Media input in early childhood can have a lasting effect on adult tastes. If I hadn’t grown up with so many art, design and comic books around me, would I love them as I do now? Would I be so involved in the arts and communication profession? All of the imagery and information that we absorb as infants can influence us for the rest of our lives. For this reason I’m increasingly grateful for all of the things I was exposed to in my childhood.
As a very small child, I can distinctly remember my first, tenuous experiences with superheroes when my parents put up some very basic superhero posters. Each one had a white background and a reproduction of a classic ’60’s drawing. I think they were of Thor, the Hulk and Iron Man. I distinctly remember being impressed by the raw, vivid drawings of super humans as they popped out of their posters. Only a few years later when I discovered a treasure trove of my dad’s early Uncanny X-Men comic books stashed behind some some shelves, I got hooked.
Learning to read was difficult for me, I distinctly remember being nearly the last of 30 other kids in my class who figured out how to read. At some point I guess I was ready, because one day the words all clicked into place and it was only a short time after that I began stealing my mum and dad’s books to read. I went from 0-60 and all of the tedious chiding and worrying of adults dissipated overnight. Still, for a long time I just loved looking at the pictures in books and chose them accordingly. This process lasted for such a long time that I still remember picking books from the tiny little library in our school based exclusively on the imagery. I must have been about 6 or 7 and everyone kept telling me that I ought to concentrate, to try harder to choose prose, but all I wanted to do was look at the pictures and figure out my own stories.
My first favorite books were the ones about Miffy, by Dutch graphic designer; Dick Bruna. Visually sparse and clean, the geometric forms of Miffy and her environs are elegant and perfectly balanced. Dick Bruna was a beloved dutch artist and graphic designer working primarily in the 1960’s, who aspired to recapture the spontaneity and open-mindedness of children’s drawings. Modest and in love with drawing and design, he initially rebelled, rejecting the family publishing business for the arts.
In 1951, when Bruna married, he finally agreed to take a job at his father’s publishing company, which was followed just a few years later by the launch of a new range of pocket paperback books which would provide him a wealth of material. Designing the covers of every single publication in the series, he was given free range to create a brand. On these book covers he allowed the influences of his beloved Matisse to shine through, using simple forms and colors to create bold, instantly recognizable covers. He focused his energies on creating collectible, desirable books that would inspire people to want to read more than one in a series, creating characters that would be visible landmarks for the readers.
Bruna’s first hints at Miffy books in the late 1950’s were initially just a simple drawings of a white rabbit for his son, during this time he began to experiment with children’s book in earnest. Over the next decade his combination of incongruous primary colors and bold, textured lines slowly gained an audience and by 1963 Miffy had evolved into the rabbit we know today. Always seeking to perfect his forms, this iteration looks deceptively simple though it has been honed and perfected as Bruna continues to spending hours drawing the basic forms of the character until they communicate the desired mood and effect. It is this attention to sparse details which has created such a loyal following of Miffy. Called “Nijntje” in the original Dutch, Bruna’s Miffy books have sold more than 85 million storybooks in his lifetime. His books have have been translated into 40 languages, entertaining and influencing entire nations and generations of children.
My own early childhood adoration of Dick Bruna’s Miffy made a lasting impression and the echoes of that can be seen in the tenets of my work as a graphic designer and my enjoyment of comic book art. Over the years, American’s have often asked me who Dick Bruna is (because, despite the popularity in Europe, books can be relatively difficult to find here), and so when I first began working here I bought some of my design colleagues imported Miffy books to show them examples of Dick Bruna’s approach. There are some basic rules that I learned from reading Miffy books which influence me in my life and work to this day:
- Strip out all of the superfluous elements from a design. Take it down to the bare essentials that it needs to function and work from there. Make sure that every element on the page is there for a reason and serves a purpose.
- The fewer elements there are on a page, the less forgiving they are. That is to say that each element must work perfectly, because without the confusion of a mass of imagery, each element is that much more visible.
- Try to see like a child, without the assumption of what you think you know and you think is beautiful and try to see your work with fresh, uncluttered eyes. Use whatever techniques you can to do this (look at your design in a mirror or put it away and come back to it a day later) so long as you can look at it without the assumptions of an adult and feel the balance and tension in the work from a gut level.
While these are things that most artists learn at some point, children who read Miffy books can be gifted with the early input of this information in a non-verbal way. It is important for any designer or visual artist to understand that these simple, visual cues are going to impact on children when they grow into adults. It is perhaps for this reason that I am such a large proponent of comic books for young people.
Perhaps it is Bruna’s books that instilled my love of the flat color, but to this day I’m uncomfortable with the airbrushed coloring that some comic books use. When I started reading comic books there was only flat color and perhaps the odd bit of Letratone.
There were always black outlines and solid colors, usually in aggressive, contrasting shades. I appreciate the graphic simplicity of the genre, the honest use of the flat, descriptive format. Perhaps this is why I am am such a fan of artists like Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez and Jamie McKelvie who have found way to exemplify and evolve a basic, old-school approach to comic book art.
Now it’s hard to imagine – as a voracious reader – that there was ever a time when the words looked like a random collection of markings, but they did. It is lucky that in this time, I had beautiful picture and comic books to look to and feed my growing imagination. I remember wondering what they were talking about in those speech bubbles and finding the motivation to try and figure it out, I loved my books, whether I could read them or not. When I buy gifts for friend’s children now, I can’t wait till they get old enough for books so that I can get them something good and have a go at shaping their future tastes just a little bit.
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