Autumn 1999

Glimpses of a graphic reality

The Business Side of Creativity

By Cameron S. Foote, W. W. Norton & Co.

Admit it. What graphic designers really want is to see work by other graphic designers, to read what other designers have to say about doing a project. Sure, we want to read other types of book (even books not actually about design), but the design publishing industry has grown on a combination of books that teach and show current trends, even try to give a glimpse of reality. Today there are a lot more design students and a lot more designers who want to see what work is being produced all over the world, to measure their own standards, be inspired, or just plain copy. Some of the books that cross Eye’s threshold hardly occupy the high ground of design publishing claimed by the annuals, the monographs and definitive histories, but they are sensibly priced and pragmatic. Do any of them make the grade?

Letterheads and Business Cards is the most successful of this batch. It is a clear proposition: a range of contemporary letterheads, mostly from the UK but with some from Europe and America, well photographed and laid out with elegant minimalism by Struktur Design. There could have been a wider choice of examples, and a slightly fuller discussion of what happens to the letterhead in the age of the computer, laser printing and email, but it is an unpretentious guide. Its flaws are the perpetual ones of trying to reproduce graphics: you can’t feel the paper the stationery is printed on and, because everything is rephotographed or scanned, it is difficult to judge what the type and colours are like. There are some tantalising historical examples in the brief introduction: the heading designed in 1932 by Anton Stankowski is the most exciting in the book.

Logos uses a case-study approach to investigate logos, corporate identity and branding. As a book, its design is glossy and a little frantic, and one feels the examples have been deliberately chosen to cover a wide range of design styles. Everything is breathlessly heroic, briefs are fulfilled and the final designs unhesitatingly successful.

Is this the real world? Would it be possible to produce a book that covered rather fewer examples in more depth? Could the projects be followed to show process rather than end result, the designs that didn’t make it, what was actually said at a presentation, the real voice of the client and user, rather than cosy press-release prose? That’s a book I would read.

Hypergraphics is an excellent professional introduction to Web design. Once you get inside the chapters the layout is clear and well structured, with an intelligent relationship between text, captions and illustrations. It shows site structures, and highlights design details. The book has its own website. I guess the only problem is the assumption that you need a book about website design at all: it has to be good to avoid the problem that it is difficult to write about the technology because it keeps changing: to see website design you just log on. This book might just make it.

Designing with Photographs and Visual Language are books ‘about looking’, and the interpretation of photographs and visual language. They are bold, graphic and didactic. Designing with Photographs has commentaries from art directors and photographers about their work (including a fascinating insight by Patrick Lichfield’s senior assistant into how those corporate jobs get done) and at the back some exercises with picture treatments and integration with type and colour. It even has a tear-out pair of L-shaped picture croppers at the back. The authors’ enthusiasm overcame my reservations: I would like to road test this book on a group of design students.

Visual Language is a graphic essay about identity design: it uses big type, flat colour, has pages you can tear out, asks questions and has an attitude. One spread shows how you can follow the rules of a corporate identity manual, but if you ignore the spirit of the design the results are appalling. It works on a different level to Conway Lloyd Morgan’s Logos and is rather more successful. Give a copy to a client.

Cameron S. Foote’s The Business Side of Creativity is the book you should read from this batch if you are thinking of being a freelance, or running a small studio. There are no photographs of work, but reality comes no colder than a section which tells you that when income is less than two-and-a-half times the payroll for more than a month you should consider laying off staff.

The book is full of sensible advice delivered (at least for notoriously unbusinesslike creatives) in palatable written form. But, as if to prove that the business side of creativity isn’t everything, this is one of the worst designed books in recent years: the front cover looks like a failed rescue job from a stock photo library that Peter Bonnici would be scathing about, while the inside seems to have been derived from a template developed in 1899. Pretend you are reading a typescript.

These books sit midway between the graphics magazines and the heavyweight hardbacks, in a big gap in which a publisher could produce a series of intelligent, well manufactured softback volumes on single subjects, or people. Such things exist in the worlds of photographic and architectural publishing, and they used to exist in the form of the Studio Vista series of handbooks on art and design, including Typography: Basic Principles by John Lewis, and Ken Garland’s seminal Graphics Handbook. Being scholarly would help, but these yet-to-be-published volumes don’t need to feel the burden of being definitive: better that they had real people, saying real things about design with a critical voice.

Simon Esterson, designer, Esterson Lackersteen, London

First published in Eye no. 33 vol. 9, 1999

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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