Dreaming about designer monographs

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Architects dream of their first building going up. Product designers: their first range going on-sale in the Apple store. Graphic designers? Well, perhaps designing a famous symbol, or pack, or poster. Or winning their most treasured award. But another recurring dream is the one where someone writes a bestselling book about their work.

It’s understandable, in a way – if you’ve spent 20 years honing your skills that often appear in print, a book to record it all seems fairly logical. And for decades now there’s been quite a bit of precedent; Paul Rand produced several books on his design approach and theories in his own lifetime; Fletcher Forbes Gill started their publishing lives with a small book on the things they loved (Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons) before moving on (as Pentagram) to a long series of self-penned publications, produced at roughly five year intervals as new partners pressured for their inclusion.

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Minale Tattersfield became experts at the self-penned book that expounded their theories on everything from packaging to, er, how to design a successful petrol station.

And some of these books actually sold in significant amounts. Brody and Carson proved that designers can sell books by the bucket-load – Carson’s End of Print has sold in the region of 200,000 copies, Brody’s two tomes around 120,000.

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Stefan Sagmeister’s latest is already on its third print run, having sold 40,000 and counting. Now by comparison with the bestseller lists, they aren’t huge numbers, but in ‘˜arts’ publishing those are very respectable numbers indeed.

Sagmeister isn’t without his critics though, such as Atelier Works’ Quentin Newark: ‘˜He is prolific, and I know his testicles better than my own, but has he really managed to encapsulate a way of making design as cleverly and as influentially as Bob Gill has? I can tell you right know how Bob Gill thinks, he managed to condense his approach into a powerfully effective mantra, but I have no clear sense of Sagmeister’s thinking process, other than it being a funny mangled mixture of self-disgust, bodily-processes, garbage and kitsch’.

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Recently, graphic design monographs have moved from being the publisher’s must-have to must-avoid. From the height of the trend, when the almost unknown collective Neasden Control Centre produced a book of their work only a short time out of college, the market has changed and several significant and perhaps expected tomes have never appeared. As Adrian Shaughnessy pointed out to us, ‘˜Now we have the situation where established designers, people like Mark Farrow, and North, have no monograph to their name’.

Whilst Saville’s work was finally recorded in the companion piece to his Design Museum exhibition, the other key figure in 80s design’s holy trinity, Malcolm Garrett, still waits. Garrett himself comments that ‘˜I have a physical aversion to shops like Magma, stocked to the gills with what can easily be perceived as glorified business cards, although I can’t quite put my finger on what is my actualΒ  ‘˜problem’ with that. Consequently I tend to just turn my back on the whole issue, especially when the question of a Malcolm Garrett monograph is raised. I think the title of the Garrett monograph would be ‘˜An Indefinite Article’, should it ever materialise’.

Garrett’s comment about the glorified business card of course tackles the real issue here, that these monographs have become effectively studio catalogues, funded in the knowledge that the design company itself will buy 500 copies, provide all the text and artwork, all at no charge. Most publishers would simply describe this as vanity publishing.

Quentin Newark certainly seems to think so, and longs to be amazed. ‘˜Most are no more than big brochures with a barcode. They are puff. They are put together by the designer, with an essay by a friend at the front. Not one speck of self-criticism, historic or artistic contextualisation, nothing too deep, too ambitious, nothing that might inhibit new commissions’.

‘˜Now it is so easy and cheap to produce books, and the market for design books is obviously huge, I suppose not every design monograph needs to be profoundly carefully thought about and worked at – but almost NONE of them are! They are ALL so slight, so ungenerous, like an episode, like the designer is deliberately holding back for the next book’.

Shaughnessy admits that, in a previous life, an attempt at a monograph failed. ‘˜We did one at Intro, and it did nothing for our business. In the eyes of most clients, it makes studios look far too snooty. I remember offering a copy to a potential client and he declined saying it ‘œlooked like something you’d get in Magma.’ He took a salesy-leaflet we’d produced instead’.

It seems that the books that are more likely to succeed work more as ‘˜how-to’ guidebooks (like Shaughnessy’s How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul, which has sold a hugely impressive 60,000 copies). This continues a tradition started by the likes of David Ogilvy and Wally Olins, who wrote books about their disciplines that had enough examples of their work to function as useful leave-behinds, but still kept an air of objectivity that the ‘˜me, me, me’ books can never attain. Derek Birdsall managed to document his life’s work, but within the context of book design, producing an invaluable document for print designers everywhere. Even Alan Fletcher’s magnum opus, The Art of Looking Sideways, was much more about his thinking than just a showcase for his work.

Publishers still take a punt on a subject, but with varying results. You’d think that the long-awaited record of Robert Brownjohn’s life (Sex and Typography) that accompanied his posthumous retrospective would have been a big seller but sources within the industry admitted that sales had been ‘˜tiny’. Once the few thousand hardened BJ fans in the world had bought their copy, there didn’t seem to be enough extra support to get it anywhere near a softback reprint (the true sign of a book’s popularity).

When you hear of relative failures like this, the news that the much-mooted book on John Gorham, (a hugely influential but perhaps slightly forgotten designer throughout the 70s and 80s), still searches for a publisher, come as no surprise.

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Sometimes the monograph is produced more for strategic reasons. Vince Frost self published a collection of work just as he re-located to Sydney, to act as a catalogue for an exhibition, and marking a transition from one country to another. In an intriguing departure, the most recent Pentagram book, already nicknamed The Bible, is entirely self-published, not on-sale and makes no pretence to be anything other than a thick catalogue of work, on very thin paper.

Frost himself is working on a much more up-to-date website to showcase his newer work, and this is of course where future ‘˜vanity’ projects comes rather unstuck – when a designer’s work is well catalogued on-line, the need for a printed record becomes that much less pressing. But still there are those prepared to punt, especially on whoever is dubbed the current bright new thing. So Non-format received the ‘˜early monograph’ treatment earlier this year, and Daniel Eatock’s Imprint is just arriving in the shops as we write.

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Eatock has been a very influential figure on the last decade’s design students, so for that reason alone certainly deserves a printed record, or ‘˜first chapter’, to borrow Quentin Newark’s phrase. It’s true that his work is extensively, almost obsessively, presented on his own website. So his Imprint is really for true fans, or those without an internet connection, or visitors to his up-and-coming exhibition in the states.

Some designers accept the irony, but just plough straight on. Chip Kidd blogged about his first book of work with these words: ‘˜It’s been said that most graphic design monographs are adventures in narcissism and self-absorption. That is certainly the case here, but I’m hoping it’s as much about the books and the authors as it is about me. (I know nice try).’

Most will probably continue to view them as the kind of project to be considered in the ‘˜autumn’ of a career, not the spring, since there’s a certain finality about the arrival of ‘˜your life’s work’, especially if it comes halfway through a career. As Tibor Kalman faded away, Peter Hall and Michael Bierut managed to produce a genuinely insightful book of his work that still stands as a classic in the fledgling ‘˜designer monograph’ canon.

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But many people have heard the tale of Neville Brody, who only 6 months after a career retrospective and book of work, found that work in the UK had dried up. Which suggests that, on balance, designers should wait just a bit longer to publish their magnum opuses (or magnum opera, if we’re being pedantic). Then wait a bit longer. Then wait a bit longer still’¦.