Rick Poynor | Essays

Who's In and Who's Out of the Dictionary

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.

Posted in: History, Media

Comments [14]

The author is obviously biased or ill informed.

No Beef with the aforementioned names. I'm all about accuracy and truth.

You can't began to document the History of Visual Communication without referencing SAUL BASS. Certainly SAUL BASS has more range than any Designer(s) mentioned.

Not mentioning the contribution of any of the BAUHAUS Designer(s) i.e. Herbert Bayer, Moholy-Nagy (although short lived), Xanti Schwinski, and Gyorgy Kepes.

It also baffles me when documenting Design History none of the Corporate Identity Consultancies are mentioned. Landor, Lippincott & Margulies, Siegel & Gale. (others) And the now defunct Unimark International founded by Ralph Eckerstrom, Massimo Vignelli, Bob Noorda and Jay Doblin.

Does the author realize of all the Designer(s) mentioned Massimo Vignelli is the Total Designer and possesses more range than any individual Designer living. Bar None.

What about the founders of the Alliance Graphique Internationale. Donald Brun, Fritz Bühler, Jean Colin, Jacques Nathan Garamond, and Jean Le Doux Picart. All Kick Ass Designer(s).

Design History in its totality is about Accuracy and Truth. Not inaccuracies and half truths. We must not play favorites.

Jonathan M. Woodham's A Dictionary of Modern Design falls short of accuracy.

Truth be known, most of the so called Industrial Design Consultancies e.g. Norman Bel Geddes, Henry Dreyfuss, Ramond Loewy,Donald Desky Associates, Walter Darwin Teague, Elliot Noyes. (others) More than half of their annual billing was Graphic Design not Product Design.

Seemingly, many Industrial Designer(s) in History preferred Corporate Identity oppossed to Product Design. Namely, Lippincott & Margulies, Landor, Donald Desky, and Raymond Loewy. Landor for over forty years has maintained the Largest Design Consultancy in the World. Landor's concentration is Corporate Identity and Branding. Not Product Design. The practice is directly related to Graphic Design.

Henry Dreyfuss was smart enough to realize SAUL BASS was better at Corporate Identity. HAND PICKED SAUL BASS to revitalize AT&T Identity.

Ramond Loewy is remembered more for naming Exxon and development of Exxon Identity Revitalization; United States Post Office Identity; Lucky Strike Brand Revitalization; and Nabisco Identity Development and Brand Experience. Than he is for any of his Product Design including Grayhound Bus and Streamline Locomotives.

While I love A M Cassandre, Jean Carlu was equally as gifted a Designer and Illustrator as Cassandre. Maybe more. Because Jean Carlu created everything Cassandre created. Most important, Carlu, Developed Designed and Illustrated it with one arm. Jean Carlu was an amputee. Lost the use of one of his arms.

Let us not forget. Massimo Vignelli testified. More than any Designer in History. It was SAUL BASS that brought him to America.

I'm curious to know what this dictionary makes of some graphic designers' contribution within trans-disciplinary ventures such as the Bauhaus or the Ulm School of Design (Otl Aicher, anyone ?). Are they completely overlooked or simply name-checked as "part of the team" ?
Anyway, being a French teacher in graphic design, I can perhaps bring a testimony here : in France, graphic design is considered one of the "Applied Arts" (the word design is seldom used due to its anglo-saxon origin, and only to mean "industrial design"). But graphic design suffers from a huge lack of recognition within the "Applied Arts" : it's considered less "noble" than architecture, industrial or fashion design. Why is it so ? Simply because it is deemed less "artistic", because it is meant to help to sell things : it's just plain filthy. Maybe Mr Woodham is more French than he thinks he is...
Stéphane Darricau

