The New Illustration

I subscribe to The Atlantic, one of the oldest publications in the history of this country. It has thought-provoking articles written by really good journalists. And it has what might be labelled fair art accompanying those articles.

Other publications have good artwork as well, like The New York Times Magazine.

Tim Tomkinson created the image on the left for The Atlantic. It’s a more traditional style of illustration, requiring some actual draftsmanship. The artwork on the right, created by Ryan Snook for The New York Times Magazine, has a much different style.

What’s the difference? And why are they so different? And how do they affect the viewer?

Sure, Tomkinson’s piece accompanies an article about an actual person, Abigail Allwood, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while Snook’s accompanies an article called “Crying at Movies”. But the art director at The Atlantic must’ve felt strongly about using an illustrator whose style was toward realism, whereas the person calling the shots at The New York Times Magazine probably said something like “anything goes”.

Weeks ago, I wrote about the decline of teaching actual drawing and illustration in art schools, which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I mean, things like anatomy and perspective were taught alongside figure drawing when I was in art school. Those things weren’t absolutely necessary for painting disciplines, but they were for commercial illustration.

So I’m open to discussion about why drawing is no longer considered a necessary attribute when it comes to creating qualitative commercial illustration, although I have my own theory why that is.

You see it all the time these days, the newer styles: much more like expressionism than realism. Expressionism plays to emotional reaction. As history will tell us, expressionism in painting came about after the impressionist period in the last portion of the nineteenth century. Impressionists taught the world (or those who visited art galleries and went to art openings) a new way of seeing. And that way of seeing was with your inner eye—meaning your brain—and not so much with your logical, or outer, eye.

Expressionistic art was also done in a time of upheaval in the world: the breakdown of the gilded age of kings and queens, the revolutions in Europe, the world wars. If you’re at all a student of art history, you know of art imitating life. Broad brush strokes (often with a lot of contrast in color), faces with garish angularity, and almost primitive proportions were characteristic of the form.

Snook’s illustration is very cartoony. But you don’t have to look far to see some work done that is not quite so funny in depicting emotion, and much more emoting tension—even anger.

My theory of why this is all prominent now in publicized artwork is that we live in a very changing world. A global economy (with several nations having proprietary resources), tensions around the world (knowing that now many nations have nuclear capability), strong climate changes, immediate news on TV and the Internet. Twitter and Facebook promote reactive activity. Maybe I’m wrong. But something has spurred things along to where commercial illustration is now, to where it reflects all that noise.

There are other factors possible: younger generations have different ideas of seeing the world in art; and for everyone, using computer apps and plug-ins can easily take a photo and transform it into an illustration or even a painting, with textures and warping the perspective. Why would you need to actually draw it first? Is that why we no longer need to teach it?

Because when you think about it, how would you teach a student to think in expressionistic terms? Maybe to them, realism is just too superficial.

 

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This Pink Thing

I write about design and how it encompasses our lives, everything around us. I try to inform those of us who are non-designers how to see it and how to recognize just how it impacts our thinking and sways us in different areas of the marketplace.

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day, a day of a different kind of recognition. A day of celebration and thanks to our mothers for raising us and showing us the way in our young and formative years.

A long time ago, a woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis started Mother’s Day Work Clubs in West Virginia as a way to teach women the proper way to raise children, make them aware of sanitary conditions around their homes, and how to help them with treating colds and influenza. That was before the Civil War. Eventually other noted women took up the cause for championing mothers, among them Julia Ward Howe, a suffragette.

A few years before the Great War, Ann’s daughter Anna Jarvis petitioned for making a holiday to recognize all mothers for their unique contributions to families everywhere. After much campaigning and speaking and getting ears in Congress to listen, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation making Mother’s Day a national celebration on the second Sunday in May starting in 1914. Anna later protested the eventual commercialization of the occasion, including the greeting cards that followed.

