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A graphic designer’s
influence is not measured by how many acolytes mimic his style or by how many awards he
has won, but rather by what he alone has contributed to the visual language. Since such
judgments are subjective, the criteria used to determine influence might be an answer to the
question: If the particular designer had never existed, would the field be
worse off? To be more specific, if a young man from Topeka, Kansas, by the
name of Bradbury Thompson (1911–1995), had not left his job designing
high school yearbooks, and had not come to New York City in the late
1930s, would a significant chapter of American graphic design history have
been written?
If not for Thompson, Westvaco Inspirations, which in the 1930s
was a paper company’s spiritless promotional brochure, might never have
become the bible of graphic design and textbook for a generation. If
Thompson was never a magazine art director (Mademoiselle, Art News,
and others), book, postage stamp, or advertising designer; if all he ever
accomplished during his fifty-year career was to design and edit sixty issues
of a periodical that he transformed into a journal of modern layout and
typography—including special issues devoted to such themes as “Type as a
Toy,” “Primitive Art as Modern Design,” and the phonetic “Monalphabet”
(which eliminated the need for separate upper- and lowercase letters)—his
place as a pioneer of American graphic design would still be locked in for
the ages.
In 1938 Thompson left the American heartland without a clue that
he would eventually become the art director and designer for some very
influential magazines, or a teacher at Yale University, or one of the chief
designers for the United States Postal Service. He just came East to work
for one of those fabled art directors in the big city that he had read about
in design magazines he found in the Topeka library. From the outset he had
a curiously modernist bent (curious because conservative middle America
was not a conducive environment for modern thinking).
Westvaco Inspirations was a compendium of what Thompson
believed to be the best of contemporary practice. Inspirations reported on
the prevailing ethos, aesthetic, and philosophy of graphic design. But it was
more. Thompson promoted his vision, which wed the European modern
spirit to a respect for classical heritage. “My early interest in type came
from the humanist typographers,” explained Thompson, “the classic types
of Europe from the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. Later,
Vanity Fair [art directed by M. F. Agha] influenced me in the use of sansserif
type—especially Futura.” His appreciation for unadorned layout
further evolved from studying the behemoth fashion magazines of the
1930s, while his graphic adventurism came from an intimate knowledge of
printing and its potential. Thompson was never inhibited by low-budget
constraints nor primitive technologies. His belief in the rightness of form
was less about ideological purity than an interest in the most effective
means to communicate information.
Thompson liberally borrowed from all arts—painting and
sculpture, photography and drawing, realistic and abstract—to prove the
limitless possibilities of the design process. One of his most well-known
designs, an Inspirations spread titled “Kerr-choo-oo,” presents type that is
not read as a word but as sound. Although inspired by Apollinaire’s
Calligrammes and F. T. Marinetti’s Parole in Liberta, it was decidedly
American in its wit.
Inspirations brought classical, modern, and eclectic sensibilities
together in the form of a manifesto, not the rabble-rousing kind that
emanated from futurism or dada, but a soft-spoken kind—which
characterized Thompson to a T—that sought to teach rather than preach.
Thompson was not radical, but modern in the catholic sense: anything was
possible within his aesthetic parameters; anything was doable as long as
quality was the goal. Thompson’s experiments were, moreover, rooted in
terra firma—the real world. Inspirations was a progressive’s introduction to
new ideas about graphic forms and their applications in the marketplace,
not the clouds. Everything presented in the publication (including his
convention-busting Monalphabet) was appropriate within the convention
of visual communications