A New Graphic Design History?

A New History

Last month, Yale University Press added a new title to graphic design history’s sparsely furnished bookshelf. The hefty 464-page hardback volume, Graphic Design: A New History (published in paperback in the UK by Laurence King Publishing), was written by Stephen J. Eskilson, an associate professor of art history at Eastern Illinois University. Alice Twemlow and Lorraine Wild can attest to its bulk: they each lugged a copy around with them for a couple of weeks in order to write this bicoastal, tag-team review.

A New History or Another History

Alice Twemlow:
The last few years have seen an increase in books devoted to very particular aspects of graphic design history; there have been acclaimed monographs on Cipe Pineles and Robert Brownjohn and subject-specific analyses such as Rick Poynor’s study of Typographica. For an overview we have continued to rely on a much older work, Philip Meggs’s History of Graphic Design, first published in 1983 and now in its fourth edition. It’s no surprise, then, that Yale University Press saw an opening for a new title in this genre — an opportunity to provide a synthesis of the recent detail-oriented scholarship and to incorporate an assessment of graphic design’s latest developments.

The inclusion of the word “new” in the title is provocative. I approached this book wondering, in what way is this history “new”? Has the author done new research? Does he have a new angle — has he identified a new start date for the story, perhaps, or an unusual selective filter, such as choosing only to show ordinary and vernacular, rather than avant-garde examples of graphic design? Does he have a new story to tell from the point of view of gender or race, perhaps? Or has he improved upon other histories, such as Meggs’s, by bringing the narrative up to date with insights into recent work and new technology?

Graphic Design History: Where to Begin

Graphic Design: A New History, design by Mues Design

Alice Twemlow:
Where Meggs’s history begins with primitive forms of communication found in the caves of Lascaux, Eskilson skips the larger history of visual communication. Even so, it’s remarkable that he doesn’t even cite Meggs’s pioneering work in his bibliography. He ushers us, in the space of a few short pages, from Gutenberg’s Bible printed in 1455 to Bodoni’s elegant typeface of 1785. Like Richard Hollis, whose Graphic Design A Concise History is listed in the bibliography, Eskilson locates the emergence of graphic design in the late nineteenth century because that’s when, as he puts it, “the task of designing printed material was separated from the task of printing it.”

The nice thing about Hollis’s Concise History is that, as early as page 16, he offers his definition of graphic design, or at least of proto-graphic design. Speaking of the poster artists of the 1890s, he says, “When artists, instead of adding text with printer’s type, drew the lettering themselves, and when they were responsible for each element in a design which was intended for reproduction by machine, they were practicing what was later to become recognized as graphic design.” We don’t get a comparable definition from Eskilson; in his hands, graphic design is a much more slippery concept.

Lorraine Wild:
Generally, the late nineteenth century is a legitimate place to start, following the standard modernist argument that locates design in the divide between the planning of a design, the development of its form, and the mode of its manufacture. However, in graphic design, that division comes way earlier than the late nineteenth century — certainly beginning with the invention of the printing press itself. This is why, despite his declaration that design begins in the late nineteenth century, Eskilson still has to back track and fill in the first four hundred years of printing and type design. He gives us a bit of information on the systems of publication and distribution, while somehow pretending that the design strategies that are abundantly obvious in the telling of that history somehow do not constitute “real” graphic design history. What I find problematic about this is that the onset of new media has brought renewed attention to the first centuries of printing, and has stimulated new scholarship in fields such as the history of the book and publishing, fields intertwined with design activity all along. This history is now seen to be especially relevant in light of the technological changes in visual communication over the last twenty years. If Eskilson is looking for innovation, at least he could recognize that the 400 years he compacts into his introduction is perhaps worthy of more thoughtful treatment than a cursory re-telling of material that is already widely available (for instance, in Warren Chappell’s A Short History of the Printed Word, published in 1970 and still in print).

