Graphic Design History

Graphic Design History

by Alex W. White

Ignorance of design history is rampant and studying it is a pain in the neck. You probably didn’t get much of it in college and if you did, it was probably easier and more fun to concentrate on your studio coursework. No one ever talks about design history or design contextualization on the job. It takes attention and brain cells to absorb and use design history. If you bumped into the beautifully written articles in Graphic Design History when they first ran in design magazines over the past decade, you may have skipped them. Graphic Design History gives you a second chance.

Why bother with design history? Steven Heller explains in his introduction.

“Knowing the roots of design is necessary to avoid reinvention, no less inadvertant plagiarism. …When history is recorded with verve and presented with passion, it enlightens and nourishes.”

A couple of samples – recorded with verve and presented with passion – are illustrative of history’s value: RenĂ©e Magritte turned to advertising to earn a living from time to time throughout his life. This sounds like half a dozen frustrated artists I know who art direct at pharmaceutical advertising agencies here in New York. The frustration they feel is borne of the dichotomy between their passion and the artlessness of their day jobs. Wouldn’t it be instructive to know how an iconic figure like Magritte handled the same situation? Turn to page 253 for the story. Another example: Milton Glaser says, “I don’t think that you can adjust your sensibilities beyond a certain point.You make some accommodations, but the people who are endlessly adaptable are hacks.” Who among us doesn’t feel a twinge of self-recognition and guilt at having overflexed for a client, or, God forbid, an account executive? Turn to page 207 to read about integrity and creativity.

Heller’s most recent book, Graphic Design History, is a collection of forty essays that first appeared in CA, Critique, Design Quarterly, Eye, Graphis, Print, and U&lc magazines. It is coedited with Georgette Ballance, a professor at Cooper Union and the University of Miami. Graphic Design History is not quite the same animal as we have become used to seeing: lots and lots of pictures of landmark design samples arranged chronologically with notes on their significance. Heller calls it “the first ‘reader’ of the ‘graphic design history movement.'” This book is nearly all copy, though there is a design sample on each essay’s opening spread. This is design history for understanding, not just for appreciating.

Among the authors included in its pages are well-known design thinkers like Philip B. Meggs, whose A History of Graphic Design is a signal work in the field of design history; Ellen Lupton; R. Roger Remington; Armin Hoffman; Rudolph Arnheim; and Steven Heller himself, well represented by six essays.

What makes this book particularly interesting and valuable, though, is the inclusion of so many entries by equally thoughtful, somewhat less well known authors like Alston Purvis, professor and author of Dutch Graphic Design, 1918-1945; Christopher Mount, MoMA curator; and Martha Scotford, professor and author of Cipe Pineles, a Life of Design. Each has written to his or her own area of expertise, so we are given definitive articles on worthwhile subjects.

The book is broken into five sections: Legacy Considered, a discussion of how history is researched, taught, and written; Between Covers, an exploration of magazine and book design; Designing Lives, eighteen biographies of seminal practitioners; Avant-Gardes, possibly the most interesting collection of articles; and Mass Communication, the impact of design on culture and vice versa.

Graphic Design History concludes with a Lou Danziger interview. Danziger, one of the first professors of graphic design history, began his specialized courses in 1972. He shares his current syllabus which includes various notes, his course outline, and an exhaustive list of subjects worthy of class discussion.

Graphic Design History makes excellent commute or bedside reading – essays average a few pages – and need not be read in order. You will surely know how we got where we are by the end of it.