Wed 07 Oct
I get a very minor mention on page fifty of Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio’s new book, “Graphic Design, Referenced,” but that’s not why it’s worth blogging about. Rather, this book is notable as an ambitious and largely successful attempt at capturing the current state of graphic design, or at least its current state as seen through the uncommonly thorough gaze of two young, talented and already influential designer-editors.
Vit and Gomez-Palacio, operating under the name Under Consideration, were responsible for the now shuttered but once widely-read design criticism site Speak Up, where they played a key role in shaping the graphic design conversation over the past decade. Now, in “Graphic Design, Referenced,” they’ve capitalized on their rather breathtaking ability to pull off massive editorial feats with a kind of contemporary history of their chosen field, a beautiful, page-turner of a tome that aims to be “A Visual Guide to the Language, Applications, and History of Graphic Design.”
I received my copy in the mail not long ago and was frankly astonished when I opened it up. I was vaguely aware that they had been working on a book, but I had no idea that they had aimed so high. So I felt compelled to find out more and struck up an email conversation with Armin, a friend of mine, to find out more.
Full disclosure: though as mentioned my work does appear in the book briefly, I have no financial connection with Armin — or with the book. That is, unless you buy your copy through this link, in which case I’d see a little Amazon kick-back.
This is an ambitious book — almost 400 pages and over 2,500 images surveying more or less all of graphic design. Why did you feel that you wanted or needed to tackle something of this scale?
To be honest, we didn’t feel this was something we were dying to tackle. It was a case of blissful ignorance. Rockport Publishers approached us with the idea of an ambitious book but neither they nor we really grasped the extent the book could reach. The book started relatively simple, but the more we started to fill in the blanks of things we thought needed to be covered the more blanks we created that needed to be filled. It was only after two or three months of just focusing on the outline of the book that we realized how ambitious the book really was and how hard we were going to have to push ourselves to get it done. Luckily, we “only” had 400 pages to fill, otherwise we would still be working on it.
As that ambition grew and you started to form a vision of what the book would be, how much did you intend it to be an authoritative, definitive reference work and how much did you intend it to be a personal survey of the field?
It became a combination of both, although it was definitely first intended to be more personal than authoritative or definitive. Philip Meggs’ “A History of Graphic Design” is simply the most authoritative and definitive. That’s what he did. He was an historian and an educator. He put in ten or fifteen years of research into it. We put in 18 months. So we made sure to build on his work — and that of Richard Hollis, Steven Heller and Rick Poynor — and provide our own personal view, as 30-year old practicing designers. We looked at the work and the designers that have influenced us so far and assumed that if it did something for us it could be inspiring to others. With that in mind, we wanted to make sure it was as authoritative as possible, with a lot of facts and more information than most people are willing to read through. I don’t think it’s definitive as there are too many points of view on graphic design. We prefer to think that our book contributes to helping establish that definitive history along with others.
It seems that one of the book’s unique contributions to that definitive history is that you’ve captured a ton of stuff that’s out there today and that’s fairly new. Much of it surprised me, not because I think these things don’t deserve to be captured in a serious history of the field, but because they’re so fresh that I haven’t seen them mentioned between hardcovers before (e.g., the podcast and conference show Typeradio). It feels sort of sneaky and daring to include them, though they do feel quite comfortable next to the old stalwarts too. To what extent were you looking to write an alternative history, or a contemporary history — or some combination thereof?
That was one of the benefits we saw, and wanted to exploit: having the opportunity to do a survey that looks at the beginning of the twenty-first century along with what has come before. New editions of Meggs’ book and even the latest historical survey, “Graphic Design: A New History,” treat the new material as an appendage, almost as a kind of burden. It’s risky to take something like the Obama ’08 campaign identity or someone like Daniel Eatock and pile them up next to the IBM identity and Massimo Vignelli, but it’s empowering to be able to take some stances on what we felt were the most important contemporary subjects. Especially with Web resources, which have played a huge role in the way we see and learn about graphic design today, it was imperative to acknowledge them.
One little side story that we haven’t shared much is that in the Practice chapter, where we show the most relevant work of different categories, we were supposed to have a Web section, but after much analysis we simply could not arrive at even a handful of Web sites that were on par with the rest of the work in that chapter, so we scrapped it. This discussion on Speak Up was triggered by this “problem.” A lot of Web designers weren’t too happy.
Without getting into whether design for interactive media is as aesthetically accomplished as design for print media, I think it’s worth asking: is any contemporary history of graphic design really complete unless it documents how design is practiced online? After all, the Web and digital media of all kinds are profoundly changing the way people think about graphics, typography, layout, information delivery, communication — they’re changing the very meaning of the word design, even if the work doesn’t superficially measure up to the standards of the print design canon. Shouldn’t such a book as “Graphic Design, Referenced” account for that?
Yes, definitely. It would have been a great opportunity. We just didn’t feel confident (or, more importantly, comfortable) in making any assertions about which Web work should enter the proverbial canon. Part of it was the overwhelming nature of the book so we had to pick our battles and at that moment, because of important and unanswered questions like whether interactive media is as aesthetically accomplished as print, we chose other battles. Perhaps in a second edition, where we have a thousand less things to gather, we can take a good look at this.
When you talk of a second edition and updates and additions, it makes me wonder: should this book have been a Web site? Which also brings to mind another of your Under Consideration projects, The Design Encylopedia. Where is the overlap if there is any?
It could easily be a Web site, but this brings up again the thorny question of which medium is more accomplished or even more worthy.
Had this been a Web site, I am certain we would have not made the same effort as we did with a printed book that bears our names on the cover. There is something much more official and authoritative in a book that a publisher put in thousands of dollars to produce, market and distribute than in a Web site that, even if took the same amount of dollars (it wouldn’t), would be too “flimsy.”
Also, more people would have been hesitant to contribute their work — almost anyone is thrilled to have their work printed in a book, but few find it an honor to have it in a Web site.
Lastly, the work can easily be swiped. Text and images are grabbed freely and propagated all over the Web. Sure, you can scan and transcribe a book, but it takes five more minutes that anyone who needs to update their Twitter account just doesn’t want to spare.
And, indeed, there is overlap with The Design Encyclopedia project but, at this point, it’s more in theory than in practice, since we have slightly ignored that poor Web site for the better part of two years. The site actually broke and decayed to the point where, as admins, we can’t create new entries and people can’t sign up anymore. Our next big project is rebooting The Design Encyclopedia and we are in the process of figuring out what crossover, if any, it could have with Graphic Design, Referenced. But it’s nice to know that we now have this incredible amount of knowledge not just written in a book but painfully lodged in our brains.
Of all that knowledge now lodged in your brains, what’s the most unexpected, surprising or just plain fun bit that you learned while researching the book?
That there is an arrow in the FedEx logo! Kidding. There wasn’t anything particularly groundbreaking, it was more a number of things that caught my attention: Tiffany & Co.’s blue is PMS 1837 which, if you know your PMS’s, is in the red range, so the number relates to the year it Tiffany was founded; legendary designers like Ladislav Sutnar and W.A. Dwiggins were into puppetry; Otl Aicher died in a car accident while crossing from one side of his property to the other; Campbell’s soups’ red and white color combo comes from an executive who liked the way Cornell’s football uniforms looked; Rick Valicenti worked at a steel mill, hard hat and all. There is not much use to this information. It won’t gain us clients and I won’t be cooler for it (maybe even dorkier than I already am) but the sense is that this information is empowering, it gives you insight into what makes great designers relevant and great designs memorable. If others can benefit from this knowledge in this way or another, we’ve done our job. All 400 pages worth.