A History of Names

Alice Twemlow:
When talking about the commercial printed materials that proliferated as a result of the early nineteenth-century steam press, Eskilson points out that “the vast majority of posters and books were not ‘designed’ insofar as scant attention was paid to artistic issues of composition, drawing and color.” Such an observation demonstrates the author’s misunderstanding of graphic design. Composition, drawing and color are, of course, constituent parts of graphic design, but they are terms drawn from art and do not provide a useful definition specific to design. Their enumeration here is typical of Eskilson’s tendency to view design through an art historical rather than a design historical lens.

Lorraine Wild:
That declaration drove me crazy: it made me feel that Eskilson can’t see. The very illustrations on the page belie the notion that there is no graphic design there. Just because the work was the production of anonymous jobbers rather than individuals who identified themselves as graphic designers is no justification for writing this work off as “not design.” There’s ample drawing, composition and color, and communication and strategies, and everything else: just no names of the actual artisan/designers.

Alice Twemlow:
Eskilson does tend to focus on the stars of graphic design. And just because presenting history as a litany of names is currently unfashionable doesn’t mean Eskilson shouldn’t do it. However, he should at least acknowledge the methodological debate surrounding such an approach. Following the lead of design history and the methods of material culture studies, graphic design history has, for more than a decade now, been shifting its attention away from cataloguing the hits of famous designers and toward the significances of more ordinary examples of graphic design, and the contexts in which they were used. This trend was articulated in a 1992 Eye article titled “No More Heroes” by Bridget Wilkins. Wilkins wrote that graphic design history “should explain not ‘what it looks like’ but ‘why it looks the way it does,’ how a piece of graphic design communicated and to whom . . . A wartime ration book has as much to tell us about communication, communication design, people’s daily experience and society during World War Two — in other words, graphic design history — as a poster by Abram Games.”

Eskilson does incorporate some examples of lesser-known graphic design, alongside the hits. For example, in a section on “The American Magazine” he analyzes some “typical advertising fare” from the first few pages of Fortune magazine’s inaugural issue of February 1930. Normally, in graphic design history, we are shown some of Fortune’s spectacular covers and the spreads that feature Will Burtin’s innovative information graphics. OK, so it’s a bit odd that Eskilson doesn’t include these, or even mention information design in relation to Fortune, but I was intrigued by his inclusion of the prosaic ads for the Wurlitzer Reproducing Organ and International Mercantile Marine Liners. That was, until I read his analysis. Disappointingly, Eskilson only skims the surface of his subject matter. He describes what we can already see in the images and then makes seemingly groundless assumptions about how these ads were produced and received by their contemporary audiences.

Lorraine Wild:
That disquisition on the Wurlitzer ad is typical of Eskilson’s approach, which on the surface seems so reasonable: yet when you contemplate what he’s actually saying, it is completely strange. In his Preface, Eskilson throws down this gauntlet: “It is my belief that graphic design history has too often been presented through a parade of styles and individual achievements devoid of social context, and that this tendency has obscured much of the richness and complexity of its development” (page 10). Reading this statement, I thought that meant that he was going to use some other models to describe design, such as the those coming out of material culture, where objects that are not necessarily masterpieces are “read” for their generic significance, with more emphasis on the social context that Eskilson is concerned about. In his description of the Wurlitzer ad, though, Eskilson uses an exacting (and vaguely grumpy) formal analysis of the ad to tell us why it’s not a masterpiece (duh), and not much else: and yet this occurs in a section allegedly devoted to Fortune magazine. There is so much to say about Fortune — from its editorial and design policy to its remarkable use of photography and information graphics — that to use it as a springboard to talk mostly about the typographic inelegance of some of its advertising (which of course was true of the majority of commercial magazines of the time, not just Fortune) is to somehow miss the point as to why you might talk about Fortune at all.

Where Are the Footnotes?

Alice Twemlow:
This brings us to an issue that I know you are puzzled about, Lorraine, namely: where are the footnotes? For example, even if Eskilson really has done some new research into Fortune’s front-of-book advertising in the 1930s, and a student is interested enough to want to know more, there are no references or leads for her to follow in order to further explore the subject. As the author of a synthesis, Eskilson cannot be expected to cover everything and he cannot go into detail but, surely, he could have pointed to the scholarship that does.

