Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On designing small things

So far, I have been talking exclusively about topics that do not belong to my specific field of expertise, architecture and design—I have been talking about this stuff for 30 years of teaching and research, and I greatly enjoy the opportunity of finally being able to talk about other things that interest me. But this doesn't mean I lost interest in design issues.

This thread was motivated by a brief discussion I had, via e-mail, about the design of graphical avatars and by the longer discussion we had some days ago on an xword blog about the state quarter program of the US Mint. Different as quarters and avatars may seem, they have one important feature in common: Both are small objects, and their design is more or less successful depending on how the designer took that feature into account. I'll elaborate on this in my first comment


Ulrich said...

The Mississippi Quarter is the best-designed quarter IMHO because the motive selected can be shown with sufficient detail in the area available--it does not show an image that could be viewed more effectively at a much larger size, nor does it try to cram too much stuff into the available area, as happens on some other quarters. On the other hand, it is not underdesigned, like the Texas quarter, which shows only the "lone star", an image with too little detail for the area to hold our interest.

When it comes to scale and detail, the designs for other quarters--among them New Hampshire, Kansas, Iowa, Vermont, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Idaho--are as successful as the Mississippi design. But I find its motive, magnolia blossoms, just the loveliest among them--that's why I like it best.

The related issues of size, scale, and detail also come into play with graphical avatars like the ones used by Blogger to identify individual bloggers or commenters. Again, one has to be aware that the area available is stamp-sized. Thus, motives like the single fruits and vegetables that can be easily shown at that size are the most convincing to me. Passport-type pictures also work, but I find them a little obvious and therefore less interesting. What does not work are images that reduce a possible wonderful photograph to a size where nothing can be distinguished anymore. An interesting exception is mac’s tree, which works because we perceive it essentially as a silhouette, very much like the Charter Oak on the Connecticut Quarter, which happens to be the state where mac resides--any connection here?

I selected my own avatar with these concerns in mind. I wanted it to function not so much as a stand-in for me, but as a logo or icon that’s instantly recognizable during scrolling. It's abstract, and the only personal association it has with me is that it is an example of pictures I like to take, where I get so close to the object that it is no longer recognizable as such, only as a detail that can be viewed as an abstract piece of art in itself.

fikink said...

I must add to your post, which you have modestly not mentioned, that it was your avatar which led me to you. I was browsing the crossword puzzle blog and your avatar immediately struck me and I emailed you my appreciation of it. I even asked you if it was a photo of a Picasso construction of which I was unaware.
Good eye, Ulrich!

Ulrich said...

Now I have to respond to a compliment with a compliment: fikink was the first (and still is the only) one to ever explicitly respond to my avatar! Good eye, fikink!

mac said...

@Fikink and Ulrich: Thank you for the compliment. I chose the tree because I didn't want to show too personal a picture, didn't have any photographs stored on my new laptop anyway, and I love what it looks like and signifies to me. We cherish the trees on our property, and we take very good care of them.

Ulrich, I have to say that I have tried to enlarge your avatar several times because it looks so interesting! We love art, own some interesting (to us) pieces, and with my lifelong interest in drawing, painting and currently jewelry designing and making, visual stimuli are what we go to. I love to work on tiny, intricate pieces, wrapping gold or silver wire, but the large, multi-stone, multi-strand pieces sell a lot better.

PhillySolver said...

I spend some time as a Numismatic addict. THe most interesting thing to me about the quarters is what might have been. THis site shows you the final choice, but also what might have been.


fikink said...

Neat site, Phillysolver.
Last week a Utah quarter came into the house. I kinda like the design of the two train engines meeting under the railroad spike. Very symmetrical, but not boringly so.


Ulrich said...

@phillysolver: Thanks--an eye opener, especially when it comes to Pennsylvania: To me, the most boring of all the quarters. At least two of the alternative designs would have been much more interesting b/c of the greater level of detail. The decision process, to me, shows a flaw that I have observed often when "lay"people judge art--they do not judge it by what they see, rather than by what (they think) it means.

@fikink: I have observed in general that the quality of the designs has steadily gone up--it may be that people have learned what to look for.