BY Emily King in Frieze | 03 MAR 01
Featured in
Issue 57

Graphic Descriptions

The latest clutch of designers' books

BY Emily King in Frieze | 03 MAR 01

For as long as there has been graphic design, designers and typographers have been making books to explain or expand on what they do. In spite of becoming a well-established publishing tradition, and in contrast to the ossified model of the art monograph, designers' books have never assumed a singular, stable form. In fact, they reveal that graphic design remains in the throes of a long-running identity crisis.

The earliest publications, such as Jan Tschichold's The New Typography (1928) or Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Painting Photography Film (published as a Bauhaus book in 1925), were inspired by a pioneering Modernist desire to define a mode of expression best suited to emergent technology. As the century progressed, technological preoccupations gave way to a range of other issues. In 1940s America, for example, the European émigré Gyorgy Kepes formulated a visual language intended to reunite a tattered humanity (The Language of Vision, 1944), while the commercially successful advertising designer Paul Rand asserted his position at the high end of the cultural spectrum in Thoughts on Design (1947). Back in Europe the economic boom of the post-war period lent Modernist graphic design an unimpeachable authority. The Swiss designer Josef Müller-Brockman was moved to write The Graphic Artist and His Design Problems (1968), a book on the exemplary manipulation of word and image illustrated solely by his own work. Of a similar generation, Adrian Frutiger and Otl Aicher have both written typographic histories that nominate their own practice as the glorious achievement of a smoothly evolving development: Type Sign Symbol (1980) and Typographie (1988), respectively.

The supremacy of Modernist graphic design did not long outlive economic good fortune, and since the early to mid-1980s designers' publications have adopted a bewildering range of formats. There have been quasi-manifestos (Dan Friedman's Radical Modernism, 1994), idiosyncratic visual tours (Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist, 1998) and a surfeit of self-aggrandizing chaos and indeterminacy (David Carson's The End of Print, 1995; Tomato's Process 1996; P. Scott Makela and Laurie Haycock Makela's WhereIsHere, 1998). Many books in the latter mould have placed themselves at the very end of history, posing as the graffiti-sprawled tombstones of graphic design, but heedless of these pronounce ments bookshops are more than ever laden with newly born, glossy, graphics publications.

Looking through a selection of recent graphic design monographs - Stefan Sagmeister's Made You Look (2001), Bruce Mau's Life Style (2000) and Fuel's Fuel Three Thousand (2000) - it is clear that all reflect their author/designers' confrontation with the nagging demons of doubt, possibly in reaction to the well-advertised demise of the profession. Sagmeister, of German extraction and now working in New York, attempts to mollify these voices by opening Made You Look with a 16-page diagram demonstrating the very minor place of graphic design in terms of the span of global evolution since the Big Bang, a protective admission of his own insignificance. By contrast, Mau, a Canadian who specializes in the seductive design of forbidding texts, is not the least apologetic. In Life Style he grapples aggressively with the fear of literal superficiality that bedevils many graphic designers. Lastly Fuel, a British design studio known for their prickly graphic restraint, share Mau's anxieties concerning the profundity of the surface, but opt for a style of defence that is far more elliptical. In a text written by Shannan Peckham, the designers appear to be offering the answers to a series of imagined enquiries, the outcome which is a flurry of oddly constructed sentences that could be questions in an oblique version of the TV quiz Jeopardy.

These books have little in common in terms of look and feel. Although contained in chunky covers, Fuel Three Thousand turns out to comprise a slim group of images created by a slice of London's design and photographic community; in contrast, Made You Look is a standard chronological tour through Sagmeister's life and work; beefed up by theoretical and anecdotal texts, Life Style presents Mau's ouput in epic, weighty style. Among these books the belief that there is a worthwhile subject area of graphic design that could be common to all seems to have expired altogether. Some 597 pages into Mau's Life Style the philosopher Michel Feher feels able to raise the question 'Bruce Mau: Designer or Not?' By way of replacement for the 'lost' subject of graphic design, and weaving its way as a common thread throughout these publications, is an overriding concern on the part of designers with issues of self-examination. A reliance on the trope of self-identity to haul themselves through uncertainty is not just true of these particular publications, but it is evident across the board. John Maeda, for example, the MIT-based creator of technological felicities, opens his recent book Maeda Media (2000) in his father's tofu factory. Even more bizarrely, given his generation and stature, the typographic revolutionary Wolfgang Weingart has chosen of late to explain his radical practice solely in terms of personal revelation:Wolfgang Weingart: Typography (2000).

Sagmeister, Mau and Fuel each include a studio portrait in their publications. Looking at these images, a similarity between these three very different books begins to make itself apparent: it is possible to determine what is left for each of them after the demise of graphic certainties. For Mau the answer is information; pictured in a densely cluttered state, it is implied that the Bruce Mau Design studio is no more than a carelessly arranged container of books, boxes, files, phones, papers and computers. For Fuel the answer is Big Questions: by arranging the entire contents of their studio in a pile at the centre they pose one of popular philosophy's favourite teasers - 'is this it?' Finally, for Sagmeister the answer is real estate: his studio is depicted in a pristine state, with the emphasis firmly on its sweeping Manhattan views. Sagmeister's story is the small-town boy made good. The happy ending of his story is not philosophical revelation but material success.

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.