Skip to content

Graphic design’s status envy

2014 October 24

Apparently the College of Design signed up a successor to Professor Baer this summer; I managed to miss this until recently, somehow, but last week Mr. Canniffe introduced himself to alumni in a mass e-mail. Having now found a press release about his hiring, I see that it notes similar enthusiasms to those in his e-mail. The presser quotes the dean ascribing to Canniffe “a profound belief in the power of design to make the world a better place.” This belief presumably informed his role in founding “a social design studio that partners with community organizations, activists, researchers, scientists, institutions, politicians and artists to define solutions to societal problems and create change.” Visiting the spartan site of said studio, you’ll find more such lofty statements.

At the risk of being Debbie Downer, I’m skeptical.

I’ve written a bit about this before. For all that, personally, I regard solving societal problems and making the world a better place as both good things, and more important than polishing corporate brands, I remain skeptical that graphic design is really a great tool for the former purposes. My earlier post can probably be summarized by this suggestion: “If you really want to solve hunger or poverty or child abuse, you probably ought to go into biogenetics or politics or social work.”

In revisiting these issues, I’ve had a further thought, however. In addition to the the desire of leftish academics to pursue societal good over corporate ROI—to which I’m sympathetic, certainly—I think this attempt to conjure a “power of design” that solves social problems may be driven by disciplinary insecurity and envy.

read more…

The Cottoniana, an Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi

2014 October 22

Here is a pencil reproduction I drew of a wondrous Anglo-Saxon world map from the Cotton library. You’re free to do whatever you want with this, and with a high-resolution version that I’m also sharing.

Anglo-Saxon world map 'The Cottoniana'

The top represents east; Britain is at lower-left…

You can read more about this map and the Cotton library in my book, though I will also point out this page at Jim Siebold’s Ancient Maps web site. As much as I’m trying to promote my own project, here, Mr. Siebold was kind enough to bless my excerpting some of his comments about the map; if his permission was not strictly necessary it still offers a fine counter-example to the kind of miserliness at which I’m trying to thumb my nose.

As explained in this previous post. Otherwise…

Yeah, again, this one was plenty of work. Duh. I will note that most of the text here is gibberish, standing in for whatever is written on the real map. Even with a high-resolution photo the text is very difficult to make sense of—I think most of it is Latin—and for my purposes it didn’t seem like it would make any difference.

ISU Inspire: Hallelujah

2014 October 16

Just a moment or two before I began this post, a grim gray morning exploded in bright sunshine. Exactly the kind of transformation you associate with a cliched “Haaaa-llelujah” moment in a movie, e.g. Appropriate, though, as I had much the same reaction to the latest issue of the Inspire newsletter from dear auld ISU’s College of Design.

This is the cover:

Front cover of Fall 2014 issue of Inspire

I wish I were this cool

It isn’t bad, by any means, though personally I didn’t really react to it as an exercise in graphic design initially. I know this guy, so that—plus Roger’s daring sartorial choices—distracted me from my usual design critique. Once inside, it took a couple of more pages for me to key back in, but then… read more…

Art of the Lindisfarne Gospels

2014 October 7

Here is a detail of the Lindisfarne Gospels, re-drawn by me for my upcoming book Cotton’s Library. I also have a high-resolution version. You can do whatever you like with these images!

Drawing of part of the Lindisfarne Gospels

A small detail from (where else) the Gospel of Matthew

Now for details and other notes…

The Lindisfarne Gospels are a magnificent illuminated manuscript, created in medieval England. For the past four centuries, the book has been part of the Cotton library, which is today a part of The British Library in London. For a bit more about the book of Lindisfarne and much more about the Cotton library, I encourage you once again to have a look at my book. :-)

The above image is a pencil drawing I made of part of the manuscript. It was certainly an enlightening experience. The complexity of reproducing just this small section of one page, in monochrome, from a model, really brought home the artistry of master illuminators. Astonishing.

