An Aperture into
Special Special Studio
with Mark Foss by Banyi Huang

Let us take a deeper look at two of Special Specials newest in-house designs, the Cardan Grille Bookmark and Small Medium Big Ideas Notebook Set, for a glimpse into the studio, demystifying the process of conceptualization and design.

Both stationery sets were proposed and designed by our graphic designer Mark Foss. He first came across the cardan grille in Amy Suo Wus book A Cookbook of Invisible Writing (available as part of 3standardstoppages popup at Special Special). In her book, Suo presents her research on forms of analog steganography—a type of secret writing—and explores how they can be employed to evade surveillance and control. 

The cardan grille dates back to 1550, when Italian mathematician Girolamo Cardano proposed using a rectangular stencil with various irregularly placed apertures to write a message. The message would then be disguised by filling in the gaps between the fragments with additional words. It calls to mind Edgar Allen Poes short story The Purloined Letter, in which the villain obtains a letter from the Queen's lover and blackmails her, concealing the letter by folding it in an opposite direction and hanging it from a card rack in the entryway, a most conspicuous yet unexpected place. Similarly, the ingenuity of the encoded message is that it hides in plain sight.

Image from Wikipedia

Special Specials design takes the cardan grilles steganographic function and infuses it with a sense of discovery. In bookmark form, it encourages the reader to try to find hidden poetry and connections in pre-existing texts. In essence, it both conceals and reveals, adding new functions to an invention that dates back hundreds of years.

Also embedded in the design is an encouragement to be more intentional behind communication, sharing, and intimacy. It is an incredibly personal and even romantic act to give someone the only key to decipher an encoded message. Mark sees this exchange of encryption and decryption as sharing the same language.”

Relatedly, the idea for the Small Medium Big Ideas Notebook Set stems from a joke among Special Special team members. Why is there a hierarchy between big and small ideas? How do you define what is big and what is small? How would the joke translate into the form of a product design? Hence the concept for a set of small, medium, and big notebooks that serve different needs was born.

The meticulous way in which these notebooks are nested together as a set reflects the intertwined nature of ideas as they develop and evolve. Perhaps we can refer to the Latin phrase omne trium perfectum (good things come in threes) to convey the rule of three—the principle that a trio of events, characters, or objects can create a rhythm that is more satisfying. Among the three notebooks, which one would be the best fit for Goldilocks? The small notebook could be carried in your pocket on the train, whereas the medium size could be used in a meeting. The large one, then, could be used to elaborate on these transitory ideas as you lounge around at home.

With these designs and the aperture that they provide, we can always return to Special Specials emphasis on the intersection between art, functionality, and care. As it becomes difficult to sustain our focus in this attention economy, Special Specials designs offer tactility and playfulness, encouraging us to slow down and be curious at moments when we are usually not.