Graphic design, like any profession, needs its cheerleaders. Beyond the millions of casual retweeters and likers, it needs clear, loud voices—preferably coming out of wise heads attached to long necks that are willing stick themselves out when necessary. As the editor of Grafik magazine for nearly a decade, Caroline Roberts’ voice has certainly been read loud and clear, and if the introduction she wrote to her latest book, Graphic Design Visionaries (Laurence King) is any indication, she’s certainly got the long neck bit covered.
But in a book that aims to celebrate the work of 75 “visionaries,” people with “a desire to break new ground” and “push standards higher,” Roberts strikes an unusually derisive chord by calling out other fields of design as somehow less worthy in comparison. She argues that “unlike ego-driven architects who take it in turns to ruin the skyline, or fashion designers who chase headlines with outrageous outfits in order to build their profitable fragrance and sunglasses brands, graphic designers work mainly for other people, providing solutions to problems large or small.” Umm, do I sense some aggression here?
It should go without saying, but as someone who’s worked as an editor for both architecture and fashion magazines, I can readily attest to the fact that there are just as many self-righteous assholes and ego-driven maniacs in graphic design—as well as truly lovely and amazingly talented people—as there are in architecture, fashion, or any other field of design (or for that matter, any profession of any kind). And to say that architects get their kicks by mauling our cityscapes and fashion designers are only in it for the diffusion lines, yet graphic designers are merely humble servants sent to this earth to solve our problems misses the point entirely and presents such an unbelievably inaccurate view of the design world that it almost makes me doubt the veracity of the nearly 300 pages that follow.
And that’s really too bad, because there’s some good stuff in those pages. The 75 visionaries Roberts selects are great indeed, and overall I believe her aim is true: to make household names of the people whose work we see everyday, but often don’t acknowledge. Seasoned pros won’t find many surprises here, but graphic design newbies could do a lot worse than starting with designers like Ladislav Sutnar, Massimo Vignelli, Paul Rand, and Milton Glaser.
If you’re noticing a pattern here, Roberts readily admits to the whiteness and mannishness of her selections, arguing that these choices are merely a reflection of graphic design history, not personal preferences. She’s certainly correct in that, as a profession, we have a long way to go in the areas of diversity & inclusion and women’s leadership, but five women out of 75 designers in all, really? And (apart from four Japanese designers) not a single designer of color?
Might I suggest doing what most buyers of image-heavy books do and simply skip the introduction? What follows neither confuses nor infuriates—on the contrary. From Piet Zwart (b. 1885) and the early De Stijl designers to M/M Paris (est. 1992) and the heyday of great ’90s album covers, Graphic Design Visionaries introduces you to 73 other highly influential designers, with plenty of incredible work throughout to balance their personal stories with a rich visual history.