Reinventing the Wheel

Once again, digging through my library I find a book I meant to write about a while ago but got passed over: Reinventing the Wheel, by designer, critic and Paul Rand biographer Jessica Helfand, is a wonderful reference of pre-HTML, interactive information design. Whether they were meant to assist in determining the crop yields of hybrid corn or to help identify the branch and rank of a person in military attire, the information wheels (or volvelles as they’re formally known) featured in Helfand’s book so often demonstrate the perfect balance of form and function that so many of us strive to achieve in even our simplest of design projects. Circular designs in general (see: 45 RPM record labels) present unique design and typographic challenges. But Reinventing the Wheel’s examples weren’t merely round canvases that needed to be adorned with type and color, they were born out of the necessity to solve sometimes complex data-mining tasks with a simple twist of a disc. If you’ve ever taken apart an info wheel and seen the absolute anarchy hidden beneath the upper, slotted disc, you probably already appreciate the technical skill and grace required to simply make it work. This invaluable book is as much a collection of what’s been done as what is possible.