Visual Communication in its widest sense has a long history. When early woman gathered food, and spotted the feces of an animal in the mud, she was sniffing at a graphic sign. Her mind’s nose smelled the animal itself." {31}

Joellyn Rock
Vasalisa Electric - A Messier History of Graphic Design


Martha Scotford argues for the revision of what previously passed for the history of Graphic Design, a chronology of male achievement.
Scotford questions the omission of women designers from these ranks. She makes the case that women didn’t fit in a tidy way into the categorization of designers by celebrity status. Women’s grab bag of skills and ways of moving between the private and the professional make them a messier subject of study.

Scholarly investigations of Fairy Tales and Graphic Design reflect the eras that spawn them. In the modernist era the Bauhaus attempted to reduce the principles of design to gestalt essences. Form took precedence over context. Folksy ornament was rejected and in its place, Modernists boasted a superior language of geometric purity: the circle,square and triangle. During this same period, Vladimir Propp published his study,The Morphology of the Folk Tale which sought to define the underlying patterns and formal organization of the fairy tale. Propp coded the functions of the tale’s plot, as driven by the action of characters. Specifics were stripped bare to reveal Propp’s bones of the folk tale.

These ambitiously reductive projects embraced scientific method as a way to provide universalism in their fields of human communication. Their utopia was a world in which distinctions between countries, cultures and individuals were inconsequential compared to what they proposed was the unifying structure of humanity. Perhaps teetering between world wars, they were being hopeful that larger commonalities would triumph over the festering specifics of gender, class, nationality and ethnicity. (The troubling mess of humanity.) As it turned out, they were right that people craved a simple solution. Unfortunately it was fascism that provided it.

Both fairy tales and graphic design suffer when they are sanitized by rigid formulas.
As they become culturally cleaned-up, they may lose the power to communicate certain crucial truths. Jack Zipes’ sociological histories of the fairy tale offer evidence of the systematic sanitizing of these tales as they have been retold by successive authors, the Grimms and Walt Disney, among others. In many cases, fairy tales have been molded to promote a tidy patriarchal order, eliminating more complicated visions of female power and identity. Though Disney’s version of Cinderella is branded into my mental archive, it fails to move me as an adult. Its transformative power has been scrubbed away. I want to reinterject the messiness that is inherent to fairy tales and graphic design historically. But ultimately, too much messiness becomes irritating and I long for things to take shape. Visually, it's an interesting problem to play with...creating images that embody both clarity and mess, both archetype and mutated ectype, both symbol and its fuzzy ephemera.

Subject: brief comments
Date: Tue, 20 Mar 2001 19:44:13 -0600
From: Jack Zipes

"Hygiene will lead to protests because you have ruined its precious familiar smell! Parents with foresight will quickly realize that, with years of use ahead of it, the child’s cuddly had better be duplicated in case of disaster." {33}

Penelope Leach
Your Baby and Child

The transitional object offers solace in the face of traumas both large and small. The loss of this transitional object would then double the traumatic experience, hence the importance of its duplicate. Does the impulse and desire to duplicate the fairy tale, the art masterpiece, spring from the same primary logic? Just in case something happens to the mother...we will make a substitute object, and just in case something happens to this new object of our affections, let us make sure we have an extra one, and so on with the comfort object being duplicated over and over. Just in case.

Some parenting experts suggest the cutting up of the security blanket into smaller chunks, and stashing a few pieces away for safe keeping. This makes the transitional object even more portable, possibly duplicated at the child’s various homes (especially useful for children of divorce). It also sheds light on the impulse to possess miniature duplicates of the objects we love most, like that postcard of your favorite painting. We can easily see why it was important for humans to invent ways of reproducing their most cherished not-me objects, whether they be the bones of a saint or an art masterpiece. Infancy is but the first age when humans form attachments to a comfort object. Evidence supports that it is a tendency begun in babyhood and cyclically repeated throughout life. Different developmental stages seem to require different transitional phenomena.

"Though we don’t usually think about it, adults often use comfort objects to increase their comfort level in a new of awkward situation. However, we’ve learned to substitute more socially acceptable objects for the threadbare blankets of our youth: a glass to hold at a cocktail party, a briefcase to clutch at a crucial meeting, or a lucky talisman to rub when negotiating a big deal." {34}

Eisenberg, Murkoff, and Hathaway
What to Expect The Toddler Years

Susan Yelavich delivered the essay Narrative: A Security Blanket for the Nervous Nineties at the American Center for Design’s 1998 Living Surfaces Conference. Yelavich makes the case that narrative’s recent revival is partly an effort to soothe anxieties at the end of an age which compulsively disrupted and fragmented linear narrative. She points to Disney theme parks as one example of design providing the illusion of a small-town security blanket. This fabricated reassurance is most striking in Disney’s real Florida town, Celebration.
"Note the narrative behind the logo Pentagram designed for Celebration. It looks to me like the Coppertone Girl was lifted off the Florida beaches and transplanted to streets of Robert A. M. Stern’s suburbia. This street sign, which is everywhere you look in town, signals that this is a family-values kind of place. And not just by the image of the little girl biking, but through the Victorian conceit of the silhouette. It says this is a safe place." {35}

Susan Yelavich
Narrative: A Security Blanket for the Nervous Nineties

As graphic images, silhouettes are hallmarks of nostalgia. Originally used in publishing because they were an economical illustration technique, silhouettes are prevalent in older storybooks and were a customary format for children’s portraiture. Silhouettes evoke childhood’s nursery. That sentimental profile is an object onto which we can project our self as child, once upon a time. Rather than transitioning us forward into the future, these images may even provide a safe regression back in time to simpler days.