In 1982, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation was formed by Nancy Goodman Brinker, the sister of Susan G. Komen. Susan had died two years previously from breast cancer at the age of 36, and Nancy was moved to do something in Susan’s honor to make women and everyone around aware of and to contribute to fighting breast cancer. That movement launched meetings, rallies, and events such as marathons, eventually getting a symbol in the form of a folded pink ribbon.

Just how those two things—Mother’s Day and the fight against breast cancer—came together is something that I’m not totally certain will not become blurred in the public eye of history. In 2006, Major League Baseball issued pink bats to be used in the games being played on Mother’s Day. Since that 2006 introduction of pink bats, the color has been extended to uniforms and equipment, including baseballs with pink stitching.

Then other sports got involved. The PGA Tour showed the color this past Sunday with the golfers wearing various shades of pink. Major League Baseball was in full bloom as well.

Which brings me to marketing. I’m not sure just which organization started using pink first, but as far as marketing and promoting with that color, it’s now a contest. And that contest has raised a few barbs in the past ten or so years.

The Komen Foundation has litigated to use the color exclusively, if not also the ribbon. Even the wording “for the Cure” is a sticking point. The organization Uniting Against Lung Cancer was warned by Komen to not use the above wording and not to use the color pink. Over 100 charities have received similar warnings.

The PGA Tour has no affiliation with the Komen Foundation. It gives its charitable donations to the Donna Foundation, which “raises funds for ground-breaking breast cancer research at Mayo Clinic and women living with breast cancer”. The Donna Foundation is also the “charity of the day” at the Players Championship near Jacksonville, Florida.

This apparent confluence of charities and a long-time national celebration is relatively new. The idea of stealing promotional material is not.

And just how did Mother’s Day get paired with these charities? I don’t know. Wearing pink at these events promotes getting money, yes. But it also promotes a certain inclusive clubbiness, like it or not. Because of social media these days, if you’re not wearing the color, you’re a pariah.

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It Must Be the Art Form

I could’ve entitled this entry “More Less Is More”, but I decided to draw a parallel from last week’s article to this one. Less is more will bob to the surface anyway.

Theater in design is not one of the things promoted as a subject in design school. Some people might think of “performance art” in this vein, and I suppose that would lend a theme to the thought process in runway display in fashion design, but what about other areas of the theater aspect in life? Sure, there are concerts, Cirque du Soleil sorts of things, and plays.

But in thinking about last week’s theme, I saw a television show the other day that immediately brought to mind another aspect of theater. The show was about cooking, but more about presenting a meal in a fine restaurant. And there it was.

In selling and merchandising cosmetics, I mentioned the mystique that industry has—all they have—and what propels it along. There’s a Giorgio Armani ad that shows a muscular male model diving into water, then tanning himself and standing in a tree. It’s all a fantasy sequence done in sepia tones, that other-worldly dream-like presentation. The theater of owning, of experiencing, this product.

There isn’t anything in the ad so banal as putting the cologne on in getting ready for an evening out on the town. That’s too ordinary a presentation. Too common stock. This isn’t showering with body wash or even using a premium shaving gel. Those are not transcendent.

And so, in watching the show and viewing the presentation of the food on fine china, I saw the same thing. Sure the food is cooked to perfection. But you can’t see that. Expecting you to love the taste of the food isn’t what the dining experience is all about. That’s a given: if the food didn’t taste good, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Five-star restaurants aim for a higher experience, an augmented atmosphere to enhance, to go beyond mere eating. And so the theater aspect comes into play. The ambience: the owners will stage the restaurant with the best appointments in interior design, fine linens on the table, candlelit spaciousness. The staff: well trained, dressed in slacks and vests, quietly taking orders from the customers without writing anything down.

And then there’s the presentation, brought on with a parade of servers. A piece of art on a wide, white plate: food stacked in the center, the entreé built according to the chef’s designs, maybe adorned with a smear or drizzle of sauces to spark the palate.

And in receiving this dish, this enticement, this gift, you’re getting the theater of it all. Could the food just be placed on a plate the way your mom did? No. Could the plate be smaller? No. Does this presentation add to the taste of the food? No. But now you’re thinking differently.

