Manual Labour

Manuals 1 is the first comprehensively illustrated book on design manuals, featuring examples from the 1960s to the early 1980s; a period often regarded as the golden age of identity design. Published by Unit Editions, it is introduced by Adrian Shaughnessy and an edited version of his essay, exploring why these weighty objects still hold appeal, is reproduced here…

There is a dark secret about design manuals. Many graphic designers resent the restrictions imposed on them by style and brand guidelines that they have not designed themselves. Or, to put it another way: the instinct found in many designers to deviate, adapt and ‘improve’ is just too deeply ingrained to make following someone else’s rules acceptable.

Of course, it’s different if the designer has designed the guidelines him- or herself. That’s OK. Designers tend to be happy following their own rules (although even here most harbour the wish to tinker and adapt as they see fit). This means that all discussion about design manuals must be set against the realisation that unless we have designed them ourselves, design manuals are like other people’s holiday snaps: we put up with them to be polite, yet inwardly we resent them.

But there’s a paradox here. Designers crave freedom. They say: if only I had more money to complete this project; or, if only I had a more understanding client; or, if only there was more time. Yet it is widely acknowledged within the world of design that the designer’s creative instincts are activated most strongly when he or she comes up against restraints. For most designers, restrictions are an aid to creativity, rather than a barrier – and what could be more restrictive than a design manual, brimful of rules and prohibitions?

And yet, in the words of the experienced brand and identity designer John Lloyd, co-founder of the British design firm Lloyd Northover, identity guidelines need not be a straitjacket. He cites IBM as an example of a corporation that “encourages creative freedom within constraints”, and quotes Paul Rand: “Innovative solutions are more the product of restraints than of freedoms – of cultural limitations, scarcity of funds and materials, production capabilities, and demands of the marketplace.”

Today, however, “creative freedom” and “innovative solutions” are made less likely by the fact that brand and style guidelines are usually downloadable digital templates. But surely the convenience of instantly downloadable digital guidelines means more, not less, creative licence? In fact, the opposite is true. We download PDFs, EPS files and templates from the internet and, hey presto, everything is done for us. We are no longer designers – we are template-fillers. We barely have to think; and when we don’t have to think about what we do, the outcome will reveal, well, nothing quite so much as a lack of thought.

There is an interesting study to be made on the role of physical exertion in graphic design (the link between exercise and creativity is already the subject of extensive research). But the issue of physical movement seems especially relevant to graphic design where, thanks to the computer, physical labour has almost been eliminated: we sit at screens and barely tax our muscle tissue. In the past, or more precisely in the pre-digital era, things were different.

Most manuals, for instance, were hefty documents fitted with ring binders. These binders were used to enable pages to be removed and placed under process cameras or PMT machines to make exact copies of typefaces, logos and graphic elements. The simple act of lifting a weighty volume from its shelf, prising apart its steel rings and going into a darkroom to make prints required far more physical effort than is needed to download a digital template. We’re not talking marathon running here, but we are looking at regular bodily activity. So perhaps it is not too fanciful to suggest that this physical and tactile engagement with manuals engendered a deeper and more creative relationship between designer and the raw material of an identity than is possible in the digital realm.

And as graphic design gets sucked down the digital rabbit hole, many designers have started to look at these old dinosaur volumes in a new light. Suddenly, to modern eyes blinded by the glare of pixel-sharp computer screens, printed manuals are revealed as beautifully crafted objects. The sheer skill and painstaking detail that is evident in the best examples – not to mention their often splendid physical presence – demands that we treat them with a sort of reverence. As identity designer Sean Perkins notes: “A printed book has an inherent value as an object, it’s tangible. You can create drama, pace, structure in a book, something that is less easy to create on screen.”

What factors explain the reverence amongst many contemporary designers for the great manuals from the 1960s and 70s? Is it merely nostalgia for a pre-digital era, when there was enough time to produce such complex undertakings? Or is the revival of interest more to do with the passing of a style of design and graphic communication that is less prevalent today?

