Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Shock of the not so new

Graphic Design: A New History

<br>Stephen J. Eskilson<br>Design: Mues Design<br>Cover design: Pentagram<br>Laurence King Publishing, &pound;40; &pound;28 paperback

The preface to Stephen J. Eskilson’s new book repeats a familiar criticism in contemporary graphic design writing: ‘that graphic design history has too often been presented though a parade of styles and individual achievements devoid of significant social context’. His targets are most likely those two canonical texts, Richard Hollis’s Graphic Design: A Concise History (1994) and Philip B. Meggs’ A History of Graphic Design (1983). Even Eskilson’s title, Graphic Design: A New History, has echoes of the other two, albeit with the corrective ‘new’.

While the early chapters are less novel in terms of content or scope, the ‘new’ is well surveyed in his substantial final chapter. This examines many disparate aspects of contemporary practice, from the impact of new technologies to the idea of the ‘citizen designer’ and introduces several well known names to the canon, including Fuel and Bruce Mau. There is also a well considered section examining the complex relationship between multinationals and their non-Western consumers, which focuses on Nike’s Asian advertising campaign, which features the basketball player LeBron James.

‘This book is predicated on the idea that graphic design and typography are the most communal of art forms,’ Eskilson states in his preface, ‘and I strive to show how deeply they are embedded in the fabric of society of every era.’ In light of this comment, one might expect that this book would challenge traditional definitions of what belongs in a history of graphic design and engage with what constitutes the vast majority of graphic design: the ephemera of daily life. Instead, what we get is definitely a history of the ‘profession’, a problematic definition touched upon at points throughout the book, though never fully addressed.

Eskilson contends that ‘the profession [of graphic design] was established when the task of designing printed material was separated from the task of printing it’. The idea of graphics as a function of the Western industrial world dictates the content of much of the book, which begins with Gutenberg but rapidly moves to the nineteenth century. The majority of the chapters are dedicated to the twentieth century and especially to Modernism in all its variant forms. The chapters on Art Deco are particularly interesting, with the section on Art Deco and Colonialism providing an excellent example of the author’s attempt to inject social context into graphic design history. Equally, his background in art history shows through in the number of ‘fine art’ works that are reproduced to supplement the more familiar posters and adverts. It is in this aesthetic dimension, rather than the cultural, that the book is most consistently successful in ‘contextualising’ graphic design.

This visual context is well served by high production values, but a number of entertaining mistakes have slipped in. My inner train-spotter enjoyed the attribution of Barry Deck’s Template Gothic to Ed Fella in one of the illustrations, as well as the substitution of another Herbert Matter poster for the one on which Paula Scher based her 1985 Swatch advert.

For all its novelty, the book is also full of ‘old chestnuts’. In attempting to provide what he calls ‘an overall assessment of the history of graphic design’ to rival Meggs or Hollis, Eskilson must include works a reader expects to see, socially relevant or not. The problem is that the majority of these ‘classic examples’ became part of the canon for aesthetic reasons, rather than because of their significance in the social context. Paul Schuitema’s adverts for Berkel are not endlessly reproduced because of the vital cultural importance of weighing-scales in 1920s Holland, but because they were considered by other designer-historians – from Tschichold and Spencer to Hollis and Meggs – to be examples of great design.

A truly ‘new’ history of graphic design would need to be much more reflective about the process of writing history. Part of this process would include acknowledging and evaluating sources. I find it extraordinary that a text intended to provide a ‘sounding board for scholars and students’ should be produced without citations or references. In a time of rampant plagiarism, this is not the kind of example to set students. There are also strange omissions from the bibliography, notably Allworth’s Looking Closer series, still the most significant American contribution to graphic design history since the first edition of Meggs.