Designers at the Gates of Hell

James Buckhouse
Apr 8, 2016 · 8 min read

Tall, thin, and bent like a paper clip, Danish designer Andreas Weiland sat folded up on the bench on the far end of the sculpture garden staring at the enormous cast of Rodin’s sculpture, The Gates of Hell. He looked as if Alexander Calder had fashioned him from wire and plopped him in front of the Rodin as a type of art-insider double-wink. He studied The Gates of Hell for a full 12 minutes, as the rest of the team was late. His perfection cannot be overstated—he was exactly the visitor the garden architects had hoped would wander in and sit and stare. He perfectly complemented the artwork.

Also waiting, but unseen, was Cemre Güngör. Originally from Turkey, by way of Finland and New York and most recently Facebook HQ, he paints the opposite picture of Andreas—he is of average height, but absolutely bulging with muscle. His shirt struggles to contain his arms—as if he had stuffed several oranges down each of his sleeves, which then tended to roll around and slide up and down whenever he bent an elbow or leaned over to tie his shoes.

Two other designers emerged from the back. Alex Bond, an ex-Pinterest UX-clairvoyant and Kat Fukui, a designer who codes, who recently joined GitHub. Both women move with the certainty of people who create the world in which they live, rather than the helplessness displayed by those merely entertained by it.

Last of all to the party was their host, the unifying reason each of these people was here—I’ll describe this person in detail later, but for now, I’ll use just one word—Me.

I illegally parked on the beige crushed pea-gravel and unloaded flowers and fruit and cheese and crystal buckets of ice and prosecco and chocolate and basil and tomato and crackers and nuts and whiskey and limes.

We had come to The Gates of Hell to celebrate a commitment to our calling as designers—but most importantly—we were preparing for our own journey into the underworld. We were here to review an original manus of Dante’s Inferno, from 1493.

This little gathering of designers wasn’t for networking or job-hunting or complaining, this was about rare type—and what it might teach us about the future of reading. But first, we had a meal to eat and sculptures to experience.

The Gates of Hell is a massive sculpture, containing dozens of little people in relief — some writing in pain, others seemingly having the time of their lives — and perched in the middle of it, near the top, sits a miniature version of The Thinker. Rodin’s hero remains unperturbed by the hellfire ruckus around him, busily sinking his chin into his fist as he reflects.

Rodin’s sculptures surrounded us—the garden was filthy with them. And in each, Rodin employed a nifty trick. Instead of depicting the human form frozen in a snapshot of time, he time-slides bits and pieces of the body, so that the arms and spine and legs are all a little offset in time from the pose. This creates the unnerving visceral feeling that the forms are moving—sliding in time across these stretched out micro moments.

Rodin himself lays it out thus:

Gradual unfolding of a gesture…my brain can’t help but connect the dots back to great type—where the appearance of consistency and balance comes from careful visual unfolding, not from a precise “equality” of strokes.

Great type employs illusion, proximity, and visual rhythm to render the appearance of precision — but never precision itself.

The result is a visual gravity that floats suspended from our flesh-bound selves to exist in our imaginations—traced directly upon our intellect, desires, and fears. Like Rodin’s sculptures, we are leaping through time and space when we read. To get there, text pulls us from the mere act of decoding into the realm of personal, cognitive associations. It’s the work of magicians. To float ideas in the realm of personal cognition (but for all persons, even those living five centuries from now) is not for the faint of heart. It is why the Book of John opens with “In the beginning there was the word, and the word was God.” The semioticians’ use of logos (a word most designers associate with a 120x120 2x-png), comes from that moment when text becomes lit with the power of the spirit. It is when the word becomes God. This topic gets into tricky philosophical/religous waters quickly (google λόγος for more on the topic), but for our instructive purposes on the mechanisms of design, think of it as that wonderful experience when a good story races through your imagination and suddenly feels real.

The gradual unfolding of a gesture also tips my brain into the technical art of ballet—were the leg does not rise in an even sweep, but instead each joint bends slightly out of sequence, to create the illusion of a straight line that whips and snaps (all but ever so slightly off-setting the rotational velocity of the ankle, knee, and hip).

The bends in the limbs of a ballet dancer make two shapes—the shape of the body itself, and the shape of the. space around the body. Extreme care is taken to show the illusion of line through the ingenious use of curves. Finally, these shapes are not fixed in time—like Rodin’s sculptures but moving in the opposite direction—they create the illusion of images by carving out volumes.

When at last we were ready, and it took a while to get ready, as we had a meal to eat and war stories to share from Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and beyond, we hiked to the rare book library for the little surprise I had stashed for my guests. Dante’s original take on the Gates of Hell.

You cannot overstate the joy of opening a 500-year-old book and flipping through pages that feel as fresh as a Tame Impala poster pulled from a Brooklyn letterpress. These books were time machines, taking us through 523 years of human souls who stood in exactly this same position and flipped these same pages. How many hands had touched these pages? How many people had read this tale?

The cover was wood. It was filled with tiny holes dug by bookworms. To feel this wood—we wore no gloves. The keeper of rare books simply handed it over. It felt like your oldest memory of your first elementary school desktop. It felt like a Stratovarius violin. It felt like the wooden propeller from a WWII fighter. It felt marvelous. It felt real. It was astonishing.

Then the pages came. Each a 500-year old wave of literary brilliance and enduring product design. Each page held a little A/B test for readability, assembly, edibility and durability.

While on site, we also dug into a a few other books as well, including a copy of Horace from 1504. It was a teacher’s edition, and has each teacher’s notes written in the margins as the book was passed down from one teacher to the next.

Horce Teacher’s Edition, 1504

Sometimes an “index” is not an index…

What appeared to be a reference index in the back of one of the books was not actually meant for the readers. Instead, it contained instructions for the binder. Printing and binding was done in different cities (sometimes countries), so each “page number” would reference the index in the back, so the binder would know how to mount it all together.

Also, “orphans” were printed at the bottom of each page to help you figure out what page goes next in the final assembly.

See the orphan “Soprale” appear again at the top of the next page to help the binders get everything in the right order

The margins include a marvelous manicule pointing towards an important passage.

Look here! this hand-drawn manicule points to an important point. (Horace, 1504)
Squeezing text like the trash compactor in episode IV

And this layout — decorative and elegant — gracefully comes to a halt with margins squeezing in like the trash compactor on the death star.

The riches continued with each new book. We uncovered techniques for handling “comments” from multiple and competing authorities—amazing “5-cubes” layouts that put the topic in the center and four competing opinions around the sides, one on each corner. We saw line spacing techniques for vertical alignment of multiple languages all in translation for the same text. We saw a prayer book designed almost to the pixel like Twitter, with each little prayed blocked in like a Tweet. We saw multi-col text that treatened to do the analog version of a scroll jack if the spacing wasn’t just right. We witnessed experimentation (some good, some wild, some less good). It was an inspiriting day.

Why were we digging into old books? The future of reading, of apps, of print, of editorial, of VR, of mobile, of TV, of story, of culture—all of it—might just start with a few hints from the past.

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Design Story

Complements to the human condition.

Design Story

Complements to the human condition.

James Buckhouse

Written by

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford’s GSB &

Design Story

Complements to the human condition.