Now that you have it before you, sitting in this resplendent setting, you feel differently, too. It isn’t about just eating the food. It’s about the experience.

And the theater of it is different than that of selling cosmetics. It’s actually more fleeting. Once you’ve consumed the meal and left the restaurant, it’s over. You’ll remember it and may very well return on another evening, but that theater has ended for a while.

In fashion and cosmetics, the allure will remain with you. Because the dress or suit is still in your closet, the cologne is still on your dresser.

Maybe to wear to that restaurant next time.

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Talking Boxes

I sometimes wonder at the ad world where we have animated objects speaking to us either directly or indirectly, as though a talking dummy or marionette has our complete attention. The idea has me thinking of Chuck and Bob from the 1970’s TV comedy, Soap. In that show, Jay Johnson plays Chuck, a ventriloquist, whose dummy, Bob, has the other characters befuddled with his sharp wit. The main actors find themselves (especially Billy Crystal) talking directly to the dummy.

And I think we are no more intelligent than those actors in that show listening to Bob. At least, some of the time.

There are a few more examples of talking boxes than the ones shown above, but these are the most prominent. I’m sure you’ve seen the Cologuard commercials. Here we have what appears to be the actual product kit—or at least a facsimile of one—speaking directly to us about the rather private process of submitting a sample for the screening of colon cancer. The box is personified by an unknown actor whose voice has a muted, understated quality suited well to the product.

The ad series was developed by Precisioneffect, whose nickname for the kit is “little CG”. A company called Exact Sciences produces the screening product, and according to their marketing director, the aim is to bring attention to a personal choice for addressing an important issue in a less confrontational way.

I’ve seen perhaps three different Cologuard spots. Each has a soft demeanor, and is instructional. So we listen.

On the other hand, the Progressive Insurance talking box is another story. Here we have what so far appears to be a series of around a dozen spots featuring this smarmy, conceited box which in a series of circumstances speaks about his ennui, his heartfelt travels around the world, his travails getting through airport security, and even his trouble finding speaking engagements while addressing elementary grade students at “career day”.

I have to say that this box is well-designed, and the facial expressions are dead-on, especially that wide angular mouth that spouts off anything the brain behind it wants you to hear.

The ads for Progressive are done by Arnold, the big ad agency known for many other TV commercials, including Jack Daniels and Ocean Spray. Here the box is personified by Chris Parnell, the comedian from SNL and 30 Rock, whose voice is highly suited for over-reaching personalities. He’s one of the best in television.

Nothing against Parnell, but only a few of the ads are funny and after several viewings they get boring and tiresome. Which is a shame because the production is well done mixing animation with real-life actors. Plus, we have no idea what the box is supposed to represent. One source I came across tells us the box is supposed to be the Progressive Insurance policy. (We’d seen scores of them on shelves behind Flo’s desk in previous commercials, and even then wondered if those were representing case studies as in a law library, but knowing how wacky Flo can be, throw that thought away.)

Which brings up another thought: Progressive seems to want to outdo itself buy promoting with Flo and her “working” cohorts and also with this goofy talking box. Do you feel the two series are competing with each other? Or do you feel that it can work, such as in the Geico series (caveman versus the gecko)?

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A Little Clarity, Part 2

I am designing an ad in InDesign with a color photograph. The ad specs given by the client specify a line screen of 150. I’m not sure what they mean by “a line screen of 150.” I usually place photographs at 300 dpi in my print ads. Does this mean that the photograph should be prepared (in Photoshop) at 150 dpi instead? Do I need to do anything special in InDesign for the rest of the ad (the text)?

All that passage is from a blog I read a few years ago, and the entry was from a person whose job it is to prepare art for print, yet he/she doesn’t know digital resolution from print line screens. And he/she mentions “300 dpi”.

