10 books that have inspired or influenced me

My main blog (paperposts) is about paper, from the book to the package to the flyer, however it's books I love the most. It's mainly concerned with the 'object' not the content, it's the design of the thing. Like the character in Calvino's If on a Winters Night... who taught himself (the impossible) not to read, but only to 'see' the book as an object, a thing, with no meaning to be drawn from the glyphs on the pages. To make up for that absence of 'content' here's a list of 10 books, in no particular order, whose contents have influenced, inspired or otherwise resonated with me over the years. Some are purely visual, others a little deeper, but they all left their mark.


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Design for the Real World - Victor Papanek

This was the first book to shake my world and help me understand my responsibilities as a designer. It planted the seed that became my design ethics and it awakened the politicised designer in me. At the time I was a naive young graphic designer student (fresh from school), and although he was tackling big design problems to help humanity, such as redesigning the plough, I saw how as any designer you have responsibilities. You make things that effect people, thus you must be aware of the implications of your work, it's not just about you and your client. Much later I discovered Milton Glaser's 12 steps to hell and the First Things First Manifesto, which cemented this notion for me. I think this book, more than any on the list set me on the path to where I am now.


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The Medium is the Massage - Marshall McLuhan
and I Seem to be a Verb - R. Buckminster Fuller

These 60's paperbacks are classics and were introduced to me by my undergrad lecturer Ian Noble (sadly no longer with us). My love of these goes beyond the pop cultural theory and sits squarely with the brilliant graphic design of Quentin Fiore. So I'm counting these as 1 book.

Seeing how these great thinkers could work with a designer to enrich an idea opened up a new sense of the value graphic design could bring to a project. It helped me see beyond the surface to how design amplifies the idea or thought.

See here for more images from I Seem to be a Verb


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Exercices de Style - Raymond Queneau

One of my favourite examples of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) with the added design skills of the great french graphic designer Robert Massin. It's the same story told masterfully by Queneau in 99 different ways, with the added bonus of also being told through series of illustrations in different styles.

The thing I find most inspiring about this is the sense of mediation, how a message can be influenced by the way it is communicated. It's way more than an academic exercise, but yet falls neatly within Queneau's description of Oulipians as 'rats who create the mazes from which we plan to escape'.


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Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Don Quixote is special on so many levels. From the giddying postmodernist self reference - referencing the first book (and alternative book) in the second, through to the suspicions cast on the translator in the opening pages. It's over 400 years old, but the story of someone consciously escaping the banality and emptiness of their time through fantasy is still prevalent today.

Whilst studying I used the text to explore many ideas. I read 'versions' and 'reimaginations' of the story such as Kathy Ackers Don Quixote. The idea of 'tilting at windmills' struck a deep cord with me, and became a key metaphor for my postgrad years. It was even the title for my masters thesis.


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A Void - Georges Perec

This was the first OuLiPo book I read, and it's a masterpiece. It's a full novel without the use of the letter e. What's so amazing about this book is that although at first the flow and rhythm of the text is a little strange and awkward, you quickly adapt to it. I read the translation to English by Gilbert Adair which is possibly an even greater feat than the original by Perec.

What's so wonderful is how the 'constraint', the banned letter e is actually the catalyst for the creativity. It highlights how constraints can have a hugely positive impact on a creative endeavour. This idea is something that fits with every design brief I've ever had and should be embraced. Constraints focus you and instil discipline, they encourage creative thought. If there are no constraints upon a project, make up your own, it will be better with them than without them.


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Species of Spaces and Other Pieces - Georges Perec

Early in my career I worked at Penguin Books. I'd just left college and was full of the oulipian ideas I'd just spent two years obsessing over. At Penguin I could hardly believe my luck when they published Species of Spaces as a 20th Century Classic.

I was their web designer and had to create a promotional site for the book. It was still early days for website design and I got to do pretty much whatever I wanted. I had a lot of fun, playing with knights tour for the navigation and peculiar layout. Total indulgence and barely usable - more art project than information design, it was truly in the spirit of OuLiPo.

