Alex Cameron | Opinions

On The Graphic Design Reader

Photo: Teal Triggs

Teal Triggs’ and Leslie Atzmon’s The Graphic Design Reader (Bloomsbury, 2019) is a vital intervention in critical writing, design theory and design practice. Triggs is a Texan based at the Royal College of Art in London; Atzmon works in the US, at Eastern Michigan University. The authors of numerous books and essays, they have been at the forefront of graphic design thinking for some time. Here they are joined by authors who lead the field.

This anthology is as challenging as it is necessary. To their credit, the editors have gathered together pertinent historical pieces on graphic design, captured contemporary writing on the subject, and successfully solicited new and hitherto unpublished commentaries.

At more than 900 pages, TGDR is a mammoth tome. It might, at first glance, strike fear in the hearts of potential readers, were it not for a brilliantly organised, sympathetic structure by the editors. A detailed and intellectually comprehensive introduction gives both necessary context and contemporary insights. The collection is then logically split into ‘History of graphic design and graphic design history’, ‘Education and the profession’, ‘Type and typography’, ‘Graphic design, critical writing and practice’, ‘Political and social change’, ‘Changing visual landscapes’ and ‘Graphic design futures’. Triggs and Atzmon introduce each chapter, and frame each well. Then, in an epilogue, they give an overview of expanding roles, strategies, thinking, and theoretical challenges today.

The rollcall of past giants of graphic design writing includes W.A. Dwiggins, William Morris, Beatrice Warde and Paul Rand. However, most of the essays are by contemporary titans like J. Abbot Miller, Mr Keedy, Katherine McCoy, Peter Bil’ak, Jessica Helfand, Ellen Lupton, Debbie Millman, and Sheila Levrant de Brettville. This is an impressive — if selective — list, and one that belies the oft-repeated complaints we hear about ‘today’s crisis of design writing and criticism’. My highlights: ‘Shaping belief: the role of audience in visual communication’ by Ann C. Tyler, ‘Cult of the ugly’ by Steven Heller, ‘Education and professionalism or what’s wrong with graphic design education’ by Katherine McCoy, ‘Graphic design: fine art or social science’, by Jorge Frascara, ‘The crystal Goblet, or printing should be invisible’ by Beatrice Warde and ‘What is this thing called graphic design criticism? Parts I & II’ by Rick Poynor and Michael Rock.

Yet vital to a better understanding of graphic design though this collection of articles is, it is for my money the role of the editors that is the real success story of this project. Through their choice of articles and a considered and logical structure, Triggs and Atzmon have done the world a service.

Graphic design has come a long way in a relatively short time. It has established a profession through education, reflective practice, and a critical canon of written work. Although the true weight of this can and should be contested, it is nevertheless a stimulating and challenging time for graphic design practice and criticism — a time, perhaps, for optimism as much as one for re-evaluation.

That said... The section, ‘Political and social change’, in TGDR is uncritically weighted towards an ‘ethical’ and ‘moral’ approach to design and criticism, through identitarian, anti-corporate and anti-mass market rhetoric, it is all too familiar and formulaic. As the First Things First 2000 manifesto argues, ‘Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing, and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond, and interact.’ The manifesto is a patronising analysis of the mass of people who, it tells us, are no more than empty vessels in need of cultural re-education. Asking designers to take more responsibility for the harmful effects of the work they do, Jonathan Barnbrook and Anil Aykan Barnbrook’s SWOT matrix (or non-manifesto manifesto). It urges us to ‘stop designing more stuff to sell more stuff’. It is rank virtue signalling and anti-design.

Equally problematic is the promotion and validation of identity politics in graphic design thinking. The problem, as it appears in the design landscape, is that the fight for equality is being diminished by demands for recognition and inclusion. Sylvia Harris’s search for ‘a black aesthetic’ and the questioning of the ‘global predominance of male type designers’, by Sibylle Hagmann are symptomatic of this narrowing of perspectives and the redefinition of equality into a numbers game. The fight for real equality and an end to discrimination is important and urgent. To battle it out in the realm of visual historical revisionism is at best, mere decoration.

Equating past social relations with current interpersonal relationships is not only ahistorical, it is a politically motivated sleight of hand. It turns the fight for social equality into an obnoxious case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’. It is little wonder an insidious, moral victimology has followed.

As Mr Keedy would have it, ‘design is for somebody besides you’.

Graphic design benefits from universalist principles. To confine oneself only to those projects and causes one deems to be morally superior is the very opposite of those principles. It is to junk the historic role of the properly independent, culturally engaged generalist graphic designer and critic, and instead insist on a God-given magisterial right to arbitrate, pontificate and condescend. No amount of critical, right-on tone in such a masquerade can persuade this reader that this exclusivist approach is the right one.

When bourgeois critics panned The Picture of Dorian Gray as immoral, Oscar Wilde was compelled to reply that there was no such thing as a moral or an immoral book: ‘books’, he rightly said, ‘are well written, or badly written….’ The same can surely be said of graphic design. Irrespective of designers’ technical skill, conceptual creativity, or cultural engagement with their audiences, the high ground in graphics is now held by those who crusade against work done for the usual suspects: clients in fossil fuels, cars, cigarettes, alcohol, fast food, and packaging.

Worse still, by omission, many writers have refused to even engage with anything that smacks of big business or the mass market. And that’s a problem. If design criticism is to reach a broad audience, we need to widen the cultural scope of design writing. Rifling the archives only for designers with a social conscience, championing only those contemporary designers who are involved in ‘socially responsible’ design projects — for the man and woman in the street, that will smell of club-like snobbery: good for the gallery, but in effect no platforming the kind of mass graphics people meet at shopping malls, travelling the world, at sports grounds, on television, and the Web.

If TGDR reveals anything, it is that the world’s exceptional designers and writers are like that irrespective of their personal proclivities and ‘identities’. For it is not the role of design, or of criticism, to grant cultural or political permission. Rather, the job of both is to engage, challenge, explore, question, evaluate, redefine the problem, and find new solutions.

Posted in: Books

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