That said, my original motivation for doing this had nothing to do with art appreciation, drawing practice, or even converting a color image for reproduction in a black and white book. The British Library’s web site hosts high-res images of the entire manuscript—I used one of them for my reference—and I could have made any of them into perfectly serviceable grayscale images with Photoshop. Except they claim exclusive intellectual property rights to their digital photos of a centuries-old manuscript, despite the fact that they are a public institution.

read more…

Pro tip: inkwell pencil sharpener blades

2014 September 8

A little tip if you have or ever acquire one of these fantastic glass “inkwell” pencil sharpeners:

They look like this

The sharpener itself is marked “DUX” and “ALVIN,” in case anyone searches those terms

You can replace the blade when it wears out. (Which does happen, eventually; when the sharpener starts constantly snapping off pencils’ lead, the blade has gone dull.)

The 530S blades from Kum are compatible. I post this information because a while ago, I decided to investigate the possibility of replacement blades, and could not find a whole heck of a lot. Eventually, I found a message board post that implied the 530S blades might be compatible. I decided to give it a shot, because they look similar to the original blade.

I can now confirm, in case anyone else goes looking for this intel: yes, they work. Purchase them with confidence. All you need to swap the old blade for a new one is a Phillips head screwdriver and a bit of patience. Plenty of online vendors sell the 530S blades; here’s one.

Congratulations, Professor Baer

2014 August 15
by Matt

Interesting bit of news, at least to me, in the latest update from the College of Design at dear auld ISU. Professor Roger Baer is 1) beginning the last year of “a phased retirement,” and 2) to receive the 2014 Christian Petersen Design Award.

I had not heard of this award, frankly, but as a former student I would say Roger meets the criteria “alumni, staff and friends of the university [recognized] for distinguished work that advances the design and art professions.” Indeed, more than anything else, the fact that Prof. Baer has been at the College of Design for all but two years of my entire life and is only now receiving this award persuades me that it must be a very selective honor; if he had to wait 30+ years the other recipients must be an impressive bunch.

Because Roger was, and I’m sure still is, one of the good ones.

My graphic design teachers were a mixed bag of many good, a few great, and, well, others who make for interesting stories at least. I still believe that I could walk into a classroom tomorrow and match the average efficacy of the instruction I received, but, 1) I must recognize that this is partly a product of my own high opinion of myself and 2) that is, again, measured against the average.

A few design faculty were distinctly better than average, and Roger Baer was one of these. In fact there was a bit of a joke, probably not entirely without truth, among students that Roger and Ed Lehner were  held back for the final semester’s core studio classes so that each year’s soon-to-be-alumni were sent off with positive last experiences. (As opposed to those of earlier years and the occasional representative of the “interesting” teacher category.)

To whatever extent this might have been intentional, it was an entirely sound idea. Ed Lehner, retired some years now, was my adviser and support in a little independent study project. I drew Roger for my last graphic design professor, and would probably rate him as highly as any art or design teacher in all four years.

read more…

New site, old sites, intentions

2014 July 16
Comments Off

I have started yet another web site.

Per the notions I’ve been toying with for a while, I’ve decided that it’s time to revisit a personal web site. So, is up and running. I remain faintly skeptical about the wisdom of being me-me-me broadcast-everything, and for now, much of my motivation in pulling together still another site for myself is creating a central online place for my books. Which, at present, are for most purposes still just one book, but I’m planning to release a second before the end of this year and I’ve begun research on a third. And I really don’t feel like developing a separate web site for each of these and whatever follows them. So I’ve decided that if I create an author site, I can just house future book details there.

My plan from here is that Modern Ideas will carry on with occasional items about graphic design, the visual arts, and my professional practice. Some of the more loosely relevant material that has appeared here will, in future, appear at instead. The upcoming book aside, I’m not expecting a torrent of material at either site, right now; I’ll see how it goes.

As regards the state of the technology, I have to say I’m becoming less and less enthusiastic about WordPress. (Obligatory whining about free services disclaimer.) It seems that themes are getting further and further away from the relatively orderly and simple model of yore, and more and more turning into spaghetti-code mazes of complex dependencies and elusive libraries. I began attempts to customize two themes, for, before abandoning each because it was just madness trying to make sense of them. I was able to cope with Vortex, but overall I find this trend discouraging. The fact that the “lost connection” phantom has resumed haunting this site, meanwhile… god dammit.

