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You Read Best what you (don’t) Read Most

Recently, Valon revived a two year-old thread about graphic design books by saying: “I notice time-and-time again that all design books are nothing more than ‘Hey, look what I have done’.” This is of course a valid claim, it is easy (and probably provable) to guess that at the very least 75% of books under the category of Graphic Design/Arts fall under the Look at me category — after all, design is all about Look at meit, this or that. Monographs and compendiums of Best of [insert design-related topic] abound, heck, Graphis annuals take up entire shelves at any bookstore. Is this all there is to our profession’s literature? When you read about — not look at — graphic design, what, when and how do you read? Is there enough material out there in the world to grasp what graphic design is about by picking out one book? Two books? Ten? None? Do lawyers have better books than us? Doctors? Lumberjacks? Who boasts more pretty pictures per page: architects or designers?

And, of course, does it matter?

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PUBLISHED ON Aug.04.2004 BY Armin
Patrick C’s comment is:

I have always liked eye magazine and think it about the only constant on the shelves (be they shelves at a book store or shelves at a magazine store) that delivers a useful and intelligent mix of pretty pictures and insightful words. I like the diversity of design eye covers.

On Aug.04.2004 at 12:16 PM
Dan Herwig’s comment is:

I've always found design theory, as it relates to graphic design, to be rather lacking in terms of volume. Is there less available today than there was 10 years ago? Probably. There is definitely a trend towards playful cryptic monographs rather than well-groomed manifestos. It's hard to make sense of a designer's position when it runs off the page - is typeset in reverse - is gloss black type - and printed on black stock. Designer's stances on design seem to be made on a project basis, perhaps it's all an audience wants these days. These "theory-clips," akin to the sound clips at the beginning of network news, are intended to keep us just interested enough in the designer's work to buy their next monologue, hoping this time the theory behind the design will be expounded.

My design background is in architecture and I've always enjoyed the fact that a lot of the theory I have read is just that, pure theory. This requires critical theoreticians rather than intuitive practitioners - something that graphic design is definitely lacking. Does graphic design, as a discipline, have a single Bernard Tschumi, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas (who wrote much of S,M,L,XL with Mau as an editor) or Lebbeus Woods to call their own? Sure, some of these architects have built works now, but they've been building their ideas for decades. Their writings have been far more influential than any of their (limited) works have been thus far.

Is architecture more serious and important than graphic design? And does this explain the vast amount of theory generated by the field? I don't think so. Is architecture more closely tied to philosophy and literary criticism, resulting in a closer investigation as to the meaning behind design? Again, I'd have to say no.

The issue, as I see it, is that graphic design has become so pervasive in our lives that it doesn't need theoreticians to try to convince society of its value, or to unravel they mystery of its manifestation. Graphic design fits into our consumer culture quite comfortably. It excites us. It directs us. It controls us. It challenges us. It makes us buy things. It co-exists with language and speaks to us. We accept this and don't question it.

You could try to use the same argument for architecture, as we all need places in which to live, work, play and pray. The difference is our Vitruvian friend "firmitas" - buildings are around a lot longer than last year's catalog, ad campaign or web site. Humans can't just easily forget about a building as they can an ad they saw in yesterday's paper. Because of the lasting impact of architecture, it is viewed as more of a cultural influencer, as opposed to graphic design, which tends to be much more institutionally, rather than culturally, based.

What I'm attempting to get at is that critical theory focusing on graphic design may be lacking because graphic designs (as opposed to built works) impact culture on a shorter-term basis, and thus are not viewed as anything that could become a "movement" or impact society in any long term manner. Even though the long-term global societal impact of graphic design is enormous, its disposable nature is viewed as inconsequential. There's no "position" around long enough to define, let alone discuss.

That's how I see it at least.

On Aug.04.2004 at 12:22 PM
Andrew Twigg’s comment is:

I've raised this point elsewhere on this and other design-related sites: I don't buy into things like design monographs and "best of" books, nor do I subscribe to any trade magazines. Mostly this is because I don't really care to look at pretty pictures of pretty designs.

