Invisible Cities – a designer’s review

April 14th, 2011 | Filed under: books

After reading the article “7 non-UX books you should read” on Johnny Holland Magazine, I decided to buy some. The first  I read was “Invisible Cities”, by Italo Calvino. According to Jeroen van Geel and Vicky Teinaki, the article’s authors:

Invisible Cities is a book that is experienced, rather than read. Not in an expansive, descriptive way – the novel is a mere 166 pages – rather, as if Mozart had been a writer. Taking place as a series of conversations between the explorer Marco Polo and emperor Kublai Kahn, the book has the feeling of the state of mind between dreams and reality – evocing deeper meanings without ever being too clever about it  (though apparently the structure of the novel is very clever indeed, employing such techniques as the Fibonacci sequence and sine waves). We’re never entirely sure if the cities that are talked about – the titular Invisible Cities, Cities and the Dead, Hidden Cities – are ones that Polo believes he has visited, or fables for the grumpy emperor. If I had to suggest a book that captured what magic was, it’d be this one.

If I wasn’t a designer, I would thought that it was a boring book. Why? Because I don’t like descriptive literature. I guess that’s my developer part of the brain talking louder… But I am a designer, and it was a great fun 🙂 Let me explain you why.

I made a simple exercise while reading the book. With every city narrated by Marco Polo I imagined an illustration being built in my head. Every paragraph added a new layer in my messed brain, every description made me change the mood colors. And in the end, a final composition had been made. Only for me. I guess that’s one of the pleasures of reading. You live your own experience.

While reading it I had an idea: why not actually  make those illustrations? I can’t do it. Although I love illustration, it’s not one of my priorities And if I now have to extend the days during the nights, better not think about it. But I would love see it. So please, if any illustrator sees this post and have some spare time, do it and let me know 🙂 The book itself has some great parts. You can actually smell the cities described by Marco Polo to the emperor. The visual references are immersive and beautiful… And it has this:

Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone after stone. – But what’s the stone that sustains the bridge? – Asks Kublai Kan. – The bridge is not sustained by this or that stone – answers Marco, – but for the arch’s line that they form. Kublain Kan remains silent, thinking. And he adds: – So why do you tell me about the stones? It’s only the arch that matters to me. Polo answers: – Without the stones there is no arch.

Call me a thinker, but I find it breathtaking…

4 Comments on “Invisible Cities – a designer’s review”

  1. 1 imhugo said at 09:32 on April 14th, 2011:

    I found an artist who painted the invisible cities:

    It’s not quite what I imagine… I imagine something more chaotic 🙂

  2. 2 HugoNS said at 13:42 on April 14th, 2011:

    Excellent article.
    Can I read it? Can you bring it to me?

  3. 3 imhugo said at 13:51 on April 14th, 2011:

    Yes I can 😉

  4. 4 imhugo said at 13:58 on April 14th, 2011:

    Btw, Tiago accepted the challenge 🙂

    He’s a hell of an artist. Check him out at