Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, cover and book design by Emily McVarish and Johanna Drucker. Illustration: The Amusement of a Bill Sticker, 1820
For years, anyone who wanted to read a history of graphic design, written in English, had conspicuously few choices. It was either Philip Meggs’s trailblazing A History of Graphic Design (1983, now in its fourth, posthumous edition) or Richard Hollis’s more compact Graphic Design: A Concise History (1994). It took until 2006 for a heavyweight rival to Meggs to appear in English — French art historian Roxane Jubert’s Typography and Graphic Design: From Antiquity to the Present. Last year, a fourth, better distributed contender arrived, Stephen J. Eskilson’s Graphic Design: A New History. The book received some tough criticism in a previous dialogue on Design Observer.
Now, snapping at Eskilson’s heels comes yet another historical survey, Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide by Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish (Pearson Prentice Hall). Their critical history differs in some significant ways from its predecessors. “Graphic artifacts always serve a purpose and contain an agenda, no matter how neutral or natural they appear to be,” they explain. Designer and design educator Denise Gonzales Crisp (North Carolina) and Design Observer contributor Rick Poynor (London) have been marking pages, making notes and exchanging views.
Denise Gonzales Crisp:
On my first pass through Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, two details distinguished it from other histories. First are the “Tools of the Trade” listed at the end of each chapter, which are suggestive rather than exhaustive. The lists begin with one spanning 37,000 and 7,000 BCE — items such as knotted cords, mouth and spittle, animal fat and marrow lamps. The last chapter, “Digital Design: After the 1970s,” lists the Wacom tablet, wireless networks and the mouse. The evolution of graphic design technologies, and by extension artifacts, is palpably captured in this factual inventory. Most notable is how categories of things in the first list become actions over time: from sticks, bones and roots at the dawn of civilization, to the drawing, image manipulation, rendering, animation and layout software of our clickable present. Graphic design is presented, first, as a making discipline, shaped by production and reproduction limits and advances. Makers in this volume carry less weight.
Second, the book’s design runs statements smack in the middle of nearly every spread like Silent Radio headlines. Most are generalized, quantifiable facts: “Newspapers began to address the interests of the working class.” Many are provocative: “Utopianism was gone, along with unwavering faith in progress.” And some downright aggressive: “In a market driven by opportunism, novelty was worth the price.” “Working class,” “hegemony,” “codes,” “ideological” and “pedagogy” are but a few terms staged (in 16 pt. Gothic!) as if such notions were as natural to graphic design practice as Pantone Red.
These two narratives threaded throughout A Critical Guide characterize the authorial springboard. Corroborated by the introductory treatise emblazoned on the opening pages — including a ten-point manifesto stating “critical principles” — the authors put forward design as a “cultural phenomenon … embedded in institutions … shaped by cultural and historical forces … that operates within a network of constraints.”
You know that moment when somebody articulates an idea that you hadn’t quite put together, but as you hear it you say “em, duh!” Well, that would be the point of this book. A seriously explicit and sharp point, as it turns out, but a vital one in the context of historical surveys on graphic design. Not that such insights haven’t been written. The bibliography cites works by Reyner Banham, Maud Lavin, Stuart Ewen and Victor Margolin, historians and critics who have contributed under similar critical terms. But who reads that stuff? Graduate design students, educators and design writers, mostly. A Critical Guide is clearly targeted at them and undergraduate students, but also to “the rest of us,” practitioners inclined to read design history.
Chapter openings summarize key ideas in a list of bullet points
It certainly seems to have been conceived as a textbook — both authors are teachers — and on the publisher’s website there is a blurb describing it as being, “For one-semester History of Graphic Design and History of Visual Communication courses.” Amazingly, the back cover, consisting of plugs from colleagues, gives no information at all. The publisher isn’t presenting the book in a way that suggests it foresees a wide, non-academic readership, and general booksellers aren’t going to get too excited by the strangely severe front cover.
I admire the book’s critical ambition, as set out in the list of principles. I also agree with Drucker and McVarish that we need more design writing informed by an understanding of critical theory — Drucker, an art historian and book artist, is steeped in it. But what would a raw 19-year-old design student, attending that one-semester course, make of a sentence like this from the preface? “The capabilities of production always constitute affordances, within which design practices can be received as well as realized.” You need some knowledge of perceptual psychology or interaction design even to begin to grasp the use of “affordance” there. At moments like this, the authors seem to lose sight of their intended, and most likely, reader. If they are so concerned to unmask the “exclusionary tactics” of design rhetoric, as they tell us a page later, why snaggle their prose with rhetorical obstructions of their own?
