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Intelligent Designer: an Interview with Casimir Fornalski

Casimir Fornalski is a regular Skepchick and Mad Art Lab reader (username casatron) and a professional graphic designer. We became friends when he started doing design work for Cocktail Lab, and I soon realized that he was involved in the San Francisco and online atheist communities. Now Casimir serves as the official designer for the Atheist Film Festival, for which he recently designed a brand new logo. He also had a design recently selected by Greta Christina as the cover of her forthcoming book.

Casimir sat down with me for a conversation the other week about how his skepticism impacts his approach to art, what atheism means to him, his thought process behind the Atheist Film Festival logo, and the beauty of the golden rectangle.

This interview has been condensed. Click here to listen to the extended version in a new tab, or right-click to download.

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Anne: Do you want to tell me a little bit who you are as an artist and as a skeptic?

Casimir: I’ve always been a big fan of art that acknowledges the reality of existence and human experience, as opposed to puts a level of superstition or magical thinking, such as it is, on top of it. I like art that confronts who we are in a very rational style, that examines our biology, the chemicals in our brain that determine how we behave, how we relate to each other, and all the ways we perceive the world as related to, on a very basic level, physical processes happening inside of our heads and inside of our bodies. To me that is so fascinating and so exciting, so interesting, that I never saw a reason to add an additional layer of kind of superstitious…

"Woman on the Edge of Time", illustration inspired by the classic sci-fi novel

Anne: …magic!

Casimir: Yeah! So many stories about love and experience are always asking the question, “What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of our existence?” and I don’t really find those to be interesting questions, because I think fundamentally they’re unanswerable. Art that strives to answer those questions I think is kind of missing the point, or is maybe…it’s distracting from the reality of human experience.

Now, sometimes that can make people feel better, or can be kind of exciting, to play with that, sort of go off on that, the ways human imagination is supposed to make us happy, but I don’t know—to me, I just see something fundamentally empty or missing about paying so much attention to something that really isn’t there, or can’t be proven to be there, or can’t in any demonstrable way be shown to be there, and at the same time putting so little value on what actually is there—the physical, atomic, biological material that we’re all made of.

Eye illustration for an ongoing project on human anatomy

I think it’s really important because art is so communicative—graphic design especially is about communication—and my opinion is that media is the collective voice of human culture, and the things that we say should have truth behind them. That’s my approach as an artist to everything that I do. That’s always in the back of my head as the most important thing to get across.

Anne: Does that come across in your professional work as well as in your personal work?

Casimir: It does. The easiest and most immediate way I can say it comes into my work is that I think it’s very important to spend a lot of time thinking about a project when you’re making it. I don’t really subscribe to the philosophy or the idea that art is sort of a thoughtless expression, that you’re supposed to just walk up to a canvas without thinking about it and— entirely based on feeling—just do something, and whatever comes out of that is the most pure expression that you can get out of yourself. I don’t deny that something really interesting could come out of it. Ninety-nine times that you walk up to a piano and just bang on keys it’s going to sound like noise, it’s going to sound like gibberish, but maybe that one percent of the time something actually really exciting comes out of it.

Anne: The monkeys banging on typewriters.

Casimir: Yeah, and eventually one of them will write Shakespeare, but I don’t need a hundred monkeys to write Shakespeare when we already have one Shakespeare who actually sat down and worked really hard to create something. I think all really great art is the product of really great thought.

For the past two years, Casimir has directed the design for The Exploratorium Lab's annual fundraiser, "Science of Cocktails."

Anne: Have you ever experienced any conflict or pushback with other people because of your approach?

Casimir: Oh yeah, all the time, because I think a lot of artists don’t… I don’t know, I really don’t want to make judgments about what other people are doing when they’re creating art, but I see so much thoughtless art, and to me it’s very frustrating when you ask an artist what they were trying to do, and they don’t have an answer. They don’t care, or they just say, “Well, I really wanted to leave it up to the interpretation of the audience.” Obviously, any artist wants their audience to interpret it and get something out of it, but I think, as an artist, you have to be deliberate in what you’re trying to say. Even if it’s just on a level of “I wanna draw a pictures of flowers because I really like looking at flowers because flowers are pretty to me so I want to reproduce that” …to me that’s not trivial, that’s a perfectly valid reason.

