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Comments (34) Posted 11.15.04 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Jessica Helfand

The Designibles




In the new Robert Zemeckis film, The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg's dreamy illustrations are animated by way of a new three-dimensional CGI technology called "performance capture." In this process, real actors (Tom Hanks plays most of them) are wired with small sensors attached to a network of digital cameras that simultaneously record three-dimensional facial and body movements in 360-degree views. (In production shots, the sensors themselves are attached to the actors' faces, making them look as though they've been overcome by a rather advanced case of digital acne.)

Meanwhile, Pixar's latest foray into cinematic invention captures more than just performance, and is, therefore, incredible for a number of reasons — not least of which is the fact that it's not even remotely time-pegged to Christmas.

So what's so incredible about The Incredibles? It's not the brilliantly detailed portrayal of modern superhero culture writ large. It's not the witty, demented parody of celebrity hero-worship positioned against the rampant passivity of civilian laissez-faire. It's not their agility, their bravery or their will, their strength or their stamina, or even their ability to produce force fields at the dinner table.

No: what's incredible isn't performance capture but another phenomenon altogether. What's incredible about The Incredibles is the art of design capture. Because when it comes to nailing design, the "Is" have it.

The Incredibles dwell in a kind of extraordinary dystopia, at once a celebration and an exaggeration of Eames-era modernism. Flanking either side of their suburban abode are split-level houses whose bland facades are punctuated by rows of tailored boxwoods: they're robotic stand-ins, a kind of horticultural mutation of Stepford-wife stupor. Inside the house, chairs and tables sport blonde, Danish wood finishes, a mid-century palette further amplified by hints of color: chartreuse upholstery and avocado appliances form the perfect backdrop for a duo of wizened heroes who've been retired from active duty.

Yet as the pace quickens and the action builds, the design does too. Slick designer vehicles (think Philippe Starck on steroids) transport us to new architectural destinations: here are sites dotted by grand concrete allées, framed by volcanic window treatments and walls of perfectly gridded weaponry. Even Syndrome, the villain's sensurround computer screen is well-designed, boasting well-kerned Bank Gothic letterforms within an icy blue-grey interface. It's design run amok, at once exquisite and terrifying: Fritz Lang's Metropolis meets Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in Japan.

Yet beyond the fear factor, design is also featured as deliriously comical. Arriving at the estate of Edna Mode, visitors are led up a manicured hillside to an International Style house of uncertain provenance. Edna's diminutive size (she admits to three-foot-eight) makes the scale of her minimally furnished home seem even more preposterous: from the Miesian lobby to the Bulthaup-inspired industrial kitchen (and let's not forget the George Nelson benches) it's an aesthetic travesty: design beyond reach. Edna herself is a kind of cross between the diminutive actress Linda Hunt and the design impresario Murray Moss — with dashes of Anna Wintour and Edith Head thrown in for good measure. In Edna's domain, design manifests as a kind of Napoleonic obsession. A devout minimalist permanently clad in monochromatic shades of black and grey, she's the ultimate cartoon embodiment of design. True to form, a glance at her profile reveals that while Mr. Incredible's special power is "strength" and Elastigirl's is "flexibility," Edna's is simply listed as "designer."

The Zemeckis film has, of course, its own artistic merit: one scene at the North Pole features an Elf-manned command center, with an enormous obelisk made up of hundreds of round-edged black and white television screens, allowing the elves to monitor a world of sleeping children. (More echoes of Fritz Lang here.) But performance capture leaves you feeling like someone introduced an auto-pilot feature in Photoshop: in the end, it's all too mechanically perfect, and no amount of dreamy illustration — or, for that matter, piped-in Bing Crosby holiday favorites — can fill the void.

Pixar's technical contribution to computer animation is the art of texture mapping which, like performance capture, raises the bar for what's visually achievable from storyboard to silver screen. But special effects are only half the battle and, at Pixar, they're the second half. One has only to acknowledge the attention to morality (The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman and Peter Conrad have both called it "Nietzschian") and consider the characters — funny, flawed and yes, flabby — to understand that at Pixar, the play's the thing. But that's not all: take one look at their signature character — the deliciously anthropomorphized Luxo lamp — and you'll agree that design looms large in this new world vision. And thanks to Edna Mode, we now we have our very own superhero to prove it.
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Comments (34)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Don't forget that the head of Pixar is a man who knows the value of design: Steve Jobs.
chester
11.15.04 at 12:36

Easily one of the most satisfying movies to watch of this genre (is it a genre? 3D animation?)

