TWO PEOPLE, 100 IDEAS
100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design is a handsome paperback published by Laurence King as part of their 100 Ideas That Changed series, which includes 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture and 100 Ideas That Changed Fashion. Upcoming titles will cover film, art and photography. It is designed by the Danish-British company Struktur and written by the eminent designers Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne. The two are almost impossible to categorize. Both have worked as art directors at various stages of their lives (most notably, at the New York Times Book Review and Self magazine, respectively), but both are also writers, part of that rare breed of book makers capable of creating the whole object singlehanded. 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design is their fourth book together (the others are Art Direction Explained, at Last!, The Education of an Art Director and Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, the last two published by Allworth Press).
Steve Heller has made design his beat. He has more than 145 (!) titles to his name. This recipient of the 1999 AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement writes the Daily Heller, a design blog at printmag.com that showcases his grasp of every area of the subject with an apparently ceaseless flow of know-how on anything from exhibitions to branding to obituaries of designers. He is co-chair of New York City’s School of Visual Arts MFA Designer as Author program. It is not uncommon for him to send e-mails at 1 a.m. (or 5 a.m.). Stunned designers have confessed that they think he must keep several body-doubles.
Véronique Vienne, on the other hand, doubles in everything: she lives on both sides of the Atlantic, writes books and magazine articles in French and English, and has variously switched in and out of designer/editor roles at numerous publishers, from Hachette in Paris and Condé Nast in New York to San Francisco magazine on the West Coast, where she was both art director and editor-in-chief (though not at the same time). Vienne also conducts workshops on design criticism in Paris and is a guest lecturer at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
How did the book come about?
SH Laurence King developed the 100 Ideas series. We fit nicely as authors.
VV I knew that doing another book with Steve would mean receiving daily emails from him for two years! I couldn’t resist. I am very fond of his emails.
Who did what? Did you both write text and captions and do picture research?
SH Each of us took 50 ideas and did the entire ball o’ wax. We passed them back and forth for as long as we could stand it.
VV In the end, we forgot who wrote what. The only duplicate was the entry about tattoos. In the end, Steve’s version prevailed.
Did you come up with the 100 categories and then fill them in with design examples, or start with key pieces of design and create the 100 categories out of them?
SH We each made lists. Véronique’s was more cerebral. Mine were a bit more ephemeral.
VV We argued a lot about the concept of “ideas”—”What’s an idea?” It was a mind-twister.
Was it a stretch to get to 100 or agony to edit them down to 100?
SH It was easy to get 70 or so. Then we came up with another 50 that we pared down with the heavy hand of our wonderful editor, Jo Lightfoot. We eliminated all the isms. Isms are such a cop-out, like jargon.
VV Honestly, I love isms. But I never dared admit it. For Steve, isms are like conspiracy theories: humbuggery!
Was there a natural division to the choices between the two of you?
SH Obscure for Véronique, obvious for me.
VV Steve was the U.S. counterculture expert. I was in charge of the European bureau.
Do you have favorite categories?
SH They are all our babies. Though I do have a fondness for Monumentalism. Maybe because I’m only average height.
VV I liked Vanitas—it’s such an old theme.
Were any a struggle to illustrate?
SH I don’t recall. Véronique, did you have any problems?
VV Yes! During the summer, I had to call or email all my friends in Europe and ask them to contribute images and sign releases. They were all away on vacation. The worst part was knowing that some of the images they eventually sent me would be reproduced very small or end up on the cutting-room floor.
Did you have a core list of designers you wanted to include—Paul Rand? Saul Bass? Milton Glaser?
SH Yes and no. I was simply happy to get good examples. I didn’t care about who. Except that it would be great if we could find the first example of each idea. That was the real challenge, and not always possible.
VV It was a heartbreak for me not to include visuals from some great people like Alexander Rodchenko or Neville Brody.
Obviously establishing parameters is always tricky, but can you explain why you begin with The Book? I mean wouldn’t Egyptian hieroglyphics fall under early metaphoric lettering, for instance?
SH So you’re an editor, eh? We could have gone back to Lascaux, but we didn’t. We wanted to start with graphic design. The book is the wellspring of that.
VV In France, design graphique is different from graphisme. So don’t get me started. Defining the subject of the book in this way could have been an issue. Mercifully, we didn’t broach the topic.
Similarly, you end with designers’ websites, but wouldn’t the design of apps be more up-to-date?
SH Possibly. But the website came before apps. And apps are, in fact, less about graphic design than interaction, which is a category unto itself.
VV The idea behind the designers’ websites entry was “virtual portfolios”—don’t you remember lugging a heavy portfolio to interviews? That was the worst part of the job.
The bulk of the work is American or European — did you feel there was no significant contribution from other parts of the world?
SH There is another part of the world? Seriously, most of graphic design history was born of the industrial revolution and the commercial explosion that followed. That was Europe and the U.S.
VV I have to admit that I am clueless when it comes to contemporary Asian, African or South American graphic design. But Steve is right: graphic design is a child of the industrial revolution.
In your introduction you write about separating ideas from “tropes and conceits”—can you give me an example?
SH An idea is the book; a trope is embossed covers.
VV I learned the word trope from Steve. It’s one of his favorite words. I still don’t know what it means.
When you write that “style is a trope or conceit that may emerge as a byproduct of an idea,” do you then list psychedelic graphic style and art moderne and art deco as different manifestations of the same idea?
SH Some styles transcend the definition. Exceptions to the rule. The concept that makes psychedelic design an idea is illegibility. Two tropes make a concept (sometimes). It is very talmudic, don’t you think?
VV See? Steve can be pure-dead-brilliant.
You include work by Matisse, for example—while it might be graphic art, why do you consider his work graphic design?
SH Good question. Matisse’s collages spawned a lot of graphic design methods; I guess this is an example of finding the “source.”
VV On that same page (the entry was written by Steve, as I recall), I managed to sneak in an example of a page that Alex Liberman [Condé Nast’s famed editorial director for many years] designed “for me” when I was the art director of Self. A quiet homage to my mentor and tormentor.
In the introduction you say you challenge some “official versions”—can you give me an example?
SH Véronique’s examples tend to be more about geometries and perspectives; most design histories do not get into those issues.
VV I always try to introduce an original point of view into my analysis of a graphic artifact. I am bored with most historical platitudes.
In the introduction you write about “the art and craft of graphic design.” Why did you include “craft”?
SH Craft is the act of making. Art is the act of conceiving.
VV The idea of graphic design as a craft is making a comeback. In Europe, at least. Young graphic designers are “manufacturing” and “fabricating” visual experiences.
What if anything, surprised you about doing this book? What did you learn?
SH I learned that categorization is a bitch. I’ve done a few books that attempt to create design taxonomies. It is a necessary exercise and a useful way to analyze art and design. But it is ultimately subjective.
VV As a former art director, I never get used to not having total control over the design of books or articles I write. The cover of the French edition is horrid, for instance. I am so embarrassed, I could die.
Who do you think the book is for?
SH As we say down South—y’all. It is for designers looking to make sense of what they do. And non-designers looking to make sense of what we do. It is also a benchmark as graphic design morphs into the next stage since Gutenberg.
VV Hopefully, this book is for all the students who have asked me if I can recommend a good, accessible book on the history of graphic design. Steve and I like the fact that the book is not too daunting or intimidating—and that each entry expresses a point of view.
What will be your next book or books?
SH I’ve got a few in the pipeline. The most interesting for me is a history of design magazines (also for Laurence King).
VV I’d like to write a memoir about my experience among designers whose work I admire. I’d like to make graphic design very personal.—LUCY SISMAN