Rob Hardy on books


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The Influences Leading Up to Today's Graphics



Rob Hardy


I wish that the book 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design (Lawrence King Publishing) had been bigger. That's a compliment, of course. The book is large format, with colored reproductions on almost every page, but still the text mentions a lot more examples than it includes. I found it handy to have my computer for consultation, so that when the authors mentioned, but did not illustrate, as an example of sequential narrative in pictures, "Trajan's Column (113 CE) in Rome, which is also the wellspring of Roman typography, telling the tale of the emperor Trajan through inscribed pictographs and words," I could easily see what they were talking about. Ditto for "the true forerunner of the modern sequence," a Suprematist book for children from 1922. There are two dandy included illustrations, though, one showing a Dubonnet ad, depicting a man drinking a glass of the aperitif and becoming sequentially more fulfilled thereby, and Milton Glaser's lighthearted take on Mozart silhouettes, Mozart Sneezes. The topic of sequential narratives is "Idea No. 58" of the hundred presented here, each of them on two pages, with brief, intelligent, and useful text to explain the idea and the two or three pictures that accompany it.  




A reader realizes that the authors probably agonized over what to mention, to illustrate, and to leave out. They probably didn't want to stop at 100 ideas, and many of the ideas, like No. 58, could have their own books, not just two pages. I bet the authors, too, wanted their book to be bigger. We are in good hands; Steven Heller was an art director at the New York Times for over three decades and Véronique Vienne has been the art director of various magazines. "Our aim," they say, is to determine, define, discuss, and illustrate the big ideas that created the critical mass that produced the art and craft of contemporary graphic design." The ideas are in more-or-less chronological order, with The Book coming first followed by Body Type (writing on or tattooing the body), and with Pixelation and Ambigrams coming toward the end. It is a wonderful tour, and often it is historic and sociological, rather than just graphic. For example, Sexual Taboo Busting, Propaganda, and The Universal Pricing Code all get their two pages here, and are of course concepts not limited to graphics.  




I was surprised at how many products here I have used (I am far from a graphic designer) but cannot use anymore because they are no longer around. Idea No. 3 is "Rub-On Designs," and features Letraset, which younger people will not recognize. "For a graphic designer in the 1970's, holding a brand-new polyester sheet of 24 point Helvetica Medium Condensed, its neat rows of caps and lower cases ready to be applied on a clean surface, was pure ecstasy." You placed the sheet so that the particular rub-on letter was in the right place, and you rubbed its plastic image onto the surface, a perfect letter every time. There have been stencils for centuries, but in the 1940s, a couple of designers developed a system of stencils that was easy to use, cardboard cut-outs that made sign-making easy. Stencils suggested the machine age, and a raw and urban look. Saul Bass took advantage of this for his famous poster (shown here) for West Side Story. Gone, too, are record album covers. It was only in 1939 that a record album came with decoration on the protective cover. R. Crumb's 1968 cover for Cheap Thrills is here (on the pages for "Comic Lettering") as is the prism and rainbow from Dark Side of the Moon. CDs had their graphics, but the big picture verve was gone, and now tiny icons fit onto the iPhone screen for downloads. 




It isn't surprising that human anatomy is all over the place here. The pages on Pointing Fingers show one instance of the old time woodcut of a finger pointing for emphasis (but used in a modern poster). As well here are fingers pointing out of a poster, as in the famous "I Want You" style, which James Montgomery Flag copied from a British recruitment poster. Clinched Fist shows that this hand sign has been a symbol of military (and anti-military) power. Saul Bass's famous poster for Anatomy of a Murder is here (on the pages for Primitive Figuration) showing a body dismembered. Funny Faces shows a delightful typography of bold, bulbous capital letters, each adorned with an eye spot or two, and a simple row of squares to represent teeth. It is amazing how much personality the letters have.  




There are pages here for The Fine Print. "What is written in small type is sometimes the most arresting part of the label," as in the surprising lists of ingredients and the legal jargon. It isn't all so alarming. Phone books had used a tiny Bell Gothic font, but this would not work on the high-speed offset lithography presses, so a new sans serif typeface, designed in the 1970s, was employed. The letters were clearer, and they had creases or traps where lines joined, to trap the ink that had previously spread into little blots. The phone company also has a supporting role in the pages on Scan Lines, with the AT&T logo as a circle or sphere defined by horizontal lines of differing thickness. It is a logo by the ubiquitous Saul Bass, designed in 1983. IBM already had scan lines in its logo, and scores of other scan-line logos followed, making them "the corporate identity trope of the 1980s." 




There are pages here on Psychedelia, Comix, and Vibrating Color, all of which come from the jubilant sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the sixties. The posters of the time were set to shake up the eyes, and the gorgeous lettering was exuberantly distorted so that, in happy flouting of graphic rules, it took intense concentration to get the message (a 1967 poster for a concert by The Doors gets the point across here). In a theme that is in other chapters as well, the distinctive style spoke to a knowing few, until it was co-opted by mainstream designers and became cliché. The examples here, though, show that "the original psychedelic work transcends its stylistic era."  




I have only mentioned a few themes in this wide-ranging book. There are pages for Dust Jackets, Rays (as in the ones behind the head of Mickey Mouse, and also behind that of Chairman Mao), Ransom Notes, Parody, Nostalgia, White Space, Tags, and much more. It is a handsome book with lots to look at, well laid out and with informative text. It could serve as a sourcebook for designers, but we all see this sort of art every day; thinking about these hundred ideas can help us make artistic, technological, and social sense of what we are seeing. 




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