The theme of the movie (trying to recapture the 'glory-days') was well depicted I thought.

The architecture, costumes, ESPECIALLY all the "printed' props from the insurance company's logo to the "wall of fame' were spectacular. Even the names of the superheroes were clever...I mean c'mon...Gazer Beam? Tradewind? HA!
vibranium
11.15.04 at 02:01

the original, slightly more serious version is worth a look.
graham
11.15.04 at 05:18

It's an awesome movie. Shows how much good design pays.
Mo
11.15.04 at 09:06

Yeah, cool. A few thoughts:

1. My wife and I went and saw "The Incredibles" the day after the election, an attempt to escape our depression of having to endure the current presidential admission for four more years.

It was the perfect antidote -- for two hours, anyway.

2. All of Pixar's movies tend to focus heavily on aesthetics (obviously), with a pretty deep and informed sense of design history. (For instance, the variety of monsters in "Monsters Inc." brought the work of J. Otto Seibold, Charles Addams, Maurice Sendak and Jim Flora to mind, among others.)

But for "The Incredibles" specifically, I think the near-obsessive emphasis on design was partly due to the fact that this was Pixar's first foray into a human-led story (as opposed to the characters being toys, bugs, monsters or fish), and they correctly opted for a stylized, comic-book feel that would be more palatable to audiences than a realistic depiction of people.

To lessen the cartooniness of it all, employing a delirious but sophisticated array of design in every aspect of the movie -- from the leaves of the tropical trees to the shape of the enemy robots, and culminating in the cutely insufferable Edna Mode -- was really smart and effective, particularly in wrangling the attention of adults into the film (which is another Pixar specialty).

3. I actually had Design Observer in mind while watching the end credits (having just read the "Napoleon Dynamite" post here beforehand), which were as truly exuberant and playful as any movie graphics I've seen, a real treat.

At the end of the movie, in typical moderne fashion, familiar images are flattened, smoothed and altogether distilled into their sexiest, boldest, most colorful fundamental forms, moving from one graphic collage to another at breakneck speed over a raucous 007-esque score in a notably two-dimenisonal format. It's akin to Kuntzel + Deygas' terrifically executed opening sequence in "Catch Me If You Can" -- but way more rad, at least to me.

Given the amount of attention (and study) that film intro title sequences are receiving at present, I've wondered why ending credits are almost never given the same innovative, detailed treatment by filmmakers. (An educated guess: the vast majority of movie audiences never stick around for them. You can almost hear the studio head bellowing: "Why waste money on fancy credits -- the one part of the movie people are sure to walk out on?")

The end faux-bloopers in "Toy Story," etc., have always been a crowd favorite -- and a hilarious po-mo leap in the context of animation -- so it doesn't surprise me that the smarties at Pixar concentrated on this usually ignored cinematic area.

4. Even more than its ground-breaking, industry-changing visual work, Pixar's cinematic success has been predicated on the simplest, oldest and most important tool: a good story.

For light, pop, blockbuster cinema, the writing in Pixar movies has (to me anyway) been consistently terrific, or at least more so than 99 percent of every other movie that's hit the No. 1 box-office spot for the last 15 years. (It may not be masterpiece quality a la "Glengarry Glen Ross" or "Annie Hall," but it sure beats the pants off of "Dumb and Dumberer 2" and "Booty Call.")

The crafting and development of a good plot, characters, dialogue and overall message has been a lead concern for Pixar, as they're smart enough to know that eye candy goes nowhere -- and makes little profit in ticket sales -- without the backbone of a solid story.

This is why Pixar, with its six fine movies at present, is still batting 1.000 with me, and why it serves as one of my many inspirations from a design and writing standpoint. (Even my most anti-establishment, subvert-the-mainstream-and-destroy-the-monoculture pals begrudgingly admit that Pixar movies are quality stuff.)

