The TREE OF 344 QUESTIONS
After the 344 Flowers poster had turned from a New Year’s mailing to a Valentine’s Day gift to a general celebration of springtime, I approached the 2005 poster on the basis of “It’ll be done when it’s done.” This is the danger of missing self-imposed deadlines. The world doesn’t actually end, and deadlines lose their power as a motivational tool. Which isn’t always bad.
Usually, it’s good to push things to conclusion. No design is truly alive until it’s published . But in this case, I’m glad I took the time to explore. I knew I wanted to combine the writing from the 344 Things poster with the looser artwork of the 344 Flowers. The faces were still swirling around in my mind, as were the circle doodles that had been occupying me for a few years that point.
The idea came to me to write 344 questions that could affect your life. No, not 344 Questions? just 344 questions. I tried and dismissed a number of information graphic approaches. I didn’t want it to become just a big version of the STEP Conference Report. Eventually, I hit on the title “344 Questions on the Way to Wisdom,” which quickly led me to a tree of wisdom.
Or maybe I just wanted to draw a tree, and found a way of reverse-engineering a reason. I grew up admiring the etchings of German artist Hans-Georg Rauch. My dad had bought two of his pieces directly from the man—one being a stand of birch trees composed entirely of distorted faces. Each leaf was a face, the bark was made up of faces, the landscape itself, melted faces. It’s a tour de force, and I’ve always loved it. This tree was my attempt at making something that was at least going in a similar direction. (My OCD is strong, but it’s no match for Rauch’s, I’m afraid. He was a grand master!)
The foliage came easily. Circles and faces. No problem. It’s a Zen exercise. I went through one or two tree trunks until I got to the one I liked. I wanted it to be made of arms and hands, holding up the crown, and digging itself into the ground. So far so good. All of this took no more than a few weeks.
When I tried to fill in the ground, everything came apart. Nothing worked. At this point I was still planning on an 18 x 24 in. (45.7 x 70 cm) poster to match the previous editions. One of the things I had loved about the 344 Things poster was the big blocky bottom end of the bar graph, and how it sat in the white space. I thought I could pick that up here, and show a cross-section of soil—made up of hand-lettered words—which would also pick up the gloss varnish rot system on the 344 Flowers poster.
Good idea, except for the fact that it didn’t work. It just felt off. It also pushed me into putting the questions at the bottom of the poster in one giant block. Which was just far too blah. If you can take an Xacto blade and remove the entire text with one straight slice? That’s not a very interesting layout.
For almost five months I banged my head into the wall. It drove me nuts. I just couldn’t solve it. I had this very pretty tree, and it just would not sit comfortably in that 18 x 24 space. Finally, I thought to take a step back.
If you love the illustration, and it doesn’t fit the format, maybe the format needs to change.
Such a simple thought, but I just couldn’t see it before. I was totally snow blind. As soon as I tried out the circle, everything fell into place. More or less. As you can see from the little process film below, I still went through a number of variations until I hit on the hands holding the soil. Finally, I typeset the questions on nine concentric Illustrator paths, and off it all went to Typecraft. who did their usual gorgeous job on press.
Just one final hickup: After having folded hundreds of posters by hand in years past, I paid to have the posters scored and folded at the plant. Which they did. With the artwork facing outward on the folded piece. So we had to print another run. And as that gave me an extra day to think, I switched out one of the large faces to a slightly rounder version. Not a banner day for mental health, but it was all worth it. I think this is the best drawing I’ve done so far. It’s certainly the one I still like looking at the most.