Typefaces, Design,

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Reviews, 675 words, 2004
First published in Items, 2004
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The Book of Probes

The Book of Probes is a compilation of Marshall McLuhan’s aphorisms and excerpts from his numerous books, articles, lectures, and especially his legendary Monday Night Seminars. Every spread presents a ‘probe’ — a short thought-provoking piece of text, addressing a broad range of topics related to media and their effect on society, culture, politics, and economy. 400 pages of probes organized by subject are accompanied by 174 pages of text by the editors Eric McLuhan (yes, Marshall McLuhan’s son) and William Kuhns illuminating McLuhan’s work.

For McLuhan, probes are instruments of contemplation that function as essays compressed into a few words. McLuhan’s ability to break down a complex argument into smaller digestible chunks was largely inspired by the mass media, which he studied and often also opposed. The probes presented in the book range from poetic to didactic to irritating, and they are almost always intentionally provocative. The idea of the book is to foster the process of asking questions, and to promote active reading. McLuhan used a similar questioning technique in his early, academic in tone, The Gutenberg Galaxy, (1962) where statements in bold type interrupt and probe the continuous text. His probing technique reached its climax in Laws of Media: The New Science, McLuhan’s last book (1988).

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Designer’s name (David Carson) appears on the cover in the same type-size as Marshall McLuhan’s in the same way that McLuhan and Quentin Fiore were listed on their collaborations The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village. However, Carson’s contribution is fundamentally different than Fiore’s; as book and cover designer he worked with words written decades earlier. According to the editors of the book, this collaboration creates a reciprocal and complementary tension between McLuhan’s words and Carson’s images.

David Carson, a former professional surfer and now graphic designer based in New York, established an international reputation in early 1990s with his work for the magazines Beach Culture and Ray Gun, where his painterly typographic experiments often took precedence over the legibility of text. Carson first shocked the design world with his unexpected patchworks of blurry photography, illustration, and type, consequently produced a monograph that sold 150.000 copies (The End of Print, 1995), and later confirmed his conventionality and applicability of style by work for Pepsi, Nike and banking clients.

In the main part of The Book of Probes, Carson unleashes his whole designer’s toolbox, using photos known from his earlier notorious work, unpublished snapshots, computer generated 2/3D imagery, and type employing colour, various sizes, fonts, and styles. The second part of the book, presenting essays by Eric McLuhan, William Kuhns, and W. Terrence Gordon show that Carson is less at ease working with continuous text. The layout and margins are awkwardly devised, and its typographic treatment ill-chosen.

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Reading the book requires a significant effort on the part of the reader, hinting at the idea that perception and meditation are more important than the actual content of the thought. Though the intention is to create a parallel space for the reader, the fact is that there is little room left for the reader’s interpretation; the space is hermetically sealed, leaving the reader with an experience of all medium and no message. It is an intricate task to illustrate, simplify and hierarchize the text of an author who devoted his lifetime to issuing illustrated, simplified and hierarchized expressions of his ideas. While the editors insist that McLuhan and Carson interact in almost ideal harmony, it is questionable if Carson’s contribution achieves what the editors were striving for: deeper engagement of the reader in the process of reading.

McLuhan’s earlier books The Mechanical Bride, The Medium Is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village using the image-text interaction which also becomes one of book’s topics, are still the prime examples of the marriage of word and picture, confirming that finding a balance between them is a delicate editorial task. On the other hand, the battery of Ray Gun-esque treatments presented in The Book of Probes, presents an already explored communication impasse.

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