Bringing this point back to graphic design -- and without stretching it too much -- I think Pixar's model is a concrete example of form following fucntion: that, aside from purely decorative work, a lovely visual style without strong, evocative -- or at least comprehensible -- content is an empty shell.

In Design Oberserver terms, without the foundation of (and direct connection to) strong content, a magnificent graphic treatment will inevitably ring shallow and lack any power but immediate impact, and will only have as much depth and effect as the average viewer's attention span will allow.

That's what those of us who aren't blessed enough to work at Pixar -- allegedly one of the greatest employers in the nation -- can learn from them: more than just tickle the collective optic nerve, the visuals we make should, by and large, attempt to speak to people and have some connection to a broader statement, to some degree.

Sure, I know: DUH. That's basic 101 stuff for everybody here, and exactly what we're all striving for. But that little reminder helps me get out of bed every morning and labor over layouts and stuff for 10 hours straight -- and still be enthralled throughout.
Jon Resh
11.16.04 at 12:34

Isn't Edna the result of a gene-splice of Edith Head, Philip Johnson, and Rei Kawakubo, with the body type of Ray Eames thrown in? She's an "ur" designer.
Lorraine
11.16.04 at 02:54

Resh notes: " I think Pixar's model is a concrete example of form following function: that, aside from purely decorative work, a lovely visual style without strong, evocative -- or at least comprehensible -- content is an empty shell. "

Perhaps if John Kerry had been produced by Pixar he'd be the President Elect.
vanderleun
11.16.04 at 06:31

Yes, yes, yes: among the very best movies of the year, in no small part because it so wildly and hearteningly overdelivers. In this -- and in its deep design savvy -- it also reminded me of Men In Black.
Kurt Andersen
11.16.04 at 09:35

Pixar finally overcame what I've always considered to be their big weakness-human characters; both in terms of design and animation. Brad Bird's most obvious contribution was bringing his 2D design and animation experience to the 3D world Pixar has so lovingly pioneered. Prior to this, their human characters were stiffly animated and generically designed. Now, we find bold proportions and shapes animated with the vigor of classic 2D animation. A marriage made in heaven.
Marc
11.17.04 at 07:47

Awesome that you saw so much on it... what was awesome for me is that I did not have time to look at it from that perspective because I was having way too much fun :)
logtar
11.17.04 at 09:00

It's a little misleading to refer to texture mapping as "Pixar's technical contribution". It was first described by Ed Catmull in 1974, long before Pixar existed, and was widely known by the eighties.

A better candidate for Pixar's key contribution might be the introduction of programmable shading, which is representative of the thoughtful design and architecture of Pixar's software. The flexibility and degree of control it provides are key to the realism (or artificiality) of Pixar's images.

The design philosophy is discussed in an interview with one of Pixar's software architects, Rob Cook.
Theo Honohan
11.17.04 at 10:59

Great read. There's a suggestion that Pixar uses motion capture though, and it should be pointed out that they have yet to rely on the technology. The majority, if not all, of the animation is key-framed, much like classical hand-drawn animation. I've really enjoyed reading about the designer's whose work influenced some of the sets. It's a great body of art that I wasn't appreciating before.
Endeavor
11.17.04 at 01:55

The Incredibles is by far the best Pixar movie. I would even go as far as saying it was one of the best superhero movies of all time, even better than the Spidermans, X-Mens, Supermans, and of course Dare Devil (Ben Affleck sucks).

The reason for such a sublime feature is the succint realization of every design aspect related to film in general and to the comic book genre upon which the Incredibles is based. There are no weak scenes or distracting filmed humans to worry us and something about adult minded cartoons just makes it that much easier to relax and enjoy (everybody should watch Sealab 2021 to see the extreme of what I mean).