When I do spend money on design books, I find myself purchasing something that has some kind of academic bent and is more text than it is image. I'll buy just about any book in which Steven Heller has been involved and love poring over my latest issue of Emigre. I also don't limit myself solely to books on graphic design.

Of course, if I want to read about graphic design, I can always turn here, or to Design Observer. Either one will get me my quick fix.

To go down the road of whether or not graphic design has better books than any other profession seems somewhat silly. From an academic standpoint, it seems that it is lacking the depth and seriousness found in other professions. However, if you consider that graphic design needs to be informed by more than just itself, it would probably be appropriate to begin entertaining the texts of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, in which case the graphic design library has just exploded with a great volume of some very internse, serious, heavy-duty literature.

But, as Armin asked, really, does it matter?

On Aug.04.2004 at 01:30 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> To go down the road of whether or not graphic design has better books than any other profession seems somewhat silly.

Well, I didn't mean to simplify it to such a silly debate. The way that question should be rephrased is how does the "library" of graphic design match up professionally against that of other professions.

Dan's comment, for example, is exactly what this discussion is about. It's not necessarily comparing a to b and see who has more numbers.

On Aug.04.2004 at 02:05 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Elements of Typographic Style - Robert Bringhurst

design beyond Design - ed. Jan van Toorn

Design and Crime - Hal Foster

Merz to Emigre and Beyond - Steven Heller

Art and Revolution - John Berger

Eric Gill - Fiona MacCarthty

There are good books on Design that go beyond just pictures. The above list is just what is on/next to my desk right now.

On Aug.04.2004 at 02:53 PM
Patrick C’s comment is:

Ooopps...should have answered the main question.

Magazine-wise I don't think that Graphic Design is far outdone by any other creative discipline. Architecture, fine art, and photography, for example, have about the same range of content and space on the racks.

Book-wise, I would also say that gd does quite well in some areas. As has been pointed out, however, gd is week by comparison if you are considering theoretical/historical works (but hasn't this been the conclusion and source of much head scratching for anyone who cares to think about it?). Which is to say that if you don't have a history of theoretical practice and practitioners you surely will not have books on the shelves that cover these issues. This is a bit silly in context of recent discussions.

Comparing graphic design's representation on the shelves to these other disciplines might be unfair, however. Graphic design is, largely, a product of the 20th century; architecture has been around for a bit longer. Commercial Photographers have the advantage of a wealth of fine art material.

On Aug.04.2004 at 02:58 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> Graphic design is, largely, a product of the 20th century; architecture has been around for a bit longer.

Yes, very much so. So, how about, say, marketing? Another product of the 20th Century… how many books are out there on marketing? A shit load; most of them seem useless malarkey but they are out there aynyway. It seems like there is a lot more "theory" for marketing than there is for design. Not that that makes marketing any better or worse.

On Aug.04.2004 at 03:28 PM
Andrew Twigg’s comment is:

Armin, I think, nonetheless, comparing the graphic design library to something else is not unlike comparing apples to oranges. Perhaps similarities are enough to compare it to other "design" professions, but otherwise I don't think it really matters. (Aside: I doubt too many of us have chosen graphic design as a profession simply because of the extensive library.)

I also wasn't merely referring to the number of available volumes, I was referring to the depth and breadth of the offerings within the library. To me, one "good" design theory book is worth more than the very "best" collection of 'best of's or monographs. Sheer volume is not an issue.

I think it would be hard to compare the offerings of, say, a legal library to one of graphic design; the knowledge of one is nothing like the knowledge of the other.

On Aug.04.2004 at 03:37 PM
Andrew Twigg’s comment is:

Armin, I think the marketing question is excellent and a better parallel to graphic design.

I have a short supposition, and am curious to others' thoughts:

Could it be that marketing has more written about it because it's a largely verbal practice? Additionally, it seems that "doing" marketing doesn't require any specific production knowledge, widening the potential audience (plus, think of all those MBA's taking their first marketing class). "Doing" graphic design as it is largely recognized requires a set of tools and production knowledge.

