Autumn 1994

History is made of the typical

Graphic Design: A Concise History

Richard Hollis
Thames & Hudson, £6.95

Faced no doubt by a plethora of daunting decisions – who to include, which countries to cover, how to balance historical narrative and analysis – Richard Hollis begins Graphic Design: A Concise History from the standpoint that ‘As a profession graphic design has only existed since the middle of the twentieth century.’ Unlike many authors before him, most notably Josef Müller-Brockmann in A History of Visual Communication (1971) and Philip Meggs in A History of Graphic Design (1983), Hollis resists straying into the complementary histories of the graphic arts, illustration and typography or starting his journey in prehistoric times. Hollis’s thesis is that graphic design is a profession, and the majority of examples that make up his history are by people who were working with this in mind.

The difference between ‘Professional Design’ and ‘Commercial Art’ was an issue discussed by members of ICOGRADA in 1964. Hollis describes the position taken by Masuru Katsumie, editor of the Japanese magazine Graphic Design, a few years earlier: ‘By emphasizing “Graphic Design,” which he saw as “firmly connected with printing” rather than Commercial Art … he seems to have been making a distinction connected with reproduction. Graphic Design’s images were produced by photography, part of an industrial process, reproducible in multiples from the original negative. On the other hand, Commercial Art employed hand illustration.’ Looking through Graphic Design: A Concise History, rich in photomontage for advertising, book covers and television graphics, it is clear that Hollis agrees with Katsumie. It is this tradition, so intimately bound up with Modernism, that he finds most intellectually satisfying and with which he is most at ease.

This is not to say that Hollis confines his focus to graphic design as a history of ideas. There are many passages in which he explains the formal and stylistic character of design as resulting from the understanding and manipulation of materials, as with John Heartfield’s announcement for George Grosz’s Dadaist portfolio of prints: ‘[Heartfield] combined old engraved blocks, found at the printer, with slogans in sans serif type. The need to lock the type into the printing press demanded rectangular units and thus imposed a strict vertical-horizontal arrangement. To Heartfield this was no restriction: he poured wet plaster around the angled type and blocks to hold them in position for printing.’

Hollis’s intention is to locate those designers who have contributed to the development of graphic design or who are ‘the most typical practitioners of their period.’ The book opens with the turn-of-the-century poster movement, the way in therefore being through art history and those graphic artists interested in printing. Hollis then pursues graphic design’s origins in the experimental early decades of the century, beginning, like Jan Tschichold in Die neue Typographie (1928, perhaps for the first time?) and Herbert Spencer in Pioneers of Modern Typography (1969), with the Italian Futurist’s experiments with poetic layout.

The structure of the book then alters so that national styles, traditions and approaches become the dominant ordering device. The first section ends in 1940 (Italy, Soviet Russia, Germany, the Netherlands); the second ranges from the postwar years to the 1960s (Switzerland, Italy, France and Northern Europe, including Poland). Hollis passes from country to country with a lightness of touch, his many cross-references enriching the text and his use of illustrations effective. There are also interludes: ‘The Designer and The Art Director,’ nominally an American story but including many émigrés, and a shorter section on late-1960s counter-culture and political graphics. The closing stages return to divisions by country to consider how new technologies have been embraced by designers in different national schools (Britain, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States).

The book is designed by the author. It depends on a close partnership of text and image, an arrangement which usually works well, as one might expect from a designer whose earlier work includes John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), seminal in its day for its understanding of picture editing. There are signs of a deep knowledge and a great deal of imaginative picture research, with many elements which I greeted with surprise and pleasure.

Most striking are the sequences where Hollis shows contrasts in graphic solutions: a Herbert Matter poster ‘All Roads Lead to Switzerland’ printed in English and in a Czech version as ‘Drive to Switzerland;’ a group of German paperback covers by four different (equally Modernist) publishers; a page with the logotypes of New Man, Renault and Yves Saint Laurent; a series of i-D magazine covers. Hollis interprets the nature of graphic experience not just as a matter of single images, however remarkable, but of multiple images with echoes and reverberations that build up cumulative languages.

Illustrations are postage-stamp size and abundant (over 800), intended, Hollis explains, to be the equivalent of slides in a lecture. My only criticism of the design is that the colour section, dealing with categories and themes in graphic design and intended to introduce material that follows, appears too early in the book and seems to interrupt the chronology.

The book does not stop with the graphic object as image, but encourages readers to pursue ideas from the historiography of graphic design. Appropriately, we are led to texts by Jan Tschichold, Alfred Tolmer, Paul Rand, Harold Evans, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, Wolfgang Weingart and April Greiman. Or we may follow up on the journals: Gebrauchsgraphik, Typography, Neue Grafik, Print or U&Ic. Generous and authoritative with sources, Hollis has prepared ground for much future work, though there is a tendency for the subject to appear hermetic and to be excluded from wider historical issues. Hollis is presumably arguing for specificity here, which may be appropriate for a title in such a series.

It may also reflect the preliminary stage the subject has reached. Many areas of design history have expanded their fields of enquiry in recent years, questioning established canons and enriching studies with references to business and social histories. This complicates the model of history as one driven solely by the agency and authority of the designer. Is it still too early for this shift to take place in graphic design history? Roland Barthes’ and post-structuralist investigations into the ideological nature of systems of representation and insistence on the multiple reading of imagery have still to be reconciled with a history of graphic practice. I would have liked to format to allow the author to reflect further on historical methodology, to suggest how such approaches might meet what is essentially a normative account.

The Thames and Hudson ‘World of Art’ series seems to be undergoing a revival, publishing new titles with relevance to the growing numbers of designers and historians, spurred on, no doubt, by the rise in student numbers in the UK. This volume forms a suitable companion to Alan and Isabella Livingston’s Encyclopaedia of Graphic Design and Designers (1992). Essential and affordable reading for students, designers and historians, Graphic Design: A Concise History has significance that should take it to a wider readership. We can be grateful that the subject has been approached by someone as considered, well informed and imaginative as Richard Hollis.

First published in Eye no. 14 vol. 4 1994

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 back issues. You can also browse visual samples of recent issues at Eye before You Buy.


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