Summer 2003

Canon count: the Livingstons’ balancing act

Dictionary of Graphic Design and Designers

By Alan and Isabella Livingston
Thames & Hudson, £8.95

‘Where do I find the time for not reading so many books?’ The words of the Austrian writer and satirist Karl Kraus could not be more pertinent when faced with the ever swelling tide of design monographs, anthologies, and text books. Just when you thought it was safe to visit the design section of your local bookstore, you are suddenly engulfed by a plethora of new titles, each claiming to be the most ‘definitive’, ‘essential’, or ‘comprehensive’ work on offer to date. In such an environment, the design dictionary – with its ambition to separate the wheat from the chaff – takes on an increasingly important role. For the student it provides a readymade canon, a map to guide them through their ever expanding subject; for the design professional it offers a convenient overview of figures and developments within their own discipline. With these issues in mind, the third updated edition of the Livingstons’ Dictionary of Graphic Design and Designers is a welcome addition to the design oeuvre.

The book aims ‘to present a concise compendium of information on not only the leading figures in graphic design since 1840 but also on the artistic movements and technical advances of the period.’ Aware of the need to stress the interconnected nature of design history, the book never allows individual entries to stand alone. The creation of a subject index and cross references incorporated into the specific submissions, foregrounds the fact that the value of any dictionary resides in its ability to spark associations and interactions between the entries.

As regards the entries, it has always been an engaging pastime to contest the inclusion or exclusion of certain designers, movements, or publications in this type of book. As the authors note, with the number restricted to about 750, the choice is by ‘necessity selective’. Despite this limitation, and while there are important omissions (such as the influential magazine Arts et metiérs graphiques and Richard Paul Lohse), the historical scope and depth of the dictionary is satisfyingly comprehensive. The process of selection becomes more contentious when the authors attempt to gauge the long-term significance of representatives from graphic design’s recent history. Sorting the transient from the important and lasting is always a delicate balancing act encompassing one half evaluation and another expectation and projection. It is the authors’ claim that their selection of figures in contemporary design ‘provides clear indications of likely developments in graphic design over the next decade and beyond.’

One question arises: Does the inclusion of such figures in this book simply contribute – like a self-fulfilling prophecy – to their establishment as ‘important practitioners’ – thus guaranteeing their inclusion in succeeding design compendiums, ad infinitum? We will have to wait and see.

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