New guide reveals David Byrne’s foray into illustration (and dingbats)

Earlier this month, former Talking Heads front man and pioneer of oversized workwear David Byrne celebrated his 70th birthday, so it seems like an apt time for him to publish a book that sounds pretty ambitious in scope: ‘A History of the World’.

However, like most things Byrne, there’s a twist: this is A History of the World (in Dingbats). The book’s presentation feels as lofty as its title: designed and edited by Alex Kalman, the bright red cloth jacket and gold embossing on the cover lends it a sense of gravitas and tradition, as though it’s been gracing shelves for years.

A History of the World (in Dingbats) by David Byrne

Does it present a history of the world? In a way, yes — but in the way we generally think of ‘histories’, not really. Does that matter? Of course not. A History of the World (in Dingbats) presents Byrne’s gorgeously naïve-looking drawings, many offering succinct visual puns that muse on everything from that perennially modish term, ‘immersive’ (the image for this shows a tiny man dwarfed by massive headphones — a gentle jibe at the frequently infuriating ubiquity of the word, perhaps) to unplayable music (illustrated by a knot of horns and violins) to cheeses and the modern condition, in an image of box-like tower blocks connected by depressing tubes, and surrounded by ants à la Dalí.

These illustrations are punctuated by snippets of Byrne’s verse, which often feels very Talking Heads-ish in both theme and phrasing: one page opens “We live in a city in our heads, the buildings that surround us, along with our clothes and our hairstyles, we invented these things”. For nerdier-leaning readers this will no doubt leave a mashup of City of Dreams and Don’t Worry About the Government whirring round your head — possibly with the line about changing hairstyles “so many times now” from Life During Wartime thrown in for good measure.

A History of the World (in Dingbats) by David Byrne

The images themselves are simply rendered as black line drawings, and are sweet, surreal and often very funny — they bring to mind David Lynch’s simple line-based pieces, and David Shrigley’s brilliantly strange visual one-liners.

The addition of ‘dingbats’ in the title is likely to intrigue type-nuts and graphic designers. But in the book’s introduction Byrne leads with the word’s connotations of “a stupid person”, before explaining its definition as “a meaningless typographical element – nonsense symbols used by typesetters long ago both to give layout instructions to a printer (a person, not a machine) and to create visual breathing space in a type layout”.

As Byrne points out, these evolved into a class of fonts that came to include entire alphabets made from illustrations of everything from household objects to Hello Kitty. David Carson famously subverted their historical use in an infamous layout design for a Brian Ferry interview in Ray Gun, typesetting the entire piece in dingbats.  

A History of the World (in Dingbats) by David Byrne

A History of the World (in Dingbats) by David Byrne

The illustrations were originally commissioned as a library of drawings for online magazine Reasons To Be Cheerful. But, Byrne says, “as soon as I began to draw I got carried away … they immediately assumed a life of their own”. They were all created during the Covid-19 pandemic, and “quite often that mood comes though”, he writes.

As such, they came to illustrate “fears and desires … shared by so many others who have gone through and survived this surreal, tragic, revelatory, and unsettling experience”. This is where the ‘history’ of the title comes from: Byrne came to see them as “a record, a history, of those changes” in people that the pandemic engendered. “My hope is that others will recognise themselves in some of these images,” he continues. “I assume that, like songs, they’re not just about me.”

A History of the World (in Dingbats) by David Byrne is published by Phaidon;