A lesson from the Bestiary

As usual, I recently made a beeline for the Avenue page in the morning's National Post. This entry was entitled 'A Bestiary Like No Other' and features the work of illustrator Marcel Dzama on the occasion of his show at the Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto.

As usual, I recently made a beeline for the Avenue page in the morning’s National Post. This entry was entitled ‘A Bestiary Like No Other’ and features the work of illustrator Marcel Dzama on the occasion of his show at the Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto.

To my way of thinking, this piece further emphasizes why Avenue is the most delightful and surprising piece of media in Canada today. The subject matter is sometimes obscure, sometimes timely. It’s presented in a graphically pleasing way and it’s always laced with a healthy dollop of learning. The page stands out, captures my attention and leaves a lasting impression. What more can you ask of mass media content?

Avenue is consistantly highly creative. And for all of us in the media and ad biz, anything that can deliver creatively, day in and day out, needs to be examined more closely.

The Dzama piece is made up of sketches in shades of brown, dark greens and glowing yellows. Elephants dressed in green smocks stand alongside cigar shaped grubs with human faces. A lion dances with a goat. Two columns of text provide detail: ‘His delicate bestiaries feed the growing digital backlash, giving us imprecision, unslick, happy irregularities.’

A medieval term, a bestiary is a collection of animal illustrations, be they real or imaginary. The collections were particularly effective pieces of communication for medieval audiences because the illustrations were humorous, fantastical and exuded human characteristics. They were designed as a kind of Christian teaching tool: ‘to improve the minds of ordinary people in such a way that the soul will at least perceive physically, things which it has difficulty grasping mentally.’ (Or so says the Bestiary Web site of the University of Aberdeen.)

Without stretching the definition too far, Avenue itself is a form of bestiary. It is a collection of fantastical illustrations, featuring subject matter that inevitably helps me understand things I have difficulty grasping mentally.

Take, for example, ‘Nations and Imaginations,’ from last December. It provided excerpts from a newly published book of unconventional maps. One Victorian map shows us how to navigate to the top of Mount ‘Success.’ Don’t go through the ‘Weak Morals’ gate and for Pete’s sake, stay clear of ‘Hotel Know-It-All.’ There’s a lesson and a half.

Or how about last November’s ‘A Window With Whatever You Fancy,’ which was a pictorial review of giant vending machines, ranging from the 1902 Automat to the more recent and failed McDonald’s experiment with ‘robot shops.’ I didn’t know vending machines had a history.

Avenue is the most un-newspaper-like newspaper page in the medium today. According to Doug Kelly, the National Post’s executive editor, no other Canadian or foreign paper regularly publishes an Avenue-like page. Kelly considers Avenue ‘adhesive.’ When Avenue does its job, images of that morning’s design and content will echo through the reader’s brain long after the paper has been put down.

This seemingly effortless, fun-loving outpouring of ideas and colour belies a big behind-the-scenes effort from a lot of talented people. There is structure in this madness. Ben Errett is the Arts and Life editor and main Avenue idea guy. Gayle Grin is director of design and, in addition to creating many of the pages herself, she oversees the final product. Design team members, Laura Koot and Donna Macmullin, provide the muscle. This organizational structure works within the scariest kind of thematic framework: no framework. The idea for an Avenue might spring from today’s news or the 100th anniversary of flight. Or, the idea might be triggered by a new exhibition of art, like the Dzama piece.

In the end, I guess Avenue’s success and appeal isn’t so mysterious, and perhaps we can apply the same rules to the task of producing attention-grabbing yet strategically sound communication plans: Hire talented people, give them the broadest possible framework to operate within, encourage them to be provocateurs, impose a deadline and let’er rip.

Rob Young is one of the founders of Toronto’s PHD Canada (formerly HYPN). He can be reached at ryoung@phdca.com.