The First Graphic-Design Text Book, Updated for the New Design World
As design moves into a new era, its premier reference adapts.
The 1983 debut of A History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs was the first time the words "History" and "Graphic Design" were used together in a book title. Browsing its pages crammed with black and white images of vintage posters and typography, I thought this Meggs fellow had actually made history. In fact, his was the first book about graphic design to be reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (by me, incidentally, when I was the art director there). It also triggered the publication of various "alternative" or competing histories, and Meggs even produced two revised color editions before he died from Leukemia in 2002. A History of Graphic Design had some harsh critics, yet in its current fifth edition, retitled Meggs' History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs and Alston Purvis, it remains one of the leading textbooks now in print and digital formats.
Meggs, who taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, was arguably the first educator to create a graphic-design-history curriculum that did not depend solely on anecdotal recollections. Rather, he systematically culled through art and design writings to develop an original narrative that traced the progression of a field that originated with moveable type and was headed into the digital age. With his moniker in the title of the new edition, Meggs's name is now enshrined like the encyclopedist Diderot and art historian H. W. Janson.
There was never any question that the book would have a life after Meggs's untimely death. His wife, Libby, and daughter, Elizabeth, wanted to ensure that his legacy would continue with later editions. And Purvis is certain that Meggs would have wanted this as well: "He once told me that one of his greatest pleasures in writing this book was having each ensuing edition surpass the preceding one."
A respected graphic-design historian and specialist in Dutch graphic design, Purvis was Meggs's long-time friend, though he never expected to be anointed his successor. "This was an honor and a challenge I had neither solicited nor expected," he told me. But he accepted the task of trying to stay true to Meggs's voice. "Perhaps 'voice' is not the right word," Purvis says, "but I was undoubtedly influenced by his approach and style. Some of it is in my voice, but an effort was made to respect Phil's writing and follow his example. Phil was very influential in making graphic design history a standard subject at universities, and I believe his voice will always be present."
Meggs's approach was ambitiously encompassing, but nonetheless limited given the overall breadth of the subject. Beginning his history with the origins of writing and moving chronologically through the evolution of printing and type, it was necessary to condense a considerable amount of mass communications history before getting to the heart of what we call graphic design—its commercial reasons for being, which started in the mid-19th century and progressed intensely through styles, form-givers, and media from the fin de siècle into the 20th century. Avant-garde movements and their respective influences on American and European practices is given in-depth coverage. The mid-Modern art and design aesthetics, so popular in revivals today, are also well recognized. However, when Meggs entered the '80s and '90s, the dawn of the digital age, he ran afoul of the new generation of anti-modernists. Although the second edition introduced contemporary concerns ignored in the first—modernism versus postmodernism, classicism versus grunge, progressives versus retro designers, etc.—it was obviously a difficult history to manage.
The cover designs illustrate the problem. In an attempt to represent a range of design styles, the first three covers were mired in cliché. For the Fourth Edition, when Purvis took the helm, a mural design by Herbert Matter that only incorporates writing and typography was a more striking image. "For the Fifth Edition, though, we wanted a design that displayed images as well," Purvis says. "Although the color palette may be similar to previous editions, it is not a photomontage, and the rectangular forms on the cover are based on the two-column grid used throughout the book that I feel is distinctly 'modern' in its approach."
Critics of Meggs have cited his Eurocentric focus in the first three editions. But Purvis maintains that "many important areas that were omitted from previous editions are now in this edition." He says that sections on contemporary Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American, and Iranian graphic design have been greatly expanded or included for the first time. Important figures such as industrial and product designer Raymond Loewy, and subjects such as the Spanish Civil War, are now addressed as well. "Many images have been, whenever possible, updated and improved," he says. "New digital type designs by designers such as Matthew Carter, Gerard Unger, Petr van Blokland, Erik Spiekermann, and Nadine Chahine are now part of Chapter 24." That final chapter includes sections about design for portable devices, typography and the built environment, and the letterpress revival.
Arguably, graphic-design history is entering a new phase, more than ever integrated with media other than just print. How this is addressed in the new edition is important for the future of historical design study. "It is indeed becoming more intricate and integrated with other fields," Purvis says. "Advancements in software, processor speeds, and the continued proliferation of digital devices will only make it easier for more complex visual solutions to reach a wider audience faster than ever before. The printing industry is undergoing drastic changes. Projects that in the past would require weeks can now be completed in days with little difference in quality. Noteworthy work is being done on a daily basis throughout the world. This is just one of the reasons why a book such as this, that collects/records these experiences, remains relevant."
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The new edition address the digital age, but ends on a section called "Revival," a perplexing choice given he future direction of graphic design. "I realized it would be controversial," Purvis explains. "Initially I had planned to conclude the book with 'the digital as a gateway to the future' which, of course, in many ways it is. But there has been of late a revival, not only of letterpress, but a rediscovery, so to speak, of working with one's hands. In my opinion, we are not so far away from Gutenberg as one might think. Perhaps this conclusion was a kind of reminder. The title of this chapter is 'The Digital Revolution—and Beyond.' Beyond can imply many things, including a return to traditional and time-honored processes. It seemed a logical conclusion to the book, as everything in design—as in life—comes full circle."
Another paradox noted by Purvis in his new introduction is that some designers who "deserve" to be included are not because their image rights were denied. Does accurate history depend on getting releases signed? "No," Purvis insists, "but copyright infringement is increasingly a major issue, especially when seeking image rights for both printed and digital distribution. As the book is now published in several digital formats that can be read on a Kindle, Nook, iPad, or other similar devices, we needed more comprehensive forms of permission. Not all designers, or those who hold the copyright for images, were willing to give permission for all modes of distribution. But this has involved only a very small percentage, far less than one percent."
So is a sixth edition in the cards? "Work on this book is never done, and inspiration for future editions comes from new findingsbe the work new or old," Purvis says. If there is a next edition, I wonder if the "beyond" section will be about revivals or revolutions. That's the mystery of history.