“This chapter will be a curiosity of literature.”
– Elizabeth Zimmerman
Turning like an ox while plowing…
…people some way the words collect I…
…collect stamps or art or dead animal heads stuffed and peering from their walls. One such word I collected in grad school and wrote into my thesis, but only once. I would tell you what that word was, except that would negate its meaning.
Boustrophedon I collected after plowing through the music collection at the Seattle Public Library, where a stern sign forbids me from turning or recataloguing the jewel cases, which are arranged in drawers so their tops – not their spines, mind you – but their thin top edges are most visible. This orientation makes for easier reshelving for librarians searching by catalog label, which takes up more than the top right quadrant of the face of each music case.
A challenging environment for graphic design, to say the least, where oftentimes the library label obscures the name of the band, the title of the album, and much of the album’s artwork.
Of course when I am looking for a particular musician, I search the library’s online database instead, but on days more suited to bibliocurving – a word I collected from my former faculty advisor – or, more precisely here, audiocurving – I am not opposed to adding the occasional neologism to my collection – meaning open to random musical encounters – I select music by good design, following the logic that any design that can hold up under those conditions, well, maybe the music is good too.
Hence my introduction to Winter and Winter and boustrophedon, from reading their liner notes.
From text to textile…
…life my through backwards and forwards writing…
My mother taught me how to knit when I was but a wee slip of a girl. I have gone back and forth on including textiles in my portfolio; first there’s the art school hegemony that privileges art over craft; then there’s the feminist critique of that phallocentric paradigm that reappropriates craft as art medium; and then when I attended my first AIGA Seattle function, I was told by first one designer, “You need to decide whether you’re an illustrator or a designer,” and by another, “You need to decide if you’re a designer or a developer,” and by still a third, proudly, “I don’t read.” And finally, there’s Print trotting out its annual issue devoted to the “new visual artist,” youth obsessed or unintentionally (?) ageist, by which I think they mean illustrator or designer, and Fast Company recently heralding designer-developers as the next new cross-disciplinary skill set for the twenty-first century.
This is new?
So where’s the fast company, or better yet, slow company – as in slow food, slow love, many things are better slow – or even the fair-to-middlin’ trundling along company singing my praises, or even capable of comprehending that all communications are visual and design thinking is least of all software most of all finding solutions to problems?
Delighted to meet at a recent AIGA gathering a software engineer who introduced himself to me, first, as a clothing designer, though unfamiliar with the difference between knit and weave and the structure of the human figure, albeit very enthusiastic about new textile technologies, just as I was delighted not long ago to meet a poet who turned out to also be education faculty, much as I was delighted to meet a man who described himself, first, as a house-husband and stay-at-home dad.
Of course graphic design is like knitting just as mixing paint on my palette is akin to mincing vegetables for mirepoix or kneading bread dough.
And none of these activities has much to do with software, other than the similarities between code and knitting, which also depends on a system of ones and zeroes, there or not-there, knit and purl.
And of course knitting is boustrophedon, looking to the past as much as to the future, while very physically in the present.
Good design, too, depends on education and experience or time, not technology, and design is not a product, but a process of problem-solving. What the lay person or uneducated audience might think of as graphic design – the business card, the book jacket, the website – is nothing more than the waste product or evidence of design’s thought process.
As an adult, I took up knitting again primarily as physical therapy, solving the problems of psoriatic arthritis in one wrist and a ganglion cyst in the other. I preferred this design solution to the surgeon eager to slice-n-dice but who could not guarantee a pain-free life, and whose office was designed to look as if he could pack up and flee in forty-eight hours. Or less.
Excessive keyboarders or mousers might try knitting for relief from carpal tunnel syndrome.
Or go back to Mac the Knife. It’s your body.
I used to follow knitting patterns, or designs, to more or less successful results, until it occurred to me that it’s just math, why not knit after a garment that already fits your body? So my next sweater I designed after my favorite shirt that I wore until I wore it out, and maybe slightly longer, until the holes in the seams became almost obscene. Nothing special, just a Perry Ellis license off the rack, but I liked the way it fit. It was comfortable. That seemed to work out quite well, quickly becoming my favorite sweater, the one I reach for first.
So when one of my sisters gave me some wool she wasn’t using, I decided to follow the shape of my second-favorite sweater as a pattern. Design problem: the wool from my sister probably not enough for a sweater for me.
Design solution: thinking of Missoni’s color mixing from the ‘eighties, what if I just work in whatever odds and ends I happen to have on hand, design-as-you-go?
Design problem: excess wool leftover from previous projects?
Design solution: no need to fret, stuff it in the attic, or beleaguer your favorite yarn shop to accept return of outdated product. Design as you go.
