The History of Graphic Design Weighs 10 Pounds and Has Handles

The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design compiles 500 artifacts into a reference book—er, box.

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If you're old enough to remember 45rpm records, you'll probably recall the carrying case designed to take them to slumber or dance parties. If you don't remember, then think of a nicely decorated archival storage box at Hold Everything or the Container Store. Now picture the inside of the box containing more than 500 double-sided sheets of quality card stock on which images are printed in full color. The box, which weighs more than 10 pounds, also comes with removable cloth handles for easy transport.

This is what the latest encyclopedia of design history, The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design, looks like. Inside the box is the entire panoply of the world's graphic design icons reduced down to an essential 500 artifacts—posters, logos, books, type specimens, etc.—each reproduced on a separate 9 x 12 card, accompanied by a short historical text. A radical departure from traditional bookmaking, it pays tribute to the power of design both through its contents and, well, its design.

"This is a celebration of the power of graphic design through 500 examples, and it shows that any piece of information, if well designed, works better."

The Phaidon Graphic Design Archive by Phaidon's editors and designed by Stephan Müller, complements the 2009 Phaidon Design Classics books that covered industrial and product design. Graphic design, however, demanded a more radical interactive solution. "We had a lot of discussions on how to organize the content," explained Emilia Terragni, editorial director at Phaidon. "Someone said it was better chronologically, someone by designer, someone by category, someone by design title, and others even by who commissioned it. We then realized that it all depends on how and for what purpose you use it. And that with the cards format the reader would be able to organize in the way he/she wants to." So now the archive comes with 15 predetermined categories: Advertising, Book, Book cover, Film Graphics, Identity, Information Design, Logo, Magazine and Newspaper, Money, Packaging Graphics, Poster, Record and CD Cover, Symbol and Typeface, all indexed according to creator/designer, studio or client, and date. Within this structure, users are invited to create their own organization using blank divider cards that come with the box.

For the archive concept to work well, it was necessary to have a large image on the front and explanatory text with additional images on the back. "When we started to design the book," Terragni says, "we realized that if [the pages were] bound, we would have ended up with the strange situation of having the back of an entry on the left page, together with the main image of another entry on the right page, while in reality, each entry was a kind of separate object." This format caters to certain creative and educational usages. "I can see people flick through, and pick up things that attract their attention," she says. "I can see people put them on their walls, or their desks to be inspired by, or use them in presentations, lectures, seminars as example of excellent design." Of course, unless the user is especially neat, the process of refiling could become a problem—and god help the user that misplaces the Guttenberg Bible, or worse, the El Lissitzky Pelikan Ink advertisement.

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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