In the first place, “dpi” is a printing term, meaning dots per inch, which sometimes is substituted with “lpi”, meaning lines per inch. They mean the same thing. You may be wondering why those two terms are interchangeable. DPI usage came about because we see dots in the line screen used (above images, middle). Those dots are arranged in rows, or lines.

In order to understand the printing of images, one has to understand screen tones. Reproducing photographs in commercial printing is done by using line art conversions of each color (it can be done using a “digital” method, but that’s inferior). Because printers use four-color process inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) each of those colors must be separated out from the original continuous tone photo (examples, left) to make the separate four screen tones.

You may have come across the term halftone sometime in your career. “Halftone” refers to the fact that the dots, such as in the one-color screened image, cover only half of all the tonalities in the image. Those dots create a semblance of the tonalities and come close to replicating them when fine line screens are used for print.

Sections of the left-hand images above have been enlarged to show the conversion in line screen dots (middle) and pixels (right).

In looking at the screen tones above, you can easily see that smaller dots reproduce lighter tones while the larger dots reproduce darker tones. Newspapers and magazines still use images like this, but with much finer screens. Depending on the quality of the paper used, those publications will use a line screen of anywhere from 85 LPI to 150 LPI. I could go on about what dot gain is, but I’ll save that for a later discussion.

In the digital world, pixels (picture elements) are single-colored (or toned) squares which reproduce photographs on computer and digital television screens. On Windows computers, the native resolution is 96 ppi, while on Macs the native resolution is 72 ppi. When viewing a 400 pixel-wide image on a Windows screen, the picture is 4.166 inches wide. On a Mac, that same image is 5.555 inches wide.

When viewing photos in newspapers and magazines, you’re looking at dots. When you view photos on a computer or TV, you’re looking at pixels. When you scan a photo or transparency for display on your computer screen, you set the resolution at the scanning stage, thereby digitizing the image, which is the digital conversion process. The image you save has been converted to pixels.

Please do not confuse the two. The term “dpi” is not a computer term. When we’re talking about pixels, the term is “ppi”—meaning pixels per inch.

And by the way, the rule of thumb in preparing a photo for print is 1.5 to 2 times the line screen used. Therefore if the screen will be 150 dpi, then the photo should have a digital resolution of between 225 and 300 ppi.

 

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A Little Clarity, Part 1

I come from the advertising/print industry originally, though I’ve been in the advertising/digital industry for the past twenty-three years. And I’ve seen some terminology transposed from one to the other. Sometimes that terminology works in the translation while other times it does not.

And so, being the nit-picker that I am, I’m starting a new category on those terms that bug me the most.

The one that bugs me the most is “dpi” in this digital world. But I’m going to save that one until later. Right now I want to talk about this “#” symbol.

It’s been called a “number symbol”, a “pound symbol”, and lately a “hash symbol”. I have news: it’s all of those. But first, let’s not confuse this symbol with a few others that are very similar in appearance, such as the sharp symbol in music, that being ♯, or a Chinese character, that being .

A little history: the Romans had a symbol denoting pound weight, that being “℔”. Over time, this symbol was simplified to look like the featured symbol pictured above. Usage of the symbol for pound weight goes back to at least 1850 in this country. By the second half of the 19th century, there were typewriters in the United States equipped with the # key, and the user’s manual reflected the use of that key being specifically for expressing both number and pound weight, depending on placement of the symbol—just before a number to denote the ordinal number itself, and just after a number to denote pound weight.

Printers and paper salesmen (salespersons in the PC world) have long used the “#” symbol after a number to denote the pound weight of paper in text and cover stock, such as “24# text”. Manufacturers of pencils refer to the ratio of graphite/clay used in the writing instruments by a number designation, such as “#2 pencil”, an example of an ordinal distinction.

This traditional usage prevailed until the advent of digital telephone keypads, where the symbol became known as the pound sign. Today we still refer to that as the pound sign on phone keypads. The font used on your specific phone for that symbol may vary, but the designation is the same.