I've reread the book many times and love it, so many ideas crammed into the pages. Wonderful.


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If on a Winter's Night a Traveller... - Italo Calvino

This is the never ending book. It's the story of a reader and their quest to read the next chapter of the book they start, thus every next chapter extends this book. It opened my eyes to how context can stitch together seemingly separate things, albeit with the guiding hand of an expert storyteller. 

I think it also awakened a tendency for apophenia in me that I've never shook off. That sense that there are connecting patterns everywhere and by simply changing the way you approach something you can uncover whole new ways of understanding it.


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Labyrinths - Jorge Luis Borges

This book is an explosion of ideas. So many of the pieces it contains are conceptual kick starters for thinking about the digital world. The ideas maybe big but the writing is accessible and eloquent, grounded by perfectly formed narratives and expert storytelling. If you have anything to do with information design or UX and haven't read this, go get a copy now. It's worth it for these 3 pieces alone:

  • The Garden of Forking Paths
  • The Library of Babel
  • Kafka and his Precurors

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An Endless Adventure - Iwona Blazwick

Great catalogue of Situationist artefacts, but it's the sandpaper cover that nails it for me as it violates the other books on the shelf - perfect design for subject. This is from my more politicised student days when I was experimenting heavily with how design and far left ideas could work together. It's a great catalogue from the ICA exhibition and covers the movements early days through to the influences it had on Punk and beyond.

The L’Internationale situationniste are full of challenging ideas and fabulously disruptive and unapologetic, just what an angry young man needed. Their are two ideas that have stuck with me and are still relevant today. Firstly, dérive (more here), this is closely linked to psychogeography and is about resisting the physical flow of a city to follow the different 'ambiances', thus forcing new possibilities - similar to Baudelaire's flaneur but way more edgy. Secondly there's détournement (more here), this is the extremely fun game of taking an existing piece of media and subverting it with subtle changes, to say something else, generally something opposing.


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In Praise of Shadows - Junichiro Tanizaki

It's a deep exploration of the Japanese traditional aesthetic. If you've read wabi sabi for designers, you'll love this. It's essentially about subtlety, and the richness, beauty and depth of partially hidden things. How by understanding the counterparts (light and darkness) and how they work together, you can create deeper experiences. 

It's a beautifully poetical book, far more than just another tool for designers arsenal.


There you are, 10 (or 11) books that left their mark on me. Of course there are more than this, and far more that I've simply enjoyed. I'm not saying go out and read these books, rather that each of them found me at the right time. For one reason or another I was open and receptive to them. The context was right. My experience of them is exactly that, mine. Yours will be different, after all... what comes to be read is awakened in the moment of reading.

 

Milton Glaser - The Designer's 12 steps to hell

I can't remember where I grabbed these from but they have always been in the back of my mind. I also wince every time I read them as I realise how many I have taken.

  1. Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
  2. Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy.
  3. Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
  4. Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
  5. Designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
  6. Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
  7. Designing a package aimed at children for a cereal whose contents you know are low in nutritional value and high in sugar.
  8. Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
  9. Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
  10. Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
  11. Designing a brochure for an SUV that flips over frequently in emergency conditions and is known to have killed 150 people.
  12. Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.

What do 1000 images mean?

Questions

Transient

When I posted my 1000 images from Instagram I posed the following questions:

  • What do they say about me? 
  • Is there an agenda or story that they are obviously spinning?
  • How long did I spend taking, choosing and posting them? 
  • How long did I spend viewing them and tracking the likes and comments?
  • How much energy did they use (are they using)?
  • How many minutes of the worlds collective time have been spent looking at them? 
  • Has anyone else seen them all? 

I haven't even come close to understanding how to answer most these especially as I can't get the complete data out of Instagram, so I can only give some measurements and guestimates and postulations. With the deeper ones I can only share my thoughts. But first the easier ones...


