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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.