It’s curious because in other ways the book is acutely aware of the inexperienced reader’s needs. Words marked in bold in the text can be looked up in an excellent 23-page glossary that covers everything from algorithm to x-height. As writing, though, despite the political urgency of its underlying leftist agenda — fight the power! — the text is flatter, more buttoned-up, and technical sounding at times than it needs to be. The authors clearly love the subject, so where’s the verbal zest? Graphic Design as Communication by Malcolm Barnard, a book that’s had less attention than it deserves, though it’s aimed at the same student reader, explores similar theoretical territory in relation to design (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault) more explicitly and with greater argumentative vigor.
Denise Gonzales Crisp:
The writing is dense, no question. You bring to mind an issue that bedevils a number of graphic design educators, at least in the U.S.: how to integrate design theories and scholarship — by definition demanding — that instill critical rigor in ways accessible and meaningful (aka applicable) to budding practitioners? Scholarship in graphic design is a fairly recent player compared to other design disciplines, and frequently alien to undergraduate curricula. I can’t help but wonder if the book is jam-packed in order to address (with immediacy) some conspicuous oversights.
I do read joy in the surprising illustration choices throughout. This is no parade of aloof “greatest hits.” Artifacts range from a sobering 19th-century slave auction announcement to an elaborate trade “kalendar” promoting Norris & Cokayne, proprietors of fine printing. Original drawings and notes for Edward Johnston’s 1915 London Underground typeface and William Morris’ 1892 Troy demonstrate craft as well as ideals. I also appreciate the many humanizing glimpses into graphic design’s unsung legacies, for instance the comical 1485 “My Heart Doth Smart” in which a lovesick Casper of Regensburg depicts hearts being “sawn, hooked, roasted, pierced, stuck in a vice, and wounded in various ways.” Who knew early Renaissance men had a sense of humor? The chapter “Public Interest Campaigns and Information Design” features WWII posters designed to educate the U.S. public about army insignias and air raid procedures — refreshingly secular examples compared to the usual relics hawked in design histories.
From “Public Interest Campaigns and Information Design”
Meditations accompanying every image are sometimes wry and radical, other times a bit dogmatic in an attempt to “unpack” the work. For instance, the comment “corporate identity and anonymity combine to reinforce the breachless representation of power” concludes a discussion of the CBS “eye” logo designed in 1950. Many captions register disconnects between intention and reality that can read as object lessons for the politically correct: “Circumstances and limiting factors that could affect response (incapacitating illness, age … etc.) are not considered. The poster addresses all citizens as if they were alike.” Also: “… in real encounters, signs and shapes were often distorted by speed of movement or partial obscuring of sight lines.” (My emphasis.)
The startlingly fresh choice of illustrations is one of the book’s pleasures, as you say. The images in the early and middle sections are wonderfully researched and informative, though the authors’ formidable searchlight seems to waver as they approach the present, where they rely too much on published sources in their selection of images. The chapter on postmodernism offers nothing we haven’t seen before despite the huge wealth of international examples to choose from. American work dominates the later pages and this chauvinism is out of keeping with the book’s iconoclastic critical spirit. A caption accompanying the famous 1960s “pregnant man” ad for the Campaign for Family Planning forgets to say that it comes from Britain. Isn’t nationality a significant contextual factor? How can we fully understand a social information campaign without situating it within the social trends and political program of the nation state that produced it? This vagueness of location is a recurrent problem in the captions that could have been avoided by putting the country of origin next to the date.
The main text carries general analysis, while the discussion of examples is pushed out into the captions, which run in parallel. True, the caption commentary — a kind of slide show — is packed with some exceptional insights, but this treatment of the material makes for a fragmented reading experience. A Critical Guide is constantly tugging at your sleeve and saying, “Come over here.” Many of the more densely illustrated pages read as a patchwork, with as much to absorb in the captions as there is in the text. Often the captions have no direct connection with the sentence that contains the figure number, creating an expectation that a point will be developed by the visual example, which isn’t then fulfilled.
