Wednesday, 6 February 2013

'Graphic Design Theory' - Helen Armstrong

This book is a great record of many of the theories put forward by graphic designers since the early 1900s. It weighs in at 150 pages and features just enough full colour images to avoid monotony.

The design is handled cleverly, given the nature of the content. Quotations run up the left side of the asymmetrical page layouts, probably to allow for a comfortable line length and text size. Mini biographies are set in a cedar brown and, interestingly, the body copy doesn't use a sans-serif. The passage by Herbert Bayer is set without any use of capitals, as a nod to his practice of never using them, but again a serif font is used (not that I'm complaining). Each new section is heralded by a double-page: the left being a full-bleed image, and the right, an introduction on a solid colour background. Also, the inside cover pages (see last image) show an abstract illustration of an eye built up by various symbols, including a representation of Phi, to visualize the book's title – understated but beautiful.

The actual content of the book is, as mentioned, a collection of writings by different designers. Something about the more scientific movements, up to 1940, really resonates with me – work by Jan Tschichold and Josef Muller-Brockmann just seems so timeless. It's the scientific approach that they, and others before them, took to design that appeals to me. The justification of every single design decision – I guess it's what caused one modern-day agency to call itself Why Not Associates, presumably in revolt of that practice (it doesn't say on their website, but I noticed they don't use capitals in the text either).

One thing I did notice about some of the writings from modern designers is the irony that, while they make a living out of visual communication, their written communication is dire. It actually seems to be a past-time for many people in the design world to write bull***t like 'cryptic, poker-faced juxtapositions' when they're trying to make a point. Perhaps they just enjoy writing with an airy-fairy pomposity (as I do, evidently), and have no real desire to persuade their audience of anything. Personally, I was always taught that, even if your vocabulary meets the standard of that of Will Self, if you can't/won't say something in plain language, it's usually not worth saying.

Still, the irritating authors featured within the book shouldn't reflect on the design of the book, which is superb for the reasons I mentioned. I guess it has a bitter-sweet nature for me – bitter in that it gives voice to people whose favourite book is a thesaurus, and sweet because it celebrates some amazing designers from the early half of the 20th century, among others.

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