If, as Hegel maintained, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, then the current enthusiasm for publishing books on graphic design may betoken an end rather than a beginning for this profession, which is only just beginning to acquire an academic superstructure. This is happening after two major revolutions affecting the worlds of the designed and printed image and text. In the 1960s, the primacy of the word that governed the 500-year-old age of information described by Marshall McLuhan as the "Gutenberg galaxy", had begun to unwind with the availability of cheap offset litho, reproduced from camera-ready artwork that made no distinction between text and image. Trade skills became less exclusive. As alternative magazines such as Oz and International Times discovered, this gave the means of production to the workers with help from an IBM golf-ball typewriter and some sheets of Letraset. Who, though, now uses Cow Gum, that sweet-smelling rubber adhesive that made repositionable paste-ups possible?
In 1984, the appearance of the Apple Macintosh shook the foundations of graphic design and opened this hitherto specialised world to anyone with the right software who wanted a share in it. Yet despite the proliferation of desktop design since then - most of it appallingly inept and showing no signs of improvement - the professional skill of the graphic designer has become more focused on content than on technique and has increased in significance. As Richard Hollis says in the final chapter added to update his book in the World of Art series (first published in 1994), "design became [in the late 1990s] a publishable category in its own right".
Scanning the bookshop shelves on this topic reveals an imbalance between text and image. Books tend to be almost all one thing or the other, and even when there is a text, it often has less to say than the images. The dichotomy presumably means that the purchasers, whether students, practitioners or enthusiasts, use one type of book for inspiration in the studio, or for an enhanced coolness index rating on the coffee table, and the other type for writing essays or making conversation in the bar. The separation belies the integration present in the actual practice of graphic design, and one may surmise that some essential aspects of the subject have not yet found the interpretation they deserve. The history of graphic design is still largely in the monograph stage, and the only overall narrative that it possesses is the rise of modernism. This is ironic in itself, for, compared with architecture, it was one of the earliest art forms to show signs of postmodern pluralism. Each of the books under review achieves some integration of these sundered parts, although none is "traditional" in discussing the end result more or less independently of the technical or social processes that produced it.
Hollis is the most comprehensive, although there is almost too much material in his survey for the standard World of Art format, and most of the pictures are thumbnails for reference only. A deluxe edition would be worth considering. The text tends to detail rather than grand narrative, without losing the freshness of a practitioner-turned-academic's critical eye. The range of topics is equally inclusive, with a good balance between posters, magazines, typefaces and packaging, including favourites such as the Gauloise and Lucky Strike packets. The coverage of different nationalities, important when graphic design becomes an index to social history, is equally broad. Picking up the theme of Raphael Samuel's Theatres of Memory , one could make a case for the centrality of graphic design history to all other kinds of history, something that Jonathan Cape's Jackdaw series, begun in 1963, made the most of, but that has slipped out of sight in the age of the internet. Old advertisements and posters make an appearance in history textbooks, but we can judge the relative neglect of the field by observing that there is no substantial permanent display of graphics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, while the main collection of packaging in Britain, formed by Robert Opie, is a private concern seeking a new home. The culture of learning apparently persists in mistrusting the image.
Jeremy Aynsley's Graphic Design in Germany 1890-1945 makes a valuable contribution to the study of social and political history as well as to the study of design history. It has been produced to accompany an exhibition at the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, which incorporates the Mitchell Wolfson Jr collection of decorative and propaganda art. There is certainly propaganda here, with a centrepiece showdown between modernists and Nazi traditionalists to which Aynsley contributes original material from his PhD thesis, allowing the complexity of the situation to emerge. Herbert Bayer, the chief graphic design talent to emerge from the Bauhaus, for example, remained in Germany until 1938 producing work for the new regime, which shows Nazi toleration of less extreme forms of modernism, and Bayer's adaptability. If Hollis's book is too cramped, Aynsley's is perhaps too generous in its provision of blank space and not as fully illustrated as one might hope, given that a number of key items referred to in the text are omitted from the pictures. As a pioneering study in its field, it consequently falls short of matching the depth of the text with an equivalent depth of visual reference.
The same author's A Century of Graphic Design covers much the same ground as Hollis, but is organised largely around spreads devoted to individual designers. This system has value for reference and will be welcomed by students, although a greater tabulation of factual information, including an individual bibliography on each spread and quotations from each designer, would have been useful. The selection of featured designers in such a book will always be difficult. Each one reinforces the groupings, such as "Mid Century Modern" or "Pop, Subversion and Alternatives", neatly enough to make one wish for some more subversive alternatives. While Jan Tschichold, a major modernist figure, is one of the key case studies, his recantation from modernism, evident in his postwar work for Penguin Books, is treated more as an embarrassment than as an informed critique.
The tensions between innovation and continuity throughout the century are generally minimised in this way. The fine but conservative American designer (and puppetry enthusiast) William Addison Dwiggins, who invented the term graphic design does not win a spread. The book is strong in discussing the past 20 years, however, and includes spreads on designers such as the Grapus group in France (1968-91) and Kalle Lasn's Adbusters , a magazine based in Vancouver with a circulation of 60,000 "aimed at designers and educationalists", which uses the means of the advertising industry to promote an anti-corporate, anti-globalist and anti-consumerist message. Perhaps this power to change perceptions explains why graphic designers can still make an impact through their originality of vision. Graphic design, rather than product design, architectural design, fashion design or any other form of design, oils the wheels of consumerism, or, very occasionally, puts an ironic spanner in the virtual works.
While critiques of consumerism can be tedious to read, and Adbusters is not immune from pious pomposity, it opens the promise of a new way of understanding the history of graphic design in terms of a whole moral universe, which avoids the award of points for political correctness. Print fuelled consumption long before 1890, the start date that Aynsley and Hollis both adopt, but at some point between then and now, images became as important as the product that was being consumed. The expertise of graphic designers helped to get us into this predicament, and perhaps, through operations such as Adbusters, they are beginning to show a way out of it.
Neither Hollis nor Aynsley gives us a general profile of graphic designers as a professional type. Generalisations may be dangerous, but there must be some commonality in their aptitude for the job. Ability to draw is almost incidental. Alan Fletcher's highly successful new book, The Art of Looking Sideways , provides a portrait of a graphic designer's deliberately oblique mind, sparking across the word-image gap in a way that most historians are professionally prevented from doing. As a founder member of Pentagram, a multi-disciplinary design group featured by Hollis and Aynsley, Fletcher contributed his bit to the world of consumerism and was no doubt well paid for it, but his new book, a kind of hobby-retirement product, operates in a world of pure idea both closer to hand and further away than everyday utility and function, where seeing is no longer literal, but a new form of cognition, bringing back the promise of lateral thinking with a vision of a post-Aristotelian world that could raise the status of the graphic designer from servant of commerce to high priest of knowledge.
Alan Powers is associate senior lecturer in architecture, University of Greenwich.
A Century of Graphic Design in Germany: Graphic Design Pioneers of the 20th Century
Author - Jeremy Aynsley
ISBN - 1 84000 348 0
Publisher - Mitchell Beazley
Price - £35.00
Pages - 256