Book review: Graphic design ideas

100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design

100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design

100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design has to be great book for starting arguments. Like all lists, it will divide, inspire, frustrate, inform and irritate its readers. Why’s that in? Why’s this out? You must be joking …

The authors propose 100 ideas, with a spread devoted to each: some technical (overprinting, Letraset, split fountain printing); others stylistic (expressions of speed, loud typography and white space); some objects (graphic design magazines, book jackets); and techniques (the grid, pixellation). And then set out why, arguably, the idea has been influential, with two or three examples as evidence.

So we have ‘body type’ – that’s type printed on flesh (what do you think of that one? Why isn’t it a tattoo?); self-promotional (vanity) publishing; manifestos along the lines of the Pre-Raphaelites’ Germ (though Marinetti’s 1909 article on Futurism is the first mentioned – and the blasting and blessing of the Vorticists’ Blast is far more fun, both to read and look at); and provocative gestures (what, no Churchill?).

Churchill's V-sign

Churchill’s V-sign

And no juxtapositions from Lilliput, an idea seen as much in the US and the UK? Or duotone, or printing poor pictures big, or CMYK, or integrated cover illustrations and text, or self-referential magazine covers, lenticular technology, or hand-drawn headlines?

Juxtapositions from Lilliput

Of course, there is also a danger here in repeating too many examples that have been wheeled out so many times before and on this point the book gets it about right.

The text belies the US-centric viewpoint of its authors, as in this commentary on a VW advert (1962): ‘The white page emphasized the undersized Beetle’. ‘Undersized’ – that could only have been written by a North American. These cultural differences are often overlooked by publishers and academics, yet they can make a big difference. For example, how many times has the New York Times printed the word ‘fuck’ in the past 30 years? Once. Even a comparatively reserved British paper such as the Financial Times has used it 430 times in the same period. (And what about censorship as an idea?) The editors could have been a bit more clever here.

The big issue is whether the book is true to itself. What is the underlying logic and narrative the authors set out? Here, it ultimately fails. Idea No 1 is ‘The Book’. Fine. But then it jumps several centuries to focus on the 20th. The Victorian is mainly treated as a form of nostalgia, rather than as the source of so many more of the ideas than the book gives credit for. The book itself gives no hint of selection, though the blurb in the press release does, talking about the ‘best examples’ from the past 100 years. So how does ‘The Book’ get in!

Yet, as long as you mentally insert the phrases ‘from a US perspective’ and ‘of the 20th century’ in the title, Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne provide plenty of irritation/inspiration value to inspire late night arguments among students and professionals alike.

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