GID 041 Week 2

Good design goes to heaven; bad design goes everywhere.

— Mieke Gerritzen (not the Scribe Florentius)


A bit meatier this week. (I’m still chewing.) We read four chapters:

Chapter 1:  The Invention of Writing

  • From the caves at Lascaux to Thailand and Mesopotamia, touching on Egyptian hieroglyphics and illustrated manuscripts, the book briefly chronicles mankind’s attempts to record, inform or authenticate by making marks.
  • An occasional graceful turn of phrase: “Perhaps the extensive use of luminous blue and green was a response to the intense blue of the Nile and the rich green of the foliage along its banks; a cool streak of life winding through vast reaches of dessert.” (Meggs, page 19, regarding illustrated manuscripts of The Book of the Dead)

Chapter 2:  Alphabets

  • Yes, the building blocks of written communication — but sometimes I’d rather look at an entire building than scrutinize every single brick. Fewer details in this chapter would leave room for more images elsewhere.
  • The author waxes poetic again, this time about the Greek alphabet: ” … the letters became symmetrical geometric constructions of timeless beauty.” (Meggs, page 27) Does this enthusiasm explain the great number of details included about various alphabets?
  • Some hints for typographers and designers: ” … vertical ascenders followed by horizontal curved strokes below convey a kinetic rhythm as it moves across the page.” (Meggs, page 25, regarding the Aramic alphabet)
  • The author’s conclusion might explain the inclusion of so many details about alphabets: “Alphabetic writing became the mortar binding whole communities against limitations imposed by memory, time, and place.” (Meggs, page 33)

Chapter 3:  The Asian Contribution

  • In a book about the history of Eastern graphic design, would there be a chapter on “The Western Contribution”?
  • Chinese calligraphy, paper, printing, movable type … incredible inventions born in China. (If Chinese calligraphy had invented a phonic alphabet with a limited number of characters, making movable type practical, would the effect have been as profound on Chinese society as the effect of Gutenberg’s printing press on Western society?)
  • Again, the author provides hints for designers and typographers: “… every stroke and dot is given the energy of a living thing.” (Meggs, page 36, regarding “The Album of Eight Leaves,” painted by Fangying.)

Chapter 4:  Illuminated Manuscripts

  • The term “illuminated manuscripts” is used in the textbook for “all decorated and illustrated handwritten books from the late Roman Empire until printed books replaced manuscripts …” (Meggs, page 46). Previously, the text used the term “illustrated manuscripts” to describe Egyptian carvings and writings which combine illustrations and words.  Would the beautiful Chinese paintings with words and illustrations be considered … prints?
  • A major purpose of illuminated manuscripts, particularly in the thousand years of the Middle Ages, was to illustrate religious teachings. This did not preclude a little exercise of healthy human ego. For a version of Pope Gregory’s “Moralia in Job” (Commentary on Job), the scribe Florentius designed a dazzling full-page commemorative labyrinth which when deciphered reads “remember the unworthy Florentius,” and placed it opposite the monogram of Christ. (Meggs, pages52-53).

(image from

Florentius was also the scribe who exhorted persons who handled his manuscripts to treat them gently because of the torment he endured creating them.

“A man who knows not how to write may think this no great feat. But only try to do it yourself and you shall learn how arduous is the writer’s task. It dims your eyes, makes your back ache and knits your chest and belly together—it is a terrible ordeal for the whole body. So, gentle reader, turn these pages carefully and keep your finger far from the text. For just as hail plays havoc with the fruits of spring, so a careless reader is a bane to books and writing.”


Perhaps he had reason to complain of suffering. In Scribes, Scripts and Books,Leila Avrin writes, “He [the scribe] sometimes expressed his feelings to his fellow scribes and to posterity by writing in the margin of his quire notes such as:

‘Thin ink, bad vellum, difficult text.’

‘The parchment is hairy.’

‘Thank God, it will soon be dark.’ “(page 224)


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