The Rise of the Memoir-ograph

With publishers turning away from the traditional monograph, a new form of self-written design book – part showcase, part ‘studio portrait’ – has emerged. Hannah Ellis wonders what their lasting value will be

Aaron Draplin’s self-authored monograph Pretty Much Everything, Abrams, £25

The ‘mid-career survey’ of Portland-based graphic designer Aaron Draplin, Pretty Much Everything, has five stars on Amazon and an RRP of £25. It is hardbound, 256 pages long and less likely to sit on top of a coffee table than press it down into the floor. The glossy, full-colour images of Draplin’s work are punctuated by aphorisms and anecdotes, advice for graduating students and the occasional portrait of Draplin himself.

If you’re wondering who on earth Aaron Draplin is and why – having never heard of him – he has a book that documents his practice, then join the club. Well-known in America, his name hasn’t really travelled beyond the US – yet. So, in brief: Former art director of Snowboarder magazine, Draplin set up his own studio, Draplin Design Co. (or DDC), in 2004. Ten years later, he spoke at TED×Portland (wearing a DDC branded cap and T-shirt) about ‘Making it in the little leagues’ and how he was, rather magnanimously, going to save the world ‘one logo at a time’. By 2016, he had released the aforementioned self-authored monograph, and in January of this year he was named as one of Print magazine’s Regional Design Award judges, completing a line-up including Pentagram heavyweights Eddie Opara and Paula Scher.

For the most part, his work appears to be mid-century-meets-Illustrator logo design; his most well-known project isn’t technically a piece of graphic design, though. The immensely popular Field Notes – a series of admittedly quite lovely, multicoloured notebooks that have been sold worldwide – go part of the way to explaining some slightly obscene social media metrics as, fan-base wise, Draplin’s influence is huge. On Twitter, @draplin has a not-too-shabby 47.3k followers, on Instagram it’s an eyebrow-raising 104k. Here, he regularly shares links to his Skillshare classes, speaking events across America or vignettes of his work. Having tapped into such a massive audience, and duly doing rounds on the circuit, it probably goes without saying as to why publishers Abrams decided to put out his book.

So, at a time when many publishers are avoiding the traditional monograph at all costs (poor sales making them no longer viable economically), Draplin’s Pretty Much Everything bucks the market trend, and isn’t alone. In fact, it’s just one of the more recent examples of the increasingly popular type of designer monograph that isn’t really a monograph at all, but that also aren’t really definable as anything else.

Pretty Much Everything finds roots in the same area of design publishing that is occupied by books like Make Your Own Luck by Kate Moross (RRP £22.50, 224 pages, also five stars on Amazon), Sagmeister: Made You Look (RRP £27.00, 292 pages and – you guessed it – five stars on Amazon), or Charm, Belligerence & Perversity: The Incomplete Works of GBH (RRP £29.99, 192 b pages, as yet un-starred). These books never really call themselves monographs, billing themselves instead as something more – both everything and nothing all at the same time. ‘Part showcase, part autobiography’ or a ‘portrait’ of a studio or designer, these ‘memoir-ographs’ are softer, more accessible than traditional monographs. Still featuring examples of work in the volume that you’d expect, with liberal amounts of personality and self-deprecating humour to take the intimidating edge off; intimately written diary entries offset the formality of high-profile client jobs.

Sub-£30 price tags and claims of ‘true insider’s tips on how to make it in a highly competitive field’ gear them towards students and early-career designers

Sub-£30 price tags and claims of ‘true insider’s tips on how to make it in a highly competitive field’ gear them towards students and early-career designers, especially those palpitating at the thought of the transition between university life and the real-world, desperately seeking reassurance. The recently-released Make it Now! from Anthony Burrill (RRP £18.99, 208 pages, invariably five star-worthy) is likely to be the same, assuring buyers it will be “full of inspiration and ideas, his best-loved prints as well as new work”, and that “this book will get you thinking bigger and better and recharge your creativity”.

