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a mini canon?

The last assignment of the semester for my sophomores was about Beatrice Warde’s essay “The Crystal Goblet.” (alternately or additionally the projects could be about my snarky reply, “Clarety.”) Their response confirmed my belief that Warde’s talk/essay is one of the most important things a graphic design student can read and understand. (I’m not claiming that anyone should agree or disagree, just that anyone who wants to be a graphic designer should understand.) It got me thinking: What other readings are vital to a graphic design education?

They don’t have to be directly about graphic design or typography. Maybe not even about imagery or communication. They do have to be directly related to graphic design. Not what happens to inspire you or feed your soul. I’m looking for somewhere in the range of a half dozen to a dozen short pieces. (Not a whole book to get a single insight.) They can require context or discussion but they should illuminate something important for someone wanting to understand and/or do graphic design.

What are your nominees?

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PUBLISHED ON Dec.15.2005 BY Gunnar Swanson
Ty Wilkins’s comment is:

Young designers entering the field should consider the value of their work and read the AIGA Letter for Speculative Work

On Dec.15.2005 at 06:14 PM
Tiffany’s comment is:

Stanley Morison's "First Principles of Typography"

I think both Beatrice and Stanley are specifically talking to book typographer's, however both are useful as typography is a huge part of being a graphic designer.

On Dec.15.2005 at 06:52 PM
mitch’s comment is:

Learning From Las Vegas

Understanding Comics


On Dec.15.2005 at 09:15 PM
Randy’s comment is:

The chapter titled Biography of a Painting in The Shape of Content was recommended by Steve Heller in our lecture course, and the whole book is a worthwhile read.

The Elements of Typographic Style must be read by every designer. Period.

On Dec.15.2005 at 10:01 PM
Matthew Rodgers’s comment is:

Ryan Molloy's controversial take on what graphic design is, and the role of education.

On Dec.15.2005 at 10:14 PM
mitch’s comment is:

oops... i just realized you were looking for short pieces. sorry, im on day 4 of graphic design school hell week and my mind is toast.

On Dec.15.2005 at 10:49 PM
neal_s’s comment is:

Being a writer first and a designer/design enthusiast second, this post hits me in the right spot. I think it's important to understand the connections between the discipilines. To wit, I think that a lot of designers might benefit from reading George Orwell's Why I Write.

More thoughts on the subject have been posted to my weblog, for anyone who might be interested.


On Dec.16.2005 at 12:05 AM
Héctor Mu�oz’s comment is:

A good piece of writing for understanding graphic design definitively is Communication Design by Jorge Frascara.

On Dec.16.2005 at 01:18 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

One thing I would add is the essay "What I have learned" by Milton Glaser from AIGA's 2002 national design conference.

(Gee, I wish I knew how to link to this PDF I saved) I've read it often to remind me how to keep an even keel when things get rough.

In it Glaser has put his soft-spoken insights about public responsibility, personal standards. They seem simple, but in a world of complicated, sliding ethics, it's the simple things that remain honest. Among the headings:

Some people are toxic, avoid them.

Style is not to be trusted.

How you live changes your brain.

Solving a problem is more important than being right.

Tell the truth.

On Dec.16.2005 at 08:00 AM
Frank ’s comment is:

"My quandary was that designers have been taught to be liars. They have been taught to use their skills--just like lawyers and accountants--to distort information." - Tibor Kalman

If you haven't read the book Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist by Peter Hall and Michael Bierut, you're missing a very thought provoking book, especially a reprint of Kalman's 1990 essay "We're Here to be Bad" and "F___ Committees. I Believe in Lunatics."

On Dec.16.2005 at 08:21 AM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

(Not a whole book to get a single insight.)

Well, shucks, that leaves out A Designer's Art by Paul Rand. I don't have a copy at my desk, otherwise I'd probably recommend a few particular essays from it. One doesn't need to agree with everything Rand espouses to at least realize the influence he had on several generations of graphic designers.

On Dec.16.2005 at 08:37 AM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

I think it's important to see design as a philosophy, not just as input and output. With that said, Norman Potter's book What is a designer: things � places � messages published by Hyphen is an important read. It's small, but the book gives more insight into design than anything else I can compare it with.

