I live within walking distance of the largest Sears on the west coast. The actual store may not be the largest but the Art Deco building that houses it was once the western distribution center for Sears. This 10 story building covering a vast industrial parcel rises another 4 stories at one corner to form a grand crowning conference room with sets of narrow floor to ceiling windows on the four equal sides. On the outside wrapping the top of this space, to the east, south, west and north, heroic green neon letters announce “SEARS”. If you travel anywhere within miles of this beacon on the east side of Los Angeles, the glowing letters are a marker and reference, a terrestrial lighthouse, not warning of danger, but the comfort of commerce.
Then there is the Sears tool catalog- a glossy collection of page after page of color photos. I love the Sears tool catalog. As a designer and fabricator I have learned that when I’m working with tools and the job is hard or not going well, that’s because there’s a better tool for the task. There is always a better tool. The catalog does not explain this, or prove it, or convince you- they show you. If you thought that 4 screwdrivers and 8 wrenches would handle any job, they show you what 32 screwdrivers, 128 wrenches. 14 drivers and 67 specialty tools would look like! The quantities are displayed in carefully choreographed photo layouts, lovingly and efficiently styled to suggest ever flowing mechanical plenty.
A recent article in the New York Times talked about how the brain learns numbers and quantities.
"A crude “number instinct” is hard-wired into the anatomy of the brain, recent research has found. Mammals can quickly recognize differences in quantity, choosing the tree or bush with the most fruit. Human beings, even if they live in remote cultures with no formal math education, have a general grasp of quantities as well, anthropologists have found.
In a series of recent imaging studies, scientists have discovered that a sliver of the parietal cortex, on the surface of the brain about an inch above the ears, is particularly active when the brain judges quantity. In this area, called the intraparietal sulcus, clusters of neurons are sensitive to the sight of specific quantities, research suggests."
The Sears marketing team has inadvertently learned how to fire the part of the intraparietal sulcus that responds to “more than I can imagine”. You don’t need to imagine, they will show you.
Or would that be the Pro-Gun Master Mega Set? A name that suggests they may transform into other tools. This page illustrates the whimsical approach to image bleed and cropping. Haphazard layout decisions lend a certain jaunty insouciance that contrasts with the highly codified photo styling.
These two examples reveal, I think, the personality of different stylists. The first image shows tools in groups of simple arcs- straightforward scientific simplicity and beauty. The second suggests an inspiration from organic structures- the lower image could be a plant from Avatar.
Sometimes Sears product design, in this case color coding of different size tools, while adding functionality has unfortunate connotations. The Craftsman logo and the colors bear too great a similarity to a famous crayon. Maybe they hoped to create subliminal desire.
These two pages also show a difference in the personality of the stylist. The upper image styling constructs a rational space. Subtle curving groups at the top form a linear wall to define the background. The midfield color elements push your eye to the foreground which is animated by simple silver fans. The individual groups are kept mostly separate with little overlap.
The lower image depicts an irrational space. Repetition of swirl patterns at four corners collapses the space and hinders a perspectival reading, the great variety of tool arrangements provide reference points for the chaotic overlap of motifs. The groupings have little space between them and often run into each other creating a secondary web pattern that adds to a graphic interpretation.
At this scale, the quantity is overwhelming and the image takes on the dry quality of a map or diagram. If this were the size of a wall there would be an interesting tension between the purely visual flow of pattern and the ability to scrutinize groups or individual tools to extract discrete information. It makes me wonder about the person arranging 1,468 items for the photo shoot. Do they ever get to one corner and realize that a tool set was left out and have to start over?