Summer 2008

Matt Dent

Who cares about graphic design history?


Matt Dent comes from Bangor, North Wales, and graduated from the University of Brighton in 2003.

Q1. What do you think is meant by ‘the canon of graphic design history’? For example: The Bauhaus? Beck’s Underground diagram? Alvin Lustig’s book covers? Swiss Modernism? George Lois’s Esquire covers? Wim Crouwel’s New Alphabet? Milton Glaser’s ‘I [heart] NY’? Barney Bubbles? Ray Gun? Do you think about it, or buy design history publications?

A1. The sad thing is that you have to actively seek out information about the godfathers of graphic design, the contributors to the canon, while the contributors to the current design scene land in your lap just by being exposed to the various media out there. It is all too easy to get caught up in what is going on currently in the popular graphic design field and ignore their godfatherly influences.

But being aware of a piece of design history is different to understanding its significance. The design industry breeds visual sponges. You know about Harry Beck, for example, having seen his London Underground diagram at the V&A, but understanding the map’s significance is a different matter; it needs to be put into context to see just how advanced it was for its time.

The other day I picked up the book Mr Beck’s Underground Map (by Ken Garland) and I couldn’t put it down.

It put the significance of his design breakthrough into context with other methods of cartography being used at the time, not only explaining how revolutionary and widely influential it was, but how he fought so hard to keep his map’s purity.

Q2. Does design history have relevance to your design practice?

A2. It’s totally relevant and probably much more influential than we are aware of half the time.

Q3. Where did you learn about design history?

A3. School, college, university and chatting with friends. It began in school with teachers trying to instil in us a broad understanding of the history of art. This was useful as it gave me a framework to drop in newly gathered information on other artists / designers later on.

Q4. Does history have relevance to the new technology and techniques you’ve had to master in your work?

A4. Yes – just because you’re designing, for example, a map for online use need not mean a complete departure from the lessons learnt from Beck. However, the execution of the design needs to suit the medium and it is always worth experimenting.

In the past ten years, computers have been introduced to coinage design. Using 3D image software you can create an image, extrude it to any depth, and view your creation from any angle; you can also simulate the effect of lighting across a design and control the texture of the surfaces, providing a much clearer understanding of what the finished coin would look like.

This information can then be used to create the dies to make the coins. What this means is a greater degree of control, more accuracy and speed.

Q5. If you were in charge of a design education programme, what aspects of design history (if any) would you teach to your students?

A5. I would want to get across an idea of context. In my early art education I’d often hear ‘so and so was a really important artist / designer’ without knowing why. If you are able to understand what the art and design scene was like at the time, it can help flavour your understanding of the contribution made by the people you are learning about, and why they are in the canon.

Top: New reverse designs for the United Kingdom’s coins. Client: The Royal Mint. Design: Matthew Dent, 2008.

First published in Eye no. 68 vol. 17 2008

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.