On Dec.16.2005 at 08:38 AM
Jose Nieto’s comment is:

I'd recommend Michael Rock's recent lecture "Mad Dutch Disease," in which he takes on the anti-aesthetic and banal tendencies in contemporary design (not just from Holland). Even if one disagrees with his central thesis (I waver), it is lucid, well reasoned, and refreshingly iconoclastic.

You can find the essay at http://www.2x4.org, under the "Readings" section.

On Dec.16.2005 at 09:50 AM
agrayspace’s comment is:

Even though I see huge limitations in looking to "design gods" with too much reverence, the opening essays in both From Lascaux to Brooklyn and Design, Form, and Chaos. The had a profound effect on my early education.

Bruce Maus incomplete manifesto for growth is good too.

Also every excerpt from The Fountainhead where Roark explains design to his clients. I read those 10 years too late.

On Dec.16.2005 at 10:13 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

One thing I would add is the essay "What I have learned" by Milton Glaser from AIGA's 2002 national design conference.

(Gee, I wish I knew how to link to this PDF I saved)

Here you go.

On Dec.16.2005 at 10:33 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:


On Dec.16.2005 at 11:48 AM
Bryant Cutler’s comment is:

Speak Up needs to get something straight: Unicode. I know that this is off-topic, but every time I view the site (yes, I'm on a Windows PC, it works) I see text-encoding errors like crazy. Obviously written on Macs without attention to web standards, the articles are full of illegal characters. For example, a quote from the article, as I see it:

Beatrice Warde?s essay ?The Crystal Goblet.? (alternately or additionally the projects could be about my snarky reply, ?Clarety.?) Their response confirmed my belief that Warde?s talk/essay is one of

It's just quote marks people - not too hard to get those right in XHTML!

On Dec.16.2005 at 12:11 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

Dilbert. So they are fully prepared for the real world.

On Dec.16.2005 at 12:46 PM
christina’s comment is:

Hanno Ehses & Ellen Lupton, Rhetorical Handbook (1988).

Obscure, short, but I would say THE designers instruction manual.

For a full blown text, try Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things : An Introduction to Semiotics by Marcel Danesi

On Dec.16.2005 at 01:19 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

Bryant- have you tried emailing Armin? He responds well to such questions. Looking at SpeakUp from PC, I'm not having the same problems you are. Perhaps it's your browser?

As far as writing goes:

Art in Theory 1900-2000 seems to be my staple, particularily the sections on 'dissent and disorder', as well as my Graphic Artist's Guild book on pricing and Ethics.

As for a single essay to reccomend? Aieeee. No clue. There's SO MUCH interesting writing out there.

On Dec.16.2005 at 03:48 PM
Jan ’s comment is:

Two peeks into the real world. Stefan Sagmeister's Made you look and karlssonwilker's tellmewhy both are well written, very funny, and not just little showcases for the best work, but also show the work that for some reason didn't go so well (and why).

On Dec.16.2005 at 04:25 PM
CactusJones’s comment is:

Temple Grandin



Many articles related to branding. Semiotics? Here's a couple of samples:

Visual Thinking


On Dec.16.2005 at 04:25 PM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

Since Gunnar asks specifically about design education pieces, I think its appropriate to have one piece that is rather self-reflective on education itself.

In my own education, I have been rather annoyed by the fact that many classes operate with a shroud of mystery to them. Design education in itself isnt scientific, but i feel like students should be aware of why they are taught certain things, as well as what they are missing in their education.

Gordon Salchow's essay on design education is one of my favorite in explaining the differences in education vs. profession (Though that may also have to do with Gordon being my professor, and this corresponds well with the program at UC, allowing for some real world explanation). I think, especially when many students are exacerbated by not being taught software programs or business practices, that the explanation of design education is brought forward.

On Dec.16.2005 at 08:29 PM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

Sorry, that last line should be read:

I think, especially when many students are exacerbated by not being taught software programs or business practices, that the explanation of design education being brought forward is important.

proofreading. it will be my NY resolution.

