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The Creative Life

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Detailed Description and Review

Graphic Design for the 21st Century 4 out of 5 stars

Publisher: TASCHEN
Editors: Charlotte and Peter Friell

book cover 'Graphic Design for the 21st Century' is a valuable addition to your bookshelf, but not perhaps for reasons the publisher or editors intended.

Detailed Description

From the Publisher

Graphics from around the globe. Covering a vast range of cutting-edge graphic design, with politically charged anti-commercial work placed side by side with Nike's latest ads, this book presents a sweeping look at today's most progressive graphic trends-from signage and packaging to branding and web-design.

100 designers and firms listed alphabetically

Entries include:

• examples of recent work
• biographical and contact information
• the answer to the question "What is your vision for the future of graphic design?"


4 out of 5 stars


'Graphic Design for the 21st Century' is a typical representative of the kind of book TASCHEN produces. The book is presented in three languages (English, French and German), and from its high quality heavy weight paper to its generous 634 pages adorned with copious 'white space' and beautifully printed images, this publication demands the attention of anyone who regards images as significant.


The book begins with an introduction by its editors Charlotte and Peter Fiell, and features 100 graphic designers in alphabetical order. Each designer is profiled with entries including: contact details; a biography; professional experience; awards and clients; and enjoys four pages of high quality reproductions of their designs.

Producing a publication with such an all encompassing and authoritative title as 'Graphic Design for the 21st Century' is a risky strategy as the book purports to cover 'avant-guarde graphics from around the globe'. Not only is the book vulnerable to the charge that it soon becomes out of date as new trends and designers make their mark, but more significantly, the book invites criticism relating to its politics of selection, and its stance on the ethics of graphic design.

Defining graphic design

It's worthwhile to define the phrase 'graphic design' here as it's often mistakenly assumed to be the same as illustration or art. Graphic design is the act of creating a layout from text and graphical elements using a variety of print, electronic, and film media to meet a client's needs.

There are however many instances in the book where art and illustration are presented as if they were graphic design. These works are often referred to as 'projects', and are not commissioned by a client, but rather undertaken by the designer as a creative journey. The editors justify their inclusion as evidence of the blurring of interdisciplinary boundaries. Clarity is replaced by a vague generality, and the focus of the book suffers considerably.

Making the world a better place

The book's title might be regarded as a manifesto statement. The first double page image that appears in the body of the book presents a large billboard with the slogan 'Designers, stay away from corporations that want you to lie for them'. There are many instances in the book when the client is presented as representative of a corporate culture that is responsible for the ills of the world.

The introduction by the book's editors assert the special responsibility they view graphic designers have 'not just to respond to the needs of their clients, but also to those of society as a whole...'. The introduction ends by calling the graphic designer to 'tip the balance from the commercial to the social...'. How this might be achieved is not touched on and appears to contradict the primary function of the graphic designer which is to satisfy the needs of their client in a commercial context.

A question of ethics

The editors of 'Graphic Design for the 21st Century' place great emphasis upon ethical responsibility, and by so doing, raise considerable doubts about the validity of their choice of content.

Graphic design is amoral. People however may have a moral component that they may choose to act by. The individual designer may well reject certain commissions on ethical grounds, but that's very different than asserting graphic designers en masse should make the world a better place.

The problem with editors making statements like '...perhaps it is now time for practitioners to question the ethical basis of the work they produce', is that they seed numerous questions about the ethical, religious, or spiritual framework(s) this better place is to be inspired or constrained by. If these issues, once raised, are not adequately addressed, or an ethical position is not clearly stated, words become no more than hollow rhetoric, and the book's authority is seriously undermined.

The world we see

An illustration of how the editor's ethical 'position' devalues the authority of the book is found on the inner sleeve, which presents a design from the 'Demented Forever' series by Büro Für Form created for their client Erste Liga, a Munich club. This design features a heavily stylised woman in combat gear, and a naked woman astride the bonnet of a red coupé car, facing away but with her head turned towards the viewer, eyes closed, and with a zip motif running along her body. The club logo and tag line 'Heart Beat' is positioned in an explicitly erotic position. No references are made to the male body in this image where the viewer is in a position of dominance.

The editors are happy with the selection of this image which they view as chosen on purely aesthetic grounds. However, presenting any representational image of this kind has an ethical, political, and social dimension. To view this image purely in terms of its aesthetic rather than regarding it as fuelling the common representation of woman as predominantly sexual objects, fails to acknowledge the ethical dimension of the graphic designer's work.

Interestingly the image scrutinised above is not representative of the book's content overall, and acts as an effective teaser for its probable and dominant male readership.

The landscape of cultural capital

The body of the book contains 100 five page designer portfolios, a third of whom live in London. The geographical breakdown of where designers hail from significantly undermines the book's tag line '100 of the world's best graphic designers' as there is but one representative from South America, and non from Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe. These editorial omissions contribute to the continuing myth that the centre of creative excellence in the field of graphic design is concentrated in the Western metropolitan capitals. The book reads like an assertion of euro-centric cultural status. It's as if no graphic design takes place outside these havens of good taste and culture.

By restricting the number of designers to 100 rather than broadening the scope and ambition of the book to include five times that count, the publisher squanders what was a great opportunity to celebrate the rich diversity of graphic design that can be found in all corners of the globe. There's little doubt the featured designers will be wringing their hands with delight at the significant exposure they enjoy, but on closer inspection, the assertion that the book represents the best in Avant-guarde graphic design does not hold much water given its limited reach.

Lastly, the scant inclusion of graphic design as applied to digital interfaces and packaging is a pointer not only to the conservative nature of the editor's choices, but also the book's failure to adequately present the most prolific in contemporary graphic design.

Despite everything...

Despite the deep flaws that characterise this book, it is full of wonderful images. I do not view the images as representative of all that is new and good in the world of graphic design, but there is little doubt this is a valuable source for those who practice, study, and enjoy the craft of graphic design.

The response to how designers view the future of their industry is also enlightening. Not that the designers have much to say. Indeed most entries read like the ramblings of students with little insight yet much ego. The entries are enlightening for what is omitted: apart from a few notable exceptions, the entries are unfocussed and surprisingly inarticulate. As representatives of an industry whose very reason for being is to communicate effectively, their words show much of what we see on billboards, magazines, the Internet, film, and countless other mediums across the globe: the story of the emperor's new clothes is played out ten thousand times and more.

'Graphic Design for the 21st Century' is a testament to how art and design is used to solidify the assertion of what good taste is without any articulate justification of that taste. The images are left to speak for themselves, and unfortunately the emphasis upon personalities as opposed to enlightening the reader about the techniques and mediums used, devalues the usefulness of the work as a reference or resource. That said, the thoughtful reader can examine their own motivations and design values by observing the success and failings of others.

'Graphic Design for the 21st Century' is a valuable addition to your bookshelf, but not perhaps for reasons the publisher or editors

Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

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