Designers Don’t Read...Enough

The cliché that designers don’t read—aside from being insulting—is, however, entirely plausible since graphic design(ing) doesn’t really require reading, or so word on the street goes. But this is a rather threatening misperception as it challenges our intellectual, cultural and critical commitment. In addition, it categorizes us as an intellectually bankrupt superfluous bunch. Yet the claim is not entirely without merit, because graphic designers don’t read enough—about graphic design, that is.

The truth is graphic designers do read, but when it comes to graphic design books, journals or trade publications there aren’t many hands that I know reaching for them.

What exactly is a graphic design book anyway? One genre is about displaying stuff that graphic designers have made, from packaging to logos to annual reports to web sites. These books are great at showcasing the fruits of our efforts—the artifacts as we now call them. Yet a common flaw with picture books is that by placing emphasis solely on the outcome we are ignoring the process and conceptualization of ideas that create these nifty-looking works. That’s only one genre; another genre is monographs, which showcase one designer or design firm’s breadth of work. Monographs aim to provide insight—about process, ideas, and concepts—into the monographee’s work to present the fuller picture that the “stuff books” don’t provide. The last genre is books that strive to educate designers about their profession; that place graphic design in the context of history, culture, politics and commerce. Books that have fewer pictures and more text—sometimes, even, no pictures at all.

Interestingly, while there is disdain for all three types—the more vigorous reserved towards those labeled pretty-picture or eye-candy books. While they are guilty pleasures the complaint is they do not provide enough insight and are quite superficial. Ironically it is with these books that we as a profession measure and define what is good and bad. We hold many of them in high regard and consider it an achievement to be included. But behind the glossy pictorials and horn-tooting benefits, there is disregarded potential.

Rudy VanderLans, founder of Emigre, said in an interview with Speak Up, “Perusing the visuals is a kind of ‘reading’ also. It requires a certain visual literacy to appreciate looking at reproductions of graphic design.” As professionals endowed with creating visuals, our aversion to assimilating, understanding and willingness to learn from visuals seems surprising at best, hypocritical at worst. It’s difficult to believe that in those 300-page books, brimming with works of graphic design there is nothing to learn, to read. Therefore, it is imperative that we change our deprecating attitudes towards pretty pictures so we can learn from them. Otherwise we are denying the very essence of what we do. That would be stupid.

I know that lengthy text books—like the series Looking Closer or Citizen Designer, the various incarnations of Emigre, Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller’s Design Writing Research and others—are easily snubbed, dismissed as academic tracts and, therefore, deemed irrelevant to our daily practice. I’ve heard people ask: “Will these books help us lay out better spreads in annual reports?” Unlikely. “Will they get us better clients?” Doubtful. “Will our Quark skills strengthen?” Think again. What good are they then? How do knowledge, information, context and understanding sound as rewards? Not bad. These books are usually required material for students, providing a valued sense of purpose for their existence. But as far as professionals are concerned—working under the pressure of clients, vendors and kerning—these books are of little value. Some designers maintain they would rather read books about business, architecture, art, farming or what-have-you, than graphic design books. It is true that we should read everything for knowledge regardless of the subject, yet that is a romantic view that neglects the importance of understanding our own profession.

It would be irresponsible to assert that graphic designers shun all graphic design books. They do not. But they are ambivalent. The most successful books in our profession are those that find the right balance between the words and pictures and the visual and literary. Books that provide relevant (even pretty!) images with thoughtful commentary and whose ambition is to educate, persuade, inform and captivate. Books like Rick Poynor’s No More Rules, Steven Heller’s Merz to Emigre and Beyond, Miller and Lupton’s Design Writing Research as well as monographs like Paula Scher’s Make it Bigger, Milton Glaser’s Art Is Work, and Cahan & Associates I am almost always Hungry. These books are exemplary of what our profession has to offer in terms literature, a literature that relies on words and visuals equally to educate its practitioners and, even toot its own horn.

Sadly, it is self-obfuscation—not lack of quality or quantity—that hinder our interest in our own literature. If we care so deeply about the advancement of our profession we can’t continue ignoring our vast library; it exists to inform us about history, to convey principles, to analyze our output, and to nurture us as practitioners. We need to take advantage of it, we can’t read just enough of it. We need to read more of it.

About the Author: Armin Vit is a graphic designer, observer and aspiring critic. Unafraid of public scrutiny, he has written for Emigre, Eye, HOW and STEP magazines among others. His work has been published in numerous publications around the world and has been awarded many times with much fanfare. He is founder of UnderConsideration and the (in)famous Speak Up. Feisty behind the keyboard, Armin remains timid at heart.