The Best Design Books of 2012
From Marshall McLuhan to Frank Lloyd Wright, or what vintage type has to do with the evolution of iconic logos.
By Maria Popova
After the best science books and the best art books of 2012, the season’s best-of reading lists continue with 10 favorite design books published this year. (Catch up on last year’s reading list here.)
THE PHAIDON ARCHIVE OF GRAPHIC DESIGN
Every once in a while, along comes a book-as-artifact that becomes an instant, inextricable necessity in the life of any graphic design aficionado. This season, it’s The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design — an impressive, exhaustive, rigorously researched, and beautifully produced compendium of 500 seminal designs spanning newspapers, magazines, posters, advertisements, typefaces, logos, corporate design, record covers, and moving graphics, examined through 3000 color and 300 black-and-white illustrations in their proper historical and sociocultural context.
Though the concept is hardly novel, wedged somewhere between 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design and Bibliographic, the book-in-a-box execution holds a rare kind of mesmerism, its dividers inviting you to organize and explore the wealth of design legacy by designer, subject, chronology, or alphabetical order.
Featuring such beloved design icons as Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Saul Bass, and Paul Rand, the selections explore how graphic design coalesced out of the traditions of printing and fine art thanks to two key developments — the invention of the printing press in 15th-century Europe and the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries — emerging as one of the most powerful, ever-evolving tools of modern human communication.
Originally featured in October.
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously remarked. Hardly anyone can back this bombastic proclamation with more empirical conviction than Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. In 2009, the duo embarked upon a curious experiment: They would purchase cheap trinkets, ask some of today’s most exciting creative writers to invent stories about them, then post the stories and the objects on eBay to see whether the invented story enhanced the value of the object. Which it did: The tchotchkes, originally purchased for a total of $128.74, sold for a whopping total of $3,612.51 — a 2,700% markup. (The most highly valued pairing in the entire project, bought for $1.49 and sold for $197.50, was a globe paperweight with a moving handwritten story by the magnificent Debbie Millman, with proceeds benefiting 826 National.)
Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things (public library) tells the tale of this irreverent testament to the power of storytelling through a hundred of the best stories since the beginning of the project. The anthology features such celebrated authors as William Gibson (HAWK Ashtray, bought for $2.99, sold for $101), Jonathan Lethem (Missouri Shotglass, bought for $1, sold for $76), and Colson Whitehead (Mallet, bought for 33 cents, sold for $71).
And what better way to open than with some timeless wisdom from the inimitable Edward Gorey?
A reflection from the introduction:
Writers love a challenge like the one we posed them — i.e., making up a story inspired by an object they’ve never seen before. Our contributors met the challenge with wildly imaginative, deeply moving, and darkly ironic stories. They wrote letters, email solicitations, memoirs, operating instructions, public notices, diary entries, wine-tasting notes, and public ordinances. Some crafted rich character studies, others told tales through whipsaw dialogue or internal monologue. Some took bold experimental risks, while others opted for evocative minimalism or genre fiction.
It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.
Part Sentimental Value, part MacGuffinism, Significant Objects reminds us of the storiness of our lived materiality — of the artifacts we imbue with meaning, with loves and losses, with hopes and desperations. At its heart is something essential and essentially human, which Brian Eno once articulated beautifully:
Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautiful and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable.”
Anaïs Nin put it even more dramatically when she wrote in her diary in 1943:
Stories are the only enchantment possible, for when we begin to see our suffering as a story, we are saved.
Originally featured in August.
100 IDEAS THAT CHANGED GRAPHIC DESIGN
Design history books abound, but they tend to be organized by chronology and focused on concrete -isms. From publisher Laurence King, who brought us the epic Saul Bass monograph, and the prolific design writer Steven Heller with design critic Veronique Vienne comes 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design (UK; public library) — a thoughtfully curated inventory of abstract concepts that defined and shaped the art and craft of graphic design, each illustrated with exemplary images and historical context.
From concepts like manifestos (#25), pictograms (#45), propaganda (#22), found typography (#38), and the Dieter-Rams-coined philosophy that “less is more” (#73) to favorite creators like Alex Steinweiss, Noma Bar, Saul Bass, Paula Scher, and Stefan Sagmeister, the sum of these carefully constructed parts amounts to an astute lens not only on what design is and does, but also on what it should be and do.