From “Early Writing: Mark-making, Notation Systems, and Scripts”
From “Mass Mediation”
For all the criticisms of Eskilson’s Graphic Design: A New History, it’s rather more readerly in this respect, and so is Hollis’s Graphic Design: A Concise History. Their integrated texts allow you to immerse yourself and concentrate. Although Drucker and McVarish hope their book will be used for systematic study, it’s a volume that both student and non-student readers are more likely to dip into and skim because that’s what its editorial structure and layout encourage.
Denise Gonzales Crisp:
I see your point, and agree that for some readers the multiple entry approach might be problematic. But speaking for multi-tasking-hyper-texters such as myself, I appreciate the format and delivery. Aspects you find distracting I welcome as exuberant exhortation, which is not necessarily an impediment to reflection.
What do you think about their determination to play down the role of individuals? They avoid quoting designers, denying their voices and discounting their experiences and intentions. With a handful of exceptions (Ruari McLean’s study of Tschichold is the most recent), the titles in their otherwise thorough bibliography tend to be general studies and surveys. Did they really not consult any other monographs during their research? Few would argue at this point for a view of design confined to the uncritical celebration of “great names,” but is there a danger of a different kind of distortion? The ex cathedra assertions in this kind of analytical writing are also a form of authority. “Fabricating an intangible aura of desirability, far beyond any real necessity, graphic designers produced perpetual longing for an imagined life,” they write in a chapter about the culture of consumption in the 1920s and 1930s. I believe, as they do, that this is just as true today, but I still want to see it demonstrated with close attention to the activities of actual designers — and for that matter, their clients.
Denise Gonzales Crisp:
Ah. Clients. Now there’s a group whose perspectives we could use, if for no other reason than to name producers as design collaborators. In any case, evidence-based texts are a priori “distortions” of one sort or the other. Creators (and clients) would be the first to cite their intentions as meaningful evidence in support of their respective enterprises, which critics then interpret to fuel conclusions often divorced from what either might have intended.
At first, I did miss the impassioned words of Gill and Goudy and Golden. I am a designer, after all, and love hearing ancestors wax theoretical, nostalgic, profound, what have you. Not long ago I sat at lunch with the printer and fine book publisher Jack Stauffacher. He had in tow a stunning photogravure book printed in the 1960s and his face seemed to glow as he described those now lost days of which he was major proponent. Enchanting, truly. Still, his insights revealed little of critical import about the work or its context.
From “Innovation and Persuasion”
Seminal philosophies and motivations are implicit throughout A Critical Guide. For instance, Bayer, Moholy-Nagy and Gropius are present in the Bauhaus discussion. But the objects of study are artifacts and their surrounds, not designers. In an uncharacteristic moment of reverie, the authors profess their fascination with the work: “What drove this book more than anything was our genuine enthusiasm for the material. At every stage of research and writing, review and exchange, layout and production, we found ourselves deeply involved with the images in front of us. … we were always discovering materials so compelling that we would say, ‘This stuff is the most interesting of all.’”
The very premise of the book seems to preclude designer voices as germane. The authors strive for the meta-view, routinely citing examples as “typical” of approach or attitude, rather than attributing uncommon artistry to any given individual. I may want and need to believe in genius (sadly, I do), but the writers trump my desire with dogged focus on their proposal: that artifacts reflect the culture and moment they help produce; that they shape cultural expectations and hide assumptions. One thing you have to say about Drucker and McVarish: they are resolute! In this context, designer stories are best left to respective essays, monographs and biographies — a few of which the bibliography names.
But arguments have to be made from evidence and the quality of an argument will depend in large part on the quality of that evidence. I’m not calling for a parade of “geniuses.” I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of design will come from paying some attention — some — to what designers say they are trying to do and why. We might then conclude, weighing their testimonies against other kinds of evidence and other forms of analysis, that designers don’t fully understand, and can’t finally account for, their own work. But these testimonies will still contribute to our understanding.
The other point of some judicious quoting is that it gives readers a chance to gauge for themselves the content, tenor and strength of a designer’s views, rather than having the authors imply, from a position of assumed authority, that these views can simply be set aside. For a reader new to the Futurist Marinetti, what gives the most effective (or least distorted) sense of what Marinetti was about? A well-chosen sample of his actual words? Or someone else’s summary of what he was about, filtered through her own concerns?
