Writing about Heroes

This short piece was commissioned in 2011 but not published. It is a set of reflections on how and why the history of graphic design might be written differently.

1 Should a graphic design history be populated with people or with things? There is a growing library of synthesising accounts and a clutch of biographical studies which puts the work of graphic design heroes under the spotlight. This is a largely a nineteenth century model of history writing. Heroic lives were written in order to provide elevated models to which lesser beings could aspire. In this way, readers were addressed as potential supermen.

Turning the pages of a well informed biography of, say, Paul Rand or Saul Bass, this emulative model is still in operation. Such life stories tend to form a conventional narrative arc, usually from youthful iconoclast to venerable icon. And those biographies of figures that never existed (such as William Boyd’s Nat Tate or Christopher Wilson’s Ernst Bettler) reveal the preoccupations of the genre better than any ‘real’ historic subjects.[1]

2 We know the consequences of the heroic forms of history. Writing in is also a writing out. As Mike Featherstone has written ‘The heroic life is the sphere of danger, violence and the courting of risk whereas the everyday life is the sphere of women, reproduction and care.’[2]

3 It is striking that in his gender-inflected analysis of biography, Featherstone stresses reproduction. The preparation of words and images for reproduction is, of course, is one of the primary roles of graphic design. But how is graphic design itself reproduced? This is not an insignificant question, particularly if it is rephrased: How is it that graphic designers have long sustained a view of their purpose in social and even political terms? After all, graphic design – at least in large parts of the world – has become, as various commentators have told us, just another name for advertising dreck.

The answer to this question might be found in its ‘genes’ or, what a few years ago was called, ‘memes’. One can trace lines of inheritance – intellectual, technical and ethical – from the present to the past. I once heard the brilliant graphic designer and design historian, Richard Hollis, talk to a group of young designers about how his teacher at the Central School of Art and Design, Anthony Froshaug, worked at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, the school established by former-Bauhausler Max Bill to revive a Weimar vision. That is less than six degrees of separation.

4 Thinking designers are, it seems, attached to the histories of their field of practice for the lines of connection and association they may contain.

5 But could one write a design history without designers? Anonymous production is, of course, of the principle definitions of ephemera, a category often associated with print history. But the problem with ephemera is its marginal status. Ephemeral does not just mean short-lived: it also suggests unimportant. There are many ‘important’ graphic designs of which the matter of their authorship is one of the least interesting aspects of their history. In fact, this might be true of all graphic design. Words and images which appear in print or on screen are not, or not just, interesting for their style or the wit of their creators: their significance lies in what they do in and to the world.

6 History is conventionally organized in lines, curves, arrows and, sometimes, circles. Marx once said ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, 
so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second 
time as farce.’[3] (In these words, there is perhaps a warning about the instrumental view of graphic design history encompassed in the classroom injunction to ‘repeat after me’).

‘Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart’

If the history of graphic design is written with the aid of lines and curves, can be written graphically? What do Stefan Themerson’s ‘Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart’ (with its blanks for the reader to fill) or Bureau d’Etudes’ buzzing cartographies of power have to offer the graphic graphic design historian?[4]

7 Perhaps the line is not the answer: ‘We conceive of time as an irreversible line, whether interrupted or continuous, of acquisitions and inventions,’ Michel Serres once observed. ‘We go from generalizations to discoveries, leaving behind us a trail of errors finally corrected – like a cloud of ink from a squid. “Whew! We’ve finally arrived at the truth …”. But, irresistibly, I cannot help thinking that this idea is the equivalent of those ancient diagrams we laugh at today, which place the Earth at the center of everything, or our galaxy at the middle of the universe, to satisfy our narcissism.”[5]

8 So how might we decentre the present? Every work of graphic design made today is historical whether or not we take an interest in the history of its making. This is true in the most simple sense. The letter ‘T’ comes from the Phoenicians via Greek around 1000 BC. Its sans serif form appeared some 500 years later. It was converted into code in the late twentieth century. And its persistence is an example of what Kathleen Hayles, adopting a term from archaeology, calls seriation.[6] The past is folded into the present.

9 Eschewing heroes, the history of ‘t’ or any other graphic device would, perhaps, be an exploration of the longue durée, a prosopography of scribes or perhaps, even a branch of natural history. What is to be gained and lost in such uneventful histories?

[1] William Boyd, Nat Tate – An American Artist 1928-1960 (Cambridge, 1998); Christopher Wilson ‘”I’m Only a Designer”: The Double Life of Ernst Bettler’ in Dot.dot.dot (October 2001).

[2] Mike Featherstone, ‘The Heroic Life and Everyday Life’ in Theory, Culture & Society  (February 1992) 159-182,

[3] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) available at http://www.marxists.org

[4] ‘Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart” in Typographica,16 (1967).

[5] Michel Serres in coversation in Bruno Latour in Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (Ann Arbor, MI; 1995) pp. 48-9.

[6] Kathleen Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago, 1999) p. 17


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