Richard Deon Resurrects Ben Franklin: 13 Impressions of Virtue

Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph Duplessis, 1778.

The name Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) brings to mind one of our Founding Fathers who helped draft both the United States Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But not only was Franklin a politician, scientist, and inventor, he was also a writer, printer, and publisher. One of his literary accomplishments was the creation of a list of 13 Virtues, which he assembled in 1726 at the age of 20.

Franklin created this list to help develop his character, and he continued to use it in some form for his entire life. In his autobiography, he wrote, “I propos’d to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex’d to each, than a few names with more ideas; and I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.”

Richard Deon in front of his work.

When Richard Deon, publication designer and artist, serendipitously came upon this list, he couldn’t resist making something of it. Since his work often creates fictional “historic” events, this found treasure stimulated his creativity, and led to his own visual interpretation which he entitled “13 Impressions of Virtue”.

Richard’s replies to several questions gives a fascinating insight into the way he thinks, as well as his creative process. (Note: all captions are in the artist’s own words.)

What originally inspired you to create these?

In a sidewalk library in Cambridge, MA I found a misbound book from the Adams Family Papers collection. One chapter was a letter from Benjamin Franklin to his autobiography  publisher. I enjoyed reading this letter, specifically his description of the 13 Virtues he wrote as a twenty-year-old. I deducted Franklin’s sense of order may have come from his occupation as a commercial printer, which itself is a creative yet complex path involving language, typographic composition, ink and paper handling, meetings, labor, and press time management.

What was your goal, design-wise or otherwise?

The goal was to deliver a collectible print series. I see a lot of “motivational posters” in offices, but they are a visually uninteresting combo of stock photos and a slogan. Why can’t this genre be more creative? I like creating alternate narratives within a series.  

Regarding your process, which came first: the type or images?

Franklin’s text came first. I increased legibility with two basic body text sizes. Some headlines were integrated into the artwork (as I intended to do with wooden glyphs on the letterpress platen). The images were hide-and-seek and see-what-works game played over three winter months. After four versions I found an acceptable balance.

Is the artwork you used your own or vintage images? 

My work is a little like circus posters, a little exaggerated information can create interest, the artwork can be found in a mixed bag of stock art vintage (Dover books and online stock sites) and my own vision.

Temperance. Vintage silverware stock art, the headline glyphs are arranged, almost like a table setting. Hyphenation is a half-consumed word!

Silence. Collage, vintage ear woodblock with a graphic spiral.

Order. Simple, really not unique, just plain hierarchy, no-frills.

Any rhyme or reason for the chosen fonts? 

My recent interest in making woodblock prints brought me to seek 19th-century fonts to use with my woodblocks. For a grant submission, I intended to use an original period letterpress with period woodblock fonts. The proposal was rejected (did not “meet  guidelines”) so I completed the project on time with Adobe InDesign. Fonts used: Black Oak, Frontage Condensed, Tungsten Compressed, Bodoni Poster, Bauer Bodoni Bold BT (thickened outline), a few appearances of Franklin Gothic, Rosewood and Copperplate.

Resolution. Maybe 1930s? A to B messaging, the only italic font. Bold condensed italic has a do-it-now, do-it-fast urgency.

Frugality. Stack your type carefully, so it can be used again.

Industry. Maybe Bauhaus? Output one click at a time, preferably at an angle.

Anything else that might be of interest to the readers?

My exhibition of paintings and prints, “Paradox and Conformity: Paintings, Prints & Planes by Richard Deon”, has a similar logic as the Virtues series: all the pieces relate to each other, as you walk between the works you notice simplification or exaggeration in proportion. The pieces lose their aesthetic if they are not exhibited together.

Sincerity. Vintage how-to-draw eyes exercises suggest a relationship.

Justice. Vintage handcuffs art, gas mask goggles?

Moderation. I struggled with this, so I used an exaggerated stack of fonts, an excessive rendering of what moderation is not.

Cleanliness. Vintage utility house brush in a clean layout.

Tranquillity. This black shape is my brand mark, which I required to be present in all my projects. The chop mark on the lower right corner of the paper is this embossed brand mark.

Chastity. I struggled with this image almost as much as a young Ben Franklin did in writing the text. This vintage bustier illustration (no body) simply needed Franklin’s text.

Humility. A facial merge of two stock art giants of thought. Interesting fact: In a letter to his publisher, Franklin said he intended only 12 virtues, however, his (pastor) friend suggested that he (a twenty-year-old) show humility when presenting these virtues to the congregation. Ben (as many productive graphic designers will) acquiesced and added Virtue #13.”

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The 13 Impressions of Virtue series is available on Richard Deon’s website as both a framed small collection, as well as unframed large prints. While you are visiting his site, take a look at the rest of his work, which consists of clever, thought-provoking interpretations of other provocative themes.

Posted on: November 4, 2019

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community.

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