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Book review: 100 ideas that changed graphic design

Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne. 2012. London, UK: Laurence King Publishing Ltd. [ISBN 978-1-85669-794-1. 216 pages, including index. US$29.95 [softcover].)

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2013. Book review: 100 ideas that changed graphic design. Technical Communication 60(1):73.

Many design paradigms we take for granted were radical notions for their time, even if many now seem painfully conventional. In this short, punchy book, Heller and Vienne remind us of a century (pun intended) of game-changers, neatly capturing the passionate ferment and petty feuds that have characterized the evolution of traditional, modern, and postmodern design. Like so many graphics books, this one is all about the graphics; it’s printed on luscious paper, with high printing quality throughout. Books, the authors note, are “not neutral containers, but stages upon which words and images performed” (p. 8).

Unfortunately, words are mostly treated as spear-carriers in an opera, with the designer’s narcissistic diva taking center stage, privileging esthetics and difference, and trivializing readability. The belief that the designer, not the audience, decides what works seems never to change, and the lack of any serious discussion of how text and graphics should work together is thus not surprising. Some of the 100 innovations nonetheless satisfy our desire for more efficient communication. Changes that improved communication include Letraset (the ancestor of modern dingbat and computer fonts), which made ornamentation available to even fumblefingers like me, and ornamentation “to illuminate rather than obscure content” (p. 30). In that context, it’s surprising the authors have misunderstood Beatrice Ward’s (in)famous “crystal goblet” speech (p. 63), in which she emphasized the need for design to support rather than conceal the content.

Unfortunately, consistent with that error, most of the book’s examples represent changes that were at best neutral and that more often emphasized the goblet over its contents, a problem that surely deserved its own entry in the top 100. No top-100 list will satisfy everyone, but there are egregious omissions: mathematics-inspired graphics (Escher, Penrose), data graphics (whether in science or in the news media), photography versus illustration (degrees of abstraction), and Photoshop. In fact, digital design gets only a few passing mentions, despite its overwhelming impact on modern graphic design.

The layout is compromised by tiny type and an arbitrary limit of three graphics per topic, making it difficult to understand some design references if you aren’t a design scholar. Still, what’s present shows an impressive range of creativity. Despite the abovementioned flaws, the book is a feast for the eyes, with full-color, full-page images on every spread. The text does a good job of explaining the authors’ choices and their impacts. As a survey of the many changes in graphic design and the dialogs between competing schools of thought, 100 Ideas is an entertaining, often insightful read. Just don’t look for lessons in how to communicate words more clearly, other than by inverting some of the 100 principles.

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