Human intervention, adaptation and reuse are central to Insecta, a project originating from the John Hay Library at Brown University. The Hay Library’s History of Science collection includes rare manuscripts dating from the 17th century on the taxonomy of insects. These works catalog insect species with illustrations that document, identify and classify the phases of their life cycles. The manuscripts and the drawings they contain are so brittle with age they crumble at the touch; endangered species themselves, they are sequestered, removed from public access.

Insecta (insects) is the most evolutionarily successful phylum on the planet. Insects reproduce in such sheer numbers and their life cycles are so compressed that they maximize their statistical probability of being able to mutate and adapt very rapidly to changing conditions around them. The construct of a game of cards is an apt metaphor for this most Darwinian struggle for survival: cards are dealt randomly much like genetic material; shuffling the cards results in recombinations much like genetic recombinations; and the best players remain in the game the longest much like natural selection. In Baccarat, blackjack and other forms of poker, players calculate odds and assess risks and benefits of staying in the game. These are not only games of chance but contests of skill.

The struggle to survive is a theme everywhere evident in the Hay Library's rare manuscripts on insects, both in their subject matter and their fragility: who will protect them? how will they survive? and will they remain viable in a digital era? From these questions the concept for a project emerged. Using the card game as a metaphor for the game of survival, I designed a deck of playing cards with the insects from the Hay Library manuscripts on the card faces, inventing four new "insect suits" of cards – Moths, Locusts, Flies and Bees – in place of Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs and Spades. Within each suit I traced the life cycle of the insect on the faces of the cards, proceeding from the egg through the larva, pupa and adult stages of development.

In developing the deck, I digitally photographed the illustrations in the manuscripts to apply to the faces of the cards, retouching the photographs of the illustrations where they were yellowed and faded and colorizing them where necessary. In the end the digital 'remastering' of these illustrations marked a kind of evolution in itself as these seldom-seen volumes emerged from the past into the present. My act of designing this deck saw these manuscript illustrations adapt to the modern world to occupy a new niche. They realized a new incarnation, a digital one.

The book spreads documenting this project appeared in a compendium of work from the Fall 2006 Graphic Design Graduate Studio course at Rhode Island School of Design.


 


Moths 


Locusts 


Flies 


Bees