On Dec.16.2005 at 08:31 PM
Ahrum Hong’s comment is:

Funny. Twenty four entries and not a single person has mentioned "First Things First 2000." Good riddance? I guess. Even by the time I entered my major (2002), I got the impression that FTF was this sort of inside joke among all the teachers, not unlike the inside joke all high school English teachers laugh at when a student gets all huffy over Sartre.

On Dec.17.2005 at 05:00 AM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Without giving away my entire reading list, here are some tidbits. I always have my beginning class read Helfand's What is graphic design available at AIGA; my advanced students read Glaser's Road to Hell, and then respond by crafting their own manifesto and/or belief system. There's such a wealth of material to give them, and it's neat seeing some of the suggestions above. The real challenge is getting students to think critically about what they've read, and motivating them to take a stance on the material—right, wrong, or otherwise.

On Dec.17.2005 at 12:33 PM
Jordan Winick’s comment is:

I'm going to add another vote for Understanding Comics. I know it's a larger work, but it's also written as a comic and has some of the most interesting ideas on visual literacy I have read.

On Dec.17.2005 at 06:08 PM
Tyson Tate’s comment is:

Oddly enough, I grabbed Understanding Comics two days ago after meeting with a client at a bookstore. I'll second the comments of praise - it's a wonderful work and it has opened my eyes to the world of comics in an amazing way. I was previously only a Ware kind of guy, but now I'm digging in to my new copy of V for Vendetta and I'd like to get the Sin City series some day.

Graphic designers can learn a lot from the world of comics. Understanding Comics is a great introduction to that world.

On Dec.17.2005 at 09:26 PM
neal_s’s comment is:

Graphic designers can learn a lot from the world of comics. Understanding Comics is a great introduction to that world.

Speaking as someone who writes comics for income, I can say that this cuts both ways. Through comics I've learned a lot about design that has helped my writing, but a lot of what I've learned is what not to do. The world of comics is full of terrible design - bad layouts, bad typography, bad printing standards, bad packaging, etc. Understanding Comics is indeed good, but you'd be surprised how little a lot of comics professionals know about design. That problem is, I believe, a major reason why comics consistently fail to fully cross over into the mainstream despite repeated threats to do so. At the end of the day most of them just aren't visually engaging.

It's a source of endless frustration.

On Dec.17.2005 at 10:45 PM
Eric Heiman’s comment is:

Andrew Blauvelt's article from Eye, #18, "Under the Surface of Style," is one that comes to mind. It does a good job of debunking a lot of the outdated "style is bad" arguments, and talking about how the use of visual codes is implicit in design practice.

An interesting philosophical take on design from a non-designer is contemporary philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard's essay, "Paradox on the Graphic Artist".

On Dec.19.2005 at 12:07 AM
thorri’s comment is:

One vote more for Understanding Comics.

More candidates (albeit lengthy):

- The Visual Display of Quantative Information, E. Tufte.

- The Inmates are Running the Asylum, A. Cooper.

- The Design of Everyday Things, D.A. Norman.

None of these books (including UC) are directly about graphic design, but have influenced me greatly on the way I work, write and think about graphic design.

On Dec.19.2005 at 05:04 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:


The real challenge is getting students to think critically about what they've read, and motivating them to take a stance on the material—right, wrong, or otherwise.

I find the biggest challenge is to get them to think critically—and not (only) in the sense of oppositional-y. Part of thinking critically is reading honestly and that in turn affects the stance on the material. Understanding what an author wrote rather than going off on what the author might have seemed to say if you weren’t really paying attention is vital. It is missing in our general political discourse and it is missing in most design discussions.

I have no interest in stance mongering. Most of people taking stances—vague notions proclaimed passionately, confused thoughts embraced tribally, contradictions ignored in service to the Faith—is tiresome at best and destructive at worst. I would rather have someone actually understand a point than adopt one. I’d rather have them think than believe. Maybe then their beliefs can become more mature or sophisticated in the long run.

On Dec.19.2005 at 09:27 AM
Al-Insan Lashley’s comment is:

I'm going to second "Dilbert." That needs to be the 'birds and the bees' talk every designer gets before they leave school.

