Design for the 21st Century
Editors: Charlotte and Peter Friell
Design for the 21st Century' is a valuable addition
to your bookshelf, but not perhaps for reasons
the publisher or editors
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
• examples of recent work
• biographical and contact information
• the answer to the question "What is
your vision for the future of graphic design?"
'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out of date as new trends and designers make their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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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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