Thursday, March 31, 2011

Graphic Design

Graphic design is a field that has interested me for years. I first became conscious of its effect on me in my twenties, when I began to notice that I was buying quite a few books that I never bothered to finish reading. Eventually it dawned on me that I bought them not so much because of their informational content but because of the beauty of their layout and text and/or the quality of included photographs and other graphic material. It was a pleasure to look at them, in other words.

During my early thirties I abandoned photography for a few years and set about teaching myself to draw. Needless to say,  that raised my consciousness about graphic design even more, and had quite a salutary effect on my photography when I eventually went back to it.

Around the time we opened Mindport in 1995, I stumbled across the books of Edward Tufte, perhaps some of the most beautiful books I've ever encountered. Tufte, among other activities, taught in the Department of Graphic design at Yale University, and has written at least four books on the visual presentation of data, the first being entitled, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. These books have asserted an influence on me in my effort to make the instructions accompanying Mindport's exhibits clear and comprehensible.

The task of writing instructions and other documentation I find enjoyable. There's a fascination in the attempt to view a familiar exhibit from the point of view of a total stranger seeing it for the first time, then in devising a way to explain as succinctly as possible how to make it do something. This involves organizing diagrams, photos, and text on a page in a manner that makes instructions easy to understand and follow, and choosing minimally ambiguous language in order that instructions and labels not be misinterpreted. I consider myself an amateur at this process, but I hope I have succeeded at it to some degree.

In the world outside, of course, the most obvious venue for graphic design is in advertising. We delve into that at Mindport to the extent that we put considerable effort into the design of our posters and other publicity materials. That's not my domain, personally. Staff members AnMorgan, Carol, Karen, and Tallie have been the main contributors to that department, though I do put in my two-cents-worth from time to time.

We all swim in a sea of graphic design, and, like fish swimming the ocean, most of us are scarcely conscious of its atmospheric presence or its effect on us. I've heard plenty of people complain bitterly after having struggled through the assembly of some consumer item labeled, "some assembly required." Right there is an example of what happens when an item and/or its instructions are NOT well designed. With well-designed objects and  instructions, you're likely to finish with the comment, "well, that was fun," possibly never realizing that the work of some designer eased your way through the process.

If the subject of graphic design interests you, I recommend having a look at Edward Tufte's books, or watch the documentary film, Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight. Glaser is a well known graphic designer from New York, who was responsible for the "I [heart] NY" graphic, and by extension, the "I [heart] . . . [whatever you can imagine], visible everywhere. Glaser, incidentally, claims that he made not a cent off the design of this graphic. The film about him provides an outline of what the finest graphic design is all about and might awaken you to a new appreciation for ways in which we're influenced by it.

Kevin Jones

Friday, March 25, 2011

Contrast: A Look at Silence

 I know, I've written quite a few entries here on the subject of noise, but I've neglected to comment on its opposite, so please indulge me in one more reading suggestion:

In Pursuit of Silence, Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise , by George Prochnik

This book comes at the noise problem from a different and useful direction, namely by defining noise as any sound that keeps us from hearing what we want to hear, whether it's the voice of the person sitting across the table from us, the birds singing in the spring, or the silence of our own thoughts. Then it explores the sounds and silences beneath the noise, what they mean and why they are important.

Prochnik pays considerable attention to silence, but also takes an interesting look at the meaning behind purposeful noise. He includes a chapter of interviews with "boom car" devotees; you know, those people who soup up car stereos so you can hear them a block away. There's a cadre of serious boomers who push beyond the 160 decibel noise level, loud enough to blow the windshield out of a car. He also covers another favorite noise-maker, Harley motorcycles, with their copyrighted resonance and what's behind that. Purposeful noise is a means by which disempowered people make their presence felt.

To me the most interesting and important part of the book deals with the subject of silence and its spiritual implications. In fact the book focuses on the lives of monks, meditation, and the idea of "quiet mind," which Prochnik suggests is essential to the creative process. Without the respite of silence we lose track of the very depths of our being, which, in a culture as awash in noise as ours, it appears to be just what many of us want to do.

Prochnik mentions research implicating excess noise in cardiovascular problems and as a possible causative factor in autism. It seems that young children brought up in very loud environments take longer than normal to process speech, which is an important aspect of this disorder.

The book ultimately makes the point that efforts have been made for years, even centuries, to address the noise plague. But as one source is eliminated, others have a way of popping up like the marching broom fragments that threatened to inundate the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Rather than campaigning against noisemakers, it turns out to be more useful to educate ourselves about the importance of those sounds and silences we do want to hear. If enough of us come to recognize them, then there's hope that the noise may fall by the wayside of its own accord.

