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A Wardrobe for Cyberspace

August 21, 1994|JACK MILES

The tale is told of Pablo Picasso that as a small boy he had trouble with arithmetic because he could not stop himself from seeing numbers as small dancing figures.

A book designer must, like the boy Picasso, be temporarily (I stress) blind to the function of letters so as to feel the full force of their shapes and colors.

This seeing-by-not-seeing begins with the front face of the dust jacket, which is consciously designed as a mini-poster, but to a point the same process continues through the inside pages of a book. The difference is that though these pages, too, are poster-shaped, they are typically given only a simple, recurring, typographic design. This for two reasons: First, the principal function of interior design is not to startle and thereby attract a viewer but to assist someone who has already decided to read the book. Second, it is prohibitively expensive to treat each page in a book as if it were a separate work of art.

Thanks to the computer, however, it is no longer necessary to stop where designers have been accustomed to stop. Start-to-finish, page-by-page design, if scarcely cheap, is no longer economically out of the question. It is now beginning to be economically feasible to change, from one page to the next, the size, face (shape) and even the color of the type; the size and shape of the "type page" or block of printed lines on a page; and the spacing or "leading" between the lines. A step beyond this already remarkable variability are such borrowings from avant-garde poster art as printing one line of type partly on top of another line or overlapping different exposures of the same photograph.

Many of these possibilities are on display in "Urban Revisions: Current Projects in the Public Realm" (MIT Press), a book designed by April Greiman Asssociates and published in conjunction with a recent exhibit by the same title at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. As a demonstration of newer book-design "special effects," the design of this book is a tour de force. Unfortunately, for the reader, it is the design equivalent of the theater of cruelty, an aggressive exercise in apparently deliberate user-unfriendliness.

The heavy cover stock of the 9-by-12-inch paperback volume is beige. On its front face a 4 1/2-by-7-inch rectangle of tangled, mostly black-and-white lines lies atop a composition of gray, angular pencil lines and blotches of grayish-yellow color suggesting an architectural sketch. At the top, the words Urban, Re, Urban (again), Revisions, for the, visions , Current Projects, and Public Realm are printed in a montage of blue, magenta, vermilion and white at three different sizes with the letters slightly overlapping. Several lines of gray typescript smaller than the print on this page are printed atop those words.

Now, to be sure, the urban terrain is a palimpsest upon which successive man-made landscapes have been "written" one atop the other. Conceptually, the palimpsest motif is not inappropriate for the cover of a work entitled "Urban Revisions" that presents a set of important civic renewal projects conceived for sites in the United States, Canada and Switzerland. But the illustrations chosen for the cover mini-poster of this book are precisely the kind that require completion by clear type. Because April Greiman's type is unclear, her illustrations end up announcing nothing. The mentioned rectangle of tangled lines appears on closer examination to be a somewhat fuzzy photograph of graffiti, but, displaced and decontextualized, it escapes quick recognition. A poster is a work of art that must first catch the eye, then convey information. The cover poster of this book does, at best, only half the job.


The user-unfriendliness of the cover is mild, however, by comparison with what awaits between the covers. The words of the inside title and subtitle are printed on two pages colored midnight blue from top to bottom. The title "Urban Revisions" appears in white against this blue background; the subtitle, "Current Projects for the Public Realm," appears in black, partly overlapping the title. These elements work well enough. Unfortunately, Greiman has aggressively crammed all the rest of the necessary title-page names--those of the exhibit organizer, the volume editor, the five authors of contributed essays, the museum and the publisher into a tiny 2 1/2-inch square raft adrift in that sea of blue. Much of the type in the box is not just microscopic but microscopic and black . In black against the deep-blue background, the names of the contributors are so nearly invisible that I could only read them with a magnifying glass under a drawing-board spotlight.

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