Display That! Adventures in Collections

(Re-edited; originally posted March 1, 2014.

When I started this blog in 2007, I identified several subjects of interest: graphic connoisseurship, broadly speaking; the relationship between cartooning and illustration; the culture of popular images and artifacts; and informational images.

Since that time I have continued to teach synthetically-oriented courses in communication design. These experiences are designed to address illustrators, designers and hybrid types. In many respects my own work has a hybrid sensibility. 

I like making pictures that inform and/or document. 

D.B. Dowd, Cassiopeia Does the Twist, an evening's worth of stargazing notes, August 10-11, 2008, near Moab, Utah.

D.B. Dowd, 1967 Chrysler New Yorker and 1965 Ford Econoline Pickup, from "Shanghai Pictorial," Spartan Holiday No. 1, 2012.

This spring semester, I am back teaching Word & Image 1, a course I enjoy greatly. Working with a great team of colleagues: Penina Acayo Laker, David Rygiol, Shreyas Ravikrishnan.

Olle Eskell, Imaginary Creatures (reproduced in Olle Eskell, Swedish Graphic Designer).

We're in the early stages of a new project: The Collection Poster. Each student has been assigned a topic (e.g., mammals, firearms of the Napoleonic Wars, echinoderms, summer apparel). They are to research the subject, then develop a collection of 8 to 20 items to present on a poster measuring 16 x 20 inches. Their approach can be taxonomic, historical, primarily decorative, explanatory (How a Steam Engine Works), or some combination of thereof. It's an awesome problem; we're jealous of the students who get to work on it!

Milt Groth, Automobile Paper Dolls, center "Playtime" spread, Jack and Jill Magazine, circa 1950. Usually the center spread was a paper doll activity which appealed to girls. They tried this as a sop to the boys, and probably as an office joke, too.

An arrangement without depth or overlapping. Kids’ heads, from a Kool-Aid television advertisement, 1950s.

Today I'm pulling old and new sources together to provide a sense of just how big the world can be on such projects. Many students, when presented with the problem, experience it as a limitation. "Why would I make a poster that just shows _________? That's boring!"  Well, it might be. It also might be fascinating, delightful, eye-opening, wonderful!

Here, then, are some samples of images which display groups, things, people, sites, processes, etcetera. These samples are varied, but far from exhaustive.

A straightforward gridded presentation of French vocabulary words. Uncredited illustration from  cours de la langue et la civilisation Françaises I , Librairie Hachette, 1953.

A straightforward gridded presentation of French vocabulary words. Uncredited illustration from cours de la langue et la civilisation Françaises I, Librairie Hachette, 1953.

Another representation of strata, at rather a different scale than the skin illustration at right. Oil Exploration, still from Destination Earth, an industrial film from 1956 with a modernist sensibility. John Sutherland Productions. Directed by Carl Urbano, Production Design by Tom Oreb and Victor Haboush. (More stills from this film here.)

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911. Matisse flattens with color, erasing depth from a putatively descriptive picture: the Red Studio. Militant two-dimensionality.

Can I drive this car in heels? Reasons to buy a Dodge Polaris, especially if you're female in the mid 20th century. Illustrator uncredited, advertisement, 1960 Dodge Polaris. (Car advertisements began addressing women as consumers in the 1910s, and the intersection of driving and women’s clothing was a subject all along.)

Elizabeth Buchsbaum, Polyp Types, Obeilia, from Animals Without Backbones, 1937. An essay in line weight, by Elizabeth Buchsbaum, from Animals Without Backbones. I have written about her before. (I would really like to locate her drawings for exhibition purposes. I once heard from someone in the Buchsbaum clan, but then the line went dead. Anybody out there?)

Google Street View before the fact. Illustrator uncredited, a fragment of a broadsheet-sized rendering of the Astor family real estate empire, published on January 1, 1899 by the New York World.

World Geographic Atlas, designed by Herbert Bayer. Published by the Container Corporation of America (CCA) in 1953. This is a breathtakingly beautiful book. Bayer was a Bauhaus graphic designer relocated to the States. This particular image shows flora and fauna of the Hawaiian Islands. The items overlap but retain their integrity through color and contrast. An approach which all but eliminates an implied “container” for the illustrations (contrast, for example, with the French vocabulary words). This is a fragment of a large page, dense with information but intelligently placed.

An index of weaponry. Spearheads. A Scandinavian expert memorably named Worsaae catalogued Viking artifacts in the British Isles in 1846-47. This is one of 12 watercolors (No. 3, to be precise) to appear in An Account of the Danes and Norwegians in England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1851-52.

Gameboards are relevant. Snakes and Ladders, forerunner of MB's Chutes and Ladders. N.D. Snakes is creepier, but way cooler, too.

