There are no coincidences: I just happen to be reading her book on typography.)
In “Reading Isotype,” Lupton points out that Neurath suggested “two central rules for generating the vocabulary of international pictures: reduction, for determining the style of individual signs; and consistency, for giving a group of signs the appearance of a coherent system. These rules…reinforce the “language quality” of picture signs, making individual signs look more like letters, and groups of signs look more like complete, self-sufficient languages.”
The rules could just as easily be adapted to comics! Tonight, we’ll focus on reduction:
Reduction means finding the simplest expression of an object….
The silouette is a central technique of reduction (figure 7). Silhouette drawing is a kind of pre-chemical photography that emulates the shadow, which is an indexical image made without human intervention, a natural cast rather than a cultural interpretation. International pictures suggest a rationalized theater of shadows, in which signs are necessary geometric formulae cast by material things—Plato’s cave renovated into an empiricist laboratory….The sign as geometric shadow of reality is both a rhetorical connotation and a practical technique for many symbol designers. Martin Krampen suggested “simplified realism;” he urged designers to “start from silhouette photographs of objects…and then by subtraction…obtain silouette pictographs.”
This reminded me of Matt Groening’s claim that the secret of designing cartoon characters is to make a character immediately recognizable in silhouette.
And Saul Steinberg’s obsession with the profile view:
The designer Nigel Holmes points out in his book, Designing Pictorial Symbols, that this graphical reduction does not equal emotional reduction:
[Let] no one think that the stylized figures that appear in pictographs are cold and devoid of human characteristics and emotion. Look at this figure of a worker. He is unemployed. Not only is there no doubt about that, but the man’s very sadness comes through the simple drawing. He is shivering. He is looking back, rather than to the future. So much can be conveyed by so few shapes.
Figures such as this can too easily be dismissed as “stick-men,” “pin-men,” or “robot people,” but in fact, they evoke a whole host of emotions that belie their simple execution. And that perhaps is the point: to evoke rather than describe. The mere slop of the shoulders (as in this example) or the thrust of a pair of jauntily marching legs can convey a range of feelings…one doesn’t need a photograph…to bring them out.”
Back to Lupton: she switches gears and begins to talk about perspective:
Flatness suggests a factual honesty, as opposed to the illusionism of perspective drawing. Isotype characters pull the shape of an object onto the ideal flat plane of a draftsman’s drawing: They are blueprints of language (figure 8)….
When depth is expressed in Isotype graphics, isometry is used instead of linear perspective. In isometric drawing, parellel lines do not converge; dimension is fixed from foreground to background (figure 9). Isotype rationalizes the retinal by translating distorted sense material into a logical scheme. An isometric drawing describes what we “know” to be true, based on observation. Neurath was impressed by children’s drawings, believing them to express naive, natural, and thus universal perception. Children, he wrote, do not use perspective. They are able to draw an object from all sides at once, and represent an entire forest with a single tree: “Isotype is an elaborate application of the main features of these drawings.”
The isometric drawing that we’re probably the most familiar with is the artwork for the Sim City games:
But it’s the child-like lack of perspective Neurath refers to that captures my imagination. One can imagine adapting an Isotype drawing like this to a comic world:
Does anyone else find this stuff fascinating?
Here’s another thread in my ever-growing collection of connections between comics and information design: the ubiquitous stick figure used for modern infographics actually has his origins in the early 20th century woodcut. Here is the beginning of Eric Lewallen‘s wonderful talk, “A History of the Stick Figure“:
Our stick figure’s past actually begins with statistics, and for that we jump back to around 1920 in post-war Vienna and the work of social scientist Otto Neurath. Now, at this time, much of Europe is still reeling from the aftermath of World War I. There’s a growing interest in constructed universal languages: many people feel that through a common language we could better understand each other and avoid conflict. Neurath believed it was words that led to these misunderstandings in the first place. His interest in hieroglyphics led him to develop a system to help people understand social and economic facts with a minimum of words. To help him develop his system he collaborated with Gerd Arntz, a Vienna artist well known for his black and white woodcuts. Arntz worked in a simple style that could be easily understood by ordinary people, so Neurath molded this style into stick figures that became the building blocks of his pictured statistics.
[Arntz] wanted to strip art of bourgeois preciousness. In order to efface all evidence of his individual hand, he invented a stylized vocabulary of symbolic forms. His predilection for the flat, black and white tonalities of woodblock further served to obliterate the artist’s personal touch. Nevertheless, his incisive visual analyses of German society, corruption and political factionalism can hardly be considered impersonal; even in stark black and white, Arntz’s work reveals the artist’s political predilections and idiosyncratic viewpoint….[He] decided to concentrate on woodcut and linoleum cut because he was attracted to stark contrasts of black and white and because these mediums reminded him of certain family photographs that he had repeatedly perused during the war.”
Here I’ve cut and pasted the best images of Arntz’s work that I could find on the cybertubes (not a whole lot to be found, a Google search is your best bet):
And some of his infographic work (done with Neurath):
If anyone knows more about Arntz’s work or where one get get a decent book on him, please leave the info in the comments!
