Vesta and Graphic Design

VestaText VestaImageI’m not sure that I’ll be able to present these two images in exactly the way that I intend, but I hope this will work out.  If you’re seeing this on the website, at left (in theory) are two aligned pages which should have an appearance rather like a modernist-medieval hybrid of a Book of Hours — that is, a page of Latin-medieval/modern text, and a line-art image of a woman poking at a fire in a pillared hall, with a city’s roofs arrayed around and above the arched roof.

You’ll also notice that there’s quite a lot of white space around the image, with a ‘gloss’ on the Latin text scribbled in one of the margins (apparently by a Goliard who had to skip town in a hurry).  And this is not the work of a competent Latinist, apparently, because the Latin is only so-so; it’s a description of a pagan goddess, for one, and for another the scribe has terrible uncials, and for still another he’s only got black ink to work with.  Poor scribe!

And yet the scribe is me.  The pages are laid out using the medieval geometrical formula, and the lines were hand-ruled using a measuring tool of dubious accuracy, in conjunction with the use of a warped t-square and a cheap triangle.  Other tools were similarly compromised, as befits a poor poet on the run from the ecclesiastical authorities in the early 13th century.  The image of the goddess, the open hall, the empty chair, and its paved floor, and its chest, and its city, and the awkwardly-framed fire, with all of the horrors inflicted on the ‘normal rules of perspective‘, is me.  The work of these two pages, including the authoring of the text on the left-hand page, took about two hours.  And the author of all this, text and image alike, as well as the “kakagraphy” (if calligraphy is “beautiful writing”, then wouldn’t kakagraphy be ugly writing?) as busy and as rapid as it is, is me.

Tie and Jeans has this really excellent post about modeling projects or process, where he talks about how he’s starting a new group of kids on makery, and he is building a carousel model at home with his daughter.  And he’s planning on showing them his model when his students exceed his current capacity (which he admits is not going to be hard).

Potentially, I have the opposite problem. My Latin students in sixth grade are currently working on designing their own pages for a Latin codex-bound book. Each student is designing a pair of pages, a left-and-right pair, using the medieval geometric formula, and trying to learn the basics of a medieval lettering system — we’re not exactly imitating Christian monastics, but there are parallels.  And they’re encountering all sorts of problems with illustration and design along the way:

  • When do you erase?
  • How should you arrange your vocabulary on the page?
  • Is my text long enough?
  • How do I scale my illustration sketches to fill the space?
  • How can I use this sketch on lined paper to fill this window on blank paper?
  • Is collage allowed?
  • The tape ripped my paper. Now what?
  • The paper got ripped because I used my pencil too hard. Now what?
  • The color on my illustration made it too dark for the copier.
  • The pen I was using yesterday is gone.  Now the lines don’t match. Now what?

What’s taken them eight class periods and a couple of homework times has taken me… two hours? Two and a half?  Ok, I’m way more practiced at this than them.  I had Dave Gray teach me his Semigram/”Forms Fields and Flows” personally in August 2009, so I’ve been drawing and illustrating and practicing those skills off and on for four years now.  My Latin here is terrible — but I’m also not hugely concerned about mistakes. I wanted hard copy to put in front of students tomorrow, and that meant putting in two hours on the project today. Banging out a text in 20 minutes was the least of my worries… do you know how long it took to lay down that pavement of small and large flagstones under and around the chest, the woman, the throne and the fire pit?

Meanwhile I’ve watched kids agonize over small things and large.  They don’t always know how to work carefully… and there are times when they work with such hesitancy and such terror of their efforts that it’s like they have no idea how to move forward.  They’re so rooted in fear about making mistakes that they do not know how to move past the terror and get stuff done.

And I’m starting to feel like this is a big part of my job: learning to help kids get excited about these sorts of projects — graphic design or building carousels, writing Scratch programs or drawing and building architectural models — and then helping them develop the authentic skills necessary to do that job well.  It’s about recreating a whole set of skills of hand and eye and mind that computers often do for us today — but that when we let computers do them for us, we put ourselves at risk of obsolescing ourselves.

In laying out these pages, it turns out that gripping a pencil the right way to draw a guide-line (as opposed to writing a sentence) is a mission-critical skill.  Using a glue gun to build an architectural model (or a Kavad) is a mission-critical skill.  Learning to use a T-square and triangle in conjunction with one another is a mission-critical skill for kids.

What? What’s that you say? Kids will grow up, and then they’ll doing this stuff on a computer forever, if they do it at all?  I don’t know, maybe school should be more like the experience of Wesley on the Dread Pirate Robert’s ship, REVENGE.  He was learning fencing, and how to sail a ship, and to be a valet, and take orders, and navigate, and do all that crazy range of skills that humans do.  Do we want computers to do all of that for us?

It strikes me as a great way to raise a generation of kids who have no idea how the world works, or how to make anything, or who become learners in spite of school, instead of because of it.

Meanwhile, it’s a very exciting time for me.  I’ve learned how to build pop-up books, write a medieval-ish manuscript, and lucid-dream in the last week.  Sooner or later I’ll figure out how to include all of this in my curriculum.  It will be irreplaceable, I suspect, even with a Creative Commons open-source curriculum, because I’ll have been the one to learn the skills and develop the life-path… and somewhere in the next couple of months I’m going to build a model factory, or a carousel, or something mechanical like TieandJeans….

Because curiously enough, I’m becoming a tinkerer and a dabbler and a jack-of-all-trades as a result of being in the Design Thinking business. One day it’s T-squares and X-Acto knives, the next it’s dowels and cardboard boxes and gear ratios.   It’s not my job description (yet) to teach kids to be engineers.  It’s my job to teach them to be dabblers and inventors, creators and imaginers and builders and makers.

I’d say it’s a very ancient line of work, this carrying of fire among the children of mortals.  Maybe it’s no accident that Vesta, that sly-eyed Lady at the Olympian Hearth, wound up on these pages… She turned a blind eye when Prometheus came into her hall to steal fire for men; perhaps for us all, She will do the same?

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