In the United Kingdom, the symbol has been referred to as a “hash”, a derivative of the word “hatch”, meaning cross-hatch (artists will recognize that reference, those of us who’ve done pen & ink sketches with a cross-hatch technique to add tonality to the basic black and white medium). That likeness is probably the best reference we have as to how the term hashtag came about, and was introduced by Chris Messina, a noted advocate for open Internet standards, in 2007 to denote a metadata tag for group use on social networks such as Twitter (but even he referred to the symbol as “pound” when first trying to establish the tag). You know the symbol is a hash when it precedes a word or phrase.

So it depends on circumstance as to the name of the pictured symbol.

Next week, I’ll dive into that “dpi” thing.

 

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More Gimmicks

There’s a trend in recent TV advertising in which what you see onscreen does not necessarily have any significance to what the delivered message is. And Geico Insurance is using it. I believe there are a few other advertisers using a similar gimmick, although right now I can’t recall them specifically.

The ads run like this: two people in the space (scene 1 above is a commercial gym while in scene 2 below we have a painting classroom) are talking about the benefits of Geico Insurance, but in succeeding camera cuts there are changes occurring to the point of ridiculousness.

The ad at the top ran during much of 2016 and 2017, while the ad at the bottom is running currently. Most viewers have seen these two ads and probably have the same reaction I have—that what you see has no bearing on the message being delivered.

It’s just a gimmick.

My college roommate Howard often cited gimmicks in advertising. He would point one out as soon as he saw it.

Mascots are one such gimmick and have long been a staple in advertising since early in the 20th century. Morton Salt has had a girl walking with an umbrella while pouring salt (“when it rains it pours”) on their cardboard canister since 1914. Speedy Alka-Seltzer, the little character made from an antacid tablet that everyone saw on ’50s and ’60s TV is another. Mascots made the TV ads memorable because each mascot was different. Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal is still being used today.

But of course times change. And sometimes advertisers will now take chances that they would not have done decades ago. Take for example the mascot used by Diet Dr. Pepper—the miniature character who comes on in any given scene, uninvited, to proclaim that whatever you’re doing can be aided by the sweet taste of Diet Dr. Pepper, saying in a falsetto sing-song, “It’s the sweet one.”

Why is he so small and why the falsetto? We don‘t know. But you remember it. And that‘s all that some advertisers really care about. It works for a soft drink because the product has little else going for it but taste, and because there are so many different ones to choose from, a little differentiation here goes a long way toward your memory of it.

In Geico‘s case, insurance is a pretty dry subject. Why not a gimmick?

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What Does it Mean to “Design” a Photograph?

Photography has design, much like anything else. As consumers, especially with our mobile phone cameras taking snapshots, we don’t think so much about designing our photographs. And maybe that’s something we should think about.

After all, when it comes to photography, designers might think about it more than non-designers. And so maybe this column today will serve as a lesson to those of us who are non-designers. Graphic designers can follow along to refresh their memory.

When most people see a photograph, they see just the subject matter in it, be it a flower or a building or a person. And that’s the real difference between what a non-designer sees and what a designer sees. Because I’ve been a designer all of my career, I see shapes.

Photography is just another way for people to record what they see. Photographs can be planned, such as when a photographer is on assignment or in their studios to shoot certain things or people. But they can also be just snapshots, which does not necessarily mean they cannot be planned. If a street scene with a crowd milling in front of a landmark fills the bill for a vacationing tourist, why can‘t he/she design the shot?

Design is something we learn in design school: the idea of arranging shapes in an organizational manner so as to achieve a pleasing composition. We learn by using flat shapes, maybe cut from black paper, and adhering them to a white surface such as matte board. In today‘s digital formative two-dimensional design class, students might do it in Adobe Illustrator. It doesn‘t matter: the resulting arrangement is the key.

Remembering from our discussion in Tenets of Good Design, Part 1, good organizational design starts with a dominant shape’s placement followed by the placement of smaller, or subordinate shapes within a frame of reference. A frame of reference is the overall shape (usually a rectangle) within which we place those shapes.

