- Graphic Design: A New History
To people outside the field, the preoccupation of graphic designers with such arcane matters as serifs, ligatures, or full-page bleeds may seem charming, if slightly myopic. It is useful to take another perspective, however. We long ago became accustomed to the idea that we are living in a media-saturated, communications-driven “information age.” Insofar as graphic design—the interplay of text and image—often represents the final stage in the delivery of information, it can be thought of as lying close to the technological heart of our civilization. The growth of the field—from William Morris and the Kelmscott Press to motion graphics and Web 2.0— is the subject of Stephen J. Eskilson’s “new history” of graphic design.
Eskilson’s weighty tome is clearly intended as an alternative to the late Philip B. Meggs’s standard textbook, A History of Graphic Design (1983; 3rd ed., 1998), and apart from some errors of fact and a few questionable judgments, it is surely a worthy successor. Whereas Meggs began, dubiously, with the Sumerians, Eskilson offers only a brief overview of the precursors and begins instead with the industrialization of information in the late [End Page 258] nineteenth century: “[T]he profession was established,” he proposes, “when the task of designing printed material was separated from the task of printing it” (p. 29), and that is almost by definition a modern phenomenon. Eskilson’s more condensed timeframe allows him to deal much more comprehensively with his subject matter and to develop a set of recurring themes that connect his chronology of people and artifacts.
The largest of these is the oscillation of modern design between the poles of “functionality” (legibility, in the case of graphic design) and “expressivity.” The markers of these cyclical shifts are the familiar cultural trends of the twentieth century with such movements as Dadaism, Expressionism, and (more recently) Grunge belonging to the former, and the Bauhaus, Swiss typography, and corporate websites to the latter. Eskilson presents them (and many others) with a balance of formal analysis and contextual detail that is appropriate to a general survey of this sort, and he is attentive to technological factors: From the Linotype machine of the 1880s to bitmapping one hundred years later, new means of setting type and manufacturing images have influenced both the form and the content of graphical information.
A second, related, theme is the shifting boundary between political engagement and the formal, technical, and commercial realities of professional practice. Although designers, their clients, and the ultimate consumers of their work might long for the assertive neutrality of the Swiss grid, Eskilson repeatedly and convincingly demonstrates that this is an ideal that can almost never be realized. This applies not just to patriotic recruiting posters of World War I or the brazen Constructivist assault on the capitalist class. For a German designer in the 1920s or 1950s to eschew the traditional “black letter” Gothic script, with its inescapable nationalist associations, in favor of the clean sans serif of the International Typographic Style was to announce a powerful and unmistakable political commitment. Eskilson is likewise sensitive to the asymmetries of gender both in the history and historiography of graphic design—as in his coy reference to “Varvara Stepanova and her husband” (p. 204) rather than the ritual “Aleksandr Rodchenko and his wife”—and he concludes with reflections on the uneasy relationship between the emerging DIY (design-it-yourself) movement and the public “citizen designer” and the mainstream profession.
For just this reason, one singular omission is striking and, frankly, perplexing: The “new history” of graphic design, just like the old one, is the story of graphic design in the United States and three or four countries in Western Europe (Russia gets its fifteen minutes of fame on account of the Soviet Constructivists). Eskilson includes a sidebar on nineteenth-century Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, a very welcome discussion of the colonialist advertising campaigns sponsored by Britain’s Empire Marketing Board, and a handsome calligraphic poster by Mourad...