Winter 2009

Image Conscious

– Grant Alden

Grant Alden ultimately applauds a book that helps us understand something about the carefully crafted visuals that have become so much a part of our shared culture.

If you own a computer, you ­are—­by ­default—­a graphic de­signer. At your fingertips is software that makes it possible to design newsetters and invoices and bake sale posters, no formal training or special gifts required. Just as the do-it-yourself ethos of punk music taught many of us who keep a guitar in the closet that we could be in bands, it also revealed the importance of actually having something to say, and the skill to say it in a compelling fashion. The democratization of computer-assisted design has illuminated a similar schism, evident whenever we walk past a wall of amateur ­wheat-­pasted posters. Only a very small number of designers become superstars and change, however briefly, the shared language of our ­culture.

That shared visual language is one reason design matters, and why the study of its history is relevant beyond Madison Avenue. Johanna Drucker, a professor of media studies and English at the University of Virginia, and Emily McVarish, an assistant professor of graphic design at California College of the Arts, have written and curated a history of commercial visual discourse that runs from 35,000 bc, when people drew on cave walls, to the present. Or almost to the present—the authors hardly mention Web design.

Graphic design has long been pulled between two impulses: purely decorative (it looks pretty and pleases the client) and ­context ­driven (it looks pretty, pleases the client, and echoes some relevant visual from the past to convey its message). Unlike most design books, this volume focuses not on large, pretty pictures (which designers page through looking for solutions to problems), but on the history and context of those images, addressing the social and artistic implications of changing technologies and the major design schools and movements that grew around them. (Design is typically viewed as the bastard child of fine art, as something an artist does to eat. That design is even being taught in the academy is progress.)

Though Graphic! Design History is fundamentally and structurally a textbook, it omits footnotes and includes only a modest bibliography. Most of the printed pieces that are highlighted are reproduced as thumbnails, too small to be of great use to designers or to justify displaying the book on one’s coffee table. The authors’ ­20th-­century examples will seem fairly obvious to those in the field, particularly when compared to the striking ephemera assembled from earlier ­periods—­the handmade grandeur of a ­13th-­century illuminated manuscript, the formal elegance of a ­17th-­century sailing notice. Veteran designers will recognize, for example, the Stenberg brothers’ influential 1928 constructivist poster in which a collage is worked into a worker’s eyeglasses, George Lois’s 1965 Esquire cover, or Jamie Reid’s ­ransom-­note typography on the cover of the Sex Pistols’ 1977 album Never Mind the ­Bollocks.

Graphic! Design History is not a critical consideration of the field; there is simply too much ground to cover to do much more than name names. Drucker and McVarish’s selections suggest an underlying interest in creating or reinforcing a canon that focuses on the best and the ­best ­known. This is, after all, an introduction. What is left out, though, is sometimes curious. With the exception of the Russian constructivists, this history is limited, once we reach the 19th century, to Western European and U.S. traditions, leaving out the influential designs of Asia, except as they were interpreted in the West, and presuming that nothing of interest happened in Africa or South America, or even Australia or Mexico. Another glaring omission is the ordinary work of ordinary designers (the cover bands of advertising, if you will); there is no discussion of signage or sign painting, and hardly a mention of ­billboards.

All that said, textbooks offer entry points to broader and deeper discussions. Generations of guitarists heard first the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, then worked backward to Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, discovering the sources of what they initially admired. Today we are overwhelmed with carefully crafted visuals, on PDAs and computer screens and newsstands. This volume helps us to understand what they mean and where they came ­from.

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Grant Alden was the founding coeditor and the art director of No Depression magazine. He lives in Morehead, Kentucky.

Reviewed: Graphic! Design History: A Critical Guide by Johanna Drucker and Emiliy McVarish, Pearson/Prentice Hall, 386 pp, 2008.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Punk Marciano