Physically in the digital realm

Pixels covered: 374,544,000 pixels or 374.5 Megapixels

That's a pretty big image. The best layout I found was to do a 40x25 grid (see here). Which gives you an full size image that is 24480x15300 pixels. So depending on your preference (if you print it at 300dpi or 72dpi) it gives you a poster that's either 81.6x51 inches (207x130 cm approx) or 340x212.5 inches (863x540 cm approx). Lets go with 72dpi for now, thats around 30 A4 sheets of paper.

So if we change the layout to fit better on an ipad (1 directional scrolling)...
On an old iPad thats means scrolling or paging the screen almost 600 times (1 image high)
Compared to only 150 times on a new retina iPad (2 images high)
Either way that's quite an effort.

Disk space used: 110.8 MB

Which in todays terms is a trivial amount of data, but it would have been a lot of floppy disks. But more importantly it would have taken some considerable time to download over a 56k Modem. Thankfully that doesn't matter much in Northern Europe anymore. But it does in some places and there are times on my mobile when it still sucks. But it's nothing compared to the time needed to view the images.

Time - is tricky (as ever)

So if you were to read the 1 million words these images are supposed to represent, it would take anywhere between 60 and 86 hours (200 or 250 words per minute, source) unless you are World champion speed reader Anne Jones then it will only take you about 4 hours!

But that's silly, what is it really like to view an image on Instagram, how long do I look at an image? So I had a little experiment and have decided that the following incredibly vague and approximate measures will do.

I spend probably 1 second at most to view (or scan) an image, that is enough to see who posted it and assess whether it appeals to me. If it appeals to me I engage with it further, I even read the caption and comments but still only about 5 seconds. If I properly engage with it and even write a comment, then maybe a whole 10 seconds. Not long really, not exactly deep sounding either, but that's the nature of social media - it's snacking and poking and general twitchiness. Now I only have 83 followers and only maybe 20 that probably see every picture (yep, definitely not a social media god). Anyway if they were scanning the pics in the most basic way it would have cost them 28 minutes each (38hours 45mins collective time gone). For those who actually engaged with each image 2hours 20mins each (so lets just use the 20 core followers - that's still 45 hours blown). 

So how long did I spend making these 1000 images, not long at all. If I'd used film and a 35mm camera I'd of spent time choosing the shot, framing it, waiting for the moment, talking the shot, developing it and then printing that perfect print. As it is I take 1000's more pictures that I deem instagramable, even such a disposable media has my built in quality control in overtime. But I can't even begin to guestimate how long I spent capturing each image, they vary so much. Some are quick from the hip and straight to the feed, others waited for, shot and reshot, tweaked in Snapseed, cropped, 'effected' and carefully captioned and tagged. So I've decided to just look at the process. If I can post, without error or changing of my mind, then it takes around 30 seconds per image - thats over 8 hours work, a whole days work!

Energy

I don't know how I can calculate the energy used for this, but it would be very interesting to get a sense of the energy for a single pic, or even 1000. The energy cost of cloud services and mobile seems very remote to the end user, out of sight and out of mind. I think there's a lot of work needed to surface those costs. Here's a link to an interesting piece on the subject

The deeper questions

What do all these images mean, is there a message or an agenda? For me they are the hard questions to answer. Where stats and data always fall short. I've played the designer/artist in the past and everything I created had to be driven by meaning and have a reason to exist, I was never happy with simple aesthetic values, there always had to be more. But with these, and at this time it's not so clear. I definitely have a a reason for this, it might not be a particularly good one or even outwardly known, it might not even be a conscious one, but it's there.

However I think I'm going to save the messy psychological analysis on why I feel the need to share these images with strangers (and friends). I'll leave it for another post along with the content and subjects as they are so intrinsically linked to the why - for now it's a lot easier to hide behind the stats.

1000 images

374.5 Megapixels (size)

30 A4 sheets (printed)

110.8 MB (disk space)

28 minutes - 38hours 45mins collective time (to view)

8 hours work (to make)

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