Heller and Vienne write in the introduction:
[Big ideas] are notions, conceptions, inventions, and inspirations — formal, pragmatic, and conceptual — that have been employed by graphic designers to enhance all genres of visual communication. These ideas have become, through synthesis and continual application, the ambient language(s) of graphic design. They constitute the technological, philosophical, forma, and aesthetic constructs of graphic design.
From how rub-on lettering democratized design by fueling the DIY movement and engaging people who knew nothing about typography to how the concept of the “teenager” was invented after World War II as a new market for advertisers, many of the ideas are mother-of-invention parables. Together, they converge into a cohesive meditation on the fundamental mechanism of graphic design — to draw a narrative with a point of view, and then construct that narrative through the design process and experience.
History, as we all know, is written by the survivors. And there are certain historical facts that never get covered. And, in graphic design, it’s fascinating how many things don’t get covered until somebody uncovers them.
Originally featured, with more examples and images, in May.
Talk to Me, the most recent exhibition by MoMA Senior Curator of Architecture and Design Paola Antonelli — design oracle, crusader for humanized technology, curious octopus — explored with an unparalleled blend of excitement and insight the evolving communication between people and objects, a relationship all the more palpable, quite literally so, in our age of ubiquitous sensors and data feeds and interfaces, yet still rooted in our inextricable and increasingly complex relationship with the physicality of the analog world.
Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects (public library) is itself a meta-object in the exhibition — exquisitely produced and thoughtfully constructed to contextualize and illuminate the nearly 200 projects in the show, this analog artifact flows beautifully and seamlessly into the digital and mechanical world it encapsulates. An embossed faux-pixelated cover invites you to touch the “interface” of the book. On many of the pages, QR codes let you leap into a specific project’s digital presence. The Cubitt Fax computerizes the printed page, exuding a kind of binary intimacy.
Antonelli writes in the introductory essay:
The bond between people and things has always been filled with powerful and unspoken sentiments going well beyond functional expectations and including attachment, love, possessiveness, jealousy, pride, curiosity, anger, even friendship and partnership.
And, indeed, the projects and objects featured span the entire spectrum of human intellectual and emotional investment. From the unapologetically analog and deeply personal, like Stefanie Posavec’s handmade visualizations and Nicholas Felton’s infographic life reports, to the widely exploratory and the wildly futuristic, like Christien Meindertsma’s brilliant PIG O5049 project and Daisy Ginsberg’s E.chromi “designer bacteria,” the works cover (and uncover) interfaces, tools, devices, data visualization, video games, websites, and many more facets of this curious cultural shift we are witnessing, exploring the intersection and interplay of these various conduits of communication.
Talk to Me is also very much about locating the present:
In contrast to the twentieth-century triumph of semiotics, which looked down on communication as nothing but a mechanical transmission of coded meaning, the twenty-first century has begun as one of pancommunication — everything and everybody conveying content and meaning in all possible combinations, from one-on-one to everything-to-everybody. We now expect objects to communicate, a cultural shift made evident when we see children searching for buttons or sensors on a new object, even when the object has no batteries or plug.
Paola’s talent for bridging the esoteric with the universal shines throughout:
In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.
In the introductory essay, Antonelli also exercises her remarkable gift for explaining technical terminology and complex systems in layman language that takes none of the substance away, breaking down the four main design disciplines covered in the show:
Communication design focuses on delivering messages, and it encompasses most graphic design, signage, and communicative objects of all kinds, from printed materials to three-dimensional and digital projects. Interface and interaction design, which is sometimes brought under the more generic and functionalist rubric of user-experience design, delineates the behavior of products and systems, as well as the experience that people will have with them. Information or visualization design includes the maps, diagrams, and visualization tools that filter and make sense of the enormous amount of information that is more widely available than ever before. Critical design is one of the most promising and far-reaching new areas of study, using conceptual scenarios built around hypothetical objects to comment on the social, political, and cultural consequences of new technologies and behaviors. Its disciples are experts in ‘What if?’
More than anything, Talk to Me is about both challenging and owning design as a centripetal force of culture:
Talk to Me is an opportunity to anchor design’s new dimension and highlight innovative interfaces that can inform designers in the future. Whether they use the skin and shell of objects as an interface or animate them from within, designers are using the whole world to communicate and are set on a path that is transforming it into an information parkour and enriching our lives with emotion, motion, direction, depth, and freedom.
