Observer: Perfect Ten (Or Twelve)

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To a certain cast of mind—a cast shared by manydesigners—lists of preferences are fascinating. Lists offerinformation in its most elemental form. There is no explicit linkagebetween the items, no explanation or opinion. Everything comes down toselection and juxtaposition. How do these items relate to each other?Why choose this item instead of that? The list provides no overtanswers. It simply asserts, and this is what gives it its power asencapsulation and summary and makes it so intriguing to the reader.Looking at someone else’s list of priorities immediately startsyou thinking about your own.

This is clearly the idea behind 50Reading Lists, a new publication from Spin, a design company basedin London. Spin asked colleagues to list the top 10 books they believedesigners should read—the books didn’t necessarily have tobe about graphic design. As Spin’s Tony Brooks notes in theintroduction, this was perhaps a hopeless task. Many participants,showing an inability to stick to a brief, found it impossible to limitthemselves to 10 choices (which in itself says something about howdesigners think). Spin thought again and published whatever theyreceived. The longest list stretches to 22 books. Many of the designersare 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 graphicdesign or visual subjects. Spin presents the lists straight, under thedesigners’ names, on large-format, pink newsprint pages, withoutcommentary or statistical analysis. It also shows pictures of some ofthe covers, focusing on the design titles. While Brooks refrains fromeditorial comment about the volumes chosen and what they might reveal,Spin’s view of the material, and its stylistic preferences as astudio, emerges through the designers it asked to submit lists in thefirst place, the covers it has chosen to illustrate, and even the designof the publication.

The first thing to find out is whether there is anyconsensus about the most significant books, and certain titles jump outas soon as you start turning the pages. On my count,the five most citedworks are Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography(7 mentions); the monograph 8vo: On the Outside (7); JohnBerger’s Ways of Seeing (8), making it easily the mostfavored 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—themonographs—are pretty surprising. The Crouwel book, published in1997, shows every sign of being a superbly thorough study of one ofDutch design’s leading figures. It is beautifully illustrated, forsure. 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 whochose the monograph as a must-read title are in the same position,because it has only ever been published in Dutch. It’s also worthnoting that two of the designers who selected it are former members of8vo. Crouwel, who commissioned posters by 8vo during his time as amuseum director, includes the 8vo monograph in his own list. He isthanked by Spin for “kicking off” and supporting theproject.

I am not suggesting that there is anything untoward here, butthe Crouwel book’s support is certainly indicative of theneo-modernist taste that prevails among many of the designers Spinelected to canvass. Spin’s design style—as seen in 50Reading Lists—falls into this camp, and Brooks’s listfeatures both the 8vo and Crouwel monographs. The Total Design founderis a hero to this group and his book has been chosen for its talismanicqualities, as a homage and sign of allegiance. It makes one wonder howmuch actual reading—as opposed to looking and admiring—liesbehind the selection of some of the other titles.

The lists are mostinteresting—at least to me—when they break away from thisobsession with austere European modernist typography and grid systemsand present a more varied, rounded, and unpredictable picture ofindividual intellectual development and visual taste. Designer anddesign historian Richard Hollis’s shelf-busting roundup includesclassics by Moholy-Nagy, Mumford, Giedion, Kepes, Gombrich, and Venturi,as well as Rand and Tufte, and it forms a revealing self-portrait of anerudite man. The same seriousness of inquiry and consistency of purposecan be seen, in a different way, in Allen Hori’s top 13. Horimakes a point, as do several of these designers, of avoiding graphicdesign books altogether, and concentrating on titles that are meantunambiguously for reading: three by Berger, two by Barthes, two byVictor Burgin, and one by literary critic Terry Eagleton. Until I sawHori’s list I had never heard of The Box Man (1974) byavant-garde Japanese novelist Kobo Abe. It sounded so promising when Ilooked it up that I ordered a copy. That’s the ultimate value ofthese lists: They introduce you to new possibilities.

Designers’tastes in fiction have always intrigued me, and there are plenty ofexcellent choices here. Alexander Gelman finds time for the long marchthrough War and Peace (cheeky of him to include two of his ownbooks in his list, though), while British designer Lucienne Robertsunwinds with Anna Karenina. Ian Anderson of Designers Republicputs his money on Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man, a cultnovel if ever there was one. Adrian Shaughnessy, author of How to Bea Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul (listed by fourdesigners), backs Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld.Angus Hyland of Pentagram has a soft spot for The Cheese Monkeys,< span>
Chip Kidd’s novel about growing up as a graphic designer, andFabrica’s Omar Vulpinari picks The Fountainhead—well,someone had to. It’s good to see Kerr/Noble in London declaretheir enthusiasm for The Atrocity Exhibition by J. G. Ballard. Irecommended it to them once over lunch.

Stimulating as these novelsmight be (for all kinds of readers), it doesn’t make much sense toview them as a set of core texts from which any graphic designer mightbenefit. One also can’t help feeling that some of the more obscurenonfiction titles have been included mainly to impress us with thedesigners’ quirky, recondite tastes. I enjoyed all that stuffabout dialectics and the libido in Wim Mertens’s AmericanMinimal Music (1983) when I read it years ago—but come on. Andwhat exactly is Peter Saville trying to say about life as a designlegend by choosing as one of his 11 unputdownable, nightstand favoritesa biography of the Marquis de Sade? There are some pointlessly unfocusedinclusions, too: Wikipedia, “the radio,” “thenewspaper,” “anatomy book” (no other detailssupplied), Letraset catalogs from 1974, and “An A5 blank cartridgenotebook.” Bill Cahan’s “list” is an apologysaying he doesn’t have the energy to read about design. What,never? Wow. Spin could have cut all these. They add nothing to a highlyworthwhile and informative project.

There are certainly some canonicaltexts in 50 Reading Lists. Typographie (1967) andPioneers of Modern Typography (1969), both often reprinted, wouldprobably do well among any group of designers. If this were anall-American group, though, it seems unlikely that Ways ofSeeing—a British art school library staple since1972—would exert such a hold, and I doubt that the Crouwel and 8vomonographs would make any great impression. Although there is asmattering of interest in books by or about Rand, Lubalin, Kalman, andScher, European influences heavily outweigh them in these lists.American designers would doubtless express a different take on thedesign landscape.

Sad to say, design history and criticism are notwell supported. Philip Meggs’s A History of Graphic Design,now in its fourth edition, receives only five endorsements: Perhapsit’s viewed as too much the textbook to be truly loved. EllenLupton and Abbott Miller’s Design Writing Research, stillin print after a decade, earns just one mention. A group of designeducators would reveal different priorities. Spin’s participantsdo, however, prefer American artists, paying their dues to Ruscha, Judd,Weiner, and that reliable evergreen, Andy Warhol.