Figure BG.Blood in the Gutter. McCloud (1993).
We previously highlighted some of the ways in which the viewer/reader is active in the communication process. Returning to Figure BG, McCloud’s figure of Blood in the Gutter, we can use his analysis to further emphasize the viewer/reader’s role in creating the meaning, in this case, committing the crime. McCloud explains it as a collaboration managed by the artist as a graphic designer. The artist drew the raised axe in the first panel, and the scream in the second panel. But is it you the reader who lets the axe drop, decides how hard it strikes, who screams, and why. You participate in the murder. You kill the man in the gap between the panels. It is your crime, committed in your own style. You aid and abet the designer as a willing accomplice. It is an act of voluntary closure on your part. You will deliberately repeat it, looking again at the figures. You have condemned the man to a thousand deaths in the gutter between the two panels. McCloud argues that closure creates an unwritten, silent contract between the designer and the reader, and how the graphic designer honors and manages that contract is a matter of both the art and the craft of comics. Moreover, he notes (p. 89) that although within the panels the designer can only convey information visually; between the panels none of our senses are required at all, which is why all of our senses (along with experience and logic) are engaged. Thus we begin to understand the depth of the active role of the viewer/reader in the invisible art of the comics and in Kuchka graphics, as opposed to the passive (consumer) role implicit in most modern commercial graphic communication and visual art eye-candy.
Between 1940 and the early 1960s the industry commonly accepted the profile of the average comic book reader as that of a “ten-year-old [boy] from Iowa.” In adults the reading of comic books for many years was regarded as a sign of low intelligence. Publishers neither encouraged nor supported anything more. (p. 149)
Something similar can of course be said for most Post Modern commercial graphics, as seen, for example, in advertising and religious/political propaganda, except that ‘low intelligence’ graphics was by that time normal. The political cartoon, as graphic satire, remained (in the hands of some practitioners) a notable exception. The Kuchka philosophy of graphics explicitly goes one step further. It recognizes that there is an art and a craft to viewing and reading, i.e., there are graphic literacy skills. One of the most important reading skills is decomposition. Take H.T. Odum’s authentically unpleasing Energy Model of the U.S. Economy (Figure OUSa). Most readers suffer ‘symbol shock’ during their first viewing. Deconstruction can help to overcome this. One technique is to separate the entity icons and the labels (OUSb) from the depiction of flows. Visually examining the entities represented, stripped of the energy flows, you can begin to see similarities of element form and spatial location that suggest there are a number of columns that could be enclosed separately as subpanels. This act of imagining subpanels overcomes some of the symbol shock and allows for a deeper reading. When the entity icons and labels are separated out into their own figure (OUSb) it is also relatively easy to see that although the currency of the model is energy, there are four explicit references to information (highlighted in blue in OUSb). One is an INFORMATION source symbol outside the system. Two are storage icons (upper right inside the master panel): one labeled IMAGE, and a smaller one labeled SYMBOLS. The fourth is a floating caption CONTROL, INFORM., under the separating stream of flows in the upper right portion of the panel.
Figure OUS. Aggregated Energy Model of the Economy of the United States (with sectors arranged in order of increasing energy quality from left to right). (a) The entire model. (b) The entity icons and text only (blue marks the icons that explicitly represent aspects of ‘information’). (c) The flow icons only. [Original figure (a) from Odum (1983).]
When the energy flows are viewed separately (OUSc) their streams or trackways become clearer, and the energy consumptions of managing agriculture, industrial processing, aspects of manufacture, and social organization stand out. One also begins to wonder why parts of The System are represented the way they are. In other words, as the reader gains confidence, their critical eye develops. They are no longer passive, or simply on the defensive. They can begin to imagine that there are better ways of depicting aspects of The System of particular interest or of concern to them, drawing upon their own developing skills in graphic literacy. This active process on the part of the reader can be useful to the designer who is editing a graphic model, which is the next step in refinement of the graphic statement and augmenting its meaning and design for the eye. (Some additional notes on graphic reading and literacy are contained in the final section below on Cognition and Critical Theory.)
