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The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design

Six centuries of seminal design history, condensed into a stunning artifact.

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.

The Man of Letters or Pierrot’s Alphabet (1794)
Paul Rand: IBM (1956-1991)
Saul Bass: Vertigo (1958)
Charles Minard: Chart showing the number of men in Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign army, their movements, and the temperature they encountered on the return path (1869)
Aleksandr Rodchencko: Luchshih Sosok ne bilo i nyet (1923)
A. M. Cassandre: Dubo Dubonnet (1932)

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.

At once a stunning artifact and an illuminating time-capsule of design history, The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design isn’t just a beautiful addition to your personal library — it is in itself a miniature, portable library of watershed graphic design work and the cultural context that gave it shape.

Some images via It’s Nice That


Dan Ariely on the Truth About Dishonesty, Animated

“It’s all about rationalization.”

From the fantastic RSA Animate series comes an illustrated distillation of behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, which you might recall. Here, Ariely highlights some of the fascinating psychological mechanisms that steer our moral compass — and often do so in directions different from our self-conception as righteous people — explaining everything from why we cheat on our diets to how the world ended up in a massive financial crisis, and offering lab-tested behavioral insights on what we can do about it all.

If you think about the whole financial crisis, we’ve taken people and we’ve put them in situations which basically are guaranteed to blind or, at least, to distort their vision. And we expect people to overcome that.

We all have a tendency to think of people as good or bad. And, we say, as long as we kick the bad people, everything would be fine. But the reality is that we all have the capacity to be quite bad, under the right circumstances, and I think in banking we’ve created the right circumstances for everybody to misbehave. And, because of that, it’s not such a matter of kicking some people and getting new people in — it’s about changing the incentive structure. Because, unless we change that, we’re not going to get forward.

For a closer look at The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, see these annotated excerpts from a chapter on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty.


On “Pure Design” and What Beauty Really Means

“Pure Design appeals to the eye just as absolute Music appeals to the ear.”

The question of what design is and what makes it good and the parallel question about the essence of beauty and its origin have long occupied the minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers alike. In A Theory of Pure Design: Harmony, Balance, Rhythm (public library; public domain), originally published in 1907 — the same year French philosopher Henri Bergson shared his insights on intuition vs. the intellect — American painter, art historian, and theorist Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935) sets out to explain “not the artist, but the mode of expression which the artist uses,” proposing a framework for understanding both design and beauty as interrelated phenomena. The classic manual is now regarded as a seminal text of American design theory.

In a section entitled “THE MEANING OF DESIGN,” Ross offers a baseline definition:

By Design I mean Order in human feeling and thought and in the many and varied activities by which that feeling or that thought is expressed. By Order I mean, particularly, three things — Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm. These are the principal modes in which Order is revealed in Nature and, through Design, in Works of Art.

He then expresses the relationship between the three in a “logical diagram”:

Ross goes on to define “Pure Design”:

By Pure Design I mean simply Order, that is to say, Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm, in lines and spots of paint, in tones, measures, and shapes. Pure Design appeals to the eye just as absolute Music appeals to the ear. The purpose in Pure Design is to achieve Order in lines and spots of paint, if possible, the perfection of Order, a supreme instance of it, the Beautiful: this with no other, no further, no higher motive; just for the satisfaction, the pleasure, the delight of it. In the practice of Pure Design we aim at Order and hope for Beauty. Even the motive of giving pleasure to others lies beyond the proper purpose of Pure Design, though it constantly happens that in pleasing ourselves we give others pleasure.

But such ambiguous terms as “beauty” and “pleasure” require their own definition — or at least sharp awareness of the lack thereof. In a section titled “BEAUTY A SUPREME INSTANCE OF ORDER,” Ross offers a thoughtful meditation:

I refrain from any reference to Beauty as a principle of Design. It is not a principle, but an experience. It is an experience which defies analysis and has no explanation. We distinguish it from all other experiences. It gives us pleasure, perhaps the highest pleasure that we have. At the same time it is idle to talk about it, or to write about it. The less said about it the better. ‘It is beautiful,’ you say. Then somebody asks, ‘Why is it beautiful?’ There is no answer to that question. You say it is beautiful because it gives you pleasure: but other things give you pleasure which are not beautiful. Pleasure is, therefore, no criterion of Beauty. What is the pleasure which Beauty gives? It is the pleasure which you have in the sense of Beauty. That is all you can say. You cannot explain either the experience or the kind of pleasure which it gives you.

While I am quite unable to give any definition or explanation of Beauty, I know where to look for it, where I am sure to find it. The Beautiful is revealed, always, so far as I know, in the forms of Order, in the modes of Harmony, of Balance, or of Rhythm. While there are many instances of Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm which are not particularly beautiful, there is, I believe, nothing really beautiful which is not orderly in one or the other, in two, or in all three of these modes. In seeking the Beautiful, therefore, we look for it in instances of Order, in instances of Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm. We shall find it in what may be called supreme instances. This is perhaps our nearest approach to a definition of Beauty: that it is a supreme instance of Order, intuitively felt, instinctively appreciated.

A Theory of Pure Design: Harmony, Balance, Rhythm is now in the public domain and is available for free in its entirety in multiple formats.


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