<i>Powers of Ten,</i> My Design Standard for Illustrated Books
Near the top of my list of "Books I Wish I'd Designed" is Powers of Ten, a collaboration of Philip and Phyllis Morrison with the Office of Charles and Ray Eames. It is as accessible and captivating to children as adults, which was apparently the intention of all of its creators: "The sketch should, Eames decided, appeal to a ten-year-old as well as a physicist; it should contain a ‘gut feeling’ about dimensions in time and space as well as a sound theoretical approach to those dimensions.”
The premise of Powers of Ten is the illustration of the infinitely large and small by locating the reader specifically within the universe. Some have used something similar to describe the Bible, but to my mind Powers of Ten is a lot more reader-friendly.
The concept was taken from a 1950s children's book, Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps. It was then made into a short (9-minute) film in 1968 that was adapted into this book in 1982. Both the frames of the film and the shape of the books are square. The starting point is a representation of an area that is 10 meters square (100).The image within is an overhead view of a man and woman at a picnic.
Next the view zooms out to an area 100 meters square (10m x 10m, or 101), then to 1,000 meters, and 10,000, until it represents the size of the observable universe—one billion light years away (1024).
At the center of each square is another blue-ruled square representing the smaller area from the previous image. From a design perspective, these two concentric squares represent the basic components that graphic design involves: composition and proportion. That these two very flat shapes can form the structure for a three-dimensional voyage to infinity always reminds me of the unlimited possibilities offered by a blank page (or screen).
In the film, the viewer must remain a passenger who progresses forward in a linear fashion. In the book, however, the reader can move back and forth through time and space at will—he commands the voyage that unfolds on the right-hand page of each spread. The left-hand pages are four-column grids filled with pictures and text that bring to life each point in the voyage—its structure, texture, atmospheric conditions, and the life forms it supports.
I have always loved illustrated books for offering the opportunity to read, learn, and understand backwards, forwards, sideways, or from the middle out, any way that makes sense to me. If I want, I can even start on the first page and read to the end of the book. Every page of Powers of Ten reminds me why I continue to be fascinated by the practice of graphic design.