It might seem that design has abandoned its tested, grounded, functionalist territory to venture into an ambiguous universe where its essence is confused and a crisis of identity arises — is the 5th Dimensional Camera art or scientific modeling? Is Humeau’s work creative paleontology? Are Sputniko!’s devices contributing to interpretive anthropology? Is Pachube mere coding and infrastructure engineering? Not at all. I claim them, with their powerful vision and their focus on knowledge and awareness, as design, and I praise their radical functionalism. Ambiguity and ambivalence — the ability to inhabit different environments and frames of mind at the same time — have become central to our cultural development. They are qualities that embody the openness and flexibility necessary for embracing diversity, and they are critical to the questioning and imagining that are the preferred methods of inquiry. Communication is at the nexus of all these necessary human features: the most critical function of design today.
Several essays by prominent cross-disciplinary thinkers contextualize the various thematic sections. In one titled “Conversations with the Network,” Khoi Vinh observes:
The designer as author, as craftsperson bringing together beginning, middle, and end, becomes redundant in a space in which every participant forges his or her own beginning, middle, and end. And that is exactly what happens in networked media. The narrative recedes, and the behavior of the design solution becomes prominent. What becomes important are questions that concern not the author but the users. How does the system respond to the input of its users? When a user says something to the system, how does the system respond?
Originally featured in June.
For more than three decades, graphic designer Louise Fili has been producing some of the most consistently exquisite typography, frequently hand-drawn and building upon thoughtfully curated vintage sources. In her decade as art director for Pantheon Books, she created nearly two thousand book jackets, each with remarkable attention to detail. Since 1989, she has expanded and extended her singular lens to restaurant menus and food packaging through her namesake design studio. The new monograph Elegantissima: The Design and Typography of Louise Fili (public library) offers, for the first time, a sweeping look at Fili’s work and the philosophy behind it.
But Fili’s greatest gift is perhaps the extraordinary ability to seek out vintage gems — and to do so with great taste — which she then reimagines and combines into entirely new designs that aren’t mere homage to the past but, rather, an entirely original visual language with an entirely original point of view.
What Louise does instead is build upon things passé to enliven her contemporary graphic statements — even when the result has vintage resonance.
Almost every example in this book can be unpacked to discover its influences and inspirations (and herein are detailed case studies). However, the manner in which these component parts are reassembled is uniquely Louise’s. It is all too easy to add pre-cooked ingredients from archival sources, but to then transform them into designs that are at once familiar and entirely novel — well, that takes extreme discipline.
For a charming aside, here’s a heart-warming anecdote about Heller and Fili’s relationship:
I just wanted to tell you that I think your book and book jacket designs for Pantheon are excellent Consistently so.
Every time I am struck by a book in our bookroom or on the in-coming table it is something you’ve been responsible for.
[signed] Steve Heller
On March 9, 1982, when I was art director of the New York Times Book Review, I sent the grammatically challenged note above to Louise Fili, whom I had never met and, in fact, had never laid eyes on before. A little more than a year later we were married.
This intimate disclosure is essential, lest anyone reading this foreword to Louise’s monograph presume I lack critical objectivity. Strictly speaking, at the time I wrote the note I was a genuinely objective fan of Louise’s typographic elegance, visual flair, and conceptual ingenuity, as well as her keen expertise with illustration — an area I knew something about.
Originally featured in September.
Much has been said about visual storytelling and how to tell stories of data in the information age, and there is no shortage of great books on data visualization. But count on Taschen to tackle a big conceptual challenge with a big, beautifully designed book: Information Graphics by art historian Sandra Rendgen explores the four key aspects of visualizing data — Location, Time, Category, and Hierarchy — through exemplary work from more than 200 projects, alongside essays by information architect and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, Guardian Datablog editor Simon Rogers, Density Design’s Paolo Ciuccarelli, and Rendgen herself.
Information Graphics features work by a number of Brain Pickings favorites, including Stefanie Posavec, Nicholas Felton, Ward Shelley, Hans Rosling, Nathalie Miebach, David McCandless, Toby Ng, Michael Paukner, Christoph Niemann, Sam Potts, and Jonathan Harris. The cover image is, of course, the unmistakable Web Trend Map by Information Architects.
Originally featured, with more images, in May.
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT: GRAPHIC ARTIST
Frank Lloyd Wright is considered by many the most influential architect in modern history, but despite his enormous cultural recognition, the full extent of his contribution to design — posters, brochures, typography, murals, book and magazine covers — remains relatively obscure. In Frank Lloyd Wright: Graphic Artist (public library), Penny Fowler examines Wright’s ingenious and bold graphic work — his covers for Liberty (some of which were so radical the magazine rejected them), his mural designs for Midway Gardens, his photographic experiments, his hand-drawn typographical studies, the jacket designs for his own publications, including The House Beautiful and An Autobiography, and a wealth more.
