Stocking without the filler

Design books make great Christmas gifts, but you have to sift through shelves of vacuous eye candy to find genuinely inspiring titles.

OK, Christmas decorations have been on sale since July, but we’re really on the home straight now. The days are getting shorter, the ad breaks are getting longer and the kids have turned the pester volume up to eleven. This is the time of year when that annual conundrum raises its head – what do you buy for the designer who has everything?

There simply couldn’t be a worse set of people to go shopping for. Picky, sensitive, opinionated, with a finely honed sense of aesthetics, you’re on a hiding to nothing. ‘You should have got it in black… you don’t really think I’m that big… you don’t really think I’m that small… it’s too fancy… too minimalist… the styling’s all wrong… as a design concept it’s flawed… it just doesn’t go with anything.’

Oh sod it. I’ll get them a book. Which is where the trouble really begins.

These days, it seems every obscure, cultish facet of the graphic arts is fair game for publishers. From skateboard stickers to T-shirts, fliers to classic computer arcade games, business cards to tattoos, shop signs to Manga comics. Even in a regular high street book shop, we can now embark on a whirlwind tour of vernacular graphics, from the People’s Republic of China and the former East Germany, by way of Cuba, India and Mexico. If you prefer time travel, you can just pick your decade – 1950s magazine design anyone? Victorian engravings? 1980s film posters? No problem. And specialist design book outlets like Magma and Zwemmer are like fetish clubs catering for more outré tastes – from the bizarre, to the banal.

We’ve all done it of course. Probably one of the most esoteric books in my collection is called Krazy Kids’ Food, a cross-section of kooky 1950s and 1960s food packaging from the collection of Los Angeles-based artist Dan Goodsell. Having said that, it has to jockey for position with Open Here – The Art of Instructional Design, a book consisting entirely of line-drawn instructions, lovingly put together by Paul Mijksenaar and Piet Westendorp, a couple of nutty professors from Holland. Here, rather flat-looking hands are shown variously taking birth-control pills, rolling cigarettes and grappling with arcane electrical appliances.

Every design group that’s been going more than about three weeks seems to have a monograph out. I once heard of a spin-off design group that was offered a book deal before it had even set up on its own. It spent the first six months of trading creating fictional work to put in the book and, as a result, almost had to call in the receivers.

How things change. Think back to 1988, and the hoo-ha that greeted The Graphic Language of Neville Brody, one of the very first books of its ilk. Not only was Brody the most influential designer of his generation, but the book accompanied a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Victoria & Albert Museum. And still this wasn’t enough for some. Brody’s not even dead yet. I’m by no means advocating a return to those bad old days, when you’d be more likely to find a book covering 17th century sanitation in the south-eastern provinces of Flanders than on graphic design. It’s just that quantity has certainly overtaken quality. We don’t need yet another collection of loosely themed images pulled together with little thought or editorial rigour. We do need more than slender 800-word introductions that try to pass themselves off as worthwhile design criticism. No matter how powerful a piece of work was in its original form, dropped into page after page of graphics and presented without context or comment, it’s reduced to visual wallpaper – just another wave in a sea of images.

What exactly are these pretty, petty books for? Once you’ve flicked through them, and had a quick visual fix, will you really bother to pick them up again? Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps, on the contrary, they’re well-thumbed, indispensable crib sheets, which designers turn to day after day looking for ‘inspiration’.

Of course there are the wonderful exceptions. Alan Fletcher’s inspiring The Art of Looking Sideways, where you’ll find something new every time you open it; Intro’s highly discerning Sampler series, with their authoritative introductory essays; the predictably impeccable Designed by Peter Saville; Derek Birdsall’s charming, personable Notes on Book Design. What do they have in common? Substance. A premise which drives and sustains them from cover to cover. These are the kind of well-conceived, well-executed books which will stand the test of time. Too many others, I’m afraid, are the graphic equivalent of the Christmas cracker – hollow and disappointing.

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