Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Imagination on a Page

The best place to study visual communications is a bookshelf with children’s picture books.

Maurice_Sendak_by_matthew750More than any other genre, contemporary children’s books seamlessly blend images, words, numbers and shapes into stories. You might call it visual text. Or imagination on a page.

Young children are the sum of their sensory experiences. We say a child delights in his or her surroundings. Children’s books delight children.

As adults, we shed our childish imaginations, replacing them with boundaries of thought. At a recent brainstorming session to identify a visual explanation for what a nonprofit does, the adults in the room hesitatingly struggled to convert their thoughts into pictures, even stick figure pictures. Children would have had no such hesitation.

Maria Popova, in her blog Brain Pickings, provided a history of children’s picture books and the art of visual storytelling. She began with Leonardo da Vinci, whose graceful drawings of the human anatomy with a minimal amount of textual explanation foreshadowed visual communication.

“And you who wish to represent by words the form of man and all the aspects of membrification, relinquish the idea,” da Vinci said, “For the more minutely you describe the more you will confine the mind of the read, and the more you will keep him from the knowledge of the thing described. And so it is necessary to draw and to describe.”

Popova credits Randolph Caldecott for the modern picture book, where pictures are central, not peripheral decorations for text.

Lewis Carroll’s Mouse Tale is an example of text taking a visual form, as his poetic words curl down the page like a mouse tail.

Advances in printing technology coincided with the rise of creative artists who yielded classics such as Curious George and Babar. Then along came Maurice Sendak. His Where the Wild Things Are changed children’s picture books forever. It at once terrified and delighted children, somehow replicating real-life sensations of young people who imagine monsters lurk in their closets.

Maurice_Sendak1Sendak’s work unlashed picture books from past moorings. There no longer were margins or text boxes. Readers became viewers. Knowing how to read helped. Letting your imagination have full rein was mandatory.

Before long, picture books weren’t just for children. They were for everyone.

As we pass into an era where physical books give way to digital documents, picture books have a clear advantage. Animating imagination on a page is a natural in this new streaming environment.

While some mourn the loss of the “book,” demand for quality content has never been larger. “Quality content” often translates into visual storytelling that can work on a website or on YouTube. Experience with children’s picture books turns out to be good training.

treesAnd back to my brainstorming session, adults find themselves relearning the lessons of elementary school when they could create a world with a crayon. Most people aren’t great artists, but once they unleash the creativity crouching in our brains, the world’s problems suddenly get a lot smaller.

“Logic will get you from A to Z,” said Albert Einstein. “Imagination will get you everywhere.” It will release the monsters in your closet.

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