From the extraordinary visual dexterity of Alan Fletcher to Jan Tschichold’s experiments with typography, Patrick Cramsie picks the books that have shaped our visual culture
Art of seeing … Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways.
Patrick Cramsie studied graphic design at London’s Middlesex University before going on to work in an Anglo-Japanese design company and then later as a freelance designer. His design work has centred on corporate identity and book design, but alongside this he has written book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and Tate Etc. His latest book, The Story of Graphic Design, covers 5,500 years of cultural history from the invention of writing to the birth of digital design.
“We live in a world of signs and symbols. Street signs, logos, labels, pictures and words in books, newspapers, magazines and now on our mobiles and computer screens; all these graphic shapes have been designed. They are so commonplace we seldom think of them as a single entity, “graphic design”. Yet taken as a whole they are central to our modern way of life. Nearly all of these books on graphic design appeal as much to the eye as to the mind, being beautiful as well as useful. In some, this marriage is so complete that they stand as archetypes of their medium; as specimens of perfection in book form.”
1. Notes on Book Design by Derek Birdsall
Though presented as a practical guide for designing books – how to lay out text and pictures or how to design a cover – this book is much more than that. It is written and designed by one of Britain’s most accomplished book designers and then illustrated with some of the best examples of his work. Because the book practises what it preaches, it is as good to look at as to read; the union of form and content could hardly be bettered. Each spread could be taken and hung in a gallery and appreciated as a work of art.
2. The Printed Picture by Richard Benson
A book that sets out to explain each of the different printing techniques that have been developed since the Renaissance sounds potentially dry, worthy and technical. The surprise that it is none of these things is quickly overtaken by the thrill of reading a text that is clear, deeply informed and accompanied by an extraordinary range of beautiful pictures, all of which are (of course) printed with an astonishing quality. We are now living in the age of the image, and this book successfully tells us how we got here.
3. The Encyclopaedia of Type Faces by Jaspert, Berry and Johnson
We all use PCs and mobiles and so, to some extent, we are all now “graphic designers”. Each of us can decide what style and size of font our letters, e-mails and texts should appear in. For those who want to explore the world of fonts beyond that provided on their computers, there is no better place to start than here. Though this book lacks any recently designed fonts, the select range of historically important or practically useful fonts it presents could last us several lifetimes. This book is really a celebration of the flexibility of the Latin alphabet. The fact that each font is put into context by a short description of its design makes this celebration educational.
4. Active Literature: Jan Tschichold and New Typography by Christopher Burke
Perhaps as many books have been written about this 20th-century German as any other graphic designer. However, none of these books on Tschichold has unearthed so many previously unseen works, and no text has benefited from such detailed research. Unlike so many writers on design, Burke has done his homework, and the fruits of it are displayed in this treasure trove of designs from Tschichold’s most radical modernist phase.
5. Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago by Hans Wingler
The influential and much mythologised German art school, the Bauhaus, is made less opaque through this astonishing collection of documents, letters and pictures from its own archive. From the opening line of the school’s manifesto, “The ultimate aim of all the visual arts is the complete building!”, to a description of “the New Bauhaus” in Chicago as having that “sweet sound of a hive humming”, the ability of the personal testament to bring history alive is proven over and over again. The book’s design – its sans-serif text set within a rigid grid and bound between a simple but daringly effective cover (itself something of a design classic) – elevates this into a truly unique and important publication.
6. Design without Boundaries: Visual Communication in Transition by Rick Poynor
No British writer has done more to promote graphic design as a subject of interest and importance than Rick Poynor. This collection of articles, most of which were written during the 1990s, focuses on many of the ideas and individuals that continue to dominate graphic design today. The clarity of the writing and the author’s evident passion make it an illuminating entry into contemporary graphic design.
7. Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art by Paul Rand
Paul Rand is one of only a handful of names that is guaranteed to appear on any list of the greatest graphic designers. The almost magical invention in his work, and the prominence he maintained over five decades, mark him out as the Picasso of graphic design. In this collection of his writing he shows as much clarity and verve in articulating his approach to design as in the wealth of examples that illustrate the text. Both make the book enormously compelling.
8. The Sense of Order: a Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art by Ernst Gombrich
“The Story of Art” may have been Gombrich’s most popular book, but the one he considered to be the most original – and which relates to graphic design most directly – was this one. In explaining the biological roots and social importance of decoration he covers an astonishing range of graphic forms: the flourishing letters of medieval scribes, heraldic symbols, the use of pictures as memory aids, and the appearance of the acanthus leaf in print and architecture, to name just a few. Gombrich’s great gift – his ability to express the depth and breadth of his knowledge with simple language – makes this an amazingly rich and rewarding text.
9. The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher
Sometimes, a book can capture the personality of its author much more effectively than any portrait or film footage. Alan Fletcher’s special wit and rigour, his extraordinary visual awareness and above all, perhaps, his humanity, are laid bare in this singular, weighty graphic mélange. Each of the 1,000-odd pages have been individually designed to give graphic expression to a lifetime’s worth of collected quotes, musings, aphorisms, factual curios, jokes and other assorted titbits. Dip into it and it’s impossible to dip out again.
10. The Passport by Saul Steinberg
I could have chosen any number of Steinberg’s books, but this is the first one I owned and so it’s the first I fell in love with. Steinberg was best known as a cartoonist for the New Yorker – his New Yorker’s view of the world showing Ninth and Tenth Avenues in the foreground, a strip of the Hudson River and New Jersey in the middle distance, and then a few rocky outcrops marking China, Russia and Japan will ring a bell with some – but actually he was a truly great artist. Has anybody explored the ideas surrounding individual identity with as much graphic skill, humour and intelligence?
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/aug/04/top-10-graphic-design-books