Also, the robot was the perfect synthesis of form, function, and process, and is probably one of the coolest inhumane henchman ever.
Andrew
11.17.04 at 02:24

The Omnidroid was a great throwback to all those "War of the Worlds" style robots of 40s and 50s sci fi. The "eye" of the robot seemed like a great homage to Gort from the Day the Earth Stood Still.
Jay B
11.18.04 at 02:08

I haven't seen 'the Incredibles' yet - it's not out yet where I live but judging by the comments here, and the fuss in general, it seems Pixar have hit the mark once again. Re: 'The Polar Express' saw the trailer, some time back and that was enough. The story seems pretty naff, it 'looks' very cold - and that aside from the hideous 'commercial' odour of it all. Plus to have Tom Hanks, who, at the best of times, is pretty hard to deal with as a REAL actor 'transformed' into a (very unconvincing and rather dodgy) cartoon character I find rather daunting - scary actually. Is it for Xmas or Hallowe'en? What with that and 'Shrek 2' (which I find similar and not really for children, in the end) here 'a Natale' what hope is there? If this is the future, look out kids!
Derek
11.18.04 at 03:07

While I snorted diet coke thinking of Murray Moss as E Mode, she actually reminded me of Polly Mellen, too, who had a cameo in the Isaac Mizrahi docu, Unzipped. Or Kay Thompson in Funny Face.

It may be worth noting that the director, Brad Bird, was the voice of Edna; he may collect crazy designers the way some people collect Venini.
greg.org
11.21.04 at 07:21

We just saw the movie and loved it, especially the designs of the cars, fashion, architecture and furniture—in some ways very retro 50s modernistic.
Dino
11.21.04 at 04:01

My daughter and I went to see The Incredibles partly to celebrate our relief at having another four years of a President who knows what to do with the job.

Other than that detail I quite agree with Jon Resh's analysis...in retrospect. I was having too much fun to dissect the movie while watching. I particularly enjoyed the quick thefts of visual themes from other movies, like Spider Man's upside down smooch.
Ed Nutter
11.22.04 at 10:41

Loved the movie (I've seen it four times so far), loved the design and the credits. Just a slight disagreement with people who talk about how the film is about recapturing the glory days. I don't think that's quite it. It's not that Bob Parr was Mister Incredible. It's that he's still Mister Incredible, and pretending that he's not is killing him. The same goes for everybody, even the kids, who aren't trying to relive anything. Being true to yourself is the real theme.
Ted
11.22.04 at 09:29

I adored The Incredibles. I don't think I've ever gorged on so much eye candy in my life, but the themes that spoke strongest to me were those surrounding the Family. Maybe it's just because I'm a mom myself, but I was impressed with Helen's ability to protect her children, while giving them the faith in themselves -- and in her -- that allowed them to do what they needed to do, too.
Joan
11.23.04 at 12:05

Every Pixar feature has had a traditional animation aesthetic behind the image, primarily because every director and most artists come from traditional animation and/or theater. Bryn Imigire, Teddy Newton, Tony Fucile, Ralph Eggleston, and production designer Lou Romano designed this brilliant film, and deserve all the credit the director, Brad Bird, has given them.
Check out the "Art of Incredibles" book if you want to see what's behind this team. They're the best designers in film today--animated or not.
S. Carter
11.24.04 at 12:27

