The Coffee Ring: What We See When We Read

3 min read

It was black and blue. At least, that’s what the maker of the dress finally said. But did it ultimately matter to anyone who didn’t need to match it with a pair of shoes and some earrings?

Like many workplaces and other online hangouts around the country, our office was rocked a few Fridays ago by discussion of “the dress.” Now that it has been christened by the media as a “gate,” and I have used it as an intro to this blog post, I think we can consider this meme played out, unless a twenty-four-year-old professional body-piercer would consider getting a tattoo of it on his leg?

20758127It is fortunate, anyway, that news of the divisive dress did not surface until Friday, because I’m fairly certain it would have sidetracked the discussion at our Wednesday meeting of the Coffee Ring (our Well Done book club). We were gathered to discuss the book What We See When We Read, by Peter Mendelsund, who is associate art director of Knopf and a celebrated designer of book covers.

Though Mendelsund did design the jacket of his own book, its focus is on what happens to the text of a book when it is visually “translated” inside the minds of its readers. When we read the opening phrase of Ulysses, for example—“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan”—do we see, as Mendelsund whimsically suggests, a splendidly antlered, heavyset, well-dressed male deer with a saxophone (a la Gerry Mulligan)? Or something more flavored by our own individual dispositions?

Like the gold/brown/black filigree on the controversial dress, the pictures we make from words are colored (more than slightly) by our own minds, experiences, and personalities. The examples Mendelsund cites are primarily the classics—Anna Karenina, Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, Moby Dick—though in our discussion we referred as often to works as contemporary as the Harry Potter books, Wild, The Goldfinch, The Fault in Our Stars, and Fifty Shades of Grey (though no one admitted to having actually read that one).

At issue quite often in our discussion were the many film adaptations of books and their effect on our imaginings. We want, most of us agreed, to have our own personal experience of a book and its world before exposing ourselves to the movie of it. Or, as Mendelsund puts it, “We desire the fluidity and vagary that books grant us when we imagine their content. Some things we do not wish to be shown.”

Sarah, our art director, who is tasked every day with transforming our words into visuals, was particularly drawn to this richness of pure imagination that is, for her, a professional luxury. “I’m so used to thinking visually,” she commented. “I like the idea of this whole world that you create in your mind. If there are pictures with it, it takes something away.”

Though many of us at Well Done are “authors” or “creators” in one sense or another, the works we create as advertisers cannot remain abstractions. They must always become productions. Not works of pure artistry, ever open to interpretation, but works of communication with deliberate messages and effects we believe will incite action.

Our Buck Mulligans must not only live and breathe, but must also stand for something. Maybe the self-concept of those who are well-educated and over forty. Maybe people who drive vintage sports cars. Or love golf and Irish whiskey. If none of those are exactly right (and they probably aren’t) we’ve got to keep trying until we get it right. Or at least until we’ve got it as close as possible.

Because, if you’re actually going to buy the dress, it’s not just a conversation piece. The color really does matter.