Design as you go: you may use whatever you can lay your hands on, adding colors or fibers at “random” – as you run out or grow bored with one, switch to another, making design decisions as you go. Picking up a thread from a previous passage and carrying it forward to the next. Turning like an ox while plowing before clumsily making your way back across the row that came before, maybe alternating colors.
If you look close, you might even see the names of the monarchs whose heads would be the next to roll before the guillotine, were we still living in another century.
Or maybe not.
Here, I included embroidery floss, a gift from the same colleague who gave me bibliocurving, with a mix of wool, silk, and angora, leaving each of the ends dangling like “cat toys,” an old friend described them, or you could just as easily incorporate ribbons, hemp, chain mail, strips of recycled plastic sacks if you’re trying to reuse planetary waste one sweater at a time…
Or whatever new textile technology you can access.
Whatever you want touching your flesh.
Design note: if you lean toward the rotund and concern yourself with appearing slimmer, this may not be the design for you. The color bands tend toward the horizontal, as that is the direction of knitting. A few ideas you might try: mix colors closer in value than I show here. Stop/start colors veering toward the diagonal rather than the horizontal; these design decisions are your own with design-as-you-go. Or consider scrounging up an old Elizabeth Zimmerman pattern to knit in the round one piece from wrist to wrist, so your stripes on the finished garment will drape vertically.
Design note: avoid color changes and the resulting frayed ends at the nipple line. Unless that is your thing, in which case maybe work in black or white and add not just cat toys but full pom-poms in Schiaparelli pink or raspberry. Ya got, flaunt it, as they say in Texas.
The geometric eyelet pattern stitch I chose for this one was really fun, simple counting on the knit rows with almost nothing but purl on the reverse, leaving the mind with time and space for wandering every alternate row. A beginning knitter? Don’t be scared off by the color changes. You can’t do it “wrong.”
There is no right.
There is no wrong.
There is only perception.
Even after first completing a couple of scarves with similar color work and fiber mixing, I was halfway through this sweater before I realized that I am doing the same thing in yarn that I was doing at the press, design-as-you-print, or “laundry” printing, coined for printing while cleaning the press, or boustrophedon alternating layers of printing the traditional way, from type locked up in a chase, with laundry printing:
This is also not so different from what I do with intricate combinations of digital (or analogue) typography. And of course typography is not so different from writing, as it is writing made visible.
There is always a cat. And she is not always moon-grey. Sometimes she is chocolate:
Frida and I have an agreement. She can lie on my work-in-progress as long as she keeps her claws retracted. She mostly keeps her end of the bargain.
If you would like the pattern I used, contribute US$10 to my studio. Include “design-as-you-go sweater” in the comment box or your email.
Design-as-you-go knitted up incredibly fast, like reading a good novel, I couldn’t put it down, excited to see what would happen next. I am almost sad to have a new sweater, missing the process of knitting, the pleasure of silk, wool, and my circular bamboo knitting needles between my fingers. But maybe some nice person will soon gift me some more yarn. Blacks ranging to mid-tone greys, I’m thinking. And only natural fibers. No synthetics, please. Unless they are a fancy, for accent only.
And from textile to text…
…back little a and forward little a writing…
This jacket design fails to visually communicate the book’s content:
True, David Mitchell formally structured his novel Cloud Atlas as a sextet of short stories, but there ends this software technician’s ability to communicate the literary content of the book through the visual form of its jacket.
This novel has almost nothing to do with clouds, and makes no attempt to map them.
The term “cloud atlas” is metaphor, and just in case there is any human being describing herself as a graphic designer yet unfamiliar with the meaning of metaphor, the author tells you. Just before he lobs another metaphor at you, with a knowing wink, as if to say: We both know what this is already. I’m letting you know that I know that you know that I am using metaphor. In doing so, Mitchell communicates respect for his reader.
The producer of this book jacket respects neither the writer nor his readers. Or missed the wink. Metaphor went sailing high over her head. Or perhaps she construed it as a stale pick-up line that she’s heard a thousand times before while sitting in her favorite watering hole nursing an autumnal ale: Hey, baby, your place or mine?
From a marketing perspective, you can shrug and say who cares? Cloud Atlas sold over half a million copies, short-listed for the Booker Prize, and screenplay rights were snapped up by the Wachowskis; the jacket design did its job.
Let’s try honest marketing: David Mitchell’s name sold half a million copies.
This jacket had nothing to do with marketing success, and may have actually harmed future sales to dull-witted readers who purchased the book hoping to learn how to navigate their heads through the clouds, only to be frustrated by the first interrupted chapter in their introduction to Mitchell’s writing, tossed it in the nearest rubbish bin, and never again read another book.
