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Information Design of the 1950s

2015 February 26
by Matt

This is one example of why I enjoy historical research: you find all kinds of cool things. Here’s a low-tech but very adequate information graphic from 1954:

From folder 27, box 4, Hilton papers, Iowa State University Special Collections

From folder 27, box 4, Hilton papers, Iowa State University Special Collections

Apparently this was prepared by administrators at dear auld ISU back in the early days of President James H. Hilton.

This object delighted me because, while it’s so charmingly basic, it’s still very like what I do 61 years later. The tools are different today, and the results probably a bit more professional in appearance. But for all of its near-steampunk material origins—apparently colored pencils and a typewriter—this gets the job done in a fairly neat and efficient fashion.

Nowadays, of course, we have so much automatic digital precision that you occasionally see something like this as an effect, to suggest “authenticity” or something. Usually, though, it’s simulated using software filters and textures.

This is the pure stuff, here.

Costume Quest & the uncanny valley

2015 January 20

So, I’m a bit behind the times. I bought a PlayStation3 after the PS4 came out, and—while the PS3 still sees new titles released—my most recent acquisition for it is from 2010. It’s so old that the promotional web site has apparently expired.* I do think this is kind of chintzy and lazy, actually; you can’t be bothered to pay the pennies it would take to keep this online? I’m planning to keep live, and Costume Quest is probably still more profitable in 2015 than Brilliant Deduction will ever be…

This aside, I commend DoubleFine for a delightful, delicious game.

As much of the gaming community has already recognized this achievement and moved on, however, I’ve decided to direct most of my comments to some aspects of the game’s design. (Which is why this post is here rather than at my personal site.)

Prominent among its merits, Costume Quest is a feast of design. Keen-o costumes, the icon system of “Battle Stamps,” plus the whole set of “Creepy Treats Cards” (presumably inspired by Garbage Pail Kids) which serve negligible function in the game besides ornamentation. The design element that has prompted the most fascination for me, though, is the built landscape.

Costume Quest's Autumn Pines suburb

Screen shot from Costume Quest’s Autumn Pines suburb

Most of Costume Quest takes place in a suburban neighborhood, a shopping mall, and some kind of rural setting that I can’t even describe effectively without going into it at some length… Before getting to that, though, I’ve wondered why I have wondered so much about this scenery, and today I had an idea. I think maybe the locations in Costume Quest hover in some kind of uncanny valley.

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The Cotton library fire comic

2015 January 17

Time I posted a few notes about this, my most recent comics work.

As regards inspiration, the original idea to create a promotional comic of some sort resulted from a specific opportunity (I thought) to get a little free exposure. That did not pan out, in fact. But I think it was a great idea because I had much fun making it.

Once I began thinking “what if I made a comic,” I had plenty of ideas. The story of the Cotton library is, I (obviously) think, full of entertaining if often tragicomic episodes. Cotton “picking” his collection from any source that wasn’t nailed down… the intrigues of the rival librarians… the frequently exasperated Sir Frederic Madden… but fairly quickly, I settled on the 1731 fire as the best place to begin.

It just seemed to offer both the best “hook” as a promotion—hey, did you know all these amazing documents are part of one collection and that 300 years ago it was nearly incinerated despite being formally entrusted to Parliament by that point?—and multiple opportunities for jokes amid the greater narrative.

Essentially none of which are made up, either. Dr. Bentley attempting to move the shelves outside… tossing volumes out a window when that first idea wasted too much time… and, yes, even Bentley’s bizarre suggestion that the fire was ghostly punishment for the library’s neglect. All drawn from historic accounts. The literal appearance of Cotton’s ghost is invented, obviously, but it felt like he deserved an opportunity for rebuttal. So, voila artistic license…

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End-of-year card design 2014 & Twitter

2014 December 20

Making up your own holiday cards is difficult. It’s even more difficult when you make it into a kind of creativity-craft challenge, and strain to work in a new handmade feature each year. Some years the effort produces very nice results, occasionally it produces something near spectacular.

This year, like last year, was a bit more like “deadline’s here, this will have to do.”

I can say that 2014’s design does feel a bit more interesting than 2013’s (which was as nearly close to generic as I’ve gotten). The craft component was, this time out, not really a feature at all, but not for want of trying. Oh, I tried. I definitely set a new record this year for sheer amount of time and effort expended on exploring designs and techniques that I just could not get to work up to my standards. I pursued at least three significant, different lines of concept/technique. All of them came close to working, and I think some of the experience will yet be useful in years to come.

This year, though, I was down to the afternoon of the very last day before I planned to start mailing… and while I could have pushed back the schedule, it seemed unlikely that a few more days would dramatically raise the odds of making any of my lines of experiment work.

Instead, at the last, I had another idea that emphasized concept over technique, and I ran with it. Each card still involved a good deal of cutting, gluing and hand-assembly, but the central “art” element was created with computer software and printed on an inkjet; oh well. I like the idea of taking a break once per year to design with some other media, but at the same time I don’t think it makes sense to be completely rigid about made-up rules for an exercise in creativity.

As for the concept, well, it was basically a Twitter post in paper. Which I can’t claim is all that clever, but I haven’t seen one before.

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Drawing 2014: Harley-Davidson

2014 December 19

Another Christmas, another commissioned drawing:

Harley-Davidson motorcycle in front of bridge

No, I don’t know anything about this bike; the bridge is somewhere around Savannah GA

USPS informs me that this was delivered today, and so (since I doubt my brother has ever visited my web sites anyway) I think it’s safe to post it here.