The name’s the thing

A point that seems so obvious that it ought to go without saying is that it’s not really the work but the name that’s important here, because, just like any celebrity autobiography, these memoir-ographs are as much about the designer as they are by the designer. (In comparison to Draplin’s Instagram popularity, Burrill has 58.7k followers, Moross has 24.9k and Sagmeister a massive 170k. Jessica Walsh, on the other hand, has 293k and a coveted blue-tick, but no book … for now.) It’s a codex that cements the ‘who’s who’ at that moment in time, telling their story in their words. And – with a captive audience of thousands of avid followers – they’re stories that everyone apparently wants to hear. So whilst the likes of Anthony Burrill or Aaron Draplin or whoever else rattles their way through 200+ pages of their own work, entertaining the already-a-fan reader with anecdotes about how they got to be so brilliant, there’s never really a need to question the whole nature of auto-monography. Because there’s something inescapably weird about writing a book about yourself and your work, isn’t there?

A monograph was historically the sign that told the world you’d made it; someone found your practice as an artist (then as a designer, when design started to suffer from status-anxiety) interesting enough to go to the trouble of writing about it. You’d earned a place in cultural history. With heavyweights like Kalman, Muller Brockman, and Tschichold all immortalised in print, being a designer whose name sits on a bookshelf alongside them has a great deal of obvious appeal, and even more so as design becomes a competition for recognition (measured by who has the most awards, the most column inches) rather than an industry. In that regard, the memoir-ograph smacks more than a little of The Office’s Michael Scott clutching at the ‘World’s Best Boss’ mug he bought himself.

So, here’s the question: if you have to write a book about your work yourself, doesn’t that kind of defeat the point? And: if your career advice is genuinely invaluable – is it not so invaluable that it can stand on its own, away from your work, and remain true?

Because auto-monography doesn’t exactly lend itself to writing a good (and by ‘good’ in this sense I mean objective, well researched and critically reflective) design book. It comes with a whole bunch of problems, most obvious of which is contextualisation. The Graphic Language of Neville Brody is one of the best-selling graphic design books of all time, but it’s Jon Wozencroft’s brilliant essays that position Brody as the 80s enfant terrible resisting established design tradition in a way that Brody could never have done had he written the book himself. Looking further to the past, Markus Rathgeb’s Otl Aicher and Christopher Burke’s Paul Renner: The art of typography – both books that started as PhD theses – investigate in painstaking detail how life in Germany during the 30s and 40s influenced the creative practices of two very different but equally great designers.

Contemporary graphic design on the whole seems to have a nasty habit for fingers in ears and shut eyes, pretending that the world isn’t happening around us. Commercial practice is an easy target, it’s not my intention to get into a Klein-esque rant about branding or the like (at least, I don’t think it is) but – as an example: if neoliberalism all but defines contemporary Western society, then how many times do these memoir-monographers question how capitalism or globalisation influence their design practice? That is, beyond how it directly affects them (ie invoicing, being asked to work for free or how to build a client base).

Does anyone worry about the wider impact of their work, beyond making a beautiful logo or advertising campaign, and think about the (usually negative) impact that playing on people’s wants and desires has?

Does anyone worry about the wider impact of their work, beyond making a beautiful logo or advertising campaign, and think about the (usually negative) impact that playing on people’s wants and desires has? If they don’t, isn’t that an equally important statement to make? And, more importantly, who actually discusses these really uncomfortable topics a) off their own back and b) in print? OK – Draplin is starting to get there with his ideas of pro-bono logo design for charities, but what about the larger questions of is there a better way of promoting charities than through the inapposite visual language of business? Is pro-bono the only working model for graphic designers wanting to affect social change? Or how about has branding helped ruthless competition continue to the point where even aid is now commodified and, if so, do we really believe that designing a logo is the right way to sort it out?

