Breakthrough Books

Jessica Helfand, visiting lecturer in graphic design at Yale University and author of Six (+2) Essays on Design and New Media(William Drenttel, 1998) and Paul Rand: American Modernist(William Drenttel, 1999).

"It is always difficult to recommend books on graphic design because they tend to be image intensive and prose poor. But there is one book that is essential: Now back in print, Josef Müller-Brockmann's Grid Systems in Graphic Design: A Visual Communications Manual(Hastings House, 1991) describes the theory and evolution of the grid in book, poster, and exhibition design. The examples may appear dated, but Müller-Brockmann's basic notions are still relevant. Grids, like typography, remain a common currency in the designer's vocabulary--critical to understanding form and balance, harmony and tension. That said, I have always believed that students of design also have much to learn from the broader, more comprehensive literatures of parallel disciplines like film studies, media criticism, and architectural theory. Mitchell Stephens'sThe Rise of the Image the Fall of the Word(Oxford, 1998) traces the complex--and surprisingly radical--evolution of the moving image over time and across different media. In a similar vein, Daniel Boorstin's The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America(Vintage, 1992) looks at a peculiar form of cultural narcissism that pervades contemporary society, manifesting itself in an exaggerated preoccupation with appearances. Though the book was originally published in 1962, Boorstin's thesis remains equally--if not more--valid today, particularly for the designer seeking to reconcile the relationships between representation and replication, invention and suggestion, the real and the virtual."

Lawrence Mirsky, director of the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and editor of The News Aesthetic(Princeton Architectural Press, 1995).

"Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think,written and edited by Stuart K. Card, Jock D. Mackinlay, and Ben Shneiderman (Morgan Kaufmann, 1999), addresses the latest challenge that technology has brought to design: How can abstract data take visual form in a three-dimensional, interactive environment? Scientists and military and medical laboratories nationwide are seeking to summarize millions of documents using linear, spatial, and matrix constructs. Technology that was once available only to research labs is now on the commercial market, and this book shows how it can be used to express abstract data in novel ways. The World's Writing Systems,edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright (Oxford, 1996), explores the origins of, and relationships between, the world's languages. The material ranges from the influence of a script on the political boundaries of a nation to the invention of a script as divine inspiration."

Leif Allmendinger, associate professor of visual communications at Northern Illinois University.

"My favorite design book of the moment is not really a design book at all but a critical look at the impact of technology on society. Those of us who empathize with the people who use our designs would do well to read Edward Tenner's Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences(Knopf, 1996). This book raises the possibility that a design, no matter how carefully planned, may have consequences far different from those originally intended. Tenner documents what he calls the 'revenge effect,' which happens when a technological solution makes a problem worse. In the early 1980s, for instance, a lot of experts believed that networked personal computers promised a paperless office. In fact, they have dramatically increased the amount of paper we use. Tenner also writes about 'complicating effects'--instances in which technology does solve a problem, but also makes life more difficult for its users. Graphic designers are no doubt familiar with this. Electronic publishing programs such as PageMaker were intended to simplify the design process. But they also introduced a whole new set of issues for designers to deal with: font problems, incompatible software, various operating platforms, and initialization conflicts, to name a few. Designers like to talk about problem solving, implying that design can improve the quality of life by eliminating difficulties people face. Tenner's book documents the limits of this approach and provides insight into the social and technical systems within which design functions."

Robin Kinross, typographer and publisher in London and author of Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History(Hyphen, 1992).

"The best design thinking is contained in artifacts, rather than in books. But books that change one's thinking about design do sometimes come along. Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism(Verso, 1983) is short, beautifully written, and very wide in scope. Anderson is a rare cultural historian who takes printing seriously. He argues that printed texts--from newspapers to novels--form a ground on which national communities can find themselves united. Anderson's book is an exhilarating airlift out of the confines of the English-speaking world and away from the blinkers of design culture. Jack Goody's The Domestication of the Savage Mind(Cambridge, 1977) is similarly short and sharp. It offers an anthropological look at communication, with a strong material and historical basis. The bulk of Goody's argument emphasizes the development of nonlinear organizations of text, especially lists and tabular matter. The idea of text, made so vague by literary theorists, becomes specific and complex in Goody's account."

Steven Heller, editor of AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, chair of the M.F.A. program in graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and editor of The Education of a Graphic Designer(Allworth, 1998).

"All Consuming Imagesby Stuart Ewen, revised edition, (Basic, 1999) identifies those of us who make or manipulate images as significant players in the world of spin and public relations. Most professional designers consider the idea of taking cultural, social, and even political responsibility for their work unimportant. Ewen's book prevails against this view, taking a hard look at how advertising professionals--from copywriters to art directors and graphic designers--influence their environments for good or ill. Paul Rand: A Designer's Artby Paul Rand(Yale, 1985), now out of print, is a monograph-cum-manifesto by America's leading modernist designer (and corporate communications pioneer). A revision of his earlier Thoughts on Design(Wittenborn and Schultz, 1946), which served as the bible for the postwar advertising revolution, this book describes design as a formal, aesthetic, and conceptual marriage of rationalism and wit. To Rand, 'good design is good will,' and goodwill is good citizenship.

"A History of Graphic Designby Philip B. Meggs(Wiley, 1998) is the foundation on which graphic design history is currently studied and taught. As an omnibus, it suffers from many faults. Nonetheless, it's the model against which all subsequent design histories and biographies have been developed. Originally published in 1983, Meggs's book demonstrates that graphic design has a significant history both as a tool of commerce and as a cultural form. Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical Historyby Robin Kinross (Hyphen, 1992) contrasts serious advances in typography with the trivial pursuits encouraged by commerce and artistes. Kinross traces the rise of printers from lowly journeymen to artisans and of typographers from mere typesetters to typographic engineers. Modernism, it turns out, is not just a phenomenon of the interwar years; rather, it's a slow, evolutionary process. In terms that might upset orthodoxy, Kinross argues that the new typography, as codified by the German designer Jan Tschichold in the 1920s and practiced by various adherents, was not merely a reaction to antiquated styles: It was the logical extension of historical trends. He distinguishes between significant typographic milestones and the stylistic diversions that follow in the wake of meaningful change."

Eugenia Bell

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