More arrangement of zones, in this case on a purely decorative basis. Kolor-Blox game board, circa 1935.

Chicken breeds, balancing spatial presentation with display of critical information. There is a little cheating going on: the ground plane has been tipped up, and scale shifts have been downplayed. Cleverly done. From Meyer’s Lexikon (1896) , a German encyclopedia interspersed with lovely chromolithographs like this one.

Finally, even a split screen in a film is a kind of display. Here, Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk, 1959. Directed by Michael Gordon. Hudson, (unknown to the movie-going public) a gay man, plays a smoothie-lothario who pretends to be gay at points. Jean Louis did Doris Day’s costumes, which are incredible.

For starters: a set of scientific instruments, translated into engaging form using a slightly abstract sensibility and a two-color palette. Jim Flora, cover illustration, Research and Engineering, January 1956.

Illustration of archaeological dig, Dordogne, France in Early Man, Time-Life Books, 1965. Art direction by Sheldon Cotler; illustrator uncredited. (1 of 2) Note that we see the excavated matter from three sides, to provide spatial context and scale reference for the schematic representations of several layers called out in diagrams—one of which is shown below.

Schematic representation of material excavated from one layer (see illustration above). Early Man, Time-Life Books, 1965. (2 of 2)

Mr. Lunch saw many different types of boats. A display of semi-silly vessels (love the soda-pop boat) for a children’s book about a dog who steals a canoe. J. Otto Seibold, Types of Boats, Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, 1994. A “zany” presentation, yet with a highly controlled palette. The delightful personality of the illustration dominates.

An astronomical diagram with type, from the mid 19th century: John Emslie, Transparent Solar System Displaying the Planets with Their Orbits, as Known at the Present Day, published by James Reynolds and Sons, London, circa 1844.

A cross section of skin, from the 1965 World Book Encyclopedia. Very straightforward: a black-and-white drawing enlivened and clarified with tints. Given a good key drawing (no small thing) it would take about 30 seconds to do this by multiplying the black layer in Photoshop and throwing a little color behind it. (Illustrator credit unavailable.)

Several variations on a theme: figures displayed to show relationships or actions on a single plane. Stan Strembicki, Fremont Petroglyphs, Nine Mile Canyon, Utah. 2011. Photographed by my friend and colleague Stan Strembicki a few years back on a documentary expedition (for my book Stick Figures). He climbed up on a ledge to shoot this one, just as I was beginning to figure out that you can drive into Nine Mile Canyon, but you can't drive out the other end. Big bummer.

Ed Benedict (?), Character Sheet for The Jetsons, a Hanna-Barbera Show, 1962. George, Jane, Judy et. al., may have been designed by Benedict–they betray his sense of shape. I have never been able to find a character design credit for the show.

Ed Benedict draws Snagglepuss, 1958. The "display" is inadvertent, really: he is just trying things, one next to the other. I shot this on my iPhone (a little grainy) at the Norman Rockwell Museum in February 2017, at the Hanna Barbera Show. Benedict's pencils were the best things in it.

Color and density used to convey emphasis. Stefano Buonsignori, Map of France, from the Geographical Panels in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. 1576. I stood in this room in 2003, agape. I bought the ridiculously expensive book, which sits among my atlases of various cartographic and typographic personalities. A really beautiful thing; lovely color and variation in treatment.

Things overlap on another in a landscape view. But look at the treatment of the smaller vehicles in between the double-decker buses. A strong sense of space, yet, but items are enumerated. Miroslav Sasek, Picadilly Square, in This is London, 1960. A fabulous set of books, reissued in this century.

Olle Eskell, a park with cityscape. The establishment of spatial zones to show particular items appropriate to each. An extremely useful example for strategizing the display of information which relies place or setting, physical or conceptual.

Francesca Ryan, Untitled (Megalomanical Obelisk with Tapeworm? Powerline Vaudeville?). 2013. This may not be intelligible, but who can gainsay its urgency? By Francesca Ryan. Children are ferocious intenders. I love this thing. (I pumped the contrast on the pencil, producing that somewhat over-the-top yellow. Not Francesca's fault. Bad art direction!)

More old stuff from Britain. Specimens from a book of English fossil finds. To some degree like the spearheads above, a stone wall built from tiny pebbles and varied rocks, mortared with negative space. "Eocene Shells at Bracklesham" from The Geology and Fossils of the Tertiary and Cretaceous Formations of Sussex, by Frederick Dixon. 1850. This (and a thousand other printed pictorial excavations) at the wonderful blog Bibliodyssey.

Articulation of a system embedded in others systems. Illustration by Henry Vandyke Carter, From Gray’s Anatomy. 1858.

An alternate approach to building a display system with decorative potential: Lowell Hess’s title page illustration for Mathematics. I have written elsewhere about Hess, whose visual range was quite exceptional.