Kona Lisa

Those of you familiar with the minutiae of art history may have heard of a painting called the Mona Lisa. It depicts a woman named Lisa del Giocondo staring intently at one of those posters where you have to make your eyes go blurry to see the picture. (Art historians have been trying to explain her bemused expression since Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in the early 1500s, but I think it’s pretty obvious.)

I first saw the actual Mona Lisa (the painting, not the person) during a high school trip to France in 1990. I remember standing in the Louvre in front of this centuries-old masterpiece that continues to capture imaginations worldwide and thinking, “That thing’s tiny.” Then, “Nobody better be messing with my Alphaville tapes on the bus.”

Some consider the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world. (Dogs Playing Poker is a close second.) While I’m not sure how you quantify and rank fame, one measurement has to be how often something is parodied. If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies,” you’ll find a whole slew of images. (Note: If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies” at work, you’ll find yourself out of a job because of the nature of some of those images.)

In 1883, a counter-culture French art show called “The Incoherents” exhibited an image created by Eugène Bataille of the Mona Lisa smoking a pipe. In 1919, noted artist Marcel Duchamp added a mustache and goatee to the painting in a post card. (Note that Duchamp was 32 years old when he did this, right before he entered his much-acclaimed “Devil Horns and Glasses” phase.)

I was prompted to write about this when I received a bag of Hawaiian “Kona Lisa Coffee” as a secret Santa gift at the NAI holiday party. Because of the nature of the secret Santa program, I can’t say who gave it to me, but it’s someone who has been to Hawaii and whose name appears somewhere in the phrase “Kona Lisa Coffee.”

Two things are of note: 1. Here’s a company (slogan: “Put a smile on your face”) whose entire identity is founded on the fact that their geographical location rhymes with this famous painting on exhibit roughly 7,500 miles away, and 2. This is the second time in less than a month that a photo of my kitchen has appeared on this blog.

I’ve posted just a handful of the countless other variations on the Mona Lisa theme here: Avatar Mona Lisa from the website Fun-Gallery, Italian artist Marco Pece’s Mona Lego, and Mona Leia by artist Jim Hance.

This begs the question, what is it about the Mona Lisa that makes it so popular—so parody-able? Some argue that the popularity of the painting is related to the intrigue surrounding it—the subject (who is that woman really?), the content (what is that woman thinking?) and the physical painting itself (it was stolen in 1911 and not recovered for two years). The Mona Lisa appears in every art history textbook and has been subject to literally centuries of scrutiny and analysis. (Scholars recently used X-ray technology to determine that da Vinci used roughly 30 layers of paint to create the extraordinary skin tone in the painting.)

Interpreters talk about universal concepts (love, family, death, etc.) that are common to all people regardless of their specific culture. While there is no such thing as a universal image, the Mona Lisa is so widely known, especially in Western culture, that it can safely be used as a point of reference with the confidence that audience members will get it.

If there’s such a thing as a viral 16th-century painting, the Mona Lisa is it. To this day, she continues to pop up in contemporary art, music, literature, and every time Princess Leia is involved, Shea Lewis’s email inbox.

Chex Party Mix and the Grid

Cereal is quite possibly the perfect food. Some people consider themselves fine connoisseurs of wine and other fine foods. I consider myself a sommelier of compressed grain and sugar. My well-refined palate can tell the subtle differences between the best vintages of all the varieties of Cap’n Crunch.

One thing that I have learned since Paul and I started the endeavor known as IBD some eight years ago, is that the more that you thrust yourself into interpretive design, the less normal your life becomes. Much of that last statement has nothing to do with interpretive design and more to being directly related to being friends with Paul. The more you become aware of design, the more attention you pay to design elements.

Being just a normal visitor to an interpretive site, museum, or nature center can no longer easily take place. Instead on focusing on the experience, you find yourself wondering about the decisions behind that site’s use of type, image selection, how themes are conveyed, and overall media selection. When visiting interpretive sites, I find myself photographing interesting color combinations, unique textures, signage, and expressive typefaces, instead of taking pictures of my neglected children and annoyed wife.

This obsession has extended into my personal life and most recently has been obvious during the holiday party circuit, which has brought to my attention to use of Chex cereal. I really love cereal. Almost as ubiquitous as the use of Papyrus and/or Comic Sans in the design world is the appearance of Chex Party Mix at various holiday functions. I have discovered that nothing gets a party started like a festive holiday sweater vest and eating Chex Party Mix while discussing the direct relationship of the cereal to the grid. (For those of you that are new to IBD, the grid is one of the foundation pieces that we present as part of the decision-making process in interpretive design. A full explanation of establishing the grid is available in the book.)

Chex Party Mix is great for people who think that things belong in specific places, see beauty in squares, and enjoy pre-season baseball. Much like cereal and Chex Party Mix, I love the grid. If you ever find yourself in one of those awkward silence conversations at a holiday party, the grid is always a great conversation starter. Though, I often find myself alone eating Chex Party Mix, carefully aligning individual cereal pieces into a grid.

I’m content with who I am as a person; my annoyed wife is not.

ChexWhat’s not to like about Chex and the grid? They are both square, simple, and good for you. They serve as an accompaniment and work well with other good choices. The grid is no different. The first goal of the grid is to create a framework that helps you make consistent decisions that will then make your end product more easily accessed by visitors. Once you have established a grid, based on the guidelines in the book, you have a system in place that establishes order out of chaos.

I’m a simple guy and cereal is about as simple as it gets.  Milk, cereal, and bowl are all you need. With the grid all you need are the basic design elements. When applying your other design decisions to the grid such as type, colors, and images the grid becomes the organizing factor for displaying the potential for all of the other good decisions that you have made. A good grid makes things simple, yet allows for flexibility and creativity.

I have always maintained that cereal should be first delicious, pretty, and then nutritious. The grid is more nutritious, then pretty, and very difficult to make delicious (some metaphors can only be pushed so far). If our goal is to create a product to be used by visitors, then designing a product that is good for them (or nutritious) is the most important. If it happens to be pretty, visually interesting, and unique, the better it will be. And believe it or not, it can happen within the grid. If you know how to make the grid delicious, please let me know. I’m thinking copious amounts of butter would help.

I like the choices that Chex provides. Corn, Wheat, Rice, Strawberry, Multi-Bran, Honey Nut, Frosted Mini, Chocolate, and Cinnamon Chex are all great choices filled with carbohydrate goodness. When it comes to choice, the grid is your friend as well. You control the grid; it doesn’t control you. There have been several incidents where the consumption of too much Chex Party Mix has taken control of my life. I’m not sure what that statement means, but I just had to put it out there. The grid can consume your way of thinking but it is in your best interest. Just remember, you establish the grid and based on the choices you make in its creation, the possibilities are endless. Besides making you feel carb-loaded, its establishment will provide order to what you are creating.

It is safe to assume that this is one of the worst analogies used in the the history of IBD, but what can you expect out of a Christmas Eve post. It is also safe to assume that several of the parties that I have been going to are pretty lame based on the amount of Chex Party Mix that I have consumed and the fact that I was there.

Merry Christmas!