Duodenum in a Vise?
“How do you symbolize spasm?” asked David J. Herzbrun in the January – February 1958 issue of Print magazine. “A knotted rope? A clenched fist? A duodenum in a vise?” Then he noted, “It had all been done before.” So began a fascinating photo-essay that traced the development of one of Herb Lubalin’s most typographically iconic ad campaigns, for Bentyl, an antispasmodic made by the Wm. S. Merrell Co. The so-called “Slinky” series employed the Slinky toy as the perfect representation of a stomach spasm.
The new idea started when “Herb Lubalin, executive art director of Sudler & Hennessy’s design organization, spotted a sinuous coil of wire writhing in a toy shop window.” It was called a Slinky — but to him it said spasm.
Kudos to Print for documenting this, long before Spasm became a textbook example of Lubalin’s “talking type.” The process doesn’t change the work’s intelligence. But when an “historic” designed artifact is removed from its original context it usually becomes just a pretty picture or clever idea. Memorable work does not happen in a vacuum. Spasm is one of those familiar typographic masterpieces that was, in fact, the result of collaborative teamwork in writing and art, triggered by a spark of a simple kid’s toy — and the designer who knew what to do with it.