HAVING JUST SEEN 'THE INCREDIABLES' AND WITH ONLY SIX HOURS OF SLEEP,THE FIRST FEW MINUTES OF SEEING THE CHARACTERS ACTUALLY CAUSED ME TO BECOME NAUSEOUS. AFTER SEVERAL CHARACTERS MADE THEIR APPEARANCE,I BEGAN TO ADJUST TO THE REDUNDANT-TYPICAL LOOK...OF 3-D CHARACTER DESIGN SOFTWARE THAT ESSENTIALLY (BORING!)CONCENTRATES ON THE FACE,WITH MOSTLY 'CLOTHING' SURROUNDING THE BODY. SURE, THE BODIES ARE ELASTIC,AND CAN 'RUN FAST',BUT THIS IS NO BREAKTHROUGH IN DESIGN-FUNCTION IDEAS. AND WHATS WITH THE THIN LIPS?>>>ARE THEY ALL IRISH? DID DISNEY ASK PIXAR TO PLAY IT SAFE, AND 'CAN' THE DESERVING DESIGNER?
I NEVER LIKED THE BIG GUYS 'STEROID-CHIN' WHICH
HAS BEEN 'DESIGNED' TO DEATH,WITH OTHER 'V' SHAPED SUPER-HEROS BODIES,AND ON THE + SIDE, I LOVED THE LITTLE 'ONE EYED' GIRL,AND REALLY LIKED THE LITTLE LADY THAT LIVED IN AN HUGE MANSION AND DESIGNED THE COSTUMES,AS SHE HAD THIS GREAT ACCENT
+ CLEVER SARCASTIC LINES,ALL IN THAT THICK EUROPEAN ACCENT.
SAD TO SAY, I FELT I WAS IN A VERY GOOD VIDEO GAME,PART OF THE TIME,BUT HAD NO OBJECTIONS,EXCEPT WAS THINKING ; DID EISNER DEMAND THIS FOR LATER-COMMERCIAL EXPLOITATION FOR VIDEO GAMES-NOT GOOD.NO WONDER PIXAR DUMPED THEM.AND DID DISNEY DEMAND THAT THEY THROW IN ONE 'BLACK CHARACTER' DUDE,(ICE MAN-I LIKED HIM) FOR THE 'BLACK APPEASMENT AUDIENCES' WHO MAY NOT SEE IT IF THERE WERE NO BLACK SUPERHEROS?
JUST ONE TIME, I WOULD LIKE TO SEE A MOVIE THAT DOES NOT PANDER TO MASS MARKETING 'INSERTS' WHICH ARE GLARINGLY OBVIOUS IN MOST ANIMATED FLICKS.
THIS WAS THE BEST-YET ANIMATED FLICK I HAVE SEEN, BUT THERE IS MUCH MORE TO IMPROVE UPON,WHICH I HPOE AN UNFETTERED PIXAR WILL CREATE,FOR THE FUTURE. I DID LIKE WHAT THE MOVIE HAD IN TERMS OF 'FLOW' AS IT KEPT ONE ALERT INTO THE NEXT GREAT SET-SCENE. DAWK
DAWK
11.24.04 at 09:24

I just saw the movie tonight and loved it, and like many posters here was having too much fun to catch most of the details. I am looking forward to sitting with the DVD with my finger on pause so I can check out, for instance, the signage in the city scenes, or the typography on the incredibly banal corporate literature piled up in Bob Parr's cubicle. All just perfect.

I was pleased to pick up the Abe Vigoda/Godfather reference. Like so many things in the film, it appears to be there just for the sheer joy of it.

If you haven't seen it yet, Brad Bird's previous film, The Iron Giant, is well worth checking out. All the visual trappings aside, Bird has a real talent for creating characters you really care about, and putting them into a story that has more in it than meets the eye.
Michael Bierut
11.26.04 at 10:19

The "human" characters were obviously of a different visual style than the objects and evironments in the movie. The animators did a pretty good job at extruding stereotypical cartoon/comicbook people into 3D space, which provided an interesting contrast with the photorealistic retro-modern architectrue and props.

Pixar is continuing the traditon of avoiding "realistic" humans, which, so far, nobody has succeeded in creating with computers. These days, as you can see with Polar Express, the humas are too realistic; they look like creepy barbie dolls. I wonder if Pixar will ever make the jump, and if it does, how successful the images will be.
lspears
11.27.04 at 10:52

First, before commenting on the design elements of The Incredibles. I would like to say that this is the first time I have visited this site, and only because it is a required assignment in one of my Graphic design projects, I am required to write at least 500 words, so already I would like to appoligize for my "not to the point yet" entry. That being said i would also Like to thank my teacher laura Hatcher for assigning this, because this is by far one of the most interesting and fun design sites I have ever visited.
Now to the point, first I would like to agree some what with Helfand about the visually over stimulating "Polar Express", I was bombarded with television comercials claiming this to be the most advanced movie of its kind, and that I would never believe the amazing CGI based animation, i find that a little trite and honestly will not even see this film in the theater, and maybe only rent it when it comes out, I was not impressed by the trailer, i didn't notice anything special that i have never seen before, my eyes didnt explode in amazement from Tom Hanks incredible acting either.
But what is incredible is that pixar bring people to life without digital acne. The designers are so advanced they can create facial expressions, life like hair, body movements and even the notorius "Shirt grab" which is really something incredible for animators to do. i think it's awesome that they can produce a better film while still keeping some amount of simplicity. Dont get me wrong, there is nothing simple about The Incredibles, but compared to the extreams of Polar Express... Why does Robert Zemeckis feel we need preformance capture and 360 degree movement to be enthused. The Incredibles takes the perfect amount of technicality mixed with the right amount of explosions and fun loving retired superheros to entertain and impress us. And there were no creepy elves involved anywhere.
besides what better way to capture our attention then to create a super hero character who is a designer ( how did they know what i wanted to be when i grew up). In conclusion I think that as designers we can take so much more appreciation in the cars, interiors, and right down to the flowers designed in The Incredibles, than the mind blowing, seizure enducing special effects of Polar express. if you go to see this movie, pay attention to the hair of each character, how it falls and moves. And pay attention to the insides of each home and building, the cars and landscapes, when one character grabs anothers shirt, and try to appreciate how much designing actually went into this movie. Most importantly though enjoy it.
Jennifer Shover
11.28.04 at 04:38

