Atari: When Design MADE an Industry

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One of the biggest surprises under the Christmas tree this year design-wise wasn’t an intricate laser-cut holiday card nor a foil-stamped print, but a book that probably sailed right under the 8-bit radars of a whole lot of designers: “The Art of Atari” by Tim Lapetino. Even if a glimpse of ye olde Atari 2600 video game console from the late ’70s doesn’t make you come over all nostalgic, a flip through the pages of this gorgeous tome is a fun and fascinating demonstration of a company that truly “sold the sizzle, not the steak.” Perhaps the most dramatic way it does this is by contrasting the box art for each game – lovingly blown up to a size sufficient to show all of the details we missed on those game cartridges and boxes the first time around – with sample screens from the games themselves. Take “Missile Command,” illustrated  by George Opperman and Chris Kenyon. (The actual game screen appears in the upper right corner of the left-hand page below.)

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While kids in the ’70s and early ’80s loved playing games like “Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders” on their television sets at home, it’s difficult to think of them getting quite so worked up about it all if the box art had literally shown the blocky art they’d actually get on-screen.

“The Art of Atari” also does quite a bit of legwork to finally bring recognition to all the artists who toiled away in obscurity to sell these games with all of this beautiful art, including individual artist profiles.

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The book also does an excellent job of showing us just how other design elements – from Atari’s trademark typography to the ads it ran – sold a generation of children on the idea of gaming more than on gaming itself. At a time when video graphics had barely progressed beyond the “Pong” stage visually, artists, art directors and designers somehow made it all seem much more exciting than it probably would’ve been otherwise.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we want to squeeze in 10 more minutes of Pac-Man before mom, er, the boss tells us to do our work.

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