Observer: Perfect Ten (Or Twelve)

To a certain cast of mind—a cast shared by many
designers—lists of preferences are fascinating. Lists offer
information in its most elemental form. There is no explicit linkage
between the items, no explanation or opinion. Everything comes down to
selection and juxtaposition. How do these items relate to each other?
Why choose this item instead of that? The list provides no overt
answers. It simply asserts, and this is what gives it its power as
encapsulation and summary and makes it so intriguing to the reader.
Looking at someone else’s list of priorities immediately starts
you thinking about your own.

This is clearly the idea behind 50
Reading Lists
, a new publication from Spin, a design company based
in London. Spin asked colleagues to list the top 10 books they believe
designers should read—the books didn’t necessarily have to
be about graphic design. As Spin’s Tony Brooks notes in the
introduction, this was perhaps a hopeless task. Many participants,
showing an inability to stick to a brief, found it impossible to limit
themselves to 10 choices (which in itself says something about how
designers think). Spin thought again and published whatever they
received. The longest list stretches to 22 books. Many of the designers
are British, though American and European designers were also consulted.
Spin printed 5,000 copies available through its website.

Perhaps inevitably, most of the books are about graphic
design or visual subjects. Spin presents the lists straight, under the
designers’ names, on large-format, pink newsprint pages, without
commentary or statistical analysis. It also shows pictures of some of
the covers, focusing on the design titles. While Brooks refrains from
editorial comment about the volumes chosen and what they might reveal,
Spin’s view of the material, and its stylistic preferences as a
studio, emerges through the designers it asked to submit lists in the
first place, the covers it has chosen to illustrate, and even the design
of the publication.

The first thing to find out is whether there is any
consensus about the most significant books, and certain titles jump out
as soon as you start turning the pages. On my count,the five most cited
works are Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography
(7 mentions); the monograph 8vo: On the Outside (7); John
Berger’s Ways of Seeing (8), making it easily the most
favored critical text; Emil Ruder’s Typographie (9); and,
leading the field, another monograph, Wim Crouwel: Mode en module
(10).

At first sight, two of those titles—the
monographs—are pretty surprising. The Crouwel book, published in
1997, shows every sign of being a superbly thorough study of one of
Dutch design’s leading figures. It is beautifully illustrated, for
sure. I can’t say more than that because I haven’t read it,
and it’s a fairly safe bet that the English-speaking designers who
chose the monograph as a must-read title are in the same position,
because it has only ever been published in Dutch. It’s also worth
noting that two of the designers who selected it are former members of
8vo. Crouwel, who commissioned posters by 8vo during his time as a
museum director, includes the 8vo monograph in his own list. He is
thanked by Spin for “kicking off” and supporting the
project.

I am not suggesting that there is anything untoward here, but
the Crouwel book’s support is certainly indicative of the
neo-modernist taste that prevails among many of the designers Spin
elected to canvass. Spin’s design style—as seen in 50
Reading Lists
—falls into this camp, and Brooks’s list
features both the 8vo and Crouwel monographs. The Total Design founder
is a hero to this group and his book has been chosen for its talismanic
qualities, as a homage and sign of allegiance. It makes one wonder how
much actual reading—as opposed to looking and admiring—lies
behind the selection of some of the other titles.

The lists are most
interesting—at least to me—when they break away from this
obsession with austere European modernist typography and grid systems
and present a more varied, rounded, and unpredictable picture of
individual intellectual development and visual taste. Designer and
design historian Richard Hollis’s shelf-busting roundup includes
classics by Moholy-Nagy, Mumford, Giedion, Kepes, Gombrich, and Venturi,
as well as Rand and Tufte, and it forms a revealing self-portrait of an
erudite man. The same seriousness of inquiry and consistency of purpose
can be seen, in a different way, in Allen Hori’s top 13. Hori
makes a point, as do several of these designers, of avoiding graphic
design books altogether, and concentrating on titles that are meant
unambiguously for reading: three by Berger, two by Barthes, two by
Victor Burgin, and one by literary critic Terry Eagleton. Until I saw
Hori’s list I had never heard of The Box Man (1974) by
avant-garde Japanese novelist Kobo Abe. It sounded so promising when I
looked it up that I ordered a copy. That’s the ultimate value of
these lists: They introduce you to new possibilities.

Designers’
tastes in fiction have always intrigued me, and there are plenty of
excellent choices here. Alexander Gelman finds time for the long march
through War and Peace (cheeky of him to include two of his own
books in his list, though), while British designer Lucienne Roberts
unwinds with Anna Karenina. Ian Anderson of Designers Republic
puts his money on Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man, a cult
novel if ever there was one. Adrian Shaughnessy, author of How to Be
a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul
(listed by four
designers), backs Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld.
Angus Hyland of Pentagram has a soft spot for The Cheese Monkeys,
Chip Kidd’s novel about growing up as a graphic designer, and
Fabrica’s Omar Vulpinari picks The Fountainhead—well,
someone had to. It’s good to see Kerr/Noble in London declare
their enthusiasm for The Atrocity Exhibition by J. G. Ballard. I
recommended it to them once over lunch.

Stimulating as these novels
might be (for all kinds of readers), it doesn’t make much sense to
view them as a set of core texts from which any graphic designer might
benefit. One also can’t help feeling that some of the more obscure
nonfiction titles have been included mainly to impress us with the
designers’ quirky, recondite tastes. I enjoyed all that stuff
about dialectics and the libido in Wim Mertens’s American
Minimal Music
(1983) when I read it years ago—but come on. And
what exactly is Peter Saville trying to say about life as a design
legend by choosing as one of his 11 unputdownable, nightstand favorites
a biography of the Marquis de Sade? There are some pointlessly unfocused
inclusions, too: Wikipedia, “the radio,” “the
newspaper,” “anatomy book” (no other details
supplied), Letraset catalogs from 1974, and “An A5 blank cartridge
notebook.” Bill Cahan’s “list” is an apology
saying he doesn’t have the energy to read about design. What,
never? Wow. Spin could have cut all these. They add nothing to a highly
worthwhile and informative project.

There are certainly some canonical
texts in 50 Reading Lists. Typographie (1967) and
Pioneers of Modern Typography (1969), both often reprinted, would
probably do well among any group of designers. If this were an
all-American group, though, it seems unlikely that Ways of
Seeing
—a British art school library staple since
1972—would exert such a hold, and I doubt that the Crouwel and 8vo
monographs would make any great impression. Although there is a
smattering of interest in books by or about Rand, Lubalin, Kalman, and
Scher, European influences heavily outweigh them in these lists.
American designers would doubtless express a different take on the
design landscape.

Sad to say, design history and criticism are not
well supported. Philip Meggs’s A History of Graphic Design,
now in its fourth edition, receives only five endorsements: Perhaps
it’s viewed as too much the textbook to be truly loved. Ellen
Lupton and Abbott Miller’s Design Writing Research, still
in print after a decade, earns just one mention. A group of design
educators would reveal different priorities. Spin’s participants
do, however, prefer American artists, paying their dues to Ruscha, Judd,
Weiner, and that reliable evergreen, Andy Warhol.

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