The folks at Unit Editions, a boutique publisher of amazing graphic design books, keep turning out stuff that I can’t resist. Back in June I pre-ordered their “most ambitious Unit publication to date — a numbered, limited edition, deluxe monograph of the legendary Herb Lubalin, one of the foremost graphic designers of the 20th century,” written by noted design writer and Unit Editions co-founder Adrian Shaughnessy.
It arrived in the mail recently and boy does this thing announce itself. It ships in a cardboard box, but when you open it up, the book is enclosed in another cardboard box, this one printed with some fancy graphics and the name of the book on the spine (I’m not exactly sure if I’m meant to save this second box or not). Open that, and you finally get to the book itself, wrapped in a screen-printed dust jacket — it’s interesting to me how in print design the more enclosed the content and the harder it is to get to, the more special it’s meant to feel.
The Unbearable Lightness of Reading
Inside, pure gorgeousness awaits. Page after page of exquisite photographs of original Lubalin works to pore over, extensively captioned by Shaughnessy. There’s also a copious biography of Lubalin’s life and career, roughly seventy-five pages of well-illustrated narrative and analysis that I’m genuinely interested in reading.
But, I’ll probably never read it. The book weighs something like five pounds or more, so I’ll never carry it with me, and reading on the go is how I do the vast majority of my reading. If I’m honest with myself too, the same goes for the other books I’ve bought from Unit Editions — they all sit on my shelf, basically unread and very rarely touched.
Part of the Unit Editions mission is to “bring the notion of the book as a highly designed artefact with rich visual and textual content to an international audience of design professionals, design students and followers of visual culture,” and I admire that greatly. But as laudable as it is, I can’t help but feel it deprecates the primacy of the content while favoring the object. Instead of delivering this valuable monograph in a form optimized for convenience, Unit Editions is focused on making something really fancy, something to be admired more than actually read.
Setting aside Unit Editions’ idea of “the book as a highly designed artefact,” if they or any publisher of serious design books really wants to seed the popular dialogue with thoughtful examinations of design and visual culture, it seems to me that they should make their content easier to read. Much easier. That means smaller and more portable or, if you ask my preference, available in digital form too, so you can carry it around with you on your iPad, if not your iPhone, and so that it can be more readily devoured at the reader’s convenience. Otherwise, like a lot of the graphic design world, these books really only amount to elaborate productions intended for designers to impress other designers.