Kevin Jones

Friday, March 4, 2011

Sound Recommendations

I imagine most visitors to this blog have spent at least a little time looking at webcams around the world. There are thousands of them these days, pointed at everything from beautiful ocean or mountain scenes, to private dressing rooms. It can be fun to explore these cameras when one has the urge to vicariously visit exotic spots. Unfortunately, the one thing that all of the ones I've visited lack is the added dimension of sound.

As you may have gathered from reading my previous postings on the subject, sound has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time. I spent the year before Mindport opened building what has become our WaveMusic exhibit, which creates music from the movement of water waves. During that period I also occupied myself recording local ambient sounds, then computer processing them in various ways. This all served to increase my awareness of the power of sound to affect our lives in both positively and negatively.

From time to time I search the web for sources of live "streaming" audio, and I don't mean podcasts or other sources of "canned" audio files, of which there are overwhelmingly many. What interest me is ambient local sound, preferably nature sounds, though almost any would interest me. Considering the fact that sound can be far more emotionally evocative than pictures, it surprises me that there aren't as many live ambient audio sites as there are webcams. . . or at least webcams that broadcast accompanying sound.

It's this evocative power of sound which has sent me on a quest for audio Internet sites, and has inspired me to collect quite a library of ambient sound CDs, featuring mostly nature sounds from various places around the United States and the world. When I want to escape some of the less pleasant sounds that afflict the neighborhood where I live, such as car traffic, chain saws, lawn mowers, aircrart, etc, I put one of these CDs in my player, don my sound-canceling headphones, and travel. . .

During a recent unsuccessful search on the web for live ambient sound, I did come across a wonderful site that was new to me, and which I recommend you visit if you find the subject of sound and "soundscapes" at all interesting. This site is maintained by the University of Utah, J. Willard Marriot Library, and it includes a large selection of animal sounds, ambient natural sounds, and several interviews, many of them downloadable for private use. I found some great recordings, captured in the Canyons of SE Utah, an area where I've spent extended periods hiking and camping over the last 40 years. Listening to these recordings puts me back there in imagination more surely than do the many photographs I've taken during my visits.

In closing, let me recommend the book that originally sparked my interest in sound: R. Murray Schafer's, The Tuning of the World. Schafer is a Canadian author and composer who has written a number of books on the subject of music education, music and sound, any of which is worth a read. He's developed techniques for what he calls "ear cleaning," a process of cultivating one's awareness of sound and exploring the effect it has on our lives and consciousness. Such exercises can help you become aware of ways in which various "soundscapes" may be affecting you adversely without your knowledge, but more important, can be a great source of relaxation and pleasure.

Oh, and if you run across any live streaming "web-ears," please drop me a note and let me know. You'll find my e-mail address on my personal staff page at

Kevin Jones

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Exhibit updates: Sonoluce, Theremin and Rhythmo

Remember Sonoluce, with the spinning lights dancing to music? Through a chain of associations, it occurred to me that if I added a theremin to the input of Sonoluce, then visitors could control the light patterns directly by moving their bodies.

In case you're not acquainted with the theremin, it's a musical instrument that was invented by a Russian, Leon Theremin, in the 1920s. It's played by spatial movements of the hands; the left hand controlling loudness and the right hand controlling pitch. The first models were made with vacuum tubes, since that's all that was available during that distant dawn of electronic technology. Note that vintage vacuum tube theremins are now valuable collector's items, and some people go to great lengths, even today, to create replicas of the originals. They produce a beautiful tone quality that modern theremins are hard put to emulate.

I toyed with the idea of building a vacuum tube replica of the original theremin, but decided that the time it would take to build one, plus its maintenance demands, would make the project impractical. So I bought a kit theremin, designed by Bob Moog, the inventor of the Moog Synthesizer. It works very well and produces quite a satisfactory tone quality. . . and it only took a couple days to assemble.

Currently I'm building a junction box for the theremin that includes a headphone and speaker amplifier, since this model does not include one. The instrument will be mounted on a swinging arm near Sonoluce, so it can be used either in conjunction with that exhibit, or swung out of the way and used on its own. The junction box/amplifier is still in progress, but should be done before long. We'll post a note here to let you know when everything is together and working.


In other exhibit news, visitors have been asking the whereabouts of Rhythmo. She's been off the floor some time for a revamp. We'd been having trouble with the turntable sticking, due to warping of the masonite from which it's fabricated. Also, the plating was wearing off the magnets, graying the scale markings and making them difficult to read. We've replaced the masonite with an aluminum disk, which Bill Lee has painstakingly drilled and re-fitted to the bicycle hub that serves as a bearing. We're hoping to have that project finished in the next couple weeks. We'll let you know when  it's ready again for public view.

Kevin Jones
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