Ian James Andersen

In the Penal Colony

The story of the worst form of torture, bureaucracy.

Series of magazine spreads for Franz Kafka's 1914 short story In the Penal Colony which emphasize the complex bueracracy of the torture process Kafka describes. I also wanted to convey the gritty reality of the scene Kafka describes; an offensively filthy and neglected penal colony contrast with the elaborate mechanisms of the torturous execution device the narrator describes.


The New Yorker (school project).


Three printed magazine spreads.

Magazine Spreads

I was very excited to work on this project because Kafka is one of my favorite writers. This story was interesting to work with because of the way it unfolds, it's both straightforward but also enigmatic.


I chose to focus on the confusion created by the mechanisms at work in the story. Kafka is excellent at creating confusing scenes, especially when beuracracy and systems of justice are involved. The great thing about the story is how many levels of incomprehensible automation there are, there's an execution machine which inscribes the rule a criminal has broken onto their body.


In order to recreate the confusion of the story visually I chose to focus on the internal aspects of the machine itself as a metaphor for a broken justice system. Kafka describes the machine falling apart with gears churning out of place and flying out of the wreck. I wanted to incorporate the gears into the images along with the type and overall page structure.


The larger typographic elements are all distressed to show the disrepear of the machine and the society which it is meant to support. On the opening spread I chose to build a monunemntal K as an homage to Kafka's frequent use of the letter for his characters' names. The drop cap on the second spread is a minature version of the first page. I chose a slab serif for the larger components because I wanted to show the solidity of the justice process in the way the officer in the story describes it, but this is undermined by the texture which show the process of justice eroding. The body copy is set in an old-style serif typeface, I decided that the body copy should feel traditional and focus on readability because of the length of the story and the period during which it was written.


I used the gears from the typography in the images as well to continue the metaphor, here they are combined with human figures to show both the corruption of the character's humanity by the justice process and the effects it has upon the condemned.


I chose to limit the color palette to primarily grayscale and a red orange; this limited palette is meant to reflect the simplicity of means in the colony. The red-orange was chosen because it adds a violent energy, and as a nod to the dada typographic two color posters which influenced the title treatment. The red orange was originally meant to be an over print but this was hurting readability.


Kafka's writing is some of my favorite, so I was very excited to work on this project. This story was interesting to work with because of the way it unfolds, it's straightforward yet also enigmatic.


I chose to focus on the confusion created by the mechanisms at work in the story. The narrative is driven by the many levels of incomprehensible automation of justice that persists in the Penal Colony. Justice is dealt out based on the idea that, if someone is accussed, they are guilty; a system that avoids the complexities of a trial. The condemend man in the story was guilty of not saluting in the middle of the night to the officer he was in charge of gaurding. The next step in the justice process is to have the prisoner strapped into an elaborate machine which inscribes the law into the criminal's body slowly over the course of twelve hours ultimately killing them. The patterns the machine uses are incredibly complex and impossible to understand, but through the course of the inscription the condemend finally comes to understand the law with their entire body.

Gears of Justice

The use of gears in the illustrations is both literal and metaphorical the same way they are used in the narrative. The machine is an early 20th century mechanical nightmare full of complex inner workings which ultimately eliminate humanity, again both literally and figuretively. The gears cover the faces of both the executioner and the condmened; the penal colony's laws have become so automatic that the individuals involved no longer matter.