As the author it's obviously interesting to read such reviews of a book that never set out to be a dictionary of graphic design and to see such little reference to other comparable dictionaries that have attempted to include a wider range of design and material culture entries. Whilst I have sympathy for a number of the points made, I can see hoards of designers from many other fields of design activity taking up similar cudgels with which to belabour me. I anticipate some future pain, but also feel that there is some "missing the point" here. Some of the concerns made in one of the postings seem to indicate that its author has either not read the dictionary that I wrote or has some pages missing. Some reference to the index might also help. Of course, Rick Poyner's comments are of interest (and value) but we may have very different views about what is "outdated" in terms of an approach which is inclusive of many things not generally included in dictionaries of design. Though reasonable questions some of his queries can be readily answered. But I'll be ganged up on in this forum and so will keep my counsel. Still, I'm glad that sufficient graphic designers have read it to engage with it, even if disciplinary predilection has tended to overlook the objectives and create a "head of steam". Keep on designing and I'll keep on writing!
Jonathan Woodham

Mr. Woodham:

I haven't read your book. It will be a WELCOMED addition to my Design Archives.

Mr. Poyner is METICULOUS when it comes to naming names of inclusion in Design History. His patons can usually accept his Editorial Research as Gospel.

If there's an oversight of SAUL BASS, Lester Beall, Massimo Vignelli and/or the Bauhaus Master(s) inclusion within your Design Dictionary. My heartfelt apologies.

Most Important: Design Observer has a World Wide Audience and a World Wide Reputation. As one of the Preeminent Design Blogs. You will never be Ganged Up On or Disrespected on Design Observer. We can agree to disagree as professionals. The Owner(s) of this Website are intolerate of Blasphamy and Desecration.

With that knowledge I trust you will engage Design Observer's Patrons in a Healthy Exchange.

What about W.A Dwiggins? He is credited with coining the term "graphic design."
jay colvin

I had the same qualms when my parents bought me Bauhaus, published by Taschen a few years ago. Although 256 pages long, it only spared two or three for graphic design and typography. It probably wouldn't have struck me as much if the medium had been different--for example if it were a documentary on the beeb.
The fact that it was a book--a medium firmly bound to graphic design--made this lack of emphasis very interesting. The book, like all taschen books, is designed. Visually, it clearly referrenced modernist typography, presumably to bring the design closer to the content.
I find it interesting and frustrating that a publisher that places such an emphasis on good graphic design when it comes to the form of its books doesn't do so in their content.
Similarly, a dictionary of design neglecting graphic design is somewhat ironic, since dictionaries constitute some of the most complicated instances of (typo)graphic design.
I think this neglect of graphic design as a serious discipline is the fact that it is seen mainly as based on aesthetic indulgence. This view is shown by the selection of people to represent the discipline in the OUP dictionary. People often do not realise the graphic designer's role as the person who gives shape and form to information to make it easier to use and understand, not just to make it look cool. The redesign of air-traffic control displays in English airports--an instance of graphic design potentially saving lives--the redesign of the Guardian, Beck's seminal tube map, all these are instances of graphic design that go far beyond visual indulgence and have a practical purpose helping people get on with their lives. Frankly, this is the graphic design we should be exhibiting as representatives of our discipline, if not to ram the point through to people that graphic design actually performs a function beyond asking to looked at.

Thanks for your comments, Design Maven. I have been out today, otherwise I would have pointed out immediately that my lists of inclusions and exclusions were intended as representative examples, not as a complete picture of the book. The dictionary contains entries on Moholy-Nagy, Bayer, Walter Landor, Bass and Vignelli.

Thanks, too, to Jonathan Woodham for so quickly entering into the discussion. I hope that it's clear that my piece is not intended to be a review of every facet of your book. It concentrates on an aspect of the dictionary - your coverage of graphic design - that will be of particular interest to readers of this forum.

I certainly haven't suggested that your book set out to be a dictionary of graphic design. The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Graphic Designers by Alan and Isabella Livingston already fulfils that purpose very effectively, though it lacks the scholarly depth of your own dictionary. The more obvious comparison for your book is with Guy Julier's Thames and Hudson Encyclopaedia of 20th Century Graphic Design. This, too, has shorter entries than yours, though it includes entries on some of the designers you omit: Zwart, Müller-Brockmann, Crouwel, Grapus, Dumbar, Greiman.

