“For all graphic design’s importance, it is only within the last three decades that the subject has been considered worth studying in the round…” relates UK-based designer/historian Patrick Cramsie in the introduction of his newly released book, The Story of Graphic Design (Abrams, 2010).
“Part of the reason for this lack of attention is that graphic design’s role as a service provider masked whatever artistic merit it might have possessed. However, much artistic skill was brought to a particular design, the design always had a job of work to do. It was either selling or informing, or sometimes doing a bit of both. This lack of clarity about the status of graphic design has been compounded by its ephemeral nature. Are posters really meant to be hung in galleries long after the events they promoted have passed? Is there really any social value in collecting beer mats or luggage labels? …The range of objects under its purview is vast and with every innovation in information technology the range only increases. These factors make graphic design a rich and rewarding area of study, but they also make it a difficult one.”
Cramsie’s point is probably the most cogent explanation of why, despite all the self-congratulatory awards given out in the graphic design industry, very few broad surveys of graphic design have been written. Where do you start, where do you stop? Graphic design encompasses everything from retail hangtags, maps and logos to posters and books.
Cramsie should be congratulated for an ambitious, if not somewhat foolhardy, mission. Certainly every aficionado of the graphic arts will have an opinion of what deserved to be included or excluded. Cramsie is quick to point out that he didn’t attempt to write a complete history of graphic design, but used “styles of graphic design in the West” as the organizing approach to his book. As a reference tool, The Story of Graphic Design has a lot to offer. It touches upon a range of important topics in history and culture, from the art of the medieval manuscript to the birth of advertising to the workings of digital media.