On Dec.20.2005 at 04:51 PM
Valentina’s comment is:

I know I should not have much of a say here since I'm still a student, but in my senior year I have been introduced to some readings from the NextD website that have been truly illuminating as far as where this field is going and what to do to keep up with the new times.

Maybe they are not concerned with styles and what to design, but they deal with the "how" and the context within, which happens to yes be more challenging, but that much more engaging.

Clement Mok, GK VanPatter and Larry Keely are definitely emerging as the new design heroes (as far as I'm concerned)

On Dec.20.2005 at 10:59 PM
gregor jamroski’s comment is:

Gunnar I'll second Michael's suggestion as well as add:

Lupton & Miller's, The ABC's of Bauhaus, The Bauhaus and Design Theory

Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (not pointedly about design by any means, but there's an essence to be grabbed from this thin book)

Neumeier's The brand gap, which I'm surprised to not see in this thread already.

On Dec.21.2005 at 03:16 PM
Ben Van Dyke’s comment is:

"Against Interpretation" by Susan Sontag

On Dec.29.2005 at 02:37 PM
graham’s comment is:

stephane mallarme, 'the book, a spiritual instrument'

t.s. eliot, 'four quartets'

terry southern, 'on screenwriting'

junichiro tanizaki, 'in praise of shadows'

robin kinross, 'fellow readers'

w.g. sebald & jan peter tripp, 'unrecounted'

arnold schoenberg, 'new music, outmoded music, style and idea'

paolo zellini, 'a brief history of infinity' (longish book, sorry . . .)

lester bangs, 'astral weeks'

primo levi, 'the story of a carbon atom'

lawrence weshler, 'gary's trajectory'

ron rosenbaum 'dream dancing'

ron rosenbaum, 'the emperor's new logo'

On Dec.31.2005 at 06:14 AM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

I’d rather have them think than believe. Maybe then their beliefs can become more mature or sophisticated in the long run.

Graham — This is a more valuable tool for students, and it should come before taking a stance. Perhaps students I encounter are not drawing conclusions because they're not reading critically, I now see your point on comprehension as a primary goal. Deep reading matters, and it should matter more than a series of opinionated stances based largely on feelings or biases; there's nothing worse than a discussion that gets carried far far away from the intended subject.

On Dec.31.2005 at 08:43 AM
Michael B.’s comment is:

I'd like to second Graham's recommendation of "Fellow Readers" by Robin Kinross. First published as a pamphlet in 1994, it practically changed my life, as a designer at least. The original edition is out of print, but it's collected in Kinross'sUnjustified Texts: perspectives on typography, also very much worth owning.

Graham also mentions two essays by Ron Rosenbaum that appear in his collection The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms. I've never seen Rosenbaum recommended as a "design writer" before, but he is incredibly smart, a great read, and there are always lessons in his pieces for anyone that cares about media and communications. His essay "The Emperor's New Logo" is a very funny, skeptical piece about the (then) new Lucent name and logo. Also not to be missed is "Secrets of the Little Blue Box," on the early days of the telephone hackers known as "phone phreaks." When it first appeared in Esquire in the 70s, legend has it, it inspired two youngsters named Jobs and Wozniak to start fooling around with computers.

On Dec.31.2005 at 11:55 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

1. Lay In/Lay Out: Piet Schreuders

2. On Overcoming Modernism: Lorraine Wild

3. Ways of Looking Closer: Denise Gonzales Crisp

4. The Rhetoric of Neutrality: Robin Kinross

5. Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity: Susan Sontag

6. How Long Has This Been Going On? Susan Sellers

7. Cult of the Ugly: Steven Heller

8. Messy History vs. Neat History: Martha Scotford

9. Desperately Seeking David: Andrew Blauvelt

10. Low and High: Ellen Lupton

11. Discovery by Design: Zuzana Licko

12. Greasing the Wheels of Capitalism with Style and Taste: Jeffrey Keedy

On Dec.31.2005 at 07:11 PM
Bernard Keilty’s comment is:

How did The Cheese Monkeys by Chipp Kidd get left out? Just the humor alone is exquisite and cleverly designed.