Anne: Because you’re still communicating something specific.

Casimir: Exactly. You’re communicating your like for something to other people in the hopes that they will like it too. That’s still a very deliberate intent behind something. I think the art world, for a lot of reasons…artists tend to retreat from that idea of explaining their work, or they think analyzing something takes away from the “soul” of a work of art; you’re not supposed to analyze it, you’re just supposed to look at it and appreciate it.

Anne: “Experience” it.

Casimir: Yeah, just experience it. Why can’t we do both? I have seen works of art that on a very visceral, emotional level are really, they just bowl me over, and they’re incredible. But I don’t feel that it somehow diminishes that effect to step back and have a conversation about it, usually while going through several bottles of wine, and just getting really deeply involved, and it could all just be total mental BS, it could be really far off from what the artist ever intended, but the point is you’re applying reason to it, you are looking at what art presents, and all of the imagery and symbols and icons that art puts across, and you’re doing association, you have all of these disparate little dots and you’re making a pattern out of them. It’s like looking at stars, in a way.

Two of the many original film posters Casimir has designed and printed

Now, granted, a lot of what I’m doing as a designer is not anything so lofty—which is fine. I understand that in some cases you really have a blank slate to just go crazy, and then in other cases you have a very specific job to do and something to represent, but the point is that you have a reasonable approach to either method.

Anne: Speaking of specific things to represent… You and I have been involved in a couple projects together. The one I want to focus on today is the San Francisco Atheist Film Festival. One of the things that you’ve done in addition to working on a whole campaign for the festival is to redesign the main logo for the festival. When you approach something like that, and in this specific case, what were your original ideas, what was your inspiration and your thought process when you were first thinking about what you might want to do for the logo?

Casimir: The approach I took with this logo was, first of all, looking at the word “atheist” more than the words “film festival” as being the important thing to get across. That’s a very loaded word, as we’re all aware. It’s something I personally, when I get into a conversation of “What do you believe?” I tend to…I know there’s no reason rationally to, but I still feel this hesitation to admit to people that I am an atheist, just because I have such a negative association with the word. It took me a long time even to admit to myself that I was an atheist, even though it’s clear that’s what I was, because there’s so much misconception around what it is, what it means, what it says about a person that they’re an atheist.

I now realize there’s nothing wrong with it and that it’s actually kind of honorable to admit that you’re an atheist. It implies a completely different kind of approach to seeing the world and the assumptions you make about existence.

More than anything else, I wanted to get across the idea that atheists are happy, good people. It’s not nihilism. It’s not a philosophy that completely detaches you from human emotion or experiences. So, the first image that came to mind for the Atheist Film Festival was a smiling human being. I played with versions; I had one originally that was more like the classic “Have a nice day!” happy face, more front on, and then combining that with some sort of symbol that represented film. A projector was the most obvious to me at that point. I kind of mashed up the two faces front on, and it ended up looking like the Terminator, which was a little scary to me.


Casimir: Yeah! I didn’t really want to put across the idea that atheists are cyborgs on the inside and get the complete opposite reaction I was going for. So, I then played with the idea of turning that on its side and incorporating the idea of a projector with a light inside. When I thought about what a projector was, and I thought about what a human being was, they both kind of have their source, their brightness, in the same spot, which is kind of up and in the middle. I overlaid a classic 8mm film projector and a human head, where the light bulb would be in the same spot as the center of the brain. It was such a good dynamic to show the light bulb, which is also the classic image of an idea going off in a person’s head. It was there inside of the head, and it was there inside of the film projector, and if you combine the two elements in the profile of the head and the film projector and turn the light on inside, it radiated out.