You say that I have missed the point of your book, but you don't explain in what way. You seem to be suggesting that graphic designers are a kind of special interest group likely to overstate their case (with their "cudgels"), but what I am saying is that graphic design is a fundamental modern design activity. As such, it should be represented in an avowed dictionary of "modern design" as fully as industrial design or furniture design. Do you really have firm grounds for excluding some of the names I have mentioned? For instance, by what yardsticks does British furniture designer Jasper Morrison - who I have written about and admire - qualify for inclusion as a significant figure in modern design, while, say, Tibor Kalman does not?

If you didn't feel that it would be possible to cover graphic design on equal terms with other areas of design and as fully as it requires, then why include it at all? Mel Byars' recently updated book, The Design Encyclopedia, entirely excludes graphic design. One might question the all-encompassing use of the word "design" in its title, as I have done with your dictionary, but at least its concern with the design of artefacts is consistent, just as the Livingstons' book is consistent in not including furniture designers.

I do hope you will reply. One of the aims of Design Observer is to engage in productive discussion beyond the (increasingly vague) territorial borders of "graphic design". It would be a great shame if a figure of your significance in the development of design history in Britain were to decline the invitation to explain the editorial thinking that underpins your book to an international audience of potential readers.
Rick Poynor

I haven't yet seen the book. I apologize if I'm taking this thread in the direction of "did he include my favorite designer?" However, I'm curious if Mr. Woodham's book includes Peter Behrens, the uber-designer from AEG whose work crossed graphic design, industrial design and architecture, and whose studio was a crucible for future Bauhaus luminaries.
Daniel Green

Yes, there's a substantial entry on Behrens as well as one about AEG.
Rick Poynor

I would imagine that items are chosen to fill a dictionary of this kind because they, generally, fall into the category of functional. While most works of graphic design are made for a specific function, once they are placed in a book or magazine and removed from their context, this aspect of them is nearly erased and we are looking at them as they exist formally. I don't think I have ever seen a caption to a piece of graphic design which described how it functioned in its time and place. It's probably, again, a problem of graphic design not clearly occupying or living in a clearly defined space. It is neither purely functional nor purely aesthetic. So we may need a dictionary that marks some space between before graphic design will find a greater place in it. Unless I have missed the point and it is an expansion of the category of functional that Rick is arguing for rather than a new set of categories.
Trent Williams

What I always find amazing is that the designers of these little signs we're all employing to communicate are never mentioned. I mean type. It does not grow on trees, nor is it automatically generated when you switch on your computer. It has been designed by type designers, and a lot of the type you read today has been designed by type designers who are actually still alive. There are only a few dozen of us whose products get used on more than the occasional chocolate bar, but what we design is multiplied a billion times more than all the posters all the members of the AGI have ever designed and printed.

Maybe the fact that type designers are never ever mentioned (not even by graphic designers who couldn't exist without our work) is that our stuff works so well?
erik spiekermann

Erik, I wholeheartedly agree with your analogy.

Because Lubalin was mentioned as a Designer of inclusion within Mr. Woodham's Design Dictionary. I let it go.
Unfortunately, Lubalin a Designer of many typefaces and founder of ITC. Actually, never thought of himself as a Bonifide Type Designer. Compared to Jerry Freeman Craw, Stanley Morison, Adrian Frutiger, Jan Tschichold, Hermann Zapf, Martin Soloman, John Baskerville; Giambasta Bodoni, Francois Didot, Eric Gill. (others). Albeit, comparing Lubalin with unsung heros, such as Vic Caruso, Rudolph Ruzicka, and R. Hunter Middleton.

Lubalin always said. He was a Designer that used Type Creatively. Thus, Lubalin thought of himself more as a typographer. Which is why he always stated he was envy of the way Helmut Krone set type. At the same time, as I did with the analogy of Adolphe Mouron Cassandre and Jean Carlu. Both contemporary's.

