Why a graphics book about graphics books? Noted art director Steven Heller, who wrote the introduction, thinks he owns all the ones mentioned here, but isn’t sure because his personal library – ‘a separate apartment where I store most of my books’ – is too disorganised. You and I, on the other hand, with less shelf space and a more limited budget, may need a bit of help in sifting through the thousands of titles in the field.
It’s a task, as Heller notes, that’s got harder in recent years, with the early to mid 20th Century’s steady trickle of sparsely illustrated volumes becoming a glossy, full-colour flood. This is a challenge to which Bibliographic doesn’t entirely rise: editor Jason Godfrey has chosen hardly anything beyond 2000.
He’s most generous to the decades between the 40s and the 80s, organising chronologically but within separate chapters on typography books, sourcebooks, instructional books, histories, anthologies and monographs.
Expertly laid out by Godfrey himself, the pages are devoted mainly to spreads from the books, with rather small, neatly set sidebars and captions. The copy is more informative than sparkling, and describing what each book contains serves only to make the reader feel more frustrated not to have it all in front of them. You do get a bit of context as well, though, with brief biographies of the authors and commentary on the relevant periods and trends in graphic design.
More than a few books here leap straight off the page and make you go and look them up on Amazon (many are out of print, but few are hopelessly rare): Edward Booth-Clibborn’s The Language of Graphics (1980) is an eye-popping cornucopia of timeless everyday masterpieces; Hans Neuberg’s Publicity and Graphic Design in the Chemical Industry (1967) might not catch your eye in a title listing, but if you like anything Swiss, you’ll love this; Nova: 1965-1975 (1993) is a shocking reminder that the 1990s style magazine wasn’t invented in the 1990s.
There are the one-offs that have no particular place in design history but show the power of a unique vision: Ben Shahn’s Love and Joy about Letters (1964), Bradbury Thompson’s The Art of Graphic Design (1988). And the books where the work hasn’t dated well but the ideas are still fresh, like Bob Gill’s Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned about Graphic Design, Including the Ones in This Book (1981) and Paul Rand’s A Designer’s Art (1985).
And the obvious: Milton Glaser, Herb Lubalin, Neville Brody, David Carson, Tibor Kalman, Alan Fletcher, Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher. And the essential: Müller-Brockmann’s The Graphic Artist and His Design Problems (1961) and Grid Systems in Graphic Design (1981), Pentagram’s The Dictionary of Visual Language (1980), Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983, although we’d have gone for 1990’s Envisioning Information).
Some of the older classics, as Godfrey quietly acknowledges, are no longer very relevant; books like Dwiggins’ Layout in Advertising (1928) are hard to relate to modern practice, and many of the styles celebrated were, with hindsight, dead ends that survive only in retro pastiche. This tips the balance of the book towards feeling slightly dusty. Perhaps one of its functions is to confirm the absence of a golden age in graphics: the best work is being done now.