Lorraine Wild:
Well, not to sound like a complete nerd, but I find the lack of footnotes to be actually depressing, and the many nice new images don’t quite make up for it. I know that we cannot lay the fault for this entirely on the author, and that the two publishers who brought this book to the public must have decided that they weren’t necessary as well. So what could this mean? (a) They thought the audience for this book was not actually interested in where the information came from; (b) they thought no one would ever want to know more than was in this book; (c) even if they thought it might be sold as a textbook, they did not think that graphic design was serious enough to warrant the same scholarly standards as, say, art history; and/or (d) they figured if you did want to find out more, you could always go to Wikipedia. Hey, have a nice day! For the first serious graphic design history textbook since Meggs’s History of Graphic Design, published over twenty years ago, to have such shallow regard for scholarship is beneath the normal standards of its academic publishers.

And the glossary is so ludicrous I can’t even figure out why it’s there. You tell me why a reader needs an entry for “FF Dax” when there is no entry for, say, Erik Spiekermann’s “Meta” (or other important contemporary fonts, for that matter.)

Alice Twemlow:
Yes, you’re right about that glossary. Such terms as “Bauhaus,” “Isotype” and “Vorticism” should have been defined and incorporated within the main body of the narrative. Eskilson’s reductive explanations reveal his fondness for categorizing things into movements, groups and styles. I admire his attempt to define “Postmodern” in one sentence, but I’m not sure it is any more helpful to students than a Wikipedia entry, which at least includes references. And, curiously, the bibliography doesn’t contain a section for articles, periodicals and annuals consulted. Yale is a serious publisher and Eskilson has a master’s degree from Brown, so it can’t be naiveté the part of the book’s compilers.

Lorraine Wild:
In the first chapter of Robin Kinross’ book, Modern Typography: an essay in critical history, he says: “the text of this essay depends very heavily on printed sources, including much material that is secondary to it’s subject, or is even further removed. This is not a very happy state of affairs: there is a strong risk of retelling stories that have been told (and distorted) many times before. The least an author can do is be frank about this, disclosing and discussing sources” (page 14).

So at the end of his book, Kinross provides an incredibly useful essay that describes and comments upon the sources that he used, chapter-by-chapter, a roadmap of his own research. If this is the “significant new scholarship” that Eskilson refers to in his Preface, then it seems to me that he — and his publishers — needed to recognize that the bar actually has been raised a bit for books such as Graphic Design: A New History, no matter how broadly they have defined its audience.


Lorraine Wild:
There are several places in the book where Eskilson’s chronology goes seriously wonky; for instance, in Chapter Nine, he opens with “Psychedelic Posters” (what, no call-out box on LSD? There’s one in an earlier chapter about absinthe!), and then magazine-and-album cover design of the 1960s, and then he segues to Push Pin; yet Push Pin starts in the late 1950s, and has a larger impact on editorial design during the early 1960s than the psychedelia. Chapter Seven contains the same sort of awkwardness: for instance, the discussion of Cipe Pineles and Alexey Brodovich precedes the discussion of the Depression, FAP posters, and PM magazine, when in fact they belong in the opposite order. Anyone who has organized a design history syllabus recognizes that it is not so easy to coordinate the discussions of work that were made almost simultaneously, but that also entails making some hierarchical judgments about what was the most important work and when was it actually made: and Eskilson seems fuzzy about that in many places in this book.

Alice Twemlow:
Considering that one of Eskilson’s stated aims is to explore graphic design as a profession, I also think it’s strange that the book is weighted so emphatically towards the output of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; a full two-thirds of the book is devoted to this era, leaving only 120 pages with which to cover the past 60-odd years. Probably the most interesting time in terms of graphic design’s maturation into a labeled profession was the post-war period — yet what happened between 1945 and the mid-1960s is given extremely short shrift. The geographical range of this section is worryingly slim, too. We’re given no indication that anything of significance was happening beyond what was going on in Switzerland, England and the U.S. What about France, Italy, Japan, Germany and Poland, for example?