Hiding, Mark C. Taylor, Univ. Chicago Press

Surface & Depth, Richard Shusterman, Cornell Univ. Press

How Images Think, Ron Burnett, MIT Press

Asking The Right Questions, M. Neil Browne & Stuart M. Keeley, Pearson/Prentice Hall

On Jan.03.2006 at 11:41 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

The simultaneous greatest joy and greatest frustration of starting a Speak Up thread is the fact that the original post is sure to be forgotten by somewhere in the second sentence of the first response. I stopped counting how many books were suggested in reply (?) to my question about short writings directly about graphic design. In most cases I can infer how the suggested readings are somehow about graphic design but some of the most obviously graphic design related suggestions leave me the most puzzled.

I’m foolish enough to assume that most responses have related to the topic “important things a graphic design student can read and understand” Can I get anyone to describe just why any of the suggestions are such important things for graphic design students (as opposed to things graphic designers have found interesting)?

My example, the old Bea Warde chestnut about type and wine is, I thought, obvious. The assumption that some of us make about type needing to facilitate and encourage reading is not universal among graphic designers and is, surprisingly, fairly surprising to many graphic design students. The philosophical and craft implications of the question are numerous. It is widely-referred to enough that unfamiliarity could be embarrassing. (My lampoon of Mrs. Warde’s much more worthy essay is probably a less obvious fit but I include it not out of egoistic desire for my students to be subjected to my prose but to raise questions about choices of metaphors and about the how one might object to a writing without rejecting much of the author’s intent. It also serves to keep students interested in the Warde essay longer, allowing them to absorb it a bit more.)

Paul Rand could hardly be considered off-topic of graphic design but Rand’s writing has always befuddled me. I’ve never found it useful. I am hardly a rabid anti-Modernist nor am I a congenital iconoclast but my main reaction to most of his writing is “Huh?” Two sections of his books and one of his books were on the suggested list but if someone asked me what a student would learn from reading them, I would be at a loss for an answer.

There are some things I can imagine requiring students to read and not feeling a need for instructor-lead discussion/directed thinking about. OTOH, I would never leave them to read my Warde lampoon with the assumption that they would draw anything but the wrong conclusions if left to their own devices. A couple of other writings that might be on my list—Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” and Jay Doblin’s essay about designer discrimination—are in this category. Is there something that someone should understand before reading any of your suggestions or some non-obvious critical questions someone should deal with after reading? Or are any of the suggestions self-contained enough to be assigned without a need for specific follow-up? (I’m not asking about reading difficulty and reading comprehension levels as much as whether esoteric knowledge or specific context rescues or vastly elevates a given writing.)

I’m also curious when in a graphic design student’s schooling anyone thinks things should be read. Many suggestions were for criticisms of the nature of graphic design practice. It is not clear to me if the mention of “First Things First” was a suggestion or a celebration of the fact that it was not a suggestion. Assuming it is a suggestion, how much of the craft of graphic design should be understood before worrying that one is squandering the best of life by practicing that craft? And were the various pieces about design education comments on the general topic or suggestions for student reading?

Other things that aren’t clear to me include whether “CactusJones” is Temple Grandin and were the references meant as straightforward suggestions about understanding design principles, a joke on “branding,” or ironic comment on the similarities between design schools and feedlots for slaughterhouses? (I’ll leave my questions about the urge to use pseudonyms for another post.)

And why doesn’t Jason want to give away his entire reading list?

On Jan.03.2006 at 03:56 PM
graham’s comment is:

hello gunnar

here's a brief precis on the things i suggested:

stephane mallarme, 'the book, a spiritual instrument'

illuminates the notion of there being different kinds of designed object, particularly in terms of carriers of information against (in mallarme's terms, at least, which is what may make it a useful piece for debate) work containing the ineffable. could be worth following with a look at 'un coup de des' and then into apollinaire and then to man ray and then cassandre etc. (a couple of minor leaps but it keeps things moving).

t.s. eliot, 'four quartets'

structure, reference, appropriation, narrative forms: a shortish poem cycle which i think demonstrates many things about form and approach. breadth and depth, sequence-a good piece to read and start to think about in terms of experiences, design that unfolds and that is lived with and perhaps in, like installation, reactive/generative work, and particularly the web.

