The Takeaway Effect

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In illustration, less is often less.

A few months ago, a London publisher relaunched its backlist of books by the Japanese cult author Haruki Murakami with a striking new set of covers. Now, I have always thought that previous British book-jacket interpretations of Murakami fell a long way short of the luscious surrealism and fantasy of John Gall’s American paperback covers, particularly for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and South of the Border, West of the Sun, two Murakami books I very much admire.

But the new covers, with images by Noma Bar, a highly regarded designer-illustrator, I found deeply irritating. Bar specializes in extremely simplified vector art that often can be read in two ways, depending on whether you concentrate on the positive or the negative space. To achieve this effect, he reduces color to a minimum—the Murakami covers are red, white, and black—and eliminates every kind of surface detail and texture, to produce a flattened design. Most of the covers are based on circular motifs. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s image can be seen as either a flying bird in a circle or an old-fashioned clockwork key. On The Elephant Vanishes, the white negative space forms a spiral that terminates in the outline of a trunk, as though an elephant were vanishing into the cover’s surface.

Vintage UK’s selection of Bar to under take this major 15-book series is a sign of just how fashionable both his work and this form of uncompromising graphic reduction have become. When the covers were shown on the Creative Review blog, they drew a chorus of approving comments: “lovely series,” “consistently clever, impressive work,” “sublime!” and so on. Bar is undeniably good at this kind of graphic compression. He seems to represent an ideal for some designers, though I’m not aware at this stage of a school of Bar-like work. Yet the general effect, the pictorial simplification and flatness, the so-called minimalism, has become a popular, if not yet the dominant, style of the moment in contemporary illustration. You can see it in the stylized, linear magazine illustrations of Malika Favre and Olimpia Zagnoli, or in Vahram Muratyan’s Paris Versus New York blog, which spawned an entire book of ultra-simplified visual comparisons of the two cities.

For Bar and his admirers, the “idea” is the most important consideration. This has become so much of a mantra in contemporary graphic design that I’m inclined to treat it with suspicion now whenever I hear it, since I don’t believe that in visual work there can be any useful separation of idea and execution. The idea is embodied, realized, and made convincing in visual form. In forms as sparse as Bar’s, the idea is particularly exposed. Representing a book titled The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with a bird-and-key illustration could hardly be more literal or less interesting as an idea. The mental image of the strange bird was already present in the mysterious title; a good Murakami cover needs to compound the mystery with an image that matches, without duplication, the title’s oddity. This is what Gall does with his upside-down bird pierced by a hole through which we can see the sky. Atmosphere is also a kind of idea, and here it’s expressed through visual treatment, graphic texture, and complexity of composition.

Bar says that he is trying to achieve “the maximum communication with the minimum elements.” This, too, is a recurrent aim in graphic design. A monograph about the poster designer Abram Games was subtitled “Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means.” But Games’s example is instructive. Despite his avowed intention to simplify, the posters he made from the 1940s through the ’60s were rich with painterly texture, and his images were never merely flat. Games leads the eye into deep pictorial space. The central forms might be sharply defined and rapidly graspable, but the pleasure and effectiveness of the image and its persuasiveness as visual rhetoric come from accumulations of detail that can be felt subliminally or lingered over and enjoyed.

Nevertheless, the conviction persists that one can “say the most with the least”—as another contemporary designer, Anthony Burrill, puts it. As an axiom, this doesn’t stand up to a moment’s consideration. If it were true that less were always more, we wouldn’t have any further use for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or War and Peace, or “The Waste Land.” We welcome complexity in art and communication because we have the mental equipment to derive meaning from it, and because the aesthetic dimension of this complexity can provide a great deal of satisfaction.

Is graphic design perhaps a special case, a form of communication that manages, almost uniquely, to impart more with less? Does the reduction of elements magically increase the amount that is said? Certainly, a simple idea may best lend itself to being communicated simply—no argument there. But a work of fiction, particularly fiction as expansive and idiosyncratic as Murakami’s, is another matter. Cover designers and illustrators face an enormous challenge in trying to express the special qualities of a fictional universe in the restricted format of a book cover. It’s perverse to imagine that additional self-imposed restrictions would somehow improve the odds of successful communication. How many admirers of the covers are also close readers of the books? It doesn’t matter how niftily Bar forms a face from a cat’s profile against the red disc that contains both figures on Kafka on the Shore. It’s still just a rudimentary cat and a face, and not much to look at. The basic problem with simplification is always that it risks becoming deadly dull.

Still, there is no denying that contemporary taste appears to embrace this kind of wrinkle-free graphic reduction. These days, even protest posters, once so rough and ready, often come with cleanly defined outlines and bright, flat, unnuanced forms. It’s a style of illustration that vector art facilitates, though reductionist illustrators still tend to work out their ideas on paper before moving to the screen. “My process is to draw everything, then take away bit by bit,” Malika Favre told Wallpaper. “And I love it that way; it’s very soothing. I take away until I can’t take away any more, until that last necessary line.” For Favre, who created the cover of the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition Kama Sutra, suggestion allows viewers more room to exercise the imagination; consequently, it’s more erotic.

For that commission, which needed to strike a balance between explicitness and good taste, she might be right. But it’s also true that every style of illustration sets out to encourage the viewer to enter the image, and to conjecture and dream. Many illustrations are tantalizing fragments of something much larger that cannot be shown in full. The image-maker’s perennial task is to develop visual tools that will be the most effective prompts to imagine that unseen world. Only in the work of a mediocre illustrator will this visual information add up to nothing more than pointless decoration. “Ultimately, when the idea is there I feel like I’m just wasting my time on decorations,” Bar told Computer Arts. Again, we come back to that false dichotomy. In reality, fully achieved style is a vital embodiment of meaning.

The limitation of illustrative reduction is that its tools are much too basic. Where else do we routinely expect to encounter severe simplification of form and a preference for strong outlines, unruffled flatness, and cheerful colors? Young children respond to this style of illustration in children’s books because thei
r perceptions, imagination, and understanding are still developing. Experienced viewers are capable of processing far more complex material. Pictorial minimalism isn’t necessarily childish, but it still offers a needlessly curtailed form of visual experience. For both illustrator and viewer, it’s like choosing to use only a few hundred words when you could employ a vocabulary of thousands. ▪

This article is from the February 2013 issue of Print Magazine, the Illustration Issue. If you want more, you can pick up the issue here!