On Aug.04.2004 at 03:43 PM
vibranium’s comment is:

Somewhere between the "worlds best rave-party invitaions circa 1997 volume 3" and a dry windy philosophical design debate is:


On Aug.04.2004 at 03:54 PM
Valon’s comment is:

I believe that many books out there with the 'Look at me' header stuck to them aren't that bad.

...after all, design is all about Look at me… it, this or that.

Not long ago I ran across a book on graphic design that I don't even know the title of. I started reading it and after a page or two I put it aside with the notion in mind that I will get back to it after I take a look at the 'Look at me' books. And frankly, I forgot to get back at that book that I don't even remember the name of. So in a way I am guilty of my own ignorance towards books that don't look that great - and I mean that in a superficial way. Even books that are not on graphic design I tend to judge based on how much time and thought the designer of the cover spent on designing it. I am not saying that I wouldn't read a poorly designed book with great content; however I would pick a book over the other based on the design quality (if I don't know what the book is about)

At the end of the day I am just as guilty for reading/looking at a 'Look at me' book as much as the person/designer who made it happen.

On Aug.04.2004 at 04:08 PM
bDuffie’s comment is:

I have come to really enjoy the last 3 issues of Emigre. They are almost all text and very well written. At $12, they are very cost effective, and look nice lined up next to each other on my book shelf.

Also, as a student, I have found that all of the Look at me books tend to spawn more of the same in the classroom. At times it is possible to see which book, magazine, website, etc that someone just read. I find that to be quite sad.

Theory is much harder to read than the Look at em books, but after understanding it (or trying to understand it) the creative possibilities are far greater than copying someone else's work.

On Aug.04.2004 at 04:48 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

I'm always frustrated at just how unwilling designers are to actually read a book... properly... all the way through.

It may sound like I'm being facetious, but I'm deadly serious. Far too many of the designers I know claim to love books, but never seem to go beyond a quick flick through them. They like to have books, not to read them.

This, I suspect is why graphic design doesn't have much of a literature. We just don't seem to get along with words at all.

Why is this? Are we too busy to commit the time needed to really understand a long piece of writing? Are we too style-obsessed to suffer a badly typeset, poorly printed page? Are we just stupid and lazy?

Or is there somthing about being visually creative that blocks us off from the written word? I certainly hope not. But many of my friends seem to belive this, some even positively reveling in it.

I remember a particularly heated argument I had with a designer friend of mine. I said that I love reading, and can't get enough of it. He said that he hated reading, that he couldn't see the point of books without pictures, that he was better off not reading because then he could form his own opinions, and that people like me only read books to 'pretend to be smart'.

I was flabergasted. Here was one of my friends — an inteligent, talented, creative person — talking with pure venom about books.

And the most disturbing thing is that, within the design community, this sort of attitude isn't particularly unusual.

Some designers I've spoken to talk about using the right side of the brain, about being 'intuitive' and 'expressive' - words just get in the way, hammering creative freedom into one particular interpretation: Structure... Order... Chains.

Others talk about being practical and pragmatic, about 'solving problems'. Words to them are just hoo-haa — waste of time 'theory' that goes nowhere and achieves nothing: Blah... Blah... Blah...

This is a really sad state of affairs. Words are fantastic! We have at our disposal a system for communicating thoughts that is so useful, so flexible, and so simple, that we should be awe-stuck every time we see a collection of letters.

Graphic designers are supposed to be communication experts. So why do we ignore language? - surely a massive part of the picture.

I'd hate to think that there is something fundamental that stops visually creative people from appreciating written communication to its full extent. This would mean we're doomed to stay trapped in a vague, subjective world of images, constantly catching glimpses of beauty, but never really understanding.

I'd pefer to think that, yes, we are just stupid and lazy. Because then all we'd need to do was to try a bit harder.

