Graphics need context to come off the page

In his last column (DW 1 April), Adrian Shaughnessy suggests that graphic design is dead popular, and ready for a London Graphics Week. Apparently, there is a type of design that is ‘free expression’, and the general public just can’t get enough of it. The evidence is a couple of design exhibitions and some books.

The designers Adrian mentions – like Designers Republic and Büro Destruct – work mostly in the music industry. Their work adorns CDs, and occasionally T-shirts and posters. Some of this stuff is bought for its graphic beauty, most is bought by fans of the music.

If you design a CD that is bought by 100 000 people it must be easy to think that it is at least in part due to your graphic ingenuity. But what would the sales be if the same graphics were used on an obscure folk singer’s album? Would the graphics alone propel it to the top of the charts?

What about the books? Adrian argues that huge numbers of non-designers buy design books. Check out the figures. Big sales for a graphic design book is 5000 copies. Compared to car manuals, popular art books or gardening books, these are weedy figures.

I am all for books and exhibitions about graphic design. I think Rewind, the British Design & Art Direction exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum, which attracted 60 000 visitors, set a great precedent which I am sure Rick Poynor’s forthcoming show at the Barbican will exceed.

But, London Graphics Week? People buy fashion for itself. A skirt is a skirt. But how do we lever the graphics off the book covers, steam it off the CDs, peel it off the packaging and celebrate it for itself? You can’t get graphic design without its content, its context. Any book or exhibition needs to respect and explain that. Graphic design is an applied art, and its growing band of fans love it for that alone.

Quentin Newark

Creative director

Atelier Works

London NW5

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