VC1-02: The Elements of Euclid

This lesson covered a lot of elaborate and ornamental design styles (Alphonse Mucha and Art Nouveau, display type etc.), but the slide that caught my eye was the otherwise minimalist coloured rendition of The Elements of Euclid (1847) by William Pickering. I was curious about how this design innovation was positioned against the backdrop of art movements like Geometric Abstraction and Neoplasticism, giving the striking similarities in design language. With further research, I found out that the book was printed nearly a century before Kandinsky and Mondrian made geometrical shapes and the RBY colour scheme famous in the 20th century – not after.

It struck me that primary colours were used as the colour palette to design information on the basic geometric elements and mathematical formulas; already Pickering (together with Byrne) had made this connection that would form a key principle of the Abstract Art movement. Mondrian used only primary colours in his paintings because he felt they were the purest colours that captured the fundamentals and essence of truth and reality.

Also on certain pages, the primary colours were assigned to the basic geometric shapes by the conventions proposed by Kandinsky in his Bauhaus textbook Point and Line to Plane (1926). Kandinsky theorised a universal correspondence between the three elementary shapes and three primary colour: yellow, a “sharp” color corresponds with the triangle; red, and ‘earthbound” color with the square; and blue, a “spiritual” color with the circle. The Elements of Euclid might have very well sparked the endeavour of drawing correlations between colour and geometry that would become key in the Abstract Art movement.

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Universal correspondence between primary colours and geometry proposed by Kandinsky in Bauhaus textbook.

What I appreciated most about the book was how it recognised design as an important means of communicating information. The complete title of the book is actually The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid in which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols are Used Instead of Letters for the Greater Ease of Learners

Title page of the book with full title.

In the introduction section of the book, Pickering also highlighted the importance of design and visual representation in information communication:

“THE arts and sciences have become so extensive, that to facilitate their acquirement is of as much importance as to extend their boundaries. Illustration, if it does not shorten the time of study, will at least make it more agreeable. THIS WORK has a greater aim than mere illustration; we do not introduce colours for the purpose of entertainment, or to amuse by certain combinations of tint and form, but to afflict the mind in its researches after truth, to increase the facilities of instruction and to diffuse permanent knowledge.”

“The object of this Work is to introduce a method of teaching geometry, as well as in France and America. The plan here adopted forcibly appeals to the eye, the most sensitive and the most comprehensive of our external organs…

“…but as the use of coloured symbols, signs, and diagrams in the linear arts and sciences, renders the process of reasoning more precise, and the attainment more expeditious, they have been in this instance accordingly adopted.”

“Such is the expedition of this enticing mode of communicating knowledge, that the Elements of Euclid can be acquired in less than one third the time usually employed, and the retention by the memory is much more permanent…

The publishers purposefully broke with information design and book publishing traditions, to employ colourful illustrations rather than letters in referring to diagrams, so as to facilitate “Greater Ease” of learning for readers. Besides enhancing text with shapes and colours, attention was also paid to typography.  The book used Caslon as its typeface and started each section with decorative initial capitals.

Scanned pages of 1482 and 1847 editions
Geometric proof of the pythagorean theorem from the first printed edition in 1482 (bottom left) versus Byrne’s colorful rendition in 1847 (right).
The decorative initials were created as wood engravings by Mary Byfield in 1843. They’re a beautiful complement to the modernness of the geometric diagrams.

As one of the first multicolour printed books in the 19th century, and on mathematical works at that, I think it is an important innovation within the development and history of information design.

While researching, I found a website that digitised the book for the viewing by  today’s modern readers in the digital age. It retained most of the design elements of Pickering/Byrne’s edition (typeface, symbols and colours etc.) but added an extra “touch” for the “Greater Ease” of learning for 21st century readers: interactivity. The creator Rougeux made the diagrams interactive with clickable shapes in the descriptions, so as to aid in understanding the shapes being referenced. Clicking certain parts would highlight or conceal others for easier correlation of information.

I thought it was interesting to see how the same book was adapted and redesigned to facilitate communication of information to readers of different eras. By comparing the three different versions of The Elements of Euclid, it is possible to chart the development of design trends alongside changes in society and (media) culture.

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