On Aug.04.2004 at 06:22 PM
N.H.H. Netler’s comment is:

waste of time 'theory' that goes nowhere and achieves nothing: Blah... Blah... Blah...

i agree with tom b.! as a graphic "outsider" coming from the arts/philosopghy/literature bla-lab i was astonished at the low level of writing in the design realm.

my first book was end of print and - hey, i read a lot of useless shit before in "deconstructiv phils" - this was the most useless bla, bla ever. "believe your intuitions" and so on. oh god, this is basic to every creative practice, not worth mentioning. there ar so much silly written books like "e o p" out there. many of them - i think - have a "psychological" funktion (make you feel better and more "into" GP). their intellectual power is "not underconsideration".

is GD staying behind compared with outher disciplines? definitively yes. think of pop music: there are a lot of super-good written magazines/criticism on pop out there.

good criticism meens: new insights in the structure, richness and value of a piece of work. they give us a better understanding - even better than the designer himself understands his work. good critics are an indication of a "mature" discipline. pop-music is mature in this way, GD is still a teenager.

i agree with tom b: people should try harder. but not necessarily the designers theirself. not everybody has to be a marcel duchamp. it’s a business for the professional critic. we need more of them. o.k. - our work has to be interesting and "deep" enough too, to be part of a detailed critical practise. may be this is the point, were we are standing a little bit behind pop music?

On Aug.05.2004 at 07:08 AM
marian’s comment is:

Without having done any definitive survey, I've noticed that there seems to be some kind of divide between graphic design books with words and those with pictures. I often find that the picture books are unsupported by meaningful descriptions (why the design was executed in that way, what were the influences, what happened afterward ... etc.), and the word books are lacking pictures—often when they really need them. It's incredibly frustrating to have works described in text without graphic reference—is this because the authors have made some kind of a decision that if they put pictures in, we won't read the text?

As a result I find that most graphic design books leave me feeling a little hungry. There are, of course, many exceptions but they are exceptions.

On Aug.05.2004 at 01:16 PM
Patrick C’s comment is:

I often find that the picture books are unsupported by meaningful descriptions (why the design was executed in that way, what were the influences, what happened afterward ... etc.)

That irritates me too. You're left guessing what the intent was and what the brief was. Silly.

On Aug.05.2004 at 01:25 PM
Jerry’s comment is:

I’m somewhat of a bibliophile so I always have more books than I can actually finish. I try to pick books that go beyond The Best of X. Books that will hopefully make me a better designer by making me a better thinker, not by showing me what’s hot. Sure that stuff helps, but it won’t explain much after you’re done looking. I’d rather spend the money on books I know I can come back to and re-read time and again and make me question my own methods and ideas about work.

I also like books that teach me some history, not necessarily so I can put it into practice, but it’s enlightening to find out who did what for which reasons in the past — to get a frame of reference for the things I do now.

Stepping into Borders or Barnes & Noble for me is usually disappointing because most of the books are just eye-catching filler. I do find something good once in a while but I usually find stuff online here or by walking in here.

The only magazine I would say that I make it a point to get without a glimpse of its contents is Emigre, in its new pocketbook format. When it was in its magazine format — let me just say I’m glad it was free. I was religous about picking up Eye every month because they had very meaty, smart and complete writing. Now it seems that they too have gone the way of mainstream mags and shortened their articles and cover the kinds of stuff you can get in Print. I’d rather just buy Print for that at a much cheaper price. Let me just say - I’m glad Emigre is around.

As a whole, I think Graphic Design is a very incestous field, we rarely look to other disciplines for theory or inspiration. Challenge yourself. I believe designers should immerse themselves in the world at large, you live in it, so read it.

On Aug.05.2004 at 02:15 PM
Armin’s comment is:

I disagree with the notion that "graphic designers don't read"… I would agree though that graphic design books don't encourage graphic designers to read. It's as if we have been conditioned to only respond to images by all the magazines and books — not that this statement is fact or anything, just an impression. As has been alluded before, for graphic designers it is easier to see a shot of a CD cover and be able to learn something from it (or try to copy it, whatever) than being described the CD cover and explained what thinking went behind it.

> That irritates me too. You're left guessing what the intent was and what the brief was. Silly.

At the same time, there are books with these explanations so full of designey bullshit that I sometimes think they should have just shown the picture.

My favorite books within design are those that explore a particular subject. Like Heller's Merz to Emigre, Poynor's No More Rules and even Plazm's XXX. They explore history, context, influence in culutre and show works of graphic design relevant to the subject. And what's cool about these books is that you might run across projects that were featured in other Best Ofs or Annuals but here they are being analyzed under a certain set of criteria.