I think it’s okay. Unlike last year’s drawing, this was much more a direct rendering from a source photo. I did have to convert from color to black and white (which I might have done in Photoshop, but I didn’t), and I also added the clouds. The sky was basically an overcast blank in the original photo, and it felt like very awkwardly trapped white space between the bridge tower and the tall tree.

Otherwise, I think the original composition was pretty good for an amateur snapshot. As is common in amateur photography, though, the light was behind the subject, so a lot of bike detail was just lost in shadow. Frankly, I just decided to declare this okay, and roll with it. Unfortunately graphite pencils are not ideal for large, solid black areas; try as I might I was unable to eliminate some degree of reflective texture, as evident above. Oh well. Ink might have been better in theory, e.g., but in practice I just don’t have a lot of skill or comfort with wet media.

I also did not especially love drawing all of that foliage in the background, let alone stippling the road texture, for what that’s worth. I think the road at least does look nice, but stippling has not gotten any more fun since the last time I did it. :)

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton

2014 November 22
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Here is a portrait I drew of Sir Robert Cotton, English courtier, antiquary and founder the Cotton library that I wrote a book about. Here is a high-resolution versionYou can do whatever you want with them!

Sir Robert Cotton, and his beloved Book of Genesis manuscript

Based on an engraving by George Vertue


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Cotton’s Library design notes

2014 November 17
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Front cover of MY NEW BOOK (please buy it)My new book is officially released today. Please check it out. Or just go order a copy. :-)

Some notes on its design, now…

On the whole, design for Cotton’s Library was simpler and easier than Brilliant Deduction. The cover was a relatively direct affair, a rare (for me) opportunity in the “single image plus typography” school of cover design. I had a somewhat different idea, originally, hoping to find an old still life painting with books and papers. I’m sure there’s something like this in the world. But nothing that I found among public domain archives, even with their recent growth, really persuaded me.

So, plan B was stock photography. I believe it worked out entirely well enough. This is a nice, warm image, hinting at age and capturing a bit of dramatic light. The only thing I did to it was replace the printing in the opened book with calligraphy, since Cotton’s library is primarily a manuscript collection. The result, here, is rather unlikely, in that I believe that most of these are paper books and this kind of manuscript page would be more likely in a parchment volume… but, y’know, I’ve never thought this kind of literalism was very profitable in cover design, anyway. (It isn’t like I put Wolverine on the cover and he’s only in the background of one panel, e.g.)

I looked at a few options for typography, but gravitated toward Perpetua Titling, and not for the first time. I think this, too, looks smashing. Perpetua Titling has all the classical elegance and decorum of Trajan, without the baggage of overuse in a zillion often very random applications. I completely reserve the right to use this typeface on a cover yet again, in future.

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Beowulf, first folio

2014 November 7
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The image below is a drawing of the first folio of Beowulf, which along with the rest of the manuscript was damaged by a great fire in 1731; for details please see my book Cotton’s Library.

I release this image, and a high-resolution version, free of charge for you to do with it absolutely whatever you want.

Drawing of first folio of Beowulf

It begins, very roughly translated, “check it out, yo.”

All of the pages of the Beowulf manuscript have been photographed multiple times, and are available online from multiple sources, but all of them forbid you from re-using their photos… and good luck getting the British Library to let you take your own photos. As I’ve detailed in this earlier post, this situation seems kind of jerk-y to me. So if you have some need for an image of Beowulf, feel free to use this one!

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ebook production 2014 notes

2014 November 5
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With the formal release date for Cotton’s Library less than two weeks away, I have been working to get everything finalized and into the various retail pipelines. I’m going to post some notes, here, about working with this latest go-round, if only for my own future reference.

Preparing the print editions mostly seemed unchanged, for good and bad. Turnaround on proof copies was once again fast, despite the scare timelines presumably meant to nudge you toward premium shipping. I did learn that you can effectively “bleed” printing on the interior edge; a line across the gutter will not reveal any kind of interior margin, although the two sides may not line up perfectly. I also discovered that distribution beyond lulu restricts you to a very small number of formats, which are not really marked as such except by a cryptic little 9×9 pixel icon… so 6×9″ trade it is, I guess. Other than this, there weren’t much in the way of surprises. Their cover builder allows one to specify spine copy… but if you upload your own cover art, as I do, then it seems you’re still stuck with the full title and subtitle or, if that doesn’t fit, no title at all. Bottom line, for the most part it seems to work well enough.

Preparing the ebook…um… yeah.

I really expected this to be a mostly straightforward process. I figured it all out two years ago. I did not see what had changed. I was going to use the same version of the same software, to produce similar content in the same version of the ebook spec, and submit it to the same site. None of the “documentation” that lulu provides looked particularly different.

I’m still not entirely sure what went wrong. Thinking back, things seemed more complicated than they should have from the outset. Maybe I got my files confused, but the typography I used in what I think was the final Brilliant Deduction ebook required various modifications to get the same result in ebook software. No idea why. I added one complication intentionally; since Cotton’s Library is divided into three parts, I used the method that I found here to add some hierarchy to the table of contents. It was a bit of a pain, but it did work as intended and I believe the results were worthwhile.

So, after making these adjustments, running my epub file through a couple of validators, and examining it in two reader programs at length, I figured I was all set. Nnnooooooo-no-no-no.

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Coins of Anglo-Saxon Britain

2014 October 30
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Here are drawings I made of four coins from Anglo-Saxon Britain, which formed part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton and are now in the British Museum. (Read about Cotton, his collection and the BM’s history in my book Cotton’s Library!) The image below, as well as this high-resolution version, is absolutely free for you to use however you want!

Drawings of four Dark Age pennies

All four from Britain, not necessarily “British,” though that’s complicated

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