For the most part, the best manuals adhered to the principles of graphic modernism – and more particularly to the ‘Swiss Style’ (also known as the ‘International Style’ or ‘die neue Grafik’). This austere visual grammar, with its bold use of white space, small repertoire of sans serif typefaces and reliance on strict modular grids, established itself in America in the mid-20th century. Josef Müller-Brockmann’s lecture at the International Design Conference in Aspen in 1955 is widely regarded as one of the main catalysts for the adoption of the new ultra-disciplined approach.

(Of course, not everyone welcomed this cuckoo in the nest of American design – Herb Lubalin famously resisted the allure of the Swiss school.)

But it is no coincidence that the arrival of the Swiss Style coincided with the rise of corporate identity in the 1950s, and it was amongst the identity designers that the style was most avidly adopted – hardly surprising since the grid-based, hyperrational layouts and stark use of limited colour palettes were perfectly suited for use in style manuals that had to be understood and then followed by individuals with limited design skills. In Paul Rand: A Designer’s Words, Steven Heller quotes Rand’s enthusiasm for the style: “There is no counterpart to Swiss design, in terms of something that you can describe, that you can follow, that you can systematically understand.”

The great manuals of the recent past also represent, in the eyes of many contemporary designers at least, a time before branding supplanted identity design as one of the main occupations of graphic designers. In the corporate identity era the designer was in charge, but today, in the age of branding, the designer is viewed as far less important. Branding today is decided by strategists and marketeers who often treat design (and designers) with suspicion, with the result that brand identities are frequently less ‘well designed’ than the refined, high-style identities of the past. In contemporary branding, anything goes, just so long as it can be smeared like sun tan lotion on everything – and everyone.

Manuals can also be revered as exemplars of a time and a sensibility when identities were meant to last. Today, in the era of ‘brand refreshes’ and the near-constant rush of ‘rebrandings’ and ‘image revamps’, it is gratifying to know that there was once a time when logos and corporate identities were built to last. And, as Perkins observes, if an identity is meant to last, a good manual is the main guarantor of its longevity: “It’s the bible,” he states, “and the first-aid kit to the identity: to create consistency and control yet also inspire flexibility so the design keeps growing and innovating (within reason). It signifies it’s finished, and not ongoing.”

A more political explanation for the attraction to a new audience of the great printed manuals is that these documents stand as evidence of an era when businesses and institutions were concerned with projecting an image of probity and social responsibility. Today, there is near universal mistrust of corporations – yet it is possible to regard at least some of the early global corporations as benevolent and well intentioned. And when we look back at the great manuals of the past, they appear to be rational, well-tempered, often highly technical documents that show corporations in a neutral, if not quite benevolent, light.
Furthermore, manuals are not only used in big business: they have a role in civic projects such as transport systems, public information programmes and, of course, sporting events such as the Olympic Games. As one commentator notes: “The Design Guidelines are the graphic core of the Olympic Games. These manuals contain all elements for a systematic design of the events. Without these guidelines the presentation of the Games would be totally chaotic. The design guidelines, also called ‘Graphic Standards’, ‘Graphic Manuals’, ‘Usage Guidelines’ or ‘Design Manuals’, were first published in Tokyo in 1964.”

So designers have good reasons to be infatuated with printed manuals. But let’s put theorising and speculation aside and consider the idea that the strongest claim manuals can make on our affections is that they are amongst the best examples of pure information design in graphic design. As Massimo Vignelli notes: “The definition of a good manual is a manual that gets used.”

In other words, they are functioning documents with a clear purpose and an explicit role to play. Looking at the examples collected here and featured in our new book, we can only marvel at the skill and dedication that went into their making.

Manuals 1: Design & Identity Guidelines contains a foreword by Massimo Vignelli and texts from Adrian Shaughnessy, NASA designer Richard Danne, Greg D’Onofrio and Patricia Belen (Display), Armin Vit (UnderConsideration), Sean Perkins (North) and John Lloyd. It is available as a 432-page hardback book; £75, uniteditions.com. Editors: Tony Brook, Adrian Shaughnessy and Sarah Schrauwen. Design: Spin. Manuals photography: Sarah Schrauwen, Roos Gortworst and Thomas Hervé

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