There have been lots of great books about designers lately; Ikko Tanaka, Paul Rand, Wim Crouwel, Bruno Monguzzi, Bill Cahan, Hans Schleger, Otto Treumann, Stefan Sagmeister and Bruce Mau. Each is meant to be a kind of summary, a detailed analysis and exposure of the intentions, working methods and successes of design’s first rank. (Even if they aren’t in the first rank, the hope is the book will put them there.) Many pieces of design from these books have been well exposed and form part of every designers’ visual memory; Rand’s logos for Cummings and Westinghouse, Crouwel’s New Alphabet, Sagmeister’s scratched body. But how many of us have seen the actual pieces of design themselves? Not many of us. Most of us know them as reproductions, miniature printed copies, distant relatives of the originals.
When we look at design work this way, what exactly are we judging? It is shorn of all its context. Real, 3D objects, painstakingly composed are reduced to tiny, flat squares. You can’t smell the ink, feel the paper surface, hear the page turn, see the relationships between colours, type and image. Most commonly we see a stamp-sized image with a caption. Often the image is ‘squared-off’, not a photo of the thing itself, but a digital file. In some cases, this may not even be what t
he client actually bought. (A designer I worked alongside once used to get disappointing jobs reprinted the way he thought they should have been done just for his portfolio, at another client’s expense.)
Let’s compare design to other arts for a moment, literature, say, and film. Would we accept a book about a major poet, consisting entirely of snippets from his poems? Or a book about a film-maker with just one scene from each film, with no sound? This would be regarded as a way of presenting their work that made it impossible to form a judgement about it, a fragment that indicated certain values, but was incomplete. Why is design different? Most graphic design is about a narrative, it has sequence, pace, it tells a story, articulates different kinds of material; interpolative words, atmospheric images, emblems of identity, sales data… as complex and dependent on all its parts for effect as any film or poem.
Some books go some way towards expressing a piece of design more fully. Mau reproduces (at a tiny fraction of real size) a whole document to allow us to see its pace and development. Sagmeister annotates his whole book with diary notes written at the time of each job, which gives us a clear sense of his emotional commitment to his work. Bill Cahan shows the roughs and alteration presentations for several projects, and follows the client’s reasoning.
In Treumann’s book, designer Irma Boom en-larges many pieces of work to huge size, so we become hyper-conscious of the qualities of printing and reproduction – no bad thing for a book about a designer, whose every output is put through this process. These ideas may appeal, but the remainder of the book often reverts to the accepted norm of flat, squished, out-of-scale image and caption.
If designers revert, it’s down to laziness, treating design like any other kind of content. What other real alternatives to depressing flat-land are there? Robin Kinross, in his book Modern Typography, reduced all the illustrations in proportion to one another, so the relative size of all the pieces were as in real life. He also used black and white, a way to distance the viewer, so we know it’s reproduced rather than fool ourselves we understand the thing itself.
In Rick Poynor’s new book about Herbert Spencer’s Typographica magazine, Poynor identifies a novel way to treat design work, an approach in which Spencer ‘recontextualises’ the design he is showing, makes it part of his own new artwork. He does this by ‘eliminating the distancing frame formed by the material edge of the object displayed, so that, lacking definite boundaries, its image could form a tighter visual bond with adjacent imagery and, ultimately, with the composite page, the page’s edge became, in effect, its new boundary’.
Another approach by Spencer is a copy of The Penrose Annual from 1964. Actual samples of printed work are bound in; letterheads, maps, brochure covers, embossed logos, all on the right card and paper. The supreme example is Marcel Duchamp. He made a portable ‘valise’ containing his best pieces, each one a perfect facsimile, at a size that fitted the velvet-lined suitcase. Not exactly the thing itself, but closer than any designer gets.