terry southern, 'on screenwriting'

good piece for thoughts on the practicalities of making . . . anything. introduces a point of view on the client (!) and illuminates a lot about the planning and ducking and diving necessary (sometimes) to set work in motion.

junichiro tanizaki, 'in praise of shadows'

beautiful, considered thoughts on aesthetics from a japanese viewpoint.

robin kinross, 'fellow readers'

see michael b. above

w.g. sebald & jan peter tripp, 'unrecounted'

word and image. a simple and beautiful example of how words intersect images on the printed page-again, sequence and structure; how to make the many from one, perhaps to do with not becoming stuck in the cliche of 'perfectionism' whilst still allowing the purity inherent in a single thought being expressed in similar ways again and again.

arnold schoenberg, 'new music, outmoded music, style and idea'

from a much longer collection, 'style and idea', looks at those two things ('style' and 'idea') and pretty much illuminates it all . . . maybe. certainly eye opening, again from another perspective, clear, precise-the subject comes up so often and these writings are as strong as anything i've come across.

paolo zellini, 'a brief history of infinity' (longish book, sorry . . .)

different kind of structure-underlying structures. numbers, equations . . . grids. a manual for building your own universe.

lester bangs, 'astral weeks'

here, lester bangs revisits (ten years later) the van morrison album. understanding, appreciating, inhabiting and researching your influences. becoming them.

primo levi, 'the story of a carbon atom'

how things change, how they stay the same. a script for introducing the notion of being still.

lawrence weschler, 'gary's trajectory'

what could happen to your career. again, practicalities-where will you be in 5, 10, 20 years? how can you know? do you need to? also, what happens when you realise your industry is bankrupt (almost literally, in the case of 'gary's trajectory').

ron rosenbaum 'dream dancing'

i actually meant 'secrets of the little blue box'-the one michael suggested. don't know why i wrote this-but anyway i think it might have inspired 'broadway danny rose' so who knows . . .

ron rosenbaum, 'the emperor's new logo'

see michaelb

i'd add brian eno's 'oblique strategies'.

On Jan.04.2006 at 03:41 PM
CactusJones’s comment is:

Gunnar, the CJ is not Temple Grandin you crazy OC fugger. CactusJones is a big ole, two-legged Temple Grandin fan though.

My reference to Grandin's writing was:

a) a straightforward suggestion about trying to see graphic design from the audience's perspective. In her examples Dr. Grandin's audience is another species. How boss is that? Maybe it helps the graphic design process to consider the human audience as another species, such as cows. When was the last time you designed a graphic for another species, like a dog maybe? Was it effective?

b) a great joke on branding and semiotics. I love that shit and it offers a wealth of material for puns, anecdotes and metaphors.

c) an ironic comment on the similarities of the American marketplace and feedlots for slaughterhouses. I guess the same could be said of the relationship to design schools. But I think that is just a byproduct of the larger American branding machine.

On Jan.05.2006 at 12:40 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Gunnar --

Since you certainly know Rand’s unequivocal place in design history, you nevertheless must not feel that his writing warrants an automatic inclusion into design canon.

So, as the one who nominated segments of Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art, I’ll attempt to address your question.

In general, it is through Rand’s words that a student can hear the values and principles of modernism applied to the practice of graphic design. In Rand’s writing, a student can observe how these principles were validated through frequent references to gestalt psychology, art history, and literary sources.

A teacher can assist the student in understanding how this body of writing, which is a mix of both the theoretical and the practical, had an influence on several generations of designers, and was later challenged by several more. (It would be useful to point out to students that much of Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art had been previously published back in 1946 under the title of Thoughts on Design.)

But if a student were not so much as to crack open a copy of Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art, they should still be required to read the back of the dust jacket (which includes a segment of the valuable essay “The Corporate Image"). Until a student understands this foundation, they will be hampered and frustrated in their attempts at communicating through the medium and practice of graphic design.

On Jan.06.2006 at 08:18 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:


Just so I’m clear—is this the example you cited? (For anyone unfamiliar with the book jacket, the line breaks are Rand’s; original is set in large white oblique sans serif knocked out of a black background.)

