Christopher Lloyd, author of the new ‘Science & Engineering Wallbook’, explains some of the challenges of trying to tell giant stories in a non-traditional format
Imagine spending a year working on giant jig-saw puzzle that starts in the Stone Ages and then travels through time to the present day, featuring 1,000 of the most amazing moments in the story of science and engineering…
Now try turning it into a book. That’s the journey I have just taken after putting together the latest What on Earth? Wallbook of Science & Engineering – a collaboration with London’s Science Museum and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The story it tells is mind-bogglingly huge – nothing less than how humans have reshaped the world with their ideas and their hands over the last 10,000 years.
But a jumble of 1,000 pictures and captions all crammed onto an A3 size book that unfolds into a 2.3m long timeline could easily turn out looking like one big colossal mess. How does one go about designing and organising such a mine of information to make it look good and make sense?
The trick is to find some visual template that seems appealing from a distance but that can also pull all the detailed information into thematic order. A beam of white light travels through the first section of the timeline, containing all the dates from the stone ages until the mid seventeenth century. Then, as the Age of Enlightenment unfolds, the beam shines into a prism as Sir Isaac Newton discovers that white light is made up of all the colours in the visible spectrum. Now the date is 1680.
As the light exits the prism, the dates descend to the bottom of each page as the beam refracts into all the colours of the rainbow, from purple at the bottom to red at the top. Seven bright streams reveal seven themes of science & engineering, ranging from abstract to infinity, each one representing a change in scale: maths and measurement (abstract), physics and chemistry (atomic), biology & medicine (molecular), land and agriculture (Earth scale), building & invention (things we do with the Earth), transport & communications (connecting the Earth together) and finally sky and space (the never-ending infinity).
And for those who like a more traditional narrative treatment, 18 newspaper stories are featured on the back, covering everything from Greek engineer Archimedes leaping out of the bath, running down the streets naked shouting Eureka!, to the genius of Etienne Montgolfier, who was inspirited to build an air balloon after seeing his trouser pockets billow upwards as they dried above a burning fire.
Books should not always been trapped by spines and filed on shelves. For me, the joy of innovative book design is in finding news ways to explore telling big stories differently. Making a timeline stretch across a series of concertina folded pages means several people can read the book at once. It can be spread out on the floor, laid across a table or mounted on a wall – not trapped on a shelf or discarded in a dusty corner.
Finally, a giant version of the foldout book makes a fabulous public exhibit – a book that can double up as a piece of street art or the backdrop to a lecture about the most incredible moments along a timeline for schools, museums, literary festivals and just about any curious human who wants to know What on Earth Happened?
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