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A Wardrobe for Cyberspace

The tale is told of Pablo Picasso that as a small boy he had trouble with arithmetic because he could not stop himself from seeing numbers as small dancing figures.

A book designer must, like the boy Picasso, be temporarily (I stress) blind to the function of letters so as to feel the full force of their shapes and colors.

This seeing-by-not-seeing begins with the front face of the dust jacket, which is consciously designed as a mini-poster, but to a point the same process continues through the inside pages of a book. The difference is that though these pages, too, are poster-shaped, they are typically given only a simple, recurring, typographic design. This for two reasons: First, the principal function of interior design is not to startle and thereby attract a viewer but to assist someone who has already decided to read the book. Second, it is prohibitively expensive to treat each page in a book as if it were a separate work of art.

Thanks to the computer, however, it is no longer necessary to stop where designers have been accustomed to stop. Start-to-finish, page-by-page design, if scarcely cheap, is no longer economically out of the question. It is now beginning to be economically feasible to change, from one page to the next, the size, face (shape) and even the color of the type; the size and shape of the “type page” or block of printed lines on a page; and the spacing or “leading” between the lines. A step beyond this already remarkable variability are such borrowings from avant-garde poster art as printing one line of type partly on top of another line or overlapping different exposures of the same photograph.

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Many of these possibilities are on display in “Urban Revisions: Current Projects in the Public Realm” (MIT Press), a book designed by April Greiman Asssociates and published in conjunction with a recent exhibit by the same title at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. As a demonstration of newer book-design “special effects,” the design of this book is a tour de force. Unfortunately, for the reader, it is the design equivalent of the theater of cruelty, an aggressive exercise in apparently deliberate user-unfriendliness.

The heavy cover stock of the 9-by-12-inch paperback volume is beige. On its front face a 4 1/2-by-7-inch rectangle of tangled, mostly black-and-white lines lies atop a composition of gray, angular pencil lines and blotches of grayish-yellow color suggesting an architectural sketch. At the top, the words Urban, Re, Urban (again), Revisions, for the, visions , Current Projects, and Public Realm are printed in a montage of blue, magenta, vermilion and white at three different sizes with the letters slightly overlapping. Several lines of gray typescript smaller than the print on this page are printed atop those words.

Now, to be sure, the urban terrain is a palimpsest upon which successive man-made landscapes have been “written” one atop the other. Conceptually, the palimpsest motif is not inappropriate for the cover of a work entitled “Urban Revisions” that presents a set of important civic renewal projects conceived for sites in the United States, Canada and Switzerland. But the illustrations chosen for the cover mini-poster of this book are precisely the kind that require completion by clear type. Because April Greiman’s type is unclear, her illustrations end up announcing nothing. The mentioned rectangle of tangled lines appears on closer examination to be a somewhat fuzzy photograph of graffiti, but, displaced and decontextualized, it escapes quick recognition. A poster is a work of art that must first catch the eye, then convey information. The cover poster of this book does, at best, only half the job.

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The user-unfriendliness of the cover is mild, however, by comparison with what awaits between the covers. The words of the inside title and subtitle are printed on two pages colored midnight blue from top to bottom. The title “Urban Revisions” appears in white against this blue background; the subtitle, “Current Projects for the Public Realm,” appears in black, partly overlapping the title. These elements work well enough. Unfortunately, Greiman has aggressively crammed all the rest of the necessary title-page names--those of the exhibit organizer, the volume editor, the five authors of contributed essays, the museum and the publisher into a tiny 2 1/2-inch square raft adrift in that sea of blue. Much of the type in the box is not just microscopic but microscopic and black . In black against the deep-blue background, the names of the contributors are so nearly invisible that I could only read them with a magnifying glass under a drawing-board spotlight.

Clothing designers often flout convention for the fun of it, and why not? If good taste dictates not mixing stripes and plaids, they mix stripes and plaids. If common sense dictates not wearing a vest with a cardigan sweater under a sports jacket, they gleefully combine all three, and a good time is had by all. Some conventions, however, have a strong functional rationale. Shoestrings are not tied together because no designer has yet found it amusing to break with the convention that the feet should be permitted to move independently. A comparable convention in book design is the one that stipulates that ink and paper should be in strongly contrasting colors. When Greiman, with her black-on-blue, flouts that convention, the reader pays the price. And unfortunately she flouts it repeatedly. A partially illegible title page and table of contents may be defensible, if just barely, but Greiman also forces the reader through long stretches of tiny light-green type on dark yellow paper. Roughly speaking, she reverses the proportions of type and space found in ordinarily legible printing, though her ratios, like the sizes of type she chooses, vary from page to page and even from paragraph to paragraph for no discernible reason.

