Spring 2006

End of history? Graphic design hasn’t started

New Views: Repositioning Graphic Design History

Graphic Design History Symposium, London College of Communication, October 27–29, 2005

The New Views symposium elicited two distinct perspectives on graphic design history, raising questions about what it is for and how it should develop.

Jeremy Aynsley, Professor of Design History at the Royal College of Art, provided a compelling analysis of the historiography of Bauhaus graphic design and re-examined some of the myths that have fed an unquestioning celebration of graphic design produced during the Weimar period. He began by showing an excerpt from a fascinating 1930 film, Menschen am Sonntag. Directed by Curt and Robert Siodmak, the film follows the activities of Berliners as they move about the city on a Sunday and return to work on Monday. The documentary-like film shows a city teeming with graphic messages, from the advertising on the sides of buses, and signage on cinemas and shop fronts, to newspapers and magazines in the hands of its citizens – and the delight of Aynsley’s audience was palpable. It was an eloquent reminder of how rich film can be as a source for graphic design historians. But Aynsley was also making the point that this film portrays not the masters of the Bauhaus, but regular people going about their business. Now that the central stories of the Weimar period and its key protagonists have been archived and extrapolated, the next stage, he was suggesting, is to look at what was going on contiguously. How did people engage with graphic design on the street?

Following the lead of design history and the methodologies of material culture studies, graphic design history has, for more than a decade, been shifting its focus away from famous designers and Modernism toward the experiences of ordinary people and the significances of ordinary objects. This trend was recorded in Eye (no. 6 vol. 2) in 1992 by Bridget Wilkins, who wrote that graphic design history ‘should explain not “what it looks like” but “why it looks the way it does,” how a piece of graphic design communicated and to whom … A wartime ration book has as much to tell us about communication, communication design, people’s daily experience and society during World War II – in other words, graphic design history – as a poster by Abram Games.”

Many attendees at this conference probably share Wilkins’ views and had, themselves, through teaching or writing, engaged in attempts to recover the quotidian and to understand how people read graphic design. So when design critic Rick Poynor took the stage and challenged us all to abandon such attempts and stop vilifying the canon, therefore, he had everyone’s undivided attention. Poynor’s lecture was titled ‘Reluctant Discipline: Graphic Design History’s Protracted Birth’, and his aim was to remind us just how minuscule is the dent that graphic design history has made on the public consciousness.

Using book publishing as a measure of graphic design history’s health, Poynor swiftly checked the discipline’s ego. He described the scene in a typical London bookstore within which, ‘the design section will be small, the section dealing graphic design even smaller . . . It goes without saying that there will not be a section labelled “graphic design history” because this barely exists as a category in the bookseller’s mind and the section would have hardly anything in it anyway.’ One reason for the lack of books of graphic design history, Poynor said, is that ‘graphic design history, unlike other forms of visual study, is tied to the education of practitioners. And publishers, who are quick to exploit a commercial opportunity when they see one recognise this limitation.’ Poynor’s solution: write critical monographs that the public actually wants to read. The public, he said, does not share our reservations about an over-emphasis on exceptional individuals. If we want to improve the state of graphic design history – in fact, if we want to ensure its survival – we need to return to the canon and see what ‘basic footwork’ still needs to be done there. ‘For, if a cultural field is to exist in any defined and communicable way, how could there not be some kind of canon, however flawed it might be?’

Poynor’s straight-talking made me consider whether we’ve too quickly abandoned the core concerns that distinguish graphic design history from other varieties of social history which use graphic artefacts. Take the rubric used in this conference programme, for example, which makes liberal use of terms such as ‘beyond’, ‘alternative’, ‘radical’, ‘rethinking’, ‘review and question’, ‘new narratives’, and ‘repositioning’, and it can start to sound like we’re spending more time moving around and beyond our subject matter than actually looking at it straight on.

Of course, there are other measures for graphic design history’s vitality besides the bookshelf. In his lecture, Pentagram partner and Design Writing Research founder J. Abbott Miller used examples of the exhibitions and publications he has curated, edited and designed to demonstrate how writing and historical research infuse his practice as a designer. Other examples of history-driven practice were included in the conference such as Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon’s covers for the Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’ series.

Practising designers were not especially evident among the attendees, however. Only 125 people witnessed this well conceived and invigorating conference – and almost 50 of those were speakers, panellists and moderators. I found the low attendance surprising. I would have thought that the combination of the keynote speakers, a panel that included the outspoken Judith Williamson, and the fact that the whole thing was organised by the redoubtable Teal Triggs, Head of Research at LCC’s School of Graphic Design, would have drawn a larger number of people who write, teach, publish and consume graphic design history. The low turnout seemed to confirm Poynor’s assessment of the state of the discipline.

Before we despair completely, we should appreciate what has been accomplished in the relatively short time since the First Symposium on the History of Graphic Design held at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1983. In her opening remarks, Triggs stated her desire for the conference to build upon the work begun at the first Symposium. Triggs had been present at this gathering of the discipline’s early champions and since then, inspired by the call for action from the likes of Massimo Vignelli, Roger Remington and Victor Margolin, she has helped to energise the field both with her own research and the spaces she makes available for that of others – such as a conference like this one.

Significant contributions to graphic design history have been published; the subject is now taught on most graphic design courses; conferences have been held such as AIGA’s Looking Closer conference of 2001; and much work has been done in the area of systematic documentation, notably by RIT itself, whose library holds the archives of many early and mid-century American graphic designers. Even more encouraging was the international scope of this conference’s speaker list: South Africa, Australia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Greece, Italy, and Iran were represented, as well as the US and UK.