Despite the encouraging increase in design commentary and history in
classrooms, on blogs, and in magazines, the core presumption remains:
Those who claim visual literacy are often ignorant, etc. So, as I stated then,
and remain committed to now, this second edition of Design Literacy:
Understanding Graphic Design serves as an alternative to the omnibus
compilations that reduce graphic design to just so much visual noise, and
examines a variety of individual objects, focusing on their significance in
the broader histories of graphic design and popular culture.
Although graphic design can be defined as critical masses of
form and style that shift according to the dictates of the marketplace, an
understanding of a singular work or genre of works analyzed through
objective and subject criteria can be useful in determining how individual
designers have made graphic design function over time.
Rather than conventional case studies, which trace the process of
creation and production, the essays here address rationales, inspirations, and
histories of an eclectic collection of vintage and contemporary objects in all
media. Each essay represents a unique occurrence that is influenced by and
relates to other manifestations of the design culture. Here, objects are not
viewed as fetishes (at least, I try not to present them as such), but as
expressions of specific commercial or artistic needs, solutions to distinct
problems, and even demonstrations of unique personalities.
Moreover, these so-called object lessons are alternatives to such
pedagogical conventions as the “great master” principle, which addresses the
maker within a canon or pantheon; the “great movement” principle, which
attributes certain characteristics to a school or ideology; or the “great style”
principle, which categorizes design according to period, fashion, or trend
(all of which I adhere to in other writings as the need demands). These
methods are not invalid, but I contend that understanding the object in
context removes graphic design from a purely formal arena and moves it to
a cultural and political one.
In the first edition I selected work by many well-known designers,
while for Design Literacy (continued), more anonymous work was
recognized, in addition to those with clear provenance. In this revised
edition there is a balance between known and unknown. Most of these
essays examine single works or related multiples, though a few focus on
larger genres when one piece alone does not tell a complete enough story.
For instance, see the essays on cigarette advertisements for women (page
37), religious tracts (page 39), or modern paperback book covers (page 232).
Some objects have already been elevated to the design pantheon,
such as A. M. Cassandre’s Peignot typeface (page 161), Saul Bass’s graphics
for Man with a Golden Arm (page 221), or Milton Glaser’s Dylan poster
(page 286). Other inclusions are only marginally noticed, if noticed at all, in
design history, such as Robbie Conal’s Men With No Lips poster (page 29),
Art Chantry’s Propaganda poster (page 382), or the East Village Other (page
111). A few were selected because they are icons of their respective eras, like
the peace symbol (page 14); others because they are curious designs that are
barely footnotes in graphic design texts, like razor blade labels (page 391).
With artifacts that span the twentieth century—from Lucian
Bernhard’s 1906 Priester Match poster to Paula Scher’s 1996 New York
Public Theater posters—the essays in this book are best read as sidebars
along with a historical timeline. Nevertheless, the material is not organized
chronologically, but thematically, according to the role, the object has played
in culture and commerce.