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Book review: Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2010. Book review: Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field. Technical Communication 57(4): 418.

Armstrong, H. ed. 2009. Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, NY. [ISBN 978-1-56898-772-9. 152 p., including index. $24.95 USD (softcover).]

In introducing her slim volume, Helen Armstrong describes the conflicts between a graphic designer’s desire to be acknowledged and the anonymity enforced by the profession (speaking in the client’s voice), and between the hope that our software tools liberate our creativity and the fear that they constrain our ability to communicate, as Edward Tufte famously claimed about PowerPoint. That sounds awfully similar to the concerns of technical communicators. In her foreword, Ellen Lupton notes that:

“Theory is all about the question ‘why?’ The process of becoming a designer is focused largely on ‘how’: how to use software, how to solve problems, how to organize information.” (p.6)

This reminds us of the admonition to give the why at least as much weight as the how. If these points resonate with you, you should read this book: we can learn much about our own profession by observing how others embrace and struggle with their challenges.

The selected texts by key figures in the field of graphic design cover the history of modern design, showing where the field came from, the challenges and setbacks it encountered along the way, and where it may be heading. For example, authors chronicle the century-long dialogue between modernism’s quest for a pure and objective visual language (as embodied by the Bauhaus school), and postmodernism’s emphasis on vision’s irreducible subjectivity and the audience’s primacy. Sadly, rather than using this tension to strengthen both schools, many graphic designers have often retreated into absolutist politics.

Selections contrast extremes of opinion, such as Marinetti’s radical (indeed, sometimes offensive) futurist manifesto, with its almost pornographic love of technology, and Rodchenko’s humanism (“technology is—the mortal enemy of art” [p. 23]), and compare less extreme viewpoints on design’s social implications and the designer’s responsibility. Some even attempt to synthesize the more extreme viewpoints from the endless debate between aesthetic and pragmatic design (form vs. function). Beatrice Ward, for one, emphasizes how beauty can be reconciled with practical, utilitarian concerns. Through these contrasts, Armstrong provides a fascinating portrait of social and technological change, and of a profession’s roles in this change. In doing so, she reveals new ways to see and reminds us just how differently others may see.

One trend has been the evolution from designer as producer (conduit for information) to author (creator or originator) or even as “mediator” between client and audience, providing more opportunities for agency and power. Technical communicators struggle with the same problems of self-definition and power, and learning how graphic artists have attempted to reinvent themselves and their work may help us change our own profession’s perception as “glorified typists.”

The writing, by those who participated most loudly in the debate, ranges from incoherent and melodramatic to simple and eloquent, but always reveals a passion technical communicators have seemingly forgotten. Graphic Design Theory provides snapshots of a century of rapid change, not the editor’s synthesis—thereby producing an almost “expressionist” work in which we are told not what to think and feel, but rather that we should think and feel. Such passion remains important in our work, and that message alone makes the book a worthy read.

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