When I was a design student there didn’t seem to be an abundance of books about graphic design. There were obviously some, such as recommended canons on the discipline like Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, but they were few and far between. And none, to my eyes, seemed particularly contemporary in their approach to relating to the subject.
Thankfully this is no longer the case. In the last ten years there has been an explosion in the amount of books published about the subject, from self-published/vanity monographs to historical re-tellings, from exhibition tie-ins to in-depth breakdowns of the process of designing. Academic/student friendly publishing houses such as AVA, (now under Bloomsbury), and Laurence King have gone a long way to help those studying graphic design today, and it is likely that the growth of undergraduate graphic design students over the last 10 years has created a captive audience.
One publishing house that is worthy of praise for its output in the last few years is Unit Editions. Set up in 2009 by Tony Brook of Spin, and Adrian Shaughnessy, previously of Intro, their first releases trickled slowly onto the market but quickly established a standard of exceptional quality in both the critical content and production values. Their output has increased dramatically since then, and in the last 18 months alone they’ve published monographs on over-looked designers; FHK Henrion, Herb Lubalin and Ken Garland. They’ve also produced a study on contemporary expressive typography: Type Only, and a collection of Shaughnessy’s writing collated from various websites and magazines that he contributes to, titled Scratching The Surface.
Brook and Shaughnessy describe Unit Editions as producing books “for designers by designers”. While it is true that the latter two publications mentioned above do add to an introspective discourse about contemporary graphic design practice, and the designer/publishers have been showcased on many design blogs such as It’s Nice That, I believe that what Unit Editions are doing is much more than just ‘for designers’.
The desire to showcase designers that have become ‘lost’ in the fog of design history, such as Henrion et al, is obviously a desire to pay these people their dues. The research into their past; how they became designers; what underpinned their practice, (in terms of personal ethos); as well as the excellent archiving of their life’s work, should also be of great interest to those outside of the discipline as well as to designers. For to document their contributions to society at large is to showcase their relevence to popular culture. It is difficult to read Structure and Substance without getting the sense that Garland is dedicated to making the best work he can for the end user. The fact that these designers understood who they were creating work for underpinned an ethos of responsibility in their thinking about graphic design that fed into the aesthetic appeal of what they produced. When you then consider that their work has influenced the world we see around us today by feeding into the evolution of graphic design and how the viewer reads visual communications in their everyday, it is fair to say they also helped to fashion social history.
It is interesting to note that at the conferences Graphic Design: History In The Making, and Critical Tensions, both held at St Bride Library in 2011, several speakers discussed the standing of graphic design history and graphic design practice in the eyes of the general public. At the latter, Jonathan Barnbrook spoke of graphic designers being the lowest regarded ‘arts’ discipline after advertising, while the history themed conference debated why graphic design was not afforded the respect with which art history is bestowed. While it is fair to claim that many graphic designers have chips on their shoulders, these are still relevant debating points. To address the issue of design history’s standing, someone speaking from the floor at History In The Making stated that graphic design can only ever be judged by non-designers in relation to its original context. In other words, a designs’ reason for existence is what it should be judged against. And in my mind, Unit Editions have come closest to publishing books on what is generally an inward-looking discipline that are accessible, and attractive, to a much wider audience than just designers.
I will look forward to the publications that will come out of Unit Editions during 2014, as well as those that other publishing houses produce. Unlike when I was a student, it is fair to say that books about graphic design have never been in ruder health. The bonus that they could be seen as of great importance in documenting social history is one I think that should be championed, and could go a long way to repositioning graphic design in the mind of the general public.
For more on Unit Editions and design books in general, then check out this excellent interview with Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy on Designers & Books.