SSZ Bookshelf: Graphic Design Visionaries

Today I’m going to be looking at ‘Graphic Design Visionaries‘, a new book from art and design publishers Laurence King, written by design writer Caroline Roberts, who you may know as long time editor of Grafik.


What is it?

Essentially a history of Graphic Design, but one told chronologically through the varied lives and work of 75 individual designers (and a few notable design studios), rather than by country or style. Specifically the ‘Visionaries’, those who have shaped the course of the industry, from early pioneers like Piet Zwart and Edward McKnight Kauffer to current practitioners like Sagmeister, Scher, Boom and Barnbrook.

It strikes a fine balance between text and image, presenting a few key examples of each designers graphic work alongside a short but detailed bio, and a timeline of key moments in their lives. The design of the book is pretty versatile, and works whether you want a quick flick through, or a more in depth read. The quality of images throughout is very high and they are always big enough to see properly, often art and design history books can suffer from tiny or badly reproduced images, so this was a nice change in that respect. 

Did it teach me anything?

Personally I’ve read a few books that provided more in-depth histories of graphic design in the past, so I was expecting it to cover a lot of the same ground, but I found that the focus on individuals kept it pretty fresh. There were also plenty of names that were new to me, or that I was less familiar with. I’d be surprised if many readers already knew every designer featured in the book, so there is bound to be something to learn in it for everyone, no matter how well versed you are in design history. The chronological layout also provided a new perspective, putting designers with similar birth-dates in close proximity to each other throws up some interesting patterns and juxtapositions.  

Who would want to read it?

This book will probably find graphic design students, or prospective students, as its main audience. John Morgan (of John Morgan studio, and a former employee of Derek Birdsall who is featured in the book) was recently quoted in a Guardian article as saying “Students just aren’t taught history any more and it really shows.”. Personally I’m not sure this is always true, but the reality is that it is generally up to students to get to grips with it themselves. A general knowledge of graphic design history is a basis on which to start discussions, and to make parallels with or find inspiration for your own work.

For students this book is fantastic place to start, and will probably help avoid any awkward moments during class when a famous designer is mentioned and you have no idea who they are. It may even spark more interest, if it does the further reading I’d recommend is either Richard Hollis’ wordy but compact ‘Graphic Design: A Concise History’ or Meggs’ much more weighty ‘History of Graphic Design’, which will both start to fill in the gaps that this book didn’t have time to cover, and start to connect up the work into a wider context. However this is not to criticise the book in question, which does a great job at avoiding becoming an expensive giant, in this context there is a lot to be said for being selective.

For graphic designers who are students no more this book is great as a brush up on design history, and the biographic style presents the real people and their stories, bringing down to earth those who are often presented with an almost unattainable god-like status. 

As for non-designers, I’d say this book is very accessible and avoids the alienating jargon that can sometimes be found in the design world. Although everything featured in the book is graphic design, it provides a lens through which you can observe overall cultural and societal changes; from the birth of modernism, to changes in political mood, taste in cinema and music, and the effects of globalisation and post-modernism. That is the joy of the chronological ordering.

Did it miss anything out?

Alan Fletcher but no Bob Gill? Milton Glaser but no Seymour Chwast? Barnbrook over Neville Brody? No Alvin Lustig?

Most readers will think of people or groups they would have personally included, and I’m sure there were a lot of designers who they would have loved to include had it been larger a larger book. But the line has to be drawn somewhere and I don’t think there are many obvious omissions. Graphic design is highly subjective and this book doesn’t present itself as canon, rather a showcase of some of the key visionaries and by no means conclusive. 

The introduction is worth a read on this matter, and the author acknowledges the problems of an overwhelmingly white, western, middle class and male graphic design history. It is refreshing to see a history books introduction not be afraid to deal with the current issues facing graphic design as an industry. In terms of equality it was good to see a few female graphic designers included (especially Lora Lamm who is sadly not well known), as well as some non western designers, and good that the inherent lack of diversity has been brought up! The issue could easily have been glossed over.

Is it useful?

In the age of the internet, why publish a book on graphic design? This is the question I often find myself asking when looking at new design books, although a book full of images can be nice sometimes – is it really worth spending money when the images (and more) can all be seen freely online? Thats why writing is important, and luckily this book is well written.

I think it will prove to be a very useful and fascinating reference point for details on some of the worlds most important graphic designers both past and present. Hopefully potential future ‘visionaries’ will be inspired by graphic designs rich past.

Definitely a must have for any graphic designers book shelf. You can get it directly from Laurence King here for £24.95.

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