The sales team would have been better off marketing Cloud Atlas in little drawstring bags with the author’s name knitted right into them, no title required, just Mitchell’s writing shoved into an executioner’s black sack. Maybe next time even eschew gluing and binding altogether, just sell loose pages of content, a swan floating free of form, saving even more green.
Oops, wait, that’s form too.
Form cannot be divorced from content because there is no marriage, just endless possibilities for entwining and uniting between content and form. Salinger’s fear of visual form notwithstanding, we are always already communicating visually, and of course writing too might be analyzed by its formal qualities, just as graphic design might be criticized by its content.
Or lack thereof.
Cloud Atlas might be described as taking up where Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler left off, while perhaps tap-dancing through Borgesian libraries, which means it is also related to García Márquez and Nabokov, in the great phallologocentric game that is the history of Western literature, where, like the history of Western painting, the bastard sons must wrest the fecund mark-maker from the fists of the fathers of the preceding generations.
Thus I would compare Mitchell less to other writers, more to another of my heroes, painter Gerhard Richter, stretching across the genres of their respective fields: here’s a series of photorealistic portraits mourning those missing fathers; here’s kaleidoscopic science fiction; this one’s a landscape; here’s a boy-coming-of-age story; here’s nonobjective painting; this one’s historic fiction; here’s history painting; try a story-within-a-story-within-a-story and multiply that endlessly; here are geometric color swatches painted by assistants under my art direction; maybe next erotica, certainly a literary challenge; here a cycle of paintings encompassing portrait, still life, history, and the perhaps futile resistance to the totalitarian state… And so on. Why? Perhaps because they can. Perhaps for the intellectual challenge. I suspect some part of their motivation also springs generously, similar to the work of David Foster Wallace, for the pleasure of the reader/viewer.
Where If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler was written by one of the last century’s great writers at the height of his powers, I also suspect Cloud Atlas is Mitchell just beginning to batter up. As he tells us in his interview with Adam Begley in The Paris Review, “What would it actually look like if a mirror were placed at the end of the book, and you continued into a second half that took you back to the beginning?”
Note his use of visual terms, look and mirror.
Where does writing leave off, and image-making begin, again?
One such location is typography, where writing becomes visual. But where Cloud Atlas knits together six short stories, with the author’s mirror placed at their center before purling boustrophedon from the end back to the beginning, with a narrative thread stretching from each antecedent passage to the passage subsequent, with some characters abandoned like postmodern cat toys, frayed, dangling, this jacket design adheres to a rigid modernist grid, obtusely inserting stock photography of clouds like calendar pornography, blind to visual metaphor. Slap on a label for the title. Slap on an award-winning sticker. Sold.
This jacket could equally well serve as a template for any other book, on any other subject, insert data here:
(War images courtesy Zoriah, with apologies for butchering your beautiful compositions to make the comparison between banality in graphic design and the banality of war. Feel free to redistribute my design parodies, with credit to studio6other and trackback, please.)
Mitchell’s writing is anything but formulaic or stock, both running ahead of and slipping back behind the grid, exceeding its limitations.
To repeat: Cloud Atlas is not about clouds. This writing is about writing, language, and transformation. It is about time, timelessness, life, death, and that slippage in between. Mitchell writes about the similarities of the evils without and within, between torture and pleasure, self and other, asks if we might come up with a better solution than war. Yet this jacket visually communicates none of the ideas that infuse Mitchell’s writing. As we lose our ability to speak in visual metaphor, with all of its subtlety and nuance, we surrender our ability to resolve communication problems other than through brute bodily force, thus embracing war.
Why has our design literacy not kept pace with the leaps and bounds of our literature or computing technology? What would it look like if you started scratching at the tain of that mirror?
Replace “diplomacy” with “communication” and I align myself with the inveterate idiots who believe we might design better solutions for resolving conflict besides technology and war.
For the publisher with the courage or the marketers with the imagination to really go postmodern on production and distribution, maybe mix up the pages included in each sack, so Readers must go in search of Other Readers to see how the novel ends. Perhaps they already thought of that next time, while sitting on a bench beside the Charles, or was it the Rhône?
How far, as readers, are we willing to go?
All the way to the movies?
The Wachowskis butchered their own sequels, and I have not yet forgiven Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump. I think I will pass on their filmic interpretation of Cloud Atlas, better suited to the capabilities of magicians than surgeons. Stay home, maybe curl up with a good book. Paint another mistresspiece. Or start another sweater.
Okay, I’m fresh out of cake…
…bread of batch another up mix to off…