Lorraine Wild:
No works by Massin, no Max Huber, no Tadanori Yokoo, no Willy Fleckhaus, no Roman Cieslewicz: and these are all in the first edition of Meggs! And sure, you can argue that, since they are in Meggs, Eskilson can move on: but he just replaces Meggs’s litany of individuals with his own, curated from a narrower geographic base. He does cram in a section titled “Global Graphics” toward the end, but there it feels like an afterthought. At this point in time, one would have expected a new survey to actually look at design in more places rather than less (if only as a smart marketing strategy for the book).

Contemporary Design

Alice Twemlow:
With the 47-page final chapter on contemporary design, Eskilson has a chance to fill a real gap in the history of graphic design. Meggs and Hollis leave us hanging in the late 1980s with the formal experimentation of Studio Dumbar, April Greiman, Emigre and Neville Brody. As author of the most recently published book, therefore, Eskilson has the opportunity to bring the story much closer to the present day and to provide an assessment of the past seventeen years of graphic design activity.

The chapter is divided into eight sections that range from stylistic trends such as “Eclectic Experiments” and “The Technology Aesthetic” to medium-specific concentrations such as “Web Design” and “Motion Graphics.” As with other parts of the book, it seems as if Eskilson made a list of the names of designers and subjects that he wanted to include and, rather than then devising an organizing structure of key themes, he simply left the list in its note-like state: “’Grunge’ Designs; Depoliticized Design; Art Chantry; Historicism and Appropriation; Fuel; Elliott Earls, Stefan Sagmeister; MTV: The Comic Book Aesthetic; Chip Kidd; Work for Hire; Illustration in a Digital Age; Graffiti.” Earlier in the book there are other examples of this listing approach and the truly bizarre juxtapositions it engenders. Under the heading “The Second World War,” Eskilson lists the following, completely deadpan: “Germany; Britain; Russia; Norman Rockwell.”

The tone of this final chapter is understandably more tentative and provisional than those that precede it: it’s difficult to assess the significance and lasting impact of work that is so recent. And yet Eskilson seems more at sea than most. Not only are his choices of topics and designers odd, his choices of images with which to illustrate them are even odder. Illustrating Kyle Cooper’s contribution to motion graphics with a frame from the title sequence to Spider Man, rather than one from the genre-quaking Seven, for example, is perplexing. As is devoting a full page to Stefan Sagmeister’s poster for Lou Reed’s “Set the Twilight Reeling” album rather than including an example of his ingenious CD-packaging design, such as the schizophrenic H.P. Zinker “Mountains of Madness” CD.

Lorraine Wild:
In the other sections, too, he gets some designers very wrong: for instance, in Chapter Nine, Paula Scher is represented by some minor album cover work and the infamous Swatch ads of the mid-80s. While no single designer’s long career can be adequately represented in a survey book, couldn’t Eskilson have used Scher’s iconic Public Theatre posters to delve into the theme of postmodern historicism and eclecticism, instead of that lame Boston album cover? Alvin Lustig: a couple of book covers presented, one a purely typographic MoMA exhibition catalog, yet none of his seminal New Directions covers? Fortune magazine: no pages from years when Will Burtin was its art director? Emigre: only pages from the first issue? Tibor Kalman: the expected but not special “Speaking in Tongues” Talking Heads album cover instead of his important “Nothing but Flowers” Talking Heads music video? Elliott Earls: a tame brochure from Cranbrook instead of any number of more important examples of his oeuvre? And almost no Dutch work from the 1980s or the 1990s (except for a couple of posters by Gert Dumbar)?

But beyond the missing individuals, or strange selections, there are whole missing categories of work in this book. There is very little on signage, information or exhibition design; very little on the design of books (for instance, the “Comic Book Aesthetic” but no graphic novels); logos, but hardly any evidence of logos applied; a very strange and truncated set of websites, and that format of the future: posters, posters, and more posters! Again, it seems as if a “new’ history of graphic design might have actually tried to expand the categories of what is shown just a bit, to address the contemporary expansion of design practice itself.