Another book-design convention is that when a text has notes, they should either be accommodated as footnotes at the bottom of the pages or gathered as end notes at the back of the book. Greiman eschews both alternatives in favor of side notes--marginalia, one might say, were it not for the fact that the space claimed for them is fully one third the width of the page. This width is large enough to accommodate occasional, rather brutally reduced illustrations, but as often as not there are no illustrations, and sometimes there are also no notes; the odd result, easily half the time, is a page whose left third is nearly or entirely empty, while its right two thirds are occupied by her faint, skinny, “spacy” lines of grayish-green type. (The empty third is indeed always the left third because Greiman spurns the symmetry convention that would place marginalia always on the outer margins.)

The comprehensive effect of this design is airy, open and pleasant--until the moment when one attempts actual reading. At that point, the experience of reading “Urban Revisions” becomes like the experience of reading two hundred pages written by a person faint of heart but hard of pencil.

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Still another book-design convention is that the table of contents should list or at least reliably guide the reader to all the contents of the book. Only 22 projects were presented in the MOCA show. It would not have been difficult to list them all on a two-page table of contents immediately following the two-page title spread. Instead, what Greiman’s table of contents does is direct the reader to Page 70, “Projects in the Exhibition.” This direction would occasion no great inconvenience if the 22 projects were actually listed on that page, but in fact they are listed on Page 86, a page not mentioned on the table of contents. Between Page 70 and Page 86 come 16 pages of labeled but unexplained and virtually undecipherable color plates. The design of “Urban Revisions” recalls the tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice. In that tale, the tool that began using its user was just a broom. In this design, it is a computer that seems to have run away with its user.

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I do not mean to defend every aspect of old-fashioned book design, much less to attack computer-assisted book design as such. In “Imagologies: Media Philosophy,” Marjaana Virta, Finland’s “Graphics Designer of the Year” for 1993, offers another example of front-to-back, page-by-page book design. In this design--despite the fact that many a page functions dazzlingly well as a poster--the whole remains perfectly legible at every point.

“Imagologies” grew out of a seminar team-taught by philosophers Mark C. Taylor of Williams College and Esa Saarinen of the University of Helsinki via cyberoptic (telephone-transmitted) television with the help of Compression Labs, Inc., of San Jose and Telecom Finland. Half the seminar sat in a row in Helsinki on one side of a virtual seminar table. The other half sat in a row in Williamstown on the other side of the table. The professors sat at the ends. The seminar, a weekly three-hour session, was conducted in real time: Everyone could see and hear everyone else. During the rest of the week, seminar members on either side of the Atlantic communicated with one another and with the two professors by Internet.

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As for the subject matter of the seminar, it is no slur to say that the seminar talked about itself. Thought is always affected by the means of its expression. How, the seminar asked, will Western thought be affected by the new, interactive and radically accelerated means of expression? The co-authors do their rather lighthearted, brainstorming best to “think along” with the exploding possibilities of cyberspace. Thus, in a section on cyberspace and economics, they write: “Postmodern art makes the disappearance of money appear” and “When the Big Board went electric, everything became lite.” In a section on cyberspace and time they write: “In cyberspace speed transforms the meaning of the human race.”

What designer Marjaana Virta attempts to do is “design along” with this madcap attempt to dance as fast as the technological music. Though her computer-assisted design changes with every page, her basic tactics are simple and inviting. The book is done entirely in black and white; and though every page is different, the elements that actually vary are few. What most differentiates Virta’s design from Greiman’s, however, is that even when a double- or triple-take is possible, the first take is always immediately legible. Virta’s illustration for “telepolitics” consists of just one, immediately legible word. It happens, however, that that she has enlarged the o to the size of a black hole, suggesting, perhaps, the video grave into which all political energy seems to be sucked. In Virta’s rendition of the “speed” aphorism quoted above, a broken circle of type imitates a stopped clock and suggests acceleration to sudden breakdown. Elsewhere, in a related vein, one of the authors writes: “I have now two phone lines coming to my house, two coming to my studio, a fax, a university number and an e-mail address, a pocket-size portable phone and a mobile phone in my car. Everyone says it’s impossible to get hold of me.”

In what must be a nearly unique bit of book-design spinoff, Virta’s work-in-progress came to the attention of the famous Finnish textile company, Marimekko, which bought reproduction rights to several pages and has created a new cyberspace textile line, including pillowcases and bedsheets, wall hangings, wallpaper, clothbound notebooks, shirts, T-shirts, baseball caps and boxer shorts. The aphorism on a T-shirt is: “Understanding has become impossible because nothing stands under. Interstanding has become unavoidable because everything stands between.”

Cyberbabble? Perhaps, but the jokes all have a point, and the designer has managed to create a look for this book as crazily, brainily playful as the text she was given. She did it by remembering that, for now at least, the computer is still a tool.

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