I keep thinking about Seth’s equation of poetry + graphic design = comics, and it keeps making more and more sense to me. In his recent Inkstuds interview, David Heatley talked a little bit about how getting into graphic design influenced his comics work:
Robin McConnell: You’re also a graphic designer, but you utilize your cartooning within your graphic design work.
David Heatley: I guess I’d say I’m mostly an illustrator…I’ve done graphic design work as my job for 7 or 8 years, but it’s always been sort of a day job. What I’ve learned their I’ve actually put more into my comics, rather than the other way around. I’ve learned what good clean design looks like, about the hierarchy of information, using symbols, typography…all those kinds of things I’ve put over into my comics toolbox….While in art school I worked in my first design shop, and probably learned as much there as I did in school. At the time I hated computers, I hated ads, I thought everything was corporate BS and I didn’t want anything to do with it., My boss really spun my head around. He showed me old logos from the fifties, and I would copy those in my sketchbook. He showed me the constructivist posters, and he opened this whole world of design up to me that I never really knew about. Most of the time I find myself in bookstores gravitating to the design section and graphic arts more than fine arts, so [working in that design shop] was pretty seminal.
“I have felt, for some time, a connection between comics and poetry. It’s an obvious connection to anyone who has ever sat down and tried to write a comic strip. I think the idea first occurred to me way back in the late 80’s when I was studying Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strips. It seemed so clear that his four-panel setup was just like reading a haiku; it had a specific rhythm to how he set up the panels and the dialogue. Three beats: doot doot doot— followed by an infinitesimal pause, and then the final beat: doot. Anyone can recognize this when reading a Peanuts strip. These strips have that sameness of rhythm that haikus have— the haikus mostly ending with a nature reference separated off in the final line.
As time passed I began to see this connection as more and more evident in how I went about writing my own work. Certainly, it is not a process that is very tightly worked out — but when I am writing a comics page (or sequence of pages) I am very aware of the sound and ‘feel’ of how the dialogue or narration is broken down for the panels. If you have to tell a certain amount of story in a page then you have to make decisions on how many panels you need to tell it. You need to arrange these panels — small, big or a combination of the two — and decide how to sit them on the page. All these decisions affect how the viewer reads the strip; there is an inherent rhythm created by how you set up the panels. Thin panel, thin panel, long panel: this rhythm is felt by the reader, especially when you put the words into the panels. When writing a comic strip I am very aware of how I am structuring the sentences: how many words; one sentence in this panel; two in this one; a silent panel; a single word. These choices are ultra-important in the creation of comics storytelling, and this unheard rhythm is the main concern for me
when I am working out a strip.
I imagine poets feel this same concern. If you read any free verse poetry you can see how the poet has made certain decisions for how to break the thoughts apart and structure them, often in a way that defies a system.
It seems to me that the language of poetry is very dependant on setting up images and juxtaposing them against each other. A poet will create an image in the first two lines of his poem and then he will create another in the next two lines, and so on. I do find this jumping from image to image in poetry to be a very interesting, comic-like element. Many poems are almost like word comics.
Comics are often referred to in reference to film and prose — neither seems that appropriate to me. The poetry connection is more appropriate because of both the condensing of words and the emphasis on rhythm. Film and prose use these methods as well, but not in such a condensed and controlled manner. Comic book artists have for a long time connected themselves to film, but in doing so, have reduced their art to being merely a ‘storyboard’ approach.
The underlying rhythm seems to have gone unheard for literally decades in the world of commercial comic books (a few noticeable exceptions: Kurtzman, Kirby, Stanley).
The ‘words & pictures’ that make up the comics language are often described as prose and illustration combined. A bad metaphor: poetry and graphic design seems more apt. Poetry for the rhythm and condensing; graphic design because cartooning is more about moving shapes around — designing — then it is about drawing. Obviously when creating a strip about a man walking down the street you are drawing pictures of the man and the environment…however, you are also trying to simplify these drawings down into a series of more iconic, graphic renderings. The more detailed the drawing — the more it attempts to capture ‘reality’ — the more it slows down the story telling and deadens the cartoon language. Don’t get me wrong; the cartooning can be very specific, it doesn’t have to be generic. It simply has to properly ‘cartoon’ the images. The drawings become symbols that are arranged on the page (and within the panels) in the most logical way to make the reading of the story work; you place these cartooned images together in a way that does what you want them to do. You aren’t concerned with drawing a proper street scene so much as you are concerned with moving the reader’s eye around the page in the way you wish it to move. Trying to draw realistically just sets up a myriad of frustrations for the proper use of cartoon language. Think of the cartoon language as a series of characters (letters) being purposefully arranged to make words.”
My chart might look like this:
- 25% easy access to both sides of the brain
- 25% drawing and writing treated as equals
15% curiosity 10% computer skills
- 25% sense of humor
- 25% curiosity about the world
I changed my list. That sense of humor is important — as is curiosity.