This Is Not Only a Test

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 Ellsworth Kelly.

From left: “Indian head test pattern” used by RCA in 1939 and a 1941 NBC test (from

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 and hatchings.

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 photographers.

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” state.

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.