Eskilson’s history received a hard time on Design Observer for its lack of footnotes. While this is not necessarily a problem — Gombrich’s hugely readable The Story of Art has gone through dozens of reprints without them — in a book that sets store by its critical method, the lack of footnotes raises some questions. The more the authors seek to embed the history of graphic design in other kinds of history — political, economic, business, retail, and so on — the more we need to know where their understanding of these areas comes from. For instance, in the chapter on the graphic effects of industrial production, they write that, “The popular press is often seen as an instrument of social control through which the masses consume ideas and values that may run counter to their own interests.” Often seen by whom? A well-established tradition of leftist media criticism from cultural studies and media studies lies behind that claim, but readers just have to take these ideologically loaded accounts of history on trust, with no signposts to relevant further reading.
Not far into a chapter on corporate identities and the International Style, we learn that, “The unified image afforded by a distinctive logo and corporate identity system might well conceal a host of inequities or abuses, even as it functioned with clear, rational effectiveness in strategic communications.” Yes, it might, and this is certainly not the kind of observation that previous histories of graphic design have been inclined to make. So have there been historical or critical studies showing this to be the case with corporations in the 1950s and 1960s? They don’t say. The paragraph goes on to mention the CIBA pharmaceutical company and Chase Manhattan bank, as if to substantiate the argument. Certainly, these organizations were geographically dispersed and structurally complex, but the authors provide no evidence of inequity or abuse.
From “Corporate Identities and International Style”
Nevertheless, they repeat their earlier point: “Good visual communication could gloss over irregularities in business activity or accounting practices by constructing an image of smooth operations in a climate of uncertainty. The graphic designer’s art sometimes raised ethical questions of accountability (Fig. 12.4).” The figure number takes us to the caption for Chermayeff & Geismar’s Chase Manhattan corporate identity (1960) and its placement within the sentence seems to imply that the designers’ work on the identity raises ethical questions. This is not developed in the caption and, once again, the assertion — a point fundamental to the authors’ critical view — goes unsupported.
Denise Gonzales Crisp:
The book declares more than it debates, from the opening terms of engagement to the droll timelines concluding each chapter, where design-related milestones are listed amid other “selective and suggestive” cultural and political markers.
I also take the title at face value: a guide to help navigate any number of other sources. A single paragraph under “Graphic persuasion and its effects,” for example, invokes several themes that surfaced between the wars. “The field of propaganda studies was born;” the Frankfurt School examined “how values could so permeate a culture as to make their manipulation almost invisible;” Edward Bernays (Freud’s nephew) founded the public relations field in the U.S.; sociologists Lippmann and Lazarsfeld studied and theorized “the mechanisms by which print media encoded and delivered messages.” Obviously these areas would need the support of more extensive illustrations and deeper discussion in, say, a history of advertising.
The authors don’t explain if the book is meant to function as worthy counsel or earnest competitor to fatter, hardbound volumes on graphic design history such as Eskilson’s. I expect the former is more likely. Assuming the book is a map of sorts, with a fixed perspective, then providing means for zooming in closer is in order. The recommended texts listed for each chapter promise ample detail for the motivated reader, but they don’t always lead one to qualifying sources. The study and analyses of writers and practitioners in the text cited above — background I should think critical to fully grasping the forces at work — are not included.
Meanwhile, I find plenty of insights across chapters that make new sense of existing, perhaps more comfortable, assumptions. The last, “Digital Design,” mirrors an earlier chapter entitled “Renaissance Design.” This parallel brings to light two periods that on the surface appear to have little in common. However, each brought tremendous technological shifts, and with them far-reaching consequences. The authors point out how the means of production and distribution dramatically altered societal inclusion — moved toward more democratic authorship and readership — and fundamentally changed creator/designer tasks and knowledge. Similar connections pervade the book (see also recurring discussions of information design and photography) and they show how contemporary designers participate in, and are products of, their moment. This is both liberating, as self-knowledge should be, and incriminating.
From “Pop and Protest”
Many examples and discussions implicate design’s role in representing optimism (read: complicity) for commercial gain or “hegemonic” reinforcement. Chapters such as “Mass Mediation” and “The Culture of Consumption” tapped into my inner graphic guilt. “Modern Typography and the Creation of the Public Sphere” and “Pop and Protest,” on the other hand, give more affirming outcomes their due. The authors abundantly argue that graphic communication reflects and generates societal values. In fact, I now whisper a daily devotion over my morning coffee: “graphic design is a vital social vehicle.” If we value a certain kind of awareness, A Critical Guide just might be our sermon.
