AN EPIDEMIC OF CIRCLE HEADS
The Ebola epidemic was centered in West Africa, and the circle head epidemic seems to be centered at the New Yorker magazine, which apparently finds this style particularly charming:
Fortunately, some areas appear immune to the virus. Ivan Brunetti applied for the job of artist on the simple minded comic strip Nancy but did not draw well enough, so he had to become a New Yorker cover artist instead.
Doctors have discovered a clue to the origins of this epidemic in the excellent reference work, Graphic Style by Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast. The authors write that a style called "information graphics" was developed by artists such as Nigel Holmes in order to present simplified information in popular magazines such as Time.
The authors described the information graphics style as:
graphic design working toward the goal of clarifying simple and complex data. The key difference between information design and general graphic design is transparency. Ornament and decoration are unacceptable if they hinder perception. Information graphics have, by virtue of a common visual language, become a sort of style.Information graphics began as a method for "quantitative visualization," useful for conveying information but with none of the sensitivity or complexity that artists historically employed in conveying weighty ideas. There is no range in width or application of line, no depth or emotion in the color. Yet today, it has become a pandemic style for deep content in the eyes of a certain literary audience. Why?
|Is this the latest dazzling display of genius by Chris Ware? No, it's from an airline information card created by some underpaid staff artist.|
I suspect one reason is that when words and pictures combine, cultural awards are often bestowed by people with appreciation for words and concepts but little understanding of the quality of line, color or design. (A good example would be the confused Dave Eggers, who embarrassed himself by asserting that "The most versatile and innovative artist the medium has ever known" is Chris Ware.)
But most importantly I suspect our priorities and taste for the graphic arts may be evolving in the information age. The insightful Karrie Jacobs wrote,
Computers have seduced us into thinking about ideas--the intangible stuff that comprises our culture, our meta universe, our homegrown organic realities-- as information.The perfect art style for such a society is "information graphics." The following drawing by Brunetti conveys the fact of sex, the information that the characters are engaging in sex, but conveys nothing worth knowing about the idea of sex.
This seems to be a weakness common to the circle head artists (as well as other graphic novelists who draw square or oval shaped heads using the same monotonous line, insisting that good draftsmanship would only impede the flow of their words.)
Visual art once prided itself in challenging our perceptions, but as Heller and Chwast note, information graphics attempt to do away with details that might "hinder perception." If there is anything oblique or profound to communicate, it will be done with words.
So why does the epidemic of circle heads matter? The drawings above are certainly pleasant enough. Besides, travel agents and telephone booths were rendered obsolete by the information revolution, so why shouldn't the inefficiencies of art also be stripped away, so readers don't linger too long over the image in any given panel? What is lost if the efficient processing of information dumbs down our appreciation for visual form?
Here's my personal answer: It's great that we can harness images to convey information, such as the movement of a character from one room to the next. But art-- good art-- also has the potential to equip us with shades of meaning necessary to communicate love and pain. It gives us a language more subtle and profound than words to flesh out concepts of joy or sadness or humor or introspection. It strengthens our sense of form necessary to fend off entropy. Colors, shapes, movement, texture, and my personal favorite-- line-- enable us to express a range of moods, feelings and beliefs that transcend mere information and thus are conspicuously absent from much of information graphics.