On the level of detail: several typefaces are displayed across a few chapters, but historical fonts are shown as alphabets clearly set in contemporary digital versions, without identifying this as such. An example of this can be seen on pages 20-to-23, where Caslon, Baskerville, and Bodoni are set in full alphabet showings that are obviously different from the way that they appear in the images of historical documents that show what the original versions of the fonts looked like. In Roxanne Jubert’s Typography and Graphic Design: From Antiquity to the Present, any setting of a font from its contemporary digital version is identified (including the contemporary “foundry” information), and it seems to me that this a more intellectually responsible standard for a book that is supposed to deliver a coherent historical narrative both in its text and its imagery.

Reading Images

Alice Twemlow:
Apart from the last two chapters, though, I think the selection of illustrations is impressive — the familiar and necessary examples are included but so are some more unusual works, including sketches — and I commend Emma Brown and Amanda Russell for their picture research. It’s a shame, however, that given Eskilson’s stated aim to “show how deeply [graphic design and typography] are embedded in the fabric of society in every era,” there’s so little imagery to indicate graphic design’s contexts of use. There is one picture in the Introduction of posters being pasted on a hoarding or billboard wall. And here and there in the earlier sections there are images of a street scene, of a piece of furniture, a painting or some other contextual element. One of my favorite inclusions is Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” as it was originally published in on the front page of the February 20, 1909 edition of Le Figaro. Mostly, however, the images are presented as flat reproductions of posters, advertisements and spreads floating in white space.

And Eskilson reads them that way too, as if they existed in a vacuum. The earlier chapters of the book contain little indication that any primary sources have been consulted and in the latter chapters, even when the designers and clients of particular projects are easily available to him, there is no evidence of the author having consulted them about intention, process or the nature of an assignment. Neither does he seek out contextual information about how a project was displayed and received — information that would help illuminate a work’s significance.

Sometimes his readings of images are helpful in that they make one follow his footsteps around the elements of an image. His description of the cover of a 1997 issue of Rolling Stone featuring Gillian Anderson styled as the composite heroine of 1940’s pulp novels and B-movies is helpful in that it points out sources for some of the typographic gestures and makes an accurate judgment when he says that the magazine’s art director Fred Woodward “is able to have it both ways, as he mocks the salacious themes of pulp fiction while simultaneously featuring a scantily clad young woman prominently on the cover.” In other instances, however, Eskilson’s interpretations are less trustworthy. When talking about an Xbox campaign created in 2000 by the London design consultancy Fuel, he focuses on an image of a pair of false teeth soaking in a drinking glass garnished with a straw, lemon wedge and ice cubes, accompanied by the tagline, “Play More.” Eskilson’s assertion that “the ironic message is that people are becoming absent-minded as they delve more into the virtual world of the Xbox” is simply wrong. A quick glance at other images in the same campaign, which include a buck with a couple of bike-handle grips stuck on its antlers and a sheep looking stunned after a crazy shearing stunt has left it looking like a poodle, would have shown him that the campaign is about the seepage of playfulness between video games and real life likely to occur when you use Xbox. This might seem like a minor point, but Eskilson’s misreadings of his selected examples are not infrequent and they erode one’s confidence in his authority about other matters.

Even though the majority of the designers under discussion are a mere iChat away, this remains a peculiarly monotone book. Designers are quoted from time to time but always at one remove — they speak to us via a statement made on a website or a quote from an article in Communication Arts or Print Magazine.

Lorraine Wild:
That’s if you can find the attributions, which of course Eskilson mostly leaves out. Yet another glaring absence from the final chapter is the author’s lack of interest in anything that graphic designers write: for instance, in the discussion of Emigre magazine he leaves out the story of the significant impact its designer-writers had on arguments over the nature of modernism and post-modernism, all played out with a greater range of energy and expression than the rather binary way that Eskilson characterizes the same opposition. I do not see how you can even discuss graphic design post-1985 (at least in the U.S. and England, the territory Eskilson seems most interested in) without talking about the role of Emigre, Eye, (to heck with them, there is not even a mention of Graphis!), the rise of conferences and professional organizations such as the AIGA, the expansion of schools throughout the U.S. and Europe, and finally, the changing nature of communication within the design community.