Graphic design

which fulfills aesthetic needs.

complies with the laws

of form and exigencies

of two-dimensional space;

which speaks in

semiotics, sans-serifs, and

geometrics; which abstracts,

transforms, translates,

rotates, dilates, repeats,

mirrors, groups, and regroups

is not good design if it is


Graphic design

which evokes the symmetria

of Vitruvius, the dynamic

symmetry of Hambridge, the

asymmetry of Mondrian;

which is good gestalt,

generated by intuition or by

computer, by invention

or by a system of coordinates

is not good design

if it does not communicate.

Paul Rand

On Jan.06.2006 at 12:23 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Yes, Gunnar, that's the one.

On Jan.06.2006 at 12:30 PM
Ahrum Hong’s comment is:

Gunnar, my comment above re: 'First Things First' was a bemused reaction to the manifesto's omission from this thread, nothing more. To respond to your call and take a stance, though: the text succintly voices the angst of untold millions of liberal-minded design students, but the fact that I'm the only one in this discussion who is even mentioning FTF only highlights the document's ultimate impotence and irrelevence.

On Jan.07.2006 at 02:57 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Daniel (and, of course, anyone else),

I’m not being purposefully dense here nor do I have some overwhelming desire to dismiss Paul Rand but the quote above typifies the best of Rand’s writing for me and I still don’t quite get it. I’ll start with the most important question in the context of this discussion: What would we hope a student would take away from reading this?

On the simplest level it could be reduced to “Nothing is good [graphic] design if it irrelevant or if it does not communicate.” Great. I won’t argue with the statement nor with its importance. I have to assume that the setups are somehow vital to your choice of this quote; if the conclusions are the operative part then the signal to noise ratio is less than 1/4.

And that’s just if we’re counting words. If we judge it as an overall statement, the less than 20% of the words that get to the main point are even less significant than their number would imply. The large type and odd line breaks seem like they must mean something. One interpretation is that Rand saw this as some sort of poetry. But to what end?

Like so much of Rand’s writing, it seems to be trying too hard, attempting to show erudition while at once belying any such claim through odd misuse of terminology and, bringing home a level of knowledge that is impressive but makes me wonder about relevance. If I assume for a moment that I am not alone in drawing a blank with much of his writing then I wonder if the second sin of not communicating is in action here.

Let’s assume that the simple “must be relevant and communicative” imperative is not all he was up to. Then I end up with the problem I have with so much of Rand’s writing. Stuff that he implies is clear, understood, and perhaps even self-evident leaves me confused. I’ll assume “aesthetic needs” is contextual and move on to “the laws of form.” Laws? Really? Any idea where I can find the law book (or even a civil procedure text)? Does everybody else know what these laws would be? Then we come to graphic design that speaks in semiotics. Does anyone have a clue what this would mean (and, if so, what graphic design that doesn’t speak in semiotics would be)?

Is the whole list of stuff assumed to be good, the epitome of what graphic design should be (in addition to relevant), or what? (Rand’s writing often contains lists where one might expect arguments.)

When confronted with a list like this, do your students run off and look up Vitruvius and Jay Hambridge? (I can only hope most of mine would have some idea of Mondrian.) Does the rest of the list just mean “any which way you can,” is it an additional attempt at poetry, or what? Are “by intuition” and “by computer” opposites? Are “by invention” or “by a system of coordinates” mutually exclusive?

Again, I don’t get it and I wonder what a graphic design student understands in all of this.

On Jan.07.2006 at 03:10 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Speaking of what a graphic design student understands, I meant to comment on Valentina’s “ I know I should not have much of a say here since I'm still a student, but in my senior year I have been introduced to some readings from the NextD website that have been truly illuminating as far as where this field is going and what to do to keep up with the new times. . . Clement Mok, GK VanPatter and Larry Keely are definitely emerging as the new design heroes (as far as I'm concerned).

You clearly do have much to say and your insights are a tribute both to your awareness and the impact that Chris Vice has apparently had there at Herron. You don’t need an invitation but you have one. I hope you’ll join in more in the future. (And that’s not just because I agree with you.)