Graphic designers bank on the power of nostalgia. Memory is activated by familiar products that in turn become emotional touchstones. We bond with the design of these objects, so much so that a product’s redesign may actually strike its devoted user with panic. Citizens rejoice at the resurrection of a long lost product from their youth. Just think of Classic Coke’s comeback. The prevalence for collecting the commercial signage and product packaging of the past is further proof of our emotional bond to these objects. They conjure happier days. As humans we long for the return to somewhere safe, seeking substitutes for the lap of an omnipresent mother. Andy Warhol, a graphic artist first, was savvy to this longing. His Cambell’s Soup seriagraphs hummed: mmmmmm, mmmmmmm, good! Warhol exhibited the wisdom of one who knows the importance of duplicating the transitional object. The soup company had promoted its product as a steaming bowl of comfort. For me,a child of the fifties, a spoonful of that milky tomato concoction spins me off into a reverie that rivals Proust’s encounter with a cookie. These are sensory experiences, but they are also connected to the dreamy intermediary space made accessible by one’s involvement with a not-me object. As consumer products, a large part of our affection for them is also dependent upon their graphic presentation. It is often difficult to separate the product from its design. The two become one.

I am not suggesting that all graphic design functions as a transitional object, although much signage has the purpose of guiding our movement between places. But this is not necessarily the intimate bond between subject and object found in the transitional object relationship. Certainly the myriad manifestations of graphic design operate in divergent ways. Design can be instructional or directional or propagandistic or agitative. I am here simply concerned with design that may function as transitional phenomena.

Nearly every definition of the transitional object includes some reference to a “Teddy Bear”. I found this curious since Teddy Bears have only been around for about a hundred years. The two conflicting historical claims as to Teddy’s origins agree on this much. He was born around 1902. One story insists that the First Teddy Bear was the product of the Steiff family of toy manufacturers in Germany. Margarete Steiff, confined to a wheelchair, enjoyed sewing cuddly stuffed animals for young children. This cottage industry blossomed over the years into an international business. It was her nephew Richard, by then a toy designer, who had the idea of making fuzzy little bears. Americans claim another birth for the bear supposedly named after our president Theodore Roosevelt, who was demoralized after a failed hunting adventure. (He didn’t shoot the bear). Clifford Berryman’s newspaper cartoon of the incident inspired a Brooklyn candystore owner and his wife to start up their own cottage industry, sewing stuffed animals they advertised as “Teddy Bears”. They were such a hit that Morris Michom closed the candy store and founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. In either history, we can credit the processes of human ingenuity, design and advertising for creating this most ubiquitous of childhood comfort objects.

Toy manufacturing has exploded over the past century. Today it is highly unlikely that a child’s first comfort object would be a handcrafted one, stitched lovingly by Grandma. Technological developments remediate these objects. The real Winnie the Pooh has gone through countless permutations from original teddy to children’s book to movie to video to a multitude of product spin offs, full circle back to more stuffed bears.

Part cartoon and part stuffed animal, Joe Camel could be considered a transitional object crafted by advertising design to guide children into the tobacco market. That Joe Camel was eventually banned from cigarette advertisements is a testament to the power of these kind of graphic transitional objects. He was a cuddly, toy-like emissary for the tobacco company, luring children into a lifetime of addiction under the guise of safe and harmless fun.

Crafting comfort objects is a tricky business.
There are various reasons for wanting to do so. But just because a design plays with formal elements that evoke nostalgia, it does not necessarily result in an object of emotional significance.

A range of efforts may reveal diverse motivations. Pentagram’s logo for Celebration represents the reinforcement of mainstream values as outlined by the Disney Corporation. The Duffy Design Group’s labels for Classico Pasta Sauce exploit an approach similar to Seymore Chwast’s old-fashioned candy tins. Charles Spencer Anderson has built a reputation around his witty retro designs for the French Paper Company and clip-art hijacked from the past. In these cases graphic design insists upon the product’s folksy authenticity by employing the vernacular in a tactile, decorative manner which hearkens back to a previous era.

Objects contrived to evoke nostalgia may work magic at the cash register, but only time will tell whether or not they work their way into the hearts of their possessors. Tricksters like designer Tibor Kalman were capable of turning the aesthetic of the cozy vernacular object into ironical commentary. Bob, the iconic identity symbol for the Church of the Subgenius, represents an even more subversive use of retro nostalgia. Graphic designer Art Chantry puts images excavated from the past to new uses. Perhaps Chantry is using pop culture as his own transitional object, deploying the playful violence of a teenager to first destroy and then de-sign it.