On Aug.06.2004 at 08:33 AM
Rob ’s comment is:

As far as design books go, I get the most pleasure out of reading those books that include case studies or the strategy that was used by the designer or firm. I like things that can influence how I do my work and help me find ways to improve upon it, and not just because it looks good. (That's not to say I don't like things that look good, I just don't feel the need to imitate them based solely on looks).

One theory about the lack of more books on design is that there aren't many designers that are also excellent writers. And of course, it is difficult, I think to be writing full-time and be a working designer. That's not to say it can't be done, it's just a lot of work. And most designer's, logically, prefer to do design than write. And that the market itself is essentially driven more by 'picture' books and 'annuals' then true treatises on design theory and/or practice.

I do believe that sites like Speak-Up and Design Observer have the potential to change this. As designers write about their views, the potential for stronger writers capable of creating design literature beyond just 'looking good' grows.

On Aug.06.2004 at 10:47 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

look to other disciplines for theory or inspiration.

What I do is either telling my clients' stories or creating platforms that are appropriate to the stories being told.

Reading stories teaches & inspires me.

I think I've got more design inspiration from good, well-written (& filmed) stories than from any piece of design writing.

On Aug.06.2004 at 02:05 PM
heather’s comment is:

"I think I've got more design inspiration from good, well-written (& filmed) stories than from any piece of design writing."

a wise professor in college said the best design books don't even include the word "design." i read books about culture, music, relationships, and business. i read mind-candy romance novels and humorous political satires. i soak up things around me that i find interesting, and i think i become a better designer because of that. inspiration comes from within, from information you absorb...

but print is real pretty too ;)

On Aug.06.2004 at 03:22 PM
Seth White’s comment is:

In my opinion, graphic design is less scholarly than many other disciplines. Maybe that is because it's a commercially-driven, visually-oriented "craft." I think the comparisons to architecture and marketing were both appropriate.

Architecture is as different from graphic design as painting and music are. While there are pop versions of all the above, they are meant to aspire to something more important. Graphic design still hasn't taken its place among the fine arts. What's missing is the study of the connection between graphic design and culture, the human condition, philosophy, religion and society. There are some books on various cultural subjects, but not many.

In the same way, social and cultural graphic design is still a small percentage of the commercial design.

But then, much of the theory of design is similar to the other fields. It draws from many disciplines and has much in common with painting and photography, and architecture. Many designers start their education in the fine arts and move into design, where often their drive and curiosity and craft stagnate. Maybe the schools are part of the problem: the focus on commercialism, with sacrifice of experimentation, theory and social issues.

Maybe a reason for a lack of theory is the lack of advanced programs or focused research by designers--how many designers have an MFA? And how many professors even write books? And how many search deeper than the practical and technical aspects of the discipline.

Graphic design is very similar to marketing and advertising in this regard. While the advertising and marketing books have more words, they still deal with case-studies and practical approaches to making a buck. Just like the "best of" books show what to do to sell a product- or at least sell your design company.

I think some things like Speak Up, the AIGA, some New York designers and such are helping to deepen the field. Maybe ten years from now there will be more books sbout design, rather than books of design.

On Aug.10.2004 at 02:52 AM
ian’s comment is:

heather finally hit on the point i feel a lot of people are missing. the library of material on graphic design is enormous. it expands far beyond the half a book shelf the book stores give it. the library is every damned piece of graphic design ever created as well anything else you can pull inspiration out of. should there be more serious books on the theories of design? absolutely. should there be less 'look at me, it, this, or that' books. absolutely not, they have a purpose in themselves.

of all the magazines i subscribe to only one is about graphic design, yet i personally view them all as important and relevant to graphic design and look to them for inspiration.

when i go to the book store to get refreshed, the last section i look to is the graphic design section. because i know that i'm not going to find what i need there. generally, it's an hour in the magazine rack, architecture, or fine art section that really gets my gears turning.

the best inspiration comes when i'm not looking at all, but fortunately, i am aware enough to recognize it.

On Aug.12.2004 at 08:35 PM