When Mr. Poyner mentioned Herb Lubalin was included in Mr. Woodham's Design Dictionary. My first reaction was, what about Lubalin's European Contemporary? Legendary German Typographer and Designer Olaf Leu. Equally as Gifted as Lubalin. Whom never gets mentioned in any History Book.

Jay Colvin, named Dwiggins. Which I thought was brilliant.

Definitely prepared to expound on the vertues of Type Designers within a Historical Context. What I was trying to parlay. And perhaps didn't get across. Within a Historical Context.

If American Designer(s) Revered and were directly influenced by European Designer(s) before their migration to America during World War II.

Why is it, when the History of Design is recorded? American Designer(s) seem to take center stage.

Because, Rosmarie Tissi, Abram Games, Armin Hoffman, FHK Henrion, Bernard Villemot, Milner Gray, Herbert Spencer, Celestino Piatti,Roman Ciesiewicz, Ken Cato, Michael Peters, Gunther Rambow, Hans Hillmann, Jacques Richez, Heintz Elderman, Gunter Kieser, Jan Lewitt, George Him, Marcello Minale, Brian Tattersfield, Yusaka Kamekura, Ikko Tanaka, Shigeo Fukuda. (many others) Contributions to Graphic Design is nothing less than Legendary.

Like Mr. Poyner, I'd appreciate an explanation from Mr. Woodham. In reference to why some Designer(s) were included and others excluded. I thoroughly understand Design Dictionary is not recounting the History of Visual Communication in totality. I would appreciate, Mr. Woodham within an Academic Context explain his rationate for inclusion and exclusion as queried by Mr. Poyner.

April Greiman was the first to experiment with the exploration of Macintosh Computers and Digital Design. Yet, April Greiman is not represented in Mr. Woodham's Design Dictionary. And Neville Brody is represented. Neville Brody was influenced by April Greiman. Whether he admit it or not.

My Love of Typography (Semantics) is only eclipsed by my love of Pictorial Symbols. (Semiotics) Referencing Hieroglyphics as our earliest recorded form of communication and writing. Semiotics and Sematics are Hand in Glove.

Hello all. It's good to see discussion of this issue. The posts touch on many questions as to how design history is dealt.

I have just published a revised edition of my dictionary. Formerly known as the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of 20c. Design, it is now called the Dictionary of Design since 1900 . I tried to get the publishers to call it the 'Dictionary of Modern Design' but that opportunity seemed to pass them by. I should also say that it hadn't occurred to them to include graphic design at all when they first asked me to write its earlier version in 1991!

I have every sympathy for Jonathan Woodham's position. Writing these kinds of books carries a heavy responsibility while at the same time, at least in my experience, is sometimes a dulling affair. Getting all those detailed facts accurate while trying to keep the text interesting is a very exacting task. I haven't as yet looked at his book though, so shall not make any further specific comment.

My publishers only allowed me a 10% expansion (i.e. c.10,000 words) for the 2004 revision. I had suggested a 40% expansion, given the need to update previous entries but also cover developments since 1993 when the dictionary first came out. I therefore opted to concentrate mostly on the latter, i.e. more recent design issues. These, I think, are far more interesting than ticking off more boxes in the design history chronology. This is already well served by other books.

In considering what to include in an update, I felt that it would be important to give attention to four key areas: digital media, design for sustainability, new materials and technologies, and branding. In each of these I did not find it useful to think in terms of traditional design disciplines (graphic, interior, product etc.). So I therefore don't feel the need to defend the omission of one 'discipline' over another. It's all stuff happening in various fields of commercial and cultural production. They get even more interesting when they overlap.

DesignMaven's comments about the billings of US designers (Dreyfuss, Loewy etc.) are important. I think they underline the possibility that, sometimes, it is more useful to categorize designers in terms of issues such as their motivations, clients, mode of working (e.g. social or political agency, big corporate clientism, individual practice etc.).

I have much respect for Rick Poynor's tireless championing of graphic design. I also hope that, as Trent Williams perhaps signals, design history realigns itself around the various functions that the industry and its practitioners perform. Perhaps that's where visual communication will get more expansive but detailed and critical discussion.
Guy Julier

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