What sticks with me concerning "The Incredibles" is how the animators recognized and recreated Holly Hunter's lip curl (when speaking)onto her dopleganger. It's so cute!
John
11.30.04 at 01:20

That's 464, including the disclaimer...

On another note,

+ It's an awesome movie. Shows how much good design pays.
+ its deep design savvy
+ Don't forget that the head of Pixar is a man who knows the value of design: Steve Jobs.

I have a hard time with "design" being attributed to The Incredibles' success as a good movie. Storytelling, (virtual) set design, character development, talented actors and amazing - and powerful - 3d renderings are what make this movie great. Let's not get giddy and lump all of these together into this precious word of ours as everybody does with product, industrial, fashion and even hair design... unless we want to start calling janitors designers as well: designing cleanliness.

Certainly, this is a lighthearted post by Jessica and, like others, I absolutely enjoyed the movie. Thumbs up!
Armin
11.30.04 at 09:18

What about the soundtrack?

I thought it fabulous.

harrymancini-jamesbond-martinis-pinacolada-horns'n'marimba-brashsleekness.

Added so much to the boffo visuals.

I'm going back to hear the movie again.
Amy
12.01.04 at 03:06

I have seen several animated films that were to realistic and therefore was turned off. This is a perfect example of how technology has gone to far.
What is the purpose of making an anminated person look real? Ok, maybe someone is trying to make a point. Well, I love Pixar and believe that they will continue to have longevity because they understand the theory of design.
Darlene Trowell
12.07.04 at 12:33

Dystopia is a BAD thing, a horrible, terrible place. I bthink this is not the right word for you here. But yeah... the design in this movie is great.
Ralph McGinnis
12.14.04 at 11:52

In today's Wall Street Journal, critic Joe Morgenstern names The Incredibles his top film of the year, and asks whether it marks a revival of the best aspects of Hollywood's old-time studio system: "[T]he production represents a collaboration of the highest order between a visionary filmmaker -- Brad Bird has earned that sobriquet in spades, and hearts -- and the not-so-small army of [Pixar] artists , scientists, technicians and producers who've helped bring his vision to the screen. That's the best-case version of what studios used to do in the old days. 'The Incredibles' may be giving us a glimpse of great days to come."
Michael Bierut
12.31.04 at 01:16

I think that contributors who insist on SHOUTING are plain rude, and I'm disappointed to see one such message among a collection such as this. For my part I have loved animated films since Luxo Junior (indeed well before then, come to think of it) and can't wait to see The Incredibles for myself.
Michel
01.01.05 at 06:43

Jessica is featured in the "Design for the Real World" segment in this week's Studio 360 talking about design and The Incredibles.





Michael Bierut
02.12.05 at 04:38

How wonderful it is! Today, I had seen the film - "The Incredibles" this afternoon, My father also had seen this film in this evening. This cartoon movie is powered by Disney-Pixar.
In this film, I love the people's sensation, scene, bugbears. The scene is so sublime.
With the great imagination.
Creford
03.14.05 at 03:06


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Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts and Eye magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
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DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Jessica Helfand

Scrapbooks: An American History
Yale University Press, 2008

Reinventing the Wheel
Winterhouse Editions, 2002

Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture
Winterhouse Editions, 2001

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

Paul Rand: American Modernist
winterhouse Editions, 1998

More books by contributors >>