no.27 vol.7 spring 1998

A primer with links missing
Design Literacy, Understanding Graphic Design
Stephen Heller and Karen Pomeroy
Allworth Press New York, 1997
reviewed by Max Bruinsma

It's a design buzzword of a kind these days; visual literacy. Since the world around us has become imbued with messages and planned and designed statements in a great variety of media and products, it is more and more understood that we read the world before experiencing it. And just as we are supposed to have learned to read and write our verbal language, so it is becomming more and more common to think about a 'reading and writing knowledge' of images and to presume a 'literacy' in our visual languages. But the idea of literacy is not just being able to use a language in a day to day practical sense - it also presumes a knowledge of the histories, styles and media from which the language has developed, and of the 'classic' authors and objects that mark its most sophisticated level. So when Paula Scher uses typography the way she does in her Best of Jazz poster, the visually literate viewer is supposed to read from her design a reference to Rusian constructivism with hints of Push Pin's revaluations of Art Nouveau. And when the cover of New York Talk magazine looks like it did in april 1985, you'll miss the fun (and the visual pun) if you don't see the appropriation of the famous design of Tide soap powder, a design classic from the 1930's. These two examples are fairly obvious ones, but cross-referencing, appropriations, allusions, citations and double meanings are now so much part of designers' daily stock of visual means and methods, that one is almost forced to conclude that practicaly everybody out there must know where all these signs point to - designers assume a much broader and deeper visual literacy in their audiences than they did a decade or so ago.

That conclusion might sound a bit optimistic to Steven Heller, who in his introduction to Design Literacy states that even designers "who claim visual literacy are often ignorant when it comes to understanding and appreciating objects that are imprinted with the language of their own practice." Heller suggests that designers often have seen things, which they use for inspiration or as source material, without appreciating the precise historical context and value of it - they "devour" their own design history as "eye candy found in scores of design books, magazines and annuals". Design Literacy intends to fill in some blanks and at the same time give an - admittedly eclectic - overview of how graphic designs from the earliest decades of this century to well into the 1990's have become essential and influential images of our culture at large - not only of graphic design culture.

The method by which Heller and his researcher Karen Pomeroy construct what they call "a collection of sidebars dotting a historical time line" is basically that of bricolage. The book is a compilation of short "essays", many of which are adapted from articles published previously in other magazines, that introduce single objects like individual posters or magazine covers, groups of thematically or historically connected products such as 'Italian Fascist Posters' or 'Culture Tabloids', anonymous signs like the swastika and letterfaces like Cooper Black or Template Gothic, while in other cases the texts focus on influential designers such as Paul Rand, Wolfgang Weingart or Grapus. Out of this disparate material arrises an image that can best be described as 'grainy'. Heller's 'dotting' may have been organised in thematical sections, that group designs as 'Language', 'Identity' or 'Style', but the overall picture remains rather fragmented. This is not such a problem when one reads Heller's book as a personal account of what he finds worthwhile in graphic design - one individual's choice of interesting objects, with which he meanwhile illustrates his own view of what is important in graphic design and what he thinks should be indispensable for a basic erudition on the matter.

But Heller's book pretends to be a lot more, at least when one takes the grand title Design Literacy seriously. The weak point of the collection of essays is that they basically concentrate on objects and their proper histories instead of describing how these histories relate and mingle. The New York Talk cover is a case in point: this single image serves to illustrate the development of 'culture tabloids', from their yellow-press ancestors to their 1960's and 1970's counter-culture heighdays and after. The article in question is in so far erudite that it sums up quite a few titles and trends and it admirably summarizes their development, but this - it seems to me - has more to do with what one could call design historicity, than with design literacy at large. Visually the New York Talk cover is quite removed from the aesthetics that governed for instance Rolling Stone or Wet, to name only two of the titles Heller mentions in this context. What would have been interesting from the design literacy angle in this case is to trace the ways the original Tide trademark has been used, misused and perused over the last five decades, and try and analize how such design topoi become generally understood signs in themselves.

What is refreshing in Heller's book is his reverence to the lesser known gods of graphic design history, such as Karl Teige and his Prague avantgarde group Devetsil, American advertising pioneer Gene Frederico or the swiss-American designer Erik Nitsche. And the book offers a wealth of case histories, such as Vignelli's New York Subway map or the story of Sussman/Preja's roadsigning for Disney World, that helped transform this "escapist capital of the world" into "a festival of late twentieth-century design". This might be a little over-enthousiastic, but in consise stories as these Heller is at his best: funny, to the point and erudite. The book also contains quite a few compendious designers' portraits disguised as case studies, such as the articles on Paul Rand's Direction covers or Robbie Conal's activist posters.

But all this material - interesting though it may be - does not in itself represent design literacy, although it is indispensable for it. Heller seems to make a similar mistake as the one he holds against designers who "devour eye candy", when he suggests that bringing together all these disparate objects and stories, will per se constitute a coherent overview. Apart from the fact that it only presents the most terse visual references - small crudely reproduced images of the works that have triggered the articles -, the weak aspect of this book is that it does not construct analytical links between the different pieces. In this context these are dearly missed, because it is precisely this 'intertext' that would make the whole concept of literacy function at it most authorative - or most authoritarian - level: that of discernment. For the idea of literacy presupposes the knowledge needed to discriminate between rare works of real importance and the bulk of less interesting products, and to analyse the influences of the first group on the rest. Of course these questions arrise in the articles that have been collected in Design Literacy, but they are rarely thematised in a broader way. Heller's book opens for instance with three articles on respectively Thomas Theodore Heine's Simplicissimus bulldog of 1897, Mussolini's 'art-directorship' in the 1920's and 1930's and John Heartfield's contributions to the German socialist Neue Jugend magazine during the first decades of this century. Although these, and other, articles are grouped in a chapter called 'Persuasion - design in the service of control and influence', they hardly refer to each other more than by lines like "The Italian poster was more experimental than its German counterpart". Again, what is missing is the intertext that explains how the visual languages of early twentieth century propaganda were jointly created by experimental designers from opposite camps - sometimes even switching camps - and how these have influenced both post-war propaganda and advertising. It is through such comparisons and argumentational narratives that something like 'the whole picture' would emerge and a true understanding of graphic design's visual laguages. As it is, Design Literacy is too grand a title for the book. But apart from that it remains an interesting collection of introductions to a design connoisseur's tastes.

max bruinsma