Frank Chimero’s* thoughts on narrative and fiction have been on my mind lately. And not only the melancholy French literature kind of narrative. I’ve been struck by the idea of visual narratives—of pictorial untruths that grasp something within the viewer and beg the viewer to close the circuit, finish the story. An illustration can enhance words, it can be more verbose than words, but it can also leave clues—cues, perhaps, for the intelligent viewer. It has always been important to me to treat people with respect as though they are intelligent and thoughtful beings, whether or not they really are. Sometimes saying all the things is saying too much and ruins the subtlety.
Chimero (p. 81) argues that for a ‘work to resonate and propagate, narrative becomes an essential component to design, because nothing moves as quickly and spreads so far as a good story.’ He illustrates the connections that arise between people through narrative through a particularly illuminating story about his design students. When asked to strip back their designs to simple-coloured geometric shapes expressing specific emotions, the students began to fill the gaps left behind by omitted typography and images with their own stories about what the yellow triangles were doing, what kind of music the blue squares were listening to, and how they felt. ‘After a critique,’ reports Chimero (pp. 84-85), ‘the take-aways were always vague in words, but wonderfully specific in consequence.’ Through the most simple visual media possible, these students had communicated something meaningful in their collective storytelling. While fascinating in a design classroom context, in the conversations between those who know the punchline, how can we bring this narrative element into still pictures that make their way into the world beyond?
‘All stories…are changes over time, so if you pay attention to what changes, you’ll find the point of the story,’ argues Chimero (p. 85). ‘This also implies that if we are looking for ways to use the narrative in our work as a design material, all we need to do is ask where the time passes to find the story’s proper place.’ This is evident in visual media like comics, but sequential imagery isn’t the only way to convey the passage of time. It is this idea of considering time that I’ve been thinking about in terms of my illustrations. It’s one thing to depict a thing, but another to contextualise it. A painting of a vintage teacup on a white background depicts a thing of beauty, a thing with a function and a past. A teacup left behind on a table with a teapot and an empty seat is something else entirely. Has someone just left? Is someone arriving?
These clues invite the viewer to speculate, to construct a narrative and—because it’s their own narrative—invoke empathy with that viewer. Chimero (p. 94) has a lovely line about this shift in control over the piece: ‘the designer and audience are now wed in co-authorship.’ He goes on to describe the designer’s role as that of ‘setting good restrictions that act as suggestions, but [to] then step out of the way to see where the audience takes those purposeful limitations’ (p. 95). This extends to illustration: the illustrator sets the visual framework and provides the clues, and perhaps distils them to very refined clues, but leaves gaps within which the viewer may construct the passage of time.
Further, fiction is a kind of untruth—an invention, be it aspirational, mundane or malicious. ‘Every untruth forks reality and opens up a gap between what is imagined to exist and what actually does. Each fabrication creates a second version of the world where the untruth is true’ (p. 67). This is where ethical questions seep into narrative promptings. But while the ability to deceive is ever at our fingertips, Chimero (p. 66) believes that ‘an alluring, productive untruth is frequently what’s necessary to get things going.’ As illustrators, we need not only describe the world around us, but we also have the tools to stretch the imaginations of others, bringing to life counterfactual worlds.
* Chimero, Frank. 2012. The shape of design. Self-published.
Kichi-Ba Tea House is a memory painting for Michelle, owner of the erstwhile tea house. Full of ideas and guided by her excellent taste, Michelle is no doubt plotting her next venture, but I’m sure she’ll always remember this one fondly.