Missing the Point

Lorraine Wild:
Eskilson is not clear (especially in the two final chapters) as to whether he is showing us important examples of work or simply generic pieces of work. Besides his “tin eye” for not picking the best examples of work by designers he singles out, he tends to use mediocre examples of work to try to illustrate points that could be shown otherwise. Like Alice, I too was struck by his description of the Fred Woodward/Gillian Anderson/Rolling Stone cover, but mostly because I could not believe that he had bothered to give that particularly not-so-fabulous cover a full page of real estate in his book. He claims that it’s a good example of the full-on embrace of “retro” in the 90s, whereas Rolling Stone had used “retro” from its founding in the late 1960s (and there are many more interesting examples of it to be had in covers designed during those early years). So, OK: Why that cover then? Is it the gender issue he sees in the cover? Is our author a big “X Files” fan? Eskilson keeps telling us that postmodernism enabled designers to be more expressive and political, but we are shown so few really good examples of it that his claim doesn’t come off as believable.

I also find many of his assertions in the text to be grating if not blatantly untrue: for instance, in his description of Tibor Kalman’s “Florent” poster, he states that the inclusion of the weather is “out of place” (as if Kalman invented it), yet I know of at least one restaurant that has had that exact same sign hanging in the same place for thirty-odd years, displaying not only the weather, but the phone number of the White House. So what exactly is it about the vernacular that Eskilson doesn’t understand? In a discussion of Cranbook on page 356, Eskilson states that “Weingart lectured often at Cranbrook in the 1970s,” attributing the typographic experimentation that was gong on there to his influence, when it had been proceeding full tilt for at least three years before he made a single brief visit in 1978 (yet he makes no mention of the “self-taught” [as he erroneously identifies] Edward Fella, who had a significant influence on the school for at least a decade before he formally enrolled in 1985).

Eskilson’s discussion of Postmodern Architecture on page 363 ends with the author’s claim that Philip Johnson’s AT&T building of 1984 is superior to Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s Seagram building of 1958: “…the postmodern AT&T building is overall friendlier; it is less austere and serious in its expression, drawing people in rather than repelling them with its abstract glamour” (pg. 363). This statement ignores the fact that the plaza surrounding the Seagram Building on Park Avenue has been overwhelmingly respected as one of the best public spaces in New York, or one of the most comfortable public spaces connected to a modernist building anywhere, even through the postmodern era. It has been studied and even filmed by urban sociologists and architects for the way that people have used the space informally and spontaneously. Eskilson’s use of the Seagram Plaza is typical of a kind of crudeness that he employs elsewhere in the book, as if he does not expect that his readers could comprehend any arguments with more nuance. (Of course, you can Google “Seagram Plaza” or “Partnership for Public Spaces” to find the richer and more complex, contextualized history that Eskilson idealizes but does not deliver on these topics).

A New Graphic Design History?

Alice Twemlow:
Lorraine, is there anything you like about this book, anything that’s done well and that you might refer to in the preparation of your own graphic design history classes at CalArts?

Lorraine Wild:
Well, it provides a basic narrative, which will be useful to some teachers, and even though I have all sorts of complaints, I bought it, and I’m sure lots of students and designers will buy it, because graphic designers are devoted to their libraries. Knowing just how difficult it is to put a book such as Graphic Design: A New History together, how hard it is to gather the pictures (and they are very good, mostly), clear them for reproduction, track down the millions of details, etc., etc., makes it all the more confounding that the book isn’t better. This book feels very much like a marketing project aimed at knocking the established, but aging Meggs’s survey-book off the shelf: but Graphic Design: A New History is simply not as innovative as it needs to be at this point when the very definition of its subject is under such constant flux. And speaking of that: I want to end with Eskilson’s conclusion: “…The quest for meaning in graphic design is partly a product of its artistic side. While accountants or engineers are not usually beset with finding larger meaning in their work, graphic designers often have asked abstract questions along these lines. Perhaps in future decades their broader mission will again become clear” (page 421).

The fog that Eskilson attributes to contemporary practice permeates this book. If he had only tried to understand what is going on today a bit more, it might have animated and enlightened his narrative of the past, and given him a chance to write a more honestly “new” book than this one can possibly claim to be.


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