On Jan.07.2006 at 03:20 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Good Gunnar --

I can’t help but feel that you’ve thoroughly analyzed the trees and completely missed the forest.

I agree that there are many times in writing when direct is best. (Sections from Malcolm Grear’s book Inside/Outside fall into this category for me.) There are also times, however, when you can lend extra authority to an idea through the use of a counterweight.

Yes, one could just say “design should be relevant,” but that alone carries about as much authority to it as -- say -- “knowledge is good.” (My apologies to Animal House.)

By counterweighing his concern for relevance and communication with a lengthy list of theories, techniques, formal values, and trends, Rand underscored the fundamental importance of relevance and communication to graphic design.

I could also draw a structural comparison of this dust jacket verse to a much more famous verse by a much more famous Paul, but I’ll just let it rest for now.

[If it makes you feel any better, Gunnar, I’m not an educator. No students were harmed in the creation of this post. I don’t think I was very good as a high school Sunday School teacher, and I’m not sure how much better I’d be as a design instructor. Passion for the subject matter isn’t everything when it comes to working with students.]

On Jan.09.2006 at 08:23 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

By counterweighing his concern for relevance and communication with a lengthy list of theories, techniques, formal values, and trends, Rand underscored the fundamental importance of relevance and communication to graphic design.

Rand went into list mode at various times. As a rhetorical device I always found it both weak and confusing and it is especially a shame because it seemed to leave him satisfied at making a point that he failed to make. What was he implying by use of this list? Merely that the theories, techniques, formal values, and trends were secondary to his main point? That he assumed his readers were all versed in the theories, techniques, formal values, and trends so making reference to them was a sort of longwinded shorthand for “the aesthetic side of things that we all know is important”? That these were things he wanted to validate? That he wanted to mock? I suspect that I am not in the lowest reading comprehension range of his readership but I don’t understand. Whenever I ask, people explain it away instead of explaining it.

He famously scorned a variety of “grim reminder[s]” of graffiti in another list in Design, Form, and Chaos:

. . . squiggles, pixels, doodles, dingbats, ziggurats; boudoir colors: turquoise, peach, pea green, and lavender; corny woodcuts on moody browns and russets; Art Deco rip-offs, high gloss finishes, sleazy textures. . .

He didn’t say “Notice that there is nothing there but squiggles.�.�. The pseudo-deco stuff tries to cover up a conceptual vacancy.” He attacked the formal details themselves. Why should his writing be given more slack than people’s graphic design?

Yes. There is a forest. Among other things, it’s a whole bunch of trees.

On Jan.10.2006 at 11:22 AM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

At risk of taking us off subject, yet again...


By God, thank you for showing leadership in your confusion of Paul Rand, etc. As a student, I stuggle to understand many of the complex and subtle intricacies of this profession. I’ll be honest and admit it: I still don’t know what graphic design really is half of the time. Reading about it usually leaves me more confused.

Why indeed would someone whose message is clarity and simplicity in visual communication use cloudiness and obfuscation in their text?

How can a profession that can neither define nor decribe itself ask for increased credibility and respect? How can it train the next generation?

Off topic, yes, but please—all of you—recommend some good reading that tells us something we need to know!!

On Jan.10.2006 at 04:24 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Hey Gunnar, let’s keep this focused on Rand’s writing from A Designer’s Art, OK? I purposefully avoided nominating some of his later writing to your canon because it often devolved into Ran(d)ting.

Anyway, your choice selection from Design, Form, and Chaos falls into that devolved category. I’m not about to defend either its grammatical value nor its educational value, especially since I didn’t nominate this selection to begin with. In addition, this list that you’ve chosen to highlight is used in a completely different structural way than the list from the dust jacket quote from A Designer’s Art. Rand did occasionally rattle off lists like this in A Designer’s Art (though not as mean spirited as the one you selected), and I find them overwrought, as you do. But the dust jacket list serves a completely different purpose in the expression of the idea.

Since you don’t seem satisfied with my explanations from my earlier posts, however, I won’t waste any more server space in trying to explain my point further.

But I do promise never to say “picture, symbol, sign, emblem, escutcheon” while in your presence.

On Jan.11.2006 at 06:12 AM