London’s Unit Editions publishes some of the very best design books anywhere. In their few short years in operation, they’ve elevated the form to an extraordinary degree, producing some of the most exquisite, well-written studies of various aspects of the graphic design industry ever to hit bookshelves.
Not long ago, they published “Manuals 1,” described as “the first comprehensive study of corporate identity design manuals, [featuring] 20 examples from the 1960s to early 1980s—the golden era of identity design.” The book included extensive overviews of manuals created for institutions and corporations such as NASA, Lufthansa and British Steel. I bought a copy, and every designer I showed it to coveted it immediately. It was a beautiful, revealing bit of design history, and it sold out very quickly.
Now, less than a year later, Unit Editions is publishing “Manuals 2,” available now for pre-order and shipping next month.
‘Manuals 2’ features a mix of 20 outstanding American and European design manuals. Each is photographed in exquisite detail and accompanied by meticulous descriptions of their physical make-up.
Featured manuals include IBM, Westinghouse, Canadian Rail, Bell, Knoll, PTT, Montreal Olympics and Dutch Police. Manuals 2 also comes up to date, incorporating contemporary manuals for RAC and First Direct. Many of the manuals are designed by the masters of 20th-century identity design: Lester Beall, Paul Rand, Allan Fleming, Total Design, Alan Fletcher, Otl Aicher, Studio Dumbar and North.
Here are some samples from the forthcoming book, featuring pages from a section on International Paper’s graphic standards manual.
Documenting these otherwise ignored artifacts of design history is worthwhile work, but when I read through the several thoughtful essays included in “Manuals 1,” I noticed something telling: without exception, they all ruminate on the authorship of the manuals, on the designers’ process, how they distilled ideas into rules, how they expressed those ideas in diagrammatic language, how they gave physical form to those ideas in aesthetically beautiful, elaborate binders and short-run publications. Essentially “Manuals 1” focused on the graphic standards manual as a lost channel for designer expression, and if it doesn’t lament its passing, it certainly looks back on the “golden era” with tremendous fondness.
That’s all well and good, but what was conspicuously missing, for me, was any notion of how these manuals were actually used. There was no mention of the experience of the manuals’ intended audiences—production designers, paste-up artists, pressmen, signage fabricators, the folks who had to take the guidelines from those manuals and apply them to the real world.
For me, the book left open many critical questions, such as: Which manuals succeeded and failed? Which of the conventions that they used to communicate their ideas fared the best in practice? Was there a dialogue between front-line production staff and the designers who authored the manuals, before, during or after their printing? How did manuals evolve over subsequent revisions? And, my biggest question, having worked on a handful of manuals in the past and having had to comply with a few others: did anybody really even use the manuals, or were they just politely tucked away in desk drawers?
The question of how good design gets implemented and sustained is a fascinating one, and “Manuals 1” told one aspect of that story with gorgeous, meticulous detail. But there’s a bigger story that interests me, personally, that that first volume didn’t address. Maybe “Manuals 2” will tackle some of those questions, or perhaps a future installment in the series will.