In the June issue of Print, Drucker accepts the delicate assignment of reviewing Eskilson’s rival volume. She acknowledges the difficulty faced by any design history author of writing for “the many constituencies of practitioners, teachers, students, and academic audiences, each with their own needs and agendas.” The problems highlighted in our discussion underline that challenge. Given Drucker’s view, reiterated in Print, that “a history of graphic design provides insight into the way we understand practice today,” the book’s heavy emphasis on the subject’s distant “pre-history” might be counterproductive. The section titled “Prehistoric Prelude to Graphic Design: 35,000-2700 BCE” is such a stretch it sounds like a spoof.
From “Postmodernism in Design”
A less American, more generously international perspective on recent decades would also have served their critical cause better. It’s very noticeable that while many well-known U.S. designers (Muriel Cooper, April Greiman, Tibor Kalman, P. Scott Makela, Paula Scher, Art Chantry, Charles S. Anderson, Elliott Earls) receive at least a namecheck, the treatment of non-American designers of equal or greater stature is much patchier.
In a book that can find space to tell us, in a timeline, that protozoan life forms began 2 billion years ago, or that the Black Sox baseball scandal took place in 1921, some might wonder what happened to Henryk Tomaszewski (and the entire school of Polish poster designers), Max Huber, Karl Gerstner, Robert Massin, Ikko Tanaka, Gunter Rambow, or Wim Crouwel, to name only a few notable omissions. The national favoritism in the later chapters suggests that the authors are keeping a close eye on the expectations of the book’s primary market, the U.S. — it’s more worrying to think they just didn’t notice their own bias — and it somewhat undercuts their avowed emphasis on artifacts rather than designers, at least for this European reader. Meggs and Hollis, despite his briefer text, are more inclusive in this regard, and so is Jubert’s Typography and Graphic Design.
Denise Gonzales Crisp:
Don’t forget: the year 410, Rome sacked by Visigoths; 1836, Samuel Colt invents the revolver; 1965, Malcolm X assassinated; 1988, Prozac marketed. These odd complements to design milestones put what I often say is “only graphic design” into perspective. Positioning our game in line with major and minor world events also demonstrates the fact that design bears import and kookiness equal to all human endeavors. I await future editions with entries like “AIDS cure discovered” and “Nanodesign degree track introduced at MIT.”
The opening “prelude” you refer to is worth quoting here because its thesis underwrites other rationales driving the book, and inscribes a poetic connection. “Deliberate mark-making, the preparation of materials and surfaces, the use of conventional signs, the cultural primacy of communication, and the expression of ideas in form, are the legacy of prehistoric graphic work to the present-day designer.” To the extent that inert stone and bone markings so removed from contemporary experience can have significance, this viewpoint pumps life into these, and ultimately all the dead marks that follow. Design students and non-historians frequently see ancient artifacts as inconsequential (or as awesome visual material for CD covers). As far-fetched as it may sound, the imaginative leap that “graphic” and “design” impulses and inventions span millennia adds a bit of healthy color to graphic design activity of every sort.
I can see you like these aspects of the book more than I do. For me, the immense sweep of time this study attempts to encompass and condense sometimes blurs its critical focus and necessary detail goes missing. The deep background is interesting, but not essential to the intended exposure of design’s hidden agendas. If they had opened, after some nimble scene-setting, with the chapter on mass mediation from 1850 to the 1900s — the period when, as they say, “commercial artists began to develop a recognizable professional identity” — there would have been more room for their critical investigation of the modern design likely to concern most readers, and of the economic, sociological and technological forces that shaped it. Having said that, despite some almost inevitable flaws, given the huge scope of the task, this smart, challenging, and in so many ways painstakingly researched guide is an important new addition to the design library. The book breaks new ground and raises the stakes. Future histories of visual communication will be obliged to pay it close attention.
Denise Gonzales Crisp is Associate Professor of graphic design at North Carolina State University, and principal of the occasional design studio SuperStove! Gonzales Crisp’s design and writing have appeared in many international magazines, exhibitions and anthologies, including All Access: The Making of Thirty Extraordinary Graphic Designers (2006), Design Research: Methods and Perspectives (2003) and Design Dictionary (2008).
Rick Poynor is a contributing writer for Design Observer, and a Research Fellow at the Royal College of Art, London. He is the author of Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture (2006) and No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism (2003).