Your camera’s frame of reference is that rectangle, and what you place into that frame is the subject matter you‘re about to record on that camera‘s CCD. So you have the device in your hands with which you’re about to record what you see.

How do you do it? Do you just snap it off right now? I know, you’re so in love with the scene you feel it necessary to catch it immediately. But is it really that necessary that you capture it right this instant? If it‘s moving, sure. If it‘s a family moment that‘s too magical to miss, of course. But what if it isn‘t? What if you can take the extra few moments to see if it can be framed in such a way that the shot becomes art?

Make no mistake: design is art. Photography is art as well. Don‘t forget that.

All of the above examples exhibit a good sense of design. Within each frame we can see the reason the shot was designed in a certain way. My friend Brian took most of these shots. He doesn’t think of himself as a designer (he‘s been a print manager most of his career), but his design acumen comes across pretty readily here.

Top left, he’s looking up at an adobe structure, and seeing the possibilities, he scopes in on the crack appearing in the wall. Does he place the window at the top in the center? No. By letting the window stay left, the interest remains the crack and the window an accent.

Bottom left, the palm tree’s intricate textures and varied patterns make for a good centered composition, closely cropped. Do you crop in-camera or afterward? Doesn’t matter, as long as you see the composition.

Center, the crop on the tall trees aids in appreciating their ascending beauty and strength.

Top right, the graceful curve of the shoreline sets up the difference in color and texture of nature‘s earth and water.

Bottom right, I just had to add this shot from Valmont, the 1989 movie from director Milos Forman and his cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek. As everyone knows, the cinematographer in movies is the one who literally designs and shoots the moving pictures you see onscreen. This still of actress Meg Tilly is one such beautifully designed image: she reposes against a wall, deep in thought, and we see the shot ever so slightly tilted left to accentuate that repose, while the rest of her world is unfocused to the right.

Photography is like any other discipline in design, and art. Shapes, placement, and visual interest.

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Some Things You Can’t Overlook

Having been in and around design my entire creative life, I cannot unsee mistakes in anything related to it. All I want to do is correct them. But I can’t. All I can do is try to ignore them, which I also cannot do. Catch that.

One of my close friends sent these images to me the other day, and they impressed me so much I felt I had to make examples of them. Literally.

Remember that in type design, readability is key. The examples above don’t all have the same issues, but they all suffer in readability.

In the first example at upper left, I can’t help but realize the type design in the yellow sign was intentional. But I can’t see the reason for it. There is no play on words, no “bucket list” correlation. It’s just a gimmick to make you stare at it and piece it together. A promo for CheapFlights.com, it’s just a cheap idea.

Next we have one of two things: Spicy Soy & Garlic, or Sp & Soy Icy Garlic. Look at it. Are you kidding me? The other design thing that makes me cringe is the pepper overlapping the type at left but the garlics at right do not overlap anything. An example of non-parallel design thinking.

Another tenet of good type design is that things generally read from left to right. We are conditioned to read things that way because we learn to read from books and other publications where the copy is in sentences. Make sense?

Next: a mug with copy reading “Take THE Time”. Except here the type is sitting against texture too complex for the chosen font and tone not contrasting enough to make it readable. And the word “THE” has its own texture competing with the background. Terrible. What—no art direction?

The last two examples are just laughable. The one at left is on an entrance to a park, and is supposed to read, “PUT PETS ON LEASH”. But the first two words have commas after them (one misplaced), possibly added after the sign was spray painted (you can see the stenciled letterforms) trying in vain to make the word spacing evident.

The signage on the restaurant facade is so funny, it’s ridiculous. BBQ Ribs on a bison silhouette is OK, I guess (ribs from a bison are easily questionable), but fried catfish from a moose would make Bullwinkle question his DNA. I’m not saying it isn’t funny, but alongside the bison it isn’t parallel design thinking.

You can bet I’ll make an issue for parallel design thinking in the future. But right now just enjoy staring at these goofy examples of horrendous type design.

 

 

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