With the projector, the image of the film would come out. With a human being, when they get a really powerful idea in their head, which could potentially change minds and change the world, it stems from the face of the human being, more than anything else. It’s the words that they…it’s the way that they say it, the emotion that they present when they say it… I just thought the two symbols went hand in hand.

And then it was really important to me to make them smiling. I could have left the smile off and just had a neutral mouth. I played around with that and it looked a little too much like the PBS logo. Don’t get me wrong, I love PBS, but I thought, “Let’s assign an actual emotion to this. Let’s not just do a neutral figure. Let’s say, ‘You know what? Atheists are awesome, happy people, who love other people, love being around other people; they have this very great view of community and are trying to find things that make both their lives and the lives of other people better.’”

Anne: We have to think about that a lot with the festival, in our programming decisions. It would be easy to show just a lot of documentaries that show the negative sides of religion, but there’s so much more to the atheist experience than that. Showing the negative side of religion might be the easiest way to get people in, because even religious people can agree with a lot of the negatives of certain sects. We showed a documentary last year about a cult. Everyone knows that that’s dangerous, on some level at least. But there’s more to it than that.

Casimir: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s interesting, because I think people who are believers or theists agree with most of the good aspects of what atheist are advocating, but they have different reasons for why they think those things are important.

Anne: I thought that your reasons for promoting the design that you had were really compelling and were interesting from an intellectual standpoint, and I wanted to hear a little more about it.

Casimir: Like I said, because—and maybe sometimes it’s almost a hindrance—I tend to think so much about something before I actually sit down and start doing it, you kind of get caught in this really analytical stage as opposed to just putting some ideas out there. There were a number of ways I played with the construction of the logo, reformed sketching, reformed human figure, whatever; but what I usually tend to come back to is very precise geometry. I arrived on the golden rectangle because I think it’s just such a beautiful shape, it works in a lot of contexts, and it has this classic Enlightenment, rationality sort of quality to it.

Anne: What is the golden rectangle?

Casimir: The golden rectangle, for anyone who is not familiar, is the proportion…the ratio itself is 1.618. It’s a proportion that is found over and over and over again in nature; the classic example is the spiral pattern in a sunflower or a nautilus. So much classic art is based on sections of the golden rectangle, and really great design throughout the ages and particularly in the 20th century is based on the golden rectangle, because it’s a proportion that, without being able to really precisely explain it…this kind of goes against what I was saying earlier…it’s a proportion that to most people has been demonstrated to just feel right. It feels harmonious. There’s something about it that is very serene, and it never feels too big in one direction or too small in another direction.

When you incorporate that into a design, it tends to be a very valuable framework for positioning things or determining the overall shape of things. I’m not going to mess with perfection, so I drew out a golden rectangle and sectioned it in a few ways and looked at how I could construct a profile of a human figure within that, and then expanded it to include a perfect circle going around the head, which is what determines the length of the rays coming out of the front of the face. None of this stuff is really obvious when you look at the logo—it’s kind of like a scaffold, and you take it all away at the end, but you can still sense that it’s there, you can detect that it’s there, and that’s why hopefully it feels right, feels like it’s been put together the correct way when you look at it.

Construction of the Atheist Film Festival icon

Anne: This was really interesting. Is there anything else you want to share with the Mad Art Lab readers?

Casimir: Just that I love what you do, I love the whole concept of combining skepticism and art because I think it’s really important. I don’t see any reason why the two should be separated. Like I said earlier, I think art and media is the collective voice of human culture, and any chance we can get to examine the ideas that come across in art and say, “Hey, that’s a good idea” or “Hey, that’s not true…” It’s no more invalid to pick apart and question art, and analyze what we say with our art, than it is with our politics or any other social entity that governs the way that we live. It’s all up for debate, it’s all up for analysis. As long as we have the ability to do that, I think we should continue to do that.

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Big thanks to Casimir for the excellent and enlightening conversation!

Anne S

Anne Sauer is an atheist with an appetite for science, good food, and making connections between the two. She is currently pursuing her MBA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her favorite foods are salted caramel ice cream and chicken tikka masala. You can find her on twitter @aynsavoy.

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