Capitalising on popularity contests in graphic design, the market-driven trend for publishing books about and by pop star practitioners and social media icons starts to create a design history of the future based on what sells now. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t axiomatically mean best practice. In 50 years time, will Burrill, Draplin and Moross hold the same weight as Kalman, Muller Brockman and Tschichold do now?

The celebrity status that ensures a book’s online stamp of approval – a stellar quintet – ensures further popularity by replicating itself algorithmically. ‘People who bought X also bought….’ Publishing by marketability isn’t exclusive to graphic design: in 2015 YouTuber PewDiePie (54 million subscribers and counting) not only published a book with Penguin that had zero discernible content, but said book went on to top the New York Times’ bestseller list and has, to date, sold 112,000 copies worldwide. (That’s nearly as many as The Graphic Language of Neville Brody.)

Fame = talent?

While PewDiePie’s This Book Loves You parodies self-help books, referring to itself tongue-in-cheek as a book of “illustrated inspirational sayings by which you should live your life” and unmistakably being anything but, graphic design memoir-ographs take themselves very seriously as a thing of value. Weight, unwieldy-ness and hardback covers borrow the same presence as traditional monographs, defying anything as nonchalant as being thrown in a bag or read on a bus. (Imagine lugging around 2 Kilo of Kessels Kramer to read on your commute!)

And so Draplin and Moross turn up in dissertations, the descriptions of their work or practical advice mistaken for ‘critical references’ by students and young designers who are yet to sharpen up their analytical skills. (True story – in fact, marking dissertations is the only reason I have any idea at all who Aaron Draplin is.) The lack of criticality is a self-perpetuating cycle of ever diminishing returns; full-marks and ubiquitous reviews like ‘Awesome book with great story’ and ‘Very good!’ say a lot by the fact that they don’t. Everything is all very nice, very good and ‘beautifully illustrated’.

Two indisputable facts that I realised (quite quickly) after becoming a tutor are: 1) facilitating critical thinking in students is really difficult. It’s so difficult, in fact, that the dictionary usage example is quite literally ‘professors often find it difficult to encourage critical thinking among their students’. It’s not a skill that lends itself well to a national curriculum that encourages passiveness, or to a generation bought up on the idea that it’s better to avoid judgement per se than risk being considered unprogressive. Stemming from critical faculty (or, maybe, lack of) is: 2) anything a big-name designer says completely outweighs any opinion a tutor might have, because fame = talent.

Since the content of these books is more or less parroted by the students and early-career designers they target, do memoir-ographs perhaps need to work a bit harder to justify themselves?

So, since the content of these books is more or less parroted by the students and early-career designers they target, do memoir-ographs perhaps need to work a bit harder to justify themselves? And, if the premise that makes them more than just a ‘self-aggrandising monograph’ is some kind of vague educational offering, do they need to go beyond ‘how-to’ career-advice and into the kind of questioning that might be challenging for the audience but beneficial nonetheless? It’s a bit like chopping up vegetables and hiding them in mashed potato; cerebral nutrition disguised by endorphin-releasing carbs.

So much of brilliant critical thinking is often tied up in abstruse academic language and/or produced by smaller publishers – maybe the real opportunity here is as a mainstream stepping-stone into criticality, using the authority that a popular name carries. Humour and affability makes these books appealing to their disproportionately dyslexic audience, so perhaps this is a chance to make asking complex questions palatable, or at the very least, digestible.

I suppose the more pressing question is whether or not designers should be writing these books themselves at all? Going as far as to publicly admit you think something you did was a bit shit, completely misjudged or a total disaster – in a format that could be placed in an online basket or leafed through in Waterstones by your next big client – would be lunacy. So, if you can’t ask difficult questions of your work, who can? As it stands, popularity and success breeds further popularity and further success. There’s a limit on what you can expect from a ‘glorified business card’.

Hannah Ellis is a designer and university lecturer. 

This article originally stated that Aaron Draplin is based in Michigan. He is in fact based in Portland. That has been corrected in the piece. Apologies for the error.

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