From his childhood encounter with Friedrich Froebel’s educational building blocks at the 1876 Centennial Exposition to his experiments with geometric designs long before the Mondrian age to his obsession with the woodblock art of Old Japan, Fowler traces Wright’s inspirations, influences, and singular style as his work dances across aesthetic movements like Bauhaus, Japanisme, Arts and Crafts, and De Stijl.
As Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation director Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer writes in the introduction, what Wright wrote in 1908 of architecture could well apply to his graphic design work as well:
As for the future — the work shall grow more truly simple, more expressive with fewer lines, fewer forms; more articulate with less labor; more plastic; more fluent, although more coherent; more organic. It shall grow not only to fit more perfectly the methods and processes that are called upon to produce it, but shall further find whatever is lovely or of good repute in method or process, and idealize it with the cleanest, most virile stroke I can imagine.
Fowler writes of Wright’s formative years:
Reading, sketching, and music each played a role in shaping Wright’s character. So did hard work. Beginning when he was eleven, he worked through the late spring and summer on his uncle’s farm. Wright described the long hours and hard work as ‘adding tired to tired.’ Nevertheless, this farm labor as an ‘amateur hired hand’ fostered an everlasting appreciation of nature.
Shedding new light on the beloved creator’s legacy through his kaleidoscope of creative contributions, Frank Lloyd Wright: Graphic Artist is an essential bible of design and cultural history.
Images courtesy of Pomegranate / © FLW Foundation
Originally featured, with more artwork, in May.
It takes a special kind of creative alchemy to transmute image into icon and catalyze a cultural cult driven by a commanding brand identity. Logo Life: Life Histories of 100 Famous Logos (public library) from Dutch publisher BIS and creative director Ron van der Vlugt offers exactly what it says on the tin, covering brands as diverse yet uniformly enduring as Apple, LEGO, adidas, Google, Xerox, and VISA. Each short chapter traces the visual evolution the respective brand logo, zooms in on noteworthy milestones in the company’s trajectory, and highlights first-hand accounts and curious anecdotes by the logo designers.
Van der Vlugt tells the story of one of today’s most ubiquitous and recognizable brand identities:
Apple’s first logo was complex picture, a tribute to Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree, with a phrase from Wordsworth: ‘Newton… a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought…alone’, along with the name Apple Computer Co.
Hard to reproduce, it was soon replaced by Rob Janoff’s ‘Rainbow Apple’ logo, with the introduction of the Apple II in 1997. In a later interview, Janoff said that there was no real brief. Steve Jobs only told him not to make it ‘too cute’. Ironically, the logo was designed by hand, using pencils and strips of paper.
The colors represented the monitor’s ability to reproduce colors, a unique selling point at the time. Its bright colors were intended to be appealing to young people.
The bite was added so that people would still recognize it as an apple rather than a cherry. According to Janoff, it does not represent the computing term ‘byte’, nor is there any biblical reference. Also, the bite fit snugly around the first letter of the brand name in Motter Tektura, a typeface that was considered cutting-edge at the time.
In 1984, with the introduction of the Apple Macintosh, the less than mathematically precise curves of the original logo were refined. The brand name was dropped at that point, since the apple alone proved to be an iconic symbol for the company.
From 1998 on, with the roll-out of the colorful iMacs, the stylish monochromatic themes of the logo were used, which perfectly matched the innovative character of the products.
Originally featured in October.
THE BOOK OF PROBES
“McLuhan searches for semiotics beneath semiotics, levels of meaning beyond the messenger’s intent or the recipient’s awareness,” Philip B. Meggs once wrote. Though his most famous concept-catchphrases remain “the global village” and “the medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan originated hundreds of other “probes” — cryptic aphorisms designed to push the reader or recipient into completing a thought process.
In The Book of Probes, Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s son, partners with media theorist William Kuhns and legendary graphic designer David Carson to bring to life McLuhan’s sharpest probes culled from his books, speeches, classes, and various writings published between 1945 and 1980. Since McLuhan was as much a master of textual provocation as he was a co-conspirer in a new visual vernacular for the Information Age, Carson’s bold, thoughtful visual metaphors — all 400 gripping pages of them — present a powerful lens on McLuhan’s legacy that is at once completely fresh and completely befitting.
Terrance Gordon, author of the authorized biography Marshall Mcluhan: Escape Into Understanding, writes of the McLuhan-Carson pairing in one of the featured essays:
McLuhan’s words are about words, and Carson responds with a map about maps.
