There are few dictionaries of design, so the arrival of a new one, if you are a dictionary lover, is a drop-everything-and-start-reading event. That's how it was for me, earlier this week, when I chanced upon Jonathan M. Woodham's A Dictionary of Modern Design, just published in Britain by Oxford University Press. (US edition here.) Even as I carried it to the till, though, I had a feeling that my keen sense of anticipation was likely to take a dent once I started reading.
My last post concerning events at the Design Museum touched on an issue that was perhaps always likely to thread its way through the writings and comments on this site. Even now, in the hierarchy of design disciplines, graphic design still struggles to find a place. It's tedious in the extreme to keep saying it, and constantly repeating it makes it sound like people in graphic design are touchy and defensive, but it happens to be true.
What would you expect a dictionary of modern design to cover? Given that "modern design" is left unmodified in the title - it doesn't say "modern industrial design" - then isn't it reasonable to expect "design" to encompass graphic communication on equal terms alongside every other kind of design? Apparently not. While the book's treatment of industrial designers, furniture designers, the organisations that served them and the magazines that publicised them is exemplary in its thoroughness, graphic design is once again the also-ran of design. The 520-page book contains entries on only a handful of graphic designers and barely any contextual entries of the kind which support its coverage of designers who work in 3D.
Woodham, professor of the history of design at Brighton University, clearly anticipates objections. Towards the end of his introduction, he explains: "The vast majority of entries relate to mass-produced goods, designers and manufacturers, critics and theorists, although key entries relating to fields such as graphics and clothing design have also been included. Given the way in which design impinges on all aspects of everyday life . . . it is inevitable that hard choices have been made, with some entries included at the expense of others."
There is no explanation of what these hard choices might be when it comes to graphic design (or "graphics" as Woodham has it) and no clue as to what makes the graphic designers that he does include worthy of mention while others are omitted, or why, say, the furniture designers he favours are deemed more significant than influential graphic designers who fail to make the cut.
Figures that do qualify include El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, A. M. Cassandre, Paul Rand, Chermayeff & Geismar, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Herb Lubalin, Tadanori Yokoo, Abram Games, Pentagram and Neville Brody - nothing to argue with there. But why does Woodham think that Tomato (needlessly rendered "tomato") must be squeezed in, while April Greiman, David Carson, Tibor Kalman and Peter Saville should be shown the door? How has he managed to overlook Wim Crouwel, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Wolfgang Weingart, Grapus and Studio Dumbar, not to mention Piet Zwart? Woodham seems curiously unreceptive to European graphic designers on the whole. Are British stalwarts such as Tom Eckersley and Hans Schleger really so much more central to international graphic design's development? And why does the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen (estab. 1928) rate an entry, but not the American Institute of Graphic Arts (estab. 1914)?
I doubt that any coherent rationale could be made to justify these exclusions - they seem arbitrary. Yet the marginalisation of graphic design within "modern design" continues even in the author's otherwise thorough 17-page bibliography. He is careful to include all manner of books by British design historian colleagues, such as Jeremy Aynsley's A Century of Graphic Design, but the "general introductory texts" section in which this features finds no space for Philip Meggs' A History of Graphic Design - a ground-breaking volume by any assessment - or Richard Hollis' Graphic Design: A Concise History. Not a single work by Robin Kinross, Ellen Lupton or Steven Heller is listed.
Again, I find myself struggling to make any editorial or design historical sense of this. Are we to understand it as some kind of judgement on the quality of these books? Or is it the author's view that the history of graphic design is so marginal to the history of modern design that typical readers of the dictionary - pictured uneasily by OUP's blurb writer as "style-slaves and design-addicts" - are unlikely to take much interest in it?
Despite these reservations, A Dictionary of Modern Design is in many ways an excellent book and a substantial achievement for a lone author. It contains long, well-researched, reliable entries on a huge range of design subjects from the last 150 years. If you are interested in design in the broadest sense, then it's likely to prove indispensable and it looks set to become a standard reference in libraries everywhere. It's this that makes the book's reluctance to take graphic design seriously such a disappointment.
Woodham is a leading figure in the development of design history as an academic discipline in Britain, with nearly 30 years' involvement in the subject. His earlier book, Twentieth-Century Design, for OUP's Oxford History of Art series, is also weakest where it touches on graphic design. Clearly, it isn't his thing. And this, unfortunately, is true of British design history as a whole. The discipline has constituted itself primarily as a history of three-dimensional artefacts and almost all the most significant historians concentrate on their study. Woodham's dictionary, which could have helped to open up the field of design studies, enshrines an outdated and needlessly circumscribed view of modern design history. Let's hope the book is a success and can be revised before long to reflect graphic design's central place in contemporary commerce and culture.