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Stop by your nearest Best Buy or Costco store these days and you
will encounter seeming acres of giant television screens—digital
and high-def flat screens. To show all their glory, these monitors
typically beam images of tropical paradise. (God apparently made
the Caribbean in high-def, then got bored and went back to gritty,
low-res analog when He got to New Jersey.) But every now and then
the cable or DVD signal is disconnected and they all display their
test patterns: bright, bold, geometric assemblages, blocks of color
jammed together like 1960s Color Field paintings, vast yardages of
From left: “Indian head test pattern” used by RCA in 1939 and a
1941 NBC test (from high-techproductions.com).
TV test patterns have a whole history. Today's test patterns are simpler, more
abstract successors to those of the early days of television, which
combined Indian headdress designs with alignment marks, crosshairs
As televisions have improved, the features of test patterns
regulating alignment have grown less important. Test patterns
increasingly emphasize color and have become more abstract. They
look like color patches placed beside paintings by
This color-bar set is the most commonly used today.
These big test patterns got me thinking a while ago of small
test patterns. The blocky, brightly colored images on the screens
recall the print alignment patterns and other graphic test devices
on packages. Neat blocks of color, like miniature Klee paintings or
watercolor sets, they also evoked for me childhood days of stamp
collecting. Some collectors focus on plate blocks, four or six
stamps still attached and linked to the numbers of printing plates,
color samples and alignment patterns.
A real designer would probably know too much about these
patterns to notice them—they are just the trivialities of doing
business—but they have come to fascinate me, ignorant of how such
machinery works. I do know the patterns are something like the
umbilicus of the process—the low sixty-cycle hum of the basic “on”
I'm struck by how crude the printing systems they represent
remain. They seem to hold some operating secrets. They are the
belly buttons of packages, the connection to machinery and assembly
line and thereby to the system that wraps and ships things—and that
designs them to be wrapped and shipped. Computers and cars have
labels indicating their serial numbers and usually date and place
of manufacture; packages bear the marks of their making, too.
Some packaging samples from the author's collection.
So I began to tear and save bits of packaging bearing the
patterns, pinning them to my bulletin board, intercepting bags and
boxes en route to the garbage, trapping them under magnets on the
side of the refrigerator, with their jagged gray pasteboard edges
contending with old banana stickers, expired coupons and
inspirational or humorous lines torn from newspapers.
Scraps of transparent cellophane display squares of magenta and
cyan. I have orange bits of Wheaties boxes, brown shards of
chocolate boxes. Arrayed together, with gray serrations where they
were torn in haste, these bits suggest maps of exotic cities or
diagrams of mysterious electronics.
For a curious consumer and critic the patterns can become oddly
fascinating. The bottom of an orange juice carton reveals a set of
shaded boxes. One set of patterns from a cereal box (at least I
think that's where it came from) suggests the blades of chisel,
with angled or facet sides across which are deployed the gradations
of color tones.
Such patterns suggest a musician tuning his instrument, a band
warming up, scatting through its tones and chords.
A black-and-white test pattern from 1956.
I was surprised to discover that the test patterns, too, have
color themes. Notes of cyan and magenta dominate them, as they are
the kingpins of the world of printing and ink, not the dominant
ones of the solar spectrum.
The rainbow is nature's own test pattern, to which so many
hippie prints pay homage. Same for those clichéd, tropically bright
Mexican rugs, the sort favored by hot rodders who use them to cover
their worn-out upholstery. Scientists use the rainbow to analyze
the world, to detect materials: the spectroscope is the key for the
interstellar observer or the forensic pathologist. Spectra are the
signatures of the natural world, and rainbows and prisms are God's
own test patterns, as if proof that, like the scale of a map, the
standard of the world is present in a raindrop—or a teardrop.
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