Through the Past Scholarly: A New Milestone in Graphic Design History

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The latest entry in the design-history movement.

The graphic design history “movement” has chugged along since the mid-1980s. Periodically, certain advocates—scholars and practitioners—stop to assess its progress. Truth be told, there has been pretty consistent forward motion. Between conferences, books, and, lately, films on design and designers, the quantity and quality of historical research and writing, and the outlets for same, have not only been respectable, but graphic design has reached the general public’s consciousness.

The exhibition “Graphic Design: Now in Production,” co-organized by the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and the Walker Art Center, is history in the making. It will be free to all who visit New York’s Governors Island before the show closes on September 3. For those non-designers who take the short ferry ride to the former Coast Guard base, they will become that much closer to understanding the integral impact of the graphic design profession on all our lives—and they will also witness the building blocks of history in the making.

A new design history reader, Graphic Design: History in the Writing (Occasional Papers), will certainly not have the same general audience as the Cooper-Hewitt show, but it is no less significant. Still, I worry its limited distribution will leave many graphic designers out of the learning loop.

Edited by Catherine de Smet and Sara De Bondt , the book collects the proceedings of the 2011 St Bride Library Conference on graphic design history. The essays and interviews analyze and proselytize the verities of the practice, but they also inform and enlighten the veteran and neophyte. While the design of the book is too textbook-ish, or rather under-designed, the content is well worth both scholarly adoption and personal perusal. All of the writings are reprinted from other sources, including a few by me that date back over ten years, but their respective relevance has not diminished. Graphic design history is not on every art-school or university agenda, but it should be. And if you claim to be a literate designer, you should take the opportunity of Graphic Design: History in the Writing‘s imminent release to brush up on why our history should be valued and studied.

.Steven Heller’s own Graphic Design Reader can be purchased at For more Heller, don’t miss his live DesignCast, “Researching Design History: From a Personal Perspective,” taking place on Wednesday, June 27.