The Magazine of the Usability Professionals' Association
Reviewed by Aaron Marcus
Graphic Design: A New History
By Stephen J. Eskilson
Yale University Press, 2007
Graphic Design Solutions
By Robin Landa
Cengage Learning, 2011 (4th edition)
Graphic design is a fundamental part of all computer-mediated visual communication. Yet, the topic is often unexplored by UX professionals. Graphic design is not “fine art” or “pure art;” it is a practical applied art. Fortunately, two compendia, each more than 400 pages long, provide detailed surveys of the history, terminology, and practice of this discipline: Eskilson’s Graphic Design: A New History (2007), and Landa’s Graphic Design Solutions (2011). Each takes a different approach to explaining what this robust profession is all about.
Graphic Design: A New History
Eskilson’s book starts with a careful examination of the origins of the graphic design profession, from Gutenberg’s book design in the 1400s to the expansion of commerce and the need for advertising posters in the 1800s. At that time, many famous painters and graphic artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha, involved themselves in creating posters. Eskilson’s well-written text and excellent color illustrations show the variety of Art Nouveau graphic design across Europe.
The twentieth century brought a shift toward technology and saw the rise of Dadaism, Futurism, Cubism, and Art Deco. Each of these visual arts movements influenced graphic designers. Eskilson further chronicles the changes in graphic design as socioeconomic, political, and technological revolutions, and World War II altered the media, the messages, and the audiences for visual communication.
The book concludes with postwar developments: the rise of magazines, international corporate styles and identities, expressive styles, and postmodern and new media, including graphic design for the web, graphic novels, modern video, and, yes, even the typography of email.
The author also takes time to discuss many influential graphic designers and studios, especially modern ones like Stanley Morison, Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Push Pin Studios, Wolfgang Weingart, Tibor Kalman, and architect Robert Venturi. If these names are not known to you, rest assured they are worth a little research.
My only quibbles are the sparse mention of contributions from women, non-European/U.S. designers, and the world of user interfaces/user-centered design. However, even with these omissions, the book is a useful summary of centuries of work and represents a laudable achievement.
Graphic Design Solutions
Landa’s book, in its fourth edition, takes us in a completely different direction, packing about the same number of pages into a book half as thick. The text type is smaller and the page layouts more lively and varied, although at times overly complex. You can tell this is a “hip” book because it provides environmental statistics on how the recycled paper printing has saved trees and eliminated air emissions and solid waste!
This is not a history book, although it presents a timeline that begins in 1890 and takes the reader through today. Landa starts out by asking fundamental questions about the profession: With what are we dealing? What is the nature and impact of visual communication? Why does design matter? What are the ethics of design? The discussion of this last question is brief, and might not satisfy ethicists, but at least she asks the question. On all topics, Landa points us to further resources.
The book introduces the formal elements of art and basic principles of design. The many visual examples are taken from a wide range of contemporary examples, including websites and CD covers.
The following chapters delve deeply into typography, the design process, visualization, visual composition, even storytelling. Many of these chapters include case studies and guest essays on topics that highlight the philosophy and principles being discussed. Alas, this book says not a word about testing with the intended audience, only advising one to “check with the client,” a typical oversight that UX designers will be quick to discern.
The final chapters discuss ways to apply graphic design to posters and publications, branding and visual identity, packaging, corporate communications, advertising, and web design. Mobile screens make no appearance, but that does not diminish the significant content from all of the other areas covered.
Each of these documents is a significant contribution to understanding the history, breadth, and depth of the profession of graphic design. They are complementary in nature, and any dedicated UX professional would do well to consider having the appropriate library acquire each of them. They will enrich one’s understanding and practice. In addition, each is a pleasure to read-—in short bursts or dedicated study.UX
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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 1, 2012.
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