Graphic design brings together a conceptualization and intent to communicate with the potentials of visual language. After initial refinement of the next page next page figure it can be re-viewed more critically in order to improve its effectiveness in clarifying and conveying the intended idea. Possible problems to be aware of relate to both language choices and statement malformations (Box RVB). The forms of the language elements are chosen with both visual esthetics and articulate communication in mind. This is also true of the written word. The visual potential of the printed word is dramatically brought to the fore by Ilia Zdanevich’s 1923 Da Da poster (Figure DD) for the play Soirée du Coeur à Barbe (Evening of the Bearded Heart).
Figure DD. Ilia Zdanevich’s 1923 poster for the play Soirée du Coeur à Barbe. (Note: the various web and book images of this poster that we have seen are all of low quality, suggesting that the original image may be a low quality print.)
One meta-aspect of statement is that of parallel narratives contributing to an integrated story (Eisner 1985/2008, p. 82). Apparently independent narratives shown simultaneously benefit from graphic design that controls the reader’s line of viewing, and main reading tracks, in such a way as to ensure against confusion. Odum’s figure of the US Economy as a super-panel lacks this understanding of graphic design. Moreover, the viewer’s response as a function of their position as a spectator (Eisner, p. 92) is also (probably) mismanaged by Odum. When the reader views a large model from below, as in this case, this position (the worm’s eye view) is likely to evoke a sense of being dominated, a sense of threat. Thus the ‘symbol shock’ we noted at the introduction of Figure OUSa is a combination of negative cognitive and emotional experiences. Eisner notes that when the viewer is looking at a scene from above it, they experience a sense of detachment, with plenty of elbow room to move about. Escher (Figure EH) understands all of this, and uses it to create an illusion of irony via purposeful confusion. Is it possible that Odum in Figure OUSa has purposely created a parallel narrative in that feeling by the viewer that they are hopelessly dominated by The System?
Figure EH. Maurits Corneille Escher (1898-1970): Drawing Hands (1948). Escher was a Dutch graphic artist who composed ironic visual riddle-like works that play pictorially with the logically impossible. This penrose illusion illustrates the gestalt of alternating (bi-stable) interpretive viewings. Escher’s work can be seen as the sophisticated culmination of 500 years of post-Medieval visual ‘realism’ in the new illusionary arts. Escher heightens our awareness that the techniques of apparent realism create illusions. As he put it, his intentions were more cerebral than most of his colleagues. This image of Drawing Hands is from Thé (2000): original photography by Iwan Baan; copyright held by the M.C. Escher Foundation, Baarn, The Netherlands.
Overall, the practice of editing benefits most from the feedback of mindful, willing and interested readers. The process of graphic design is in part a trial-and-error experiment in-the-movement. While it draws upon a few centuries of graphic craft skills and design solutions, it still depends on the graphic literacy, and the industrial fashions, or proclivities, of the time period in which it is created. Hence the importance of the audience and a collaborative editing.
Figure MC1. Mandala of Creativity. Free-hand graphic combining Kuchka versions of de Bono’s green and blue thinking hats in order to depict the divergent (green hat-like), and convergent (blue-hat-like) duality of individual creative thought. See Box 6H for de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats idiom. This Mandala of Creativity (MC1) also reflects elements of the phenomenology of imagining, critical thinking, and a minimalist epistemological hierarchy.
There is one more aspect of this process that must be recognized here. In the intellectual realm we often communicate to clarify ideas, whereas industrial graphics is primarily concerned with simply conveying what is intended for consumption. But seeing what you mean can help to clarify an idea. Biases, choice of emphasis, attitude, and omissions may become more obvious. For example, in the Mandala of Creativity (Figure MC1) the problem-discovery panel (at the bottom of the figure) is subordinate, de-emphasized. In many instances problem finding, problem recognition, and problem formulation are the most important part of the creative process. As for glaring omissions, we can easily see that the critical environments of the field of inquiry, with its conventions or rules for specifying recognizable performance (e.g., “music”), and the associated society of like practitioners and patrons or consumers (who have the power to reward the practice), have been left out. As Csikszentmihályi (1990) reminds us, from the point-of-view of the human ecosystem, these environments are crucial for our understanding of the limits and expressions of creativity in civilization. Is their omission a preemptive editing on the part of the designer, and if so what does it mean? Right or wrong, you can see that we are exploring the world of ideas with graphics. Multiple points of view are possible. Any point of view has its limitations. The process of editing implicates a heightened sense of responsibility at more than one level of cognition.