Like most people, I have a few blind spots when it comes to processing information. One is maths (numbers mean nothing to me) and the other is retaining most types of facts, names, figures. This has meant that getting to grips with historical context of any kind has never been an easy (or enjoyable) endeavour for me. It’s therefore been a wonderful surprise to have connected so absolutely with Stephen Eskilson’s Graphic Design: A New History, a weighty and extremely accessible history of graphic design.
Eskilson, an associate professor at the art department of Eastern Illinois University – who co-authored the 2004 book Frames of Reference: Art History and the World – states in the preface that he wrote this book in a bid to better understand the state of graphic design today. In his choice of subtitle, he speaks of his study as a “new” history, a reference to the ever-changing landscape of design over the past few decades, in particular, the advent of desktop publishing, motion graphics and the internet and how the role of the designer is still changing in ways we don’t yet fully understand.
What this book does and does very well, is help us look back and trace our roots with the rigour that our discipline very much deserves and needs. Understanding our own story helps us to have a better understanding of where we are going and ultimately what it means to be a graphic designer today, but also gives us insight into what being a graphic designer tomorrow might mean.
Throughout, Eskilson writes effortlessly. And he tells stories. This book is very simply a story of graphic design: its roots (for once, not beginning with the writing found in the Lascaux Caves, but instead with 1455 and Gutenberg) and its progression (from mass production in the Industrial Revolution to John Ruskin and William Morris’ ideas about social unity; from Art Nouveau to the progressive, groundbreaking Dada and Bauhaus movements; to the era of corporatisation of design epitomised by the International Style and onwards all the way to today’s state of Postmodern flux) looking at cultural, political and social context (specifically the change of technology and its profound affects on design) while addressing recurring themes throughout the decades (which curiously don’t seem to have changed that much).
Early on in the book, while chronicling the late nineteenth century, Eskilson identifies three recurring themes specific to that time, which leapt out at me, as they seem to encapsulate many of the same issues, themes and concerns that we’re still caught up in now.
The first of these are the continuing attempts by artists to “collapse the hierarchical relationship” between fine arts and what he calls the “less esteemed crafts”, which include graphic design – a battle that much of our discourse today is still very concerned with. We are still asking questions such as: why is graphic design playing catch up to fine art?
Then, we are told that there is a “belief in the feasibility of artist-led utopias”. While we’re far too cynical to call these “utopias” today, there is still plenty of discussion about the designer holding a more significant position in his/her community (the notion of the “citizen designer”). And finally, introducing the last of the three themes that have proved to be ongoing, he writes on “the use of design styles as a marker of national or regional identity”, a particularly interesting observation, which remains the same today as back then in the late nineteenth century, in light of our increasingly global and multi-cultural awareness. Eskilson’s predilection for highlighting such rhyming themes is part of what makes this book so engaging.
There are times, though, when I wish Eskilson had drawn more of these connections himself – there are a few scattered examples of this (James Flagg’s 1917 “I Want You for US Army” poster coupled with PETA’s 2002 “I Want You to Go Vegetarian”), but there are also too many missed opportunities. For instance, Peter Behrens’ Electric Tea Kettle, 1909, beside his poster for AEG Lamps, 1910, is a wonderful example of the visual relationship between graphic and product design and how the two are able to inform one another with such ease. This could have been supplemented with a line or two addressing the potential multi-disciplinary nature of graphic design(ers) and how, again, this remains a poignant theme in today’s discourse. Another such instance crops up with Eskilson’s mention of “job printers”. As he explains, with the rise of mass media during the Industrial Revolution, the majority of printed materials weren’t designed, but instead drawn up by “job printers”. The idea of the “job printer” reminded me of the contemporary phenomenon of desktop publishing and how it has led to the mistaken, but widely-held, belief that anyone with a computer can call themselves a designer.
Although there are many connections made throughout the book between technological advancements and their impact on graphic design (my favourite was reading that Baskerville had to invent new inks in order to maximise the potential of his typeface) a point Eskilson should also have driven home is how these production developments are once more particularly relevant today, as we increasingly move towards an awareness of environmental issues, which in turn means that designers need to start taking responsibility for, and assuming a more active role in the production process.
There is one glaring omission which was my only real disappointment with the book. While there is a wonderful and relatively thorough account of independent publications on the subject of art and design (Lewis Hind and Charles Holme’s The Studio; Kurt Schwitters’ Merz; Wyndham Lewis’ Blast; and Rudy VanderLans’ Émigré, to name just four examples), there is no mention of the area of design writing and criticism. There’s no mention either of two seminal contemporary design publications: Rick Poynor’s Eye and Stuart Bailey and Peter Bilak’s Dot Dot Dot. I was also surprised to have seen such detailed attention to the publications themselves, but no mention of the long-standing tradition of graphic designers writing, designing and publishing such works. In particular,
I was disappointed not to have read anything about the significant position that writing and criticism already holds and will continue to hold in the history of graphic design.
Despite these small gripes, I liked this book very much. As a reader, I felt like a student again – learning, absorbing, processing new information, scribbling notes in the margins, earmarking pages and scanning in numerous images for my own research. And for someone with no head for facts, getting me to this place was no mean feat.