Implying you can tell the “whole story” of design is a bold claim. The editors of a new book from Thames & Hudson, Design: The Whole Story, have certainly set themselves an ambitious task, creating a large volume that spans every design discipline from typography to graphics, and product to vehicle design.
Naturally, that means that for every advocate of each discipline, there are also some glaring omissions, but on a more positive note, also some interesting new stories behind much-loved images and objects. How do you even begin putting something like this together? “With difficulty,” according to the book’s general editor, Elizabeth Wilhide.
“We tried to be as comprehensive as we could, but inevitably there are going to be gaps,” she explains. “We could go into several volumes really, but its not a cursory look at the subject by any means. We wanted a broad cross-section of as many disciplines as possible, not just in product design which is usually the focus, but graphics and ‘inventions’—even the Post It note’s in there.”
As with so many design-related collections—festivals, exhibitions, books—it feels that graphics has been a little left behind, but as an overview of the most important movements in graphic design, and in pinpointing the creations that have impacted the discipline, it’s impressive.
The book presents key movements and designers chronologically, aiming to show how these related to their cultural, economic, and technical contexts. We start in 1707 with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, and end up bang up to date with an examination on designing for the public realm, and some snapshots of recent 3D developments and their use in product design.
The first entry graphics-wise is given to the Bodoni typeface, created in 1785. Moving through some 19th century wallpaper designs, we arrive at an interesting exploration of the emergence of brands as we know them today. It turns out the first advertising agency opened as long ago as 1786 in London by a man called William Taylor, who worked as an ad man for various printers. His American counterpart, realtor, and businessman, Volley B Palmer, set up the first US ad agency in 1842. But the first registered trademark appeared way before these guys—according to Design: The Whole Story, the first trademark legislation was passed by English Parliament in 1266, requiring all bakers to use a distinctive mark for their bread.
The tome is full of interesting snippets: I had no idea Aubrey Beardsley, prolific illustrator and co-founder and art editor of The Yellow Book died in 1898 aged just 26; or that Coca Cola’s flowing logotype was simply based on the handwriting taught in US schools in the late 19th century; or how World War One marked the end of Art Nouveau’s fashionability, when these graver global issues made it seem “overly elaborate.”
The Revolutionary Graphics chapter is one of the most fascinating, diligently dissecting Lazar Malkovich Lissikzke’s Lithograph 1919 Soviet propaganda poster, ominously titled Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. The 20th century explores the usual suspects, and some less usual ones; Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Magazine; the Bauhaus; Chanel No. 5 and its sans serif font—“not a widespread fashion in Europe” when it launched in 1921, we’re told; Futura; the 1933 London Underground Map; the Swiss International Typographic Style.
Near the end of the chronology, digital innovations naturally make the entrance, including the game Minecraft. “The huge step change at the moment is looking at artificial intelligence, and where that will take us,” says Wilhide. “When we look back it was so recent that we have all had mobile phones, but now everyone has them. It’s not really possible to imagine what the impact of evolving technologies will be.”
What’s interesting to see is how technologies over the last 300 years not only brought about graphic design as a discipline, but shaped what designers could do with it, whether through introducing halftone or the emergence of software able to handle complex imagery. It would be interesting to see what such a volume will contain in 300 years from now—if books still exist at all.