Spin, spread from 50 Reading Lists, 2006
Lists appeal to the fetishistic instincts found in many graphic designers. Hardly surprising since the typographic rendering of a list is one of the first skills the young designer learns: or certainly amongst the first obstacles that cause the tyro designer to think that perhaps typography isn't the cinch it first appeared to be. Anyone who can make a list look good - and make it look intelligible - won't ever go hungry from lack of work. Designing tabular information is a fundamental of typographic skill. A graphic design staple.
About the same time that student designers confront the challenge of making typographic lists look superior to handwritten shopping lists, they also become acquainted with another graphic design staple, the reading list. The English design group Spin has just produced a publication called 50 Reading Lists, which allows the reader the double pleasure of admiring the handsome presentation of 50 lists, as well as the chance to study the reading habits of 50 graphic designers.
Spin is run by designer Tony Brook, a collector of posters and books from the golden age of Modernism. His enthusiasm for the period can be seen in his studio's work. In an introduction to 50 Reading Lists, Brook notes that when he began his design education he was given a reading list: "The recommended books covered many important subjects — Art, Architecture, and Photography — everything but Graphic Design, which simply didn't feature." Today's graphic design student is unlikely to encounter such an omission. Graphic design books are only slightly less plentiful than celebrity diet books. The problem now is deciding which books are worth reading.
Brook asked his 50 contributors the same question: "What are the top ten books that you believe designers should read? They don't necessarily have to be about Graphic Design..." The contributors come mostly from the sharp end of the British design scene: Ian Anderson (Designers Republic); Jonathan Ellery (Browns); Michael C Place (Build); Mark Farrow (Farrow Design); Daniel Eatock. A few Europeans make the cut: Experimental Jetset; Karl Gerstner; Wolfgang Weingart; Wim Crouwel. American-based designers are thin on the ground. Brook invited a number of US practitioners to take part, but only Bill Cahan, Allen Hori and the peripatetic Gelman responded. Cahan is also the only contributor not to submit a listing. Brook prints Cahan's explanation: "This is going to sound awful, but I stay away from reading any journals about design. I find that I am so immersed in the design experience every day that I don't have the energy to work more by reading about what I am doing...so for me it's a random experience picking up art books, going to museums, talking to people, quirky articles. It's just a more organic process so maybe I am just a really lazy person...not sure but I hope this response is ok."
Cahan's reply reminds me that until recently it was fashionable to hear designers say in interviews that they "never look at design magazines or books." I always found this dubious. I'm sure occasionally it was the truth, but mostly it felt like aloofness, a desire to be seen to be above the fray, a declaration about imperviousness to influences. You don't find it so often now. Citing influences has become fashionable again.
Cahan aside, there is no coyness amongst Brook's contributors. The selections make interesting reading and provide a snapshot of current design thinking amongst an admittedly specific group of practitioners. The overriding bias is towards the defining texts of Modernism. There is a preponderance of books by and about Josef Mülller-Brockmann, Wolfgang Weingart, Wim Crouwel, Emil Ruder, Otl Aicher, Karl Gerstner and anything to do with grids.
The late Alan Fletcher includes his own book, The Art of Looking Sideways ("...because it contains fifty years worth of my own reading lists"). Paul Elliman chooses "The newspaper" and "The radio." Ed Ruscha seems to be the modern designer's favourite artist. Books by contemporary designers such as Stephan Sagmeister, Bruce Mau and Peter Saville make only fleeting appearances, and no one mentions David Carson or Neville Brody.
Design books predominate, but there is a healthy quota of non-design titles. The works of John Berger are prevalent, as are the writings of Malcolm Gladwell. Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge make unexpected appearances, and there are some endearingly eccentric selections such as Michael Place's naming of Incredible Cross-sections: The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars Vehicles and Spacecraft and Peter Saville's inclusion of Marquis De Sade: A Life.
There are no books on the hot design topics of the day — nothing on digital and electronic design (except a solitary entry for John Maeda); nothing on branding and hardly anything on advertising. Still less on green issues and not much that is overtly political. Not even Naomi Klein shows up.
What would an educated, disinterested observer make of these lists? Would they conclude that designers are craft-obsessed introverts with not much interest in the world beyond the hidden power of grid systems and typographic nuance? Would they see a group fixated with ideas rooted in the pre-commercial era of Modernist idealism? The selection of reading matter is of course mediated by Brook's choice of contributors. He hasn't strayed outside of a group of independent designers most of whom are engaged in cultural work. You can't help wondering what someone from the world of corporate or branding design might have chosen? My guess is that the list wouldn't be much different.
By way of full disclosure, I should mention that I am one of the 50 designers invited to take part. Looking at my list, I see that I slot into the same readily identifiable profile as most of my co-contributors. Now that I've seen everyone else's selections, I'd like to re-do my own. Next time I'd be tempted to include one of the choices of another contributor, the creative director Brett Foraker. He chose an A5 blank cartridge notebook.
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