Unlike the spines of a cactus in their tidy rows, McLuhan’s prickly probes zigzag across a vast thoughtscape. Following him, keeping up with him, we have no time to rest or recognize a new location before he beckons us to move on. David Carson comes to our rescue. As translation into the local idiom and bearings for our current whereabouts, his art work roots us for a moment, even as McLuhan pulls us ahead. But Carson does not deliver comforting postcard views; his visual mosaics can leave us just as breathless as the punches of McLuhan’s prose. Snap and shoot, but no snapshots from either artist or writer.
The McLuhan-Carson partnership works constantly to turn symbiosis into synergy.”
The probes themselves, wrapped in Carson’s equally provocative and thought-provoking visual micro-narratives, reveal not one McLuhan but many — the social psychologist (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), the linguist (“Languages are environments to which the child relates synesthetically.”), the artist (“Color is not so much a visual as a tactile medium.”), the scholar (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), and a near-infinite number more
(Cue in Paola Antonelli on humanized technology.)
Gordon observes in a featured essay:
All media of communications are clichés serving to enlarge man’s cope of actions, his patterns of association and awareness.”
(A note is due here on Gordon’s disappointing use of “man” and “his” to connote all of humanity — while the politics and semantic landscape of McLuhan’s era may have made such gender-skewed umbrella terms culturally acceptable, one would hope half a century of progress might demand a more balanced relationship with pronouns.)
The end of the book features 100 pages of selected precepts, fragments, and probes by McLuhan, including themes of intense timeliness and urgency:
The trouble with a cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it.*
The print-made split between head and heart is the trauma that affects Europe from Machiavelli to the present.**
The media tycoons have a huge stake in old media by which they monopolize the new media.***
The amateur can afford to lose. The expert is the man who stays put.****
Symbolism consists in pulling out connections.*****
Candidates are now aware that all policies and objectives are obsolete. Perhaps there is some comfort to be derived from the fact that NASA scientists are in the same dilemma. While pursuing the Newtonian goals of outer space, they are quite aware that the inner dimensions of the atom are very much greater and more relevant to our century.”
*** See this 1923 critique of everything that’s wrong with modern media in a media equation where the “circulation manager” (once of newspapers, now of pageviews) has replaced the editor.
Originally featured in February.
THE SHAPE OF DESIGN
From my studiomate Frank Chimero — one of the most talented designers, most eloquent writers, and most dimensional thinkers I know — comes The Shape of Design, an exquisite meditation on what makes great design.
From the very first line, Frank grabs you by the neurons and the heartstrings, and doesn’t let go until the very last:
What is the marker of good design? It moves. The story of a successful piece of design begins with the movement of its maker while it is being made, and amplifies by its publishing, moving the work out and around. It then continues in the feeling the work stirs in the audience when they see, use, or contribute to the work, and intensifies as the audience passes it on to others. Design gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need. If all of this movement harmonizes, the work gains a life of its own, and turns into a shared experience that enhances life and inches the world closer to its full potential.
Marshall McLuhan said that, ‘we look at the present through a rear-view mirror,’ and we ‘march backwards into the future.’ Invention becomes our lens to imagine what is possible, and design is the road we follow to reach it. But, there is a snag in McLuhan’s view, because marching is no way to go into the future. It is too methodical and restricted. The world often subverts our best laid plans, so our road calls for a way to move that is messier, bolder, more responsive. The lightness and joy afforded by creating suggests that we instead dance.
But the part that sang to me most comes from Chapter Three, entitled Improvisation and Limitations, and touches on the harmonics of influence — something I think about a great deal and have explored both playfully and seriously:
When we build, we take bits of others’ work and fuse them to our own choices to see if alchemy occurs. Some of those choices are informed by best practices and accrued wisdom; others are guided by the decisions of the work cited as inspiration; while a large number are shaped by the disposition and instincts of the work’s creator. These fresh contributions and transformations are the most crucial, because they continue the give-and-take of influence by adding new, diverse material to the pool to be used by others.
Frank goes on to illustrate this with an example from eighteenth-century Japanese haiku master Yosa Buson:
Lighting one candle
with another candle —
Buson is saying that we accept the light contained in the work of others without darkening their efforts. One candle can light another, and the light may spread without its source being diminished. We must sing in our own way, but with the contributions and influence of others, we need not sing alone.
Originally featured in April.
Published November 27, 2012