As regards IndieWeb, yeah… well… I did look into it, and found that most of their prescriptions seemed not so much “depressing and time-consuming” as “not really that compelling,” and most of the exceptions I’ve been practicing for years already. Beyond that, it seems mostly to be about developing a personally owned and controlled mirror of one’s social media activity, and frankly I just don’t have that much; what I do have, I don’t care enough about to worry over. I don’t have anything on Twitter or LinkedIn that I would worry about losing, if the sites vanished (or became so offensive that I had to pull my account) tomorrow.

Nor do I really care that much about my free movies tumblr, which as of this week I have “completed” for now with 500 video links and accompanying graphics. This was fun, though it became increasingly like unpaid labor; meanwhile if people go on discovering it and enjoying it as a resource, awesome, but I’m not going to try exporting and replicating any kind of independent mirror.

Ten Years a Cover Designer, pt.3

2014 July 15
Comments Off
by Matt

In reviewing every book cover I’ve designed over the past 10 years, as part of selecting a top 10, I also pulled aside a few that didn’t make the top 10 but I feel like recalling anyway. Thus, an honorable mention category…

Edit: Also, this. I suppose I got working on this list and began to think of it as a professional list, but I didn’t specify that, so… I am reasonably proud of this, too, just for the record.

Front cover of 'The Dog,' by Linda Case


This is where it all began. My very first professional book design project, a full 10 years ago. It was two-color, as most were in those early years, though I don’t believe I’ve designed a two-color cover for quite a long time now. (I have the impression that two-color printing has been in a decline generally, really.) I’m still satisfied with it. There are criticisms one can make; obviously the tracking is really, really tight, e.g. But all in all, this still feels decent to me, today, let alone for a decade-old first-time-out. read more…

Ten Years a Cover Designer, pt. 2*

2014 July 11
Comments Off
by Matt

Continuing the top 10 cover designs from 10 years making them…

Front cover of Equine Neurology

aka ‘Dreams of Horses’

This one has been a favorite for a long time. Still is. Perhaps one reason I like it is that isn’t boxy. If you look back at numbers one through five, you’ll recognize that most of the images shown fit in neat frames into which other images could (and in many cases have been) swapped at the whim of various of the effective committee of decision-makers. That was largely a conscious, practical compromise, which I suppose to some extent I eventually internalized so much that it became unconscious reflex… one makes do.

I made (or at least attempted) occasional exceptions, but this one may have predated the rule anyway. At all events I think it it has advantages of motion, and simple artistry. To some extent this is probably a late echo of that “Photoshoppy” look that was ubiquitous during my 1990s adolescence, but at this late date I think it stands effectively by itself. Everything just seemed to work, here. From details of texture to overall concept; this definitely has a dreamlike quality that I believe complements the subject reasonably. In retrospect, it reminds me a bit of this, though I don’t specifically recall having seen it before my visit to Detroit last year… read more…

Ten Years a Cover Designer

2014 July 5
Comments Off
by Matt

I am approaching ten years of professional book cover design. As it happens, this 10th anniversary summer looks like it will also see the continued, slow winding-down of that work, at least for the time being. At this moment, I don’t have any open, in-progress front cover designs for the first time in years, probably. For all of these reasons, this seems like an appropriate time for a look back. What have I to show for my decade (hopefully not my only decade) of creative effort?

Among other things, I have a lot of cover designs. It’s hard to say exactly how many, given that there’s no easy way to say what counts as a genuinely new cover design by me; there’s a good deal of fuzziness in practice. Plus, OS X 10.9 seems to have dispensed with any easy way to count the number of items in an open window (god dammit, Apple). But I think 200 probably wouldn’t be an overestimate by much, if any.

Of these, I’ve decided to pull out highlights, starting with a top ten. I’ve basically been doing this for a while, of course, here and in my formal online portfolio and in The Inside-Out Book, and many of the same designs reappear. But, for whatever it’s worth, this will stand as my “official top ten cover designs after ten years” list, in no particular order. The first half follows…

Front cover of Equine Genomics

A, T, G, C

read more…