What means this dingbat?

By David Byrne

Oct 15, 2020

This essay is published in conjunction with the online exhibition, David Byrne: dingbats, which features a series of drawings explore themes and preoccupations associated with daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic, from uncanny scenes of domestic life to surreal figurative illustrations, seeped in metaphor of a mind plagued by loneliness, boredom, and anxiety brought on by quarantine, on view from October 15 through November 2, 2020.

I refer to these drawings as dingbats. Why?

To many people the word dingbat is a way to insult someone—to imply they are lacking intelligence. That is not intended the reference that connects the word to this series of drawings!—though some may claim otherwise. The series of drawings got started when my colleagues at Reasons To Be Cheerful suggested that I do a series of illustrations for the (then) upcoming (opens in a new window) We Are Not Divided series of pieces which are running now. I immediately replied to them "oh, you mean like dingbats!" and the response was "huh?"

I was thinking of the little drawings that are used in The New Yorker and other publications to visually break up imposing blocks of type. A row of asterisks, a bold sub-head, a row of bullets or stars accomplishes the same thing. We like markers as we read—paragraph indents, spaces, chapters—and stars or a tiny drawing of a flowerpot—they all do the same thing. They make reading easier and in most cases they don't have to reference the story directly, but sometimes they echo the tone of the whole publication.

Where does the term originally come from?

The term, and the little illustrations, are relics from the days when type was set by hand. Graphic markers would be inserted to denote space or to give instruction to the printer. They were meaningless to anyone but the typesetter and the printer—hence the association with nonsense. These would be removed when the actual printing happened—but sometimes they got left in.

In digital typesetting there is even a font called Zapf Dingbats… it is entirely made of these symbols:

✐ ✑ ✒ ✓ ✔ ✕ ✖ ✗ ✘ ✙ ✚ ✛ ✜ ✝ ✞ ✟✠ ✡ ✢ ✣ ✤ ✥ ✦ ✧ ★
✩ ✪ ✫ ✬ ✭ ✮ ✯ ✰ ✱ ❍ ■ ❏☺ ☻ ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠ • ◘ ○ ❐ ❑ ❒ ▲
(opens in a new window) Zapf Dingbats

So, I kept the aspect that my drawings, the dingbats, did not have to relate in an obvious explicit way to the story… and that they similarly would serve to break up blocks of type… but I got a bit carried away and made them quite a bit more elaborate than the typical dingbat. I decided to give them titles too—and I soon realized that the titles became integral to the meaning of the drawings.

Living in a Dingbat

There is a 3rd meaning for dingbat. It is a name for a kind of apartment building that became prevalent in Southern California and Arizona in the 50s and 60s. They look like shoeboxes suspended on stilts—which allows the obligatory parked car to not take up precious real estate.

(opens in a new window) Wikipedia says dingbats of this kind are known for their downmarket status and inexpensive rents.

The artist Ed Ruscha did a series of photos of them in a book. This one, pictured at right, from Wikipedia is named after a famous opera which implies some sort of class aspirations on behalf of this building.

PH.65.29 B 1323 Bronson from Some Los Angeles Apartments.jpg

1323 Bronson, 1965
Gelatin silver print  
4 5/8 x 4 3/4 in / 11.8 x 12 cm
©Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

PH.65.32 B 1029 S. Union from Some Los Angeles Apartments.jpg

1326 N. Normandie, 1965
Gelatin silver print
4 5/8 x 4 5/8 in / 11.7 x 11.8 cm
©Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

  • Essays — "What means this dingbat?" by David Byrne, Oct 15, 2020