Autumn 2006

Plundering history for handy hints

From Gutenberg to Open Type

By Robin Dodd
Ilex Press, £19.99

It appears from the wealth of compendiums on graphic design history that little has been learnt from comparative developments in the philosophy of history. Many of these texts continue to adopt a traditional chronology composed of greatest hits, iconic works or key periods. As Walter Benjamin noted, such an approach is indicative of a historicism that ‘contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history’. But, as he continues, ‘no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one.’

The opportunity to reveal the ‘constellations’ that connect one historical moment to another is never more propitious than in graphic design. Through graphic design the past loses any sense of wholeness, becoming rather a series of fragments that intersect with the present. Thus, whether it is the use of sixteenth-century typefaces in a modern theatre poster, or eighteenth-century type to sell contemporary cars, a critical awareness of the way designs are transformed by the contingencies of ‘now’ inform our reading of the subject’s history. It is clear how Robin Dodd has attempted to do this. His concise history of typography includes numerous comparative examples of old faces in new contexts. Regrettably, while this approach promises the potential for a radical break from the more traditional historicism of most design writing, Dodd’s examples are too brief and not fully developed in his accompanying text.

A more damning criticism of this work needs to be levelled at the design. First, when a featured designer or printer created a piece of work, it was produced as a totality, to be viewed as a single object. Yet From Gutenberg to Open Type’s designer overlaps posters, adverts, or magazine covers, showing little or no respect for the original design. Second, mixtures of letterforms are used as a ‘backdrop’ to text and image, implying a fear that the reader’s attention may drift from the page for lack of ocular stimulation.

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