October 16, 2012  |  Design
A Paean to the Phases of the Moon

Irwin Glusker. 2013 Phases of the Moon Calendar. 2011

Since time immemorial the curious have gazed at the ever-changing shape, color, and size of the moon and wondered. The luminous, celestial orb has inspired songs, myths, poetry, and art for thousands of years, and, as we now know, is responsible for the life-enriching tides of the oceans. And while Earth’s moon has been explored and analyzed like no other, it remains both mysterious and lovely—the source of ceremony and celebration, closely entwined with our sense of place in nature.

Lunar observation also figures significantly into the history of math and philosophy. The pioneering Thales of Miletus planted an important seed when he became the first person to accurately predict a solar eclipse in Greece in the 6th century BC. Thales, who Aristotle referred to as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition, insisted on describing natural phenomena through observations and geometry as opposed to mythology. The eclipse provided an obvious and dramatic vindication of the power of reason over belief in the supernatural.

The phases of the moon work in 28-day cycles that are always repeating, with variation created by the moon’s orbit around the earth. This orbit results in differing angles of view for us of the ever-illuminated half of the moon’s surface. Standing on earth, the moon appears to cycle through a variety of shapes, the process of which is described in more detail here. All this variation occurs over periods of time that are not quite a month, so mapping these changes in a year-long calendar presents a unique challenge: how to align the pleasing visual rhythm of the moon’s changes with the familiar months and days for reference?

The most elegant answer comes from graphic designer Irwin Glusker in the form of a poster he created for the MoMA Design Store. In a clean, black-and-white grid, which conforms to the months as rows and the weekdays as columns, the precise phase of the moon on every day of the year is immediately discernable. Remarkably, the design requires no written explanation and allows us to enjoy the visual repetition of the cycles which occur irregularly across the months, with no two quite the same.

As the designer once said, the poster is particularly useful for photographers. In fact, wedding photographers regularly purchase the calendar because it helps them plan what equipment to pack on any given evening so that they may achieve the best moonlit photographs. Techniques vary, but it is often advised to schedule a shoot during the full moon or two days before or after in order to capture the best light. Of course the particular weather conditions, presence of ambient or artificial light, and the type of equipment used will also affect the results. Do you have advice or a story about using moonlight in your photos that you can share?