Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish, Graphic Design History

Review by Barbara Rau Kyle
University of Central Florida

Drucker, Johanna, and Emily McVarish. Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.

[1] Situating their work in a cultural context, Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish offer, in their Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, a purposeful as well as comprehensive history of graphic design. "Graphic design is never just there" (xiii, emphasis in original), but is the end product of stylistic choices made by the designer. The authors encourage a close look at the criteria for these choices from two separate but overlapping angles. Starting with the observation that "every graphic artifact constitutes an exchange among individuals, groups, or entities" (xxix), they remind the reader of the power of design. As Maria Engberg notes in her review of Drucker's 2009 Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing, Drucker's work is "based in the realization that a "visual form does something, rather than that it is something" (Engberg). Graphic elements, along with the overt textual message with which they are often coupled, exert influence on the audience, whether intended or unintended. At the same time, design is a cultural product, and its implied messages are influenced by both social and technological forces operating within the culture. Drucker persuades designers to see more clearly what they do.

[2] Drucker begins her diachronic study with pre-script graphics and works her way through their development into pictograms and, eventually, script. Script is visual communication, inseparable from graphics in its most basic aspects of font, spacing, and emphasis, as well as the medium upon which it is inscribed (xxvii). The advent of print, and more recently, digitization, has influenced both style and dissemination; their broad reach has had additional impact on style (xxv), as the communication process backloops and the needs of the expanded audience affect both the style and the message itself. Graphic devices are script's vehicles of representation, but "pure" graphics, from medieval illuminations, through nineteenth-century posters, to contemporary website graphics, have been regularly paired with text to contribute to its message. As Drucker's history enters the modern period, the graphic element once more predominates; text is often subservient to graphics, which are often stand-alone. As Paleolithic humanity knew, we recognize that information can be communicated solely by graphics, and sometimes more effectively.

[3] Throughout graphics history, the identity of the designers, the tools available, and the stylistic selections they have made reflect individual and cultural attitudes toward knowledge, authority, and audience (xxii). Are the designers individuals or groups? Are they understood as tradespeople or artists? Do they produce their work more or less independently, or by government , religious, or other authority, and with what vested interests? What are the audiences' interests and needs? Cultural factors such as economic systems, politics, and institutions subtly and overtly determine communication styles as well as the information to be communicated, and Drucker teases out many of the "ideological bases that are concealed by a conventional history" (xxviii).

[4] This reader wishes she'd done more. Drucker's history tracks the historical roles of the graphics workforce, particularly the ordinarily overlooked laborers who contributed to graphics production, and the various social classes who were its consumers and contributed toward determining what was being produced and how. Some mentions, however, seem peripheral, such as references to colonialism and the slave trade, and it is left to the reader to decipher what effect they may have had on graphics, and the effect graphics have had on the individuals involved. Detail is also wanting regarding parallels in the wider sphere of cultural production. Are connections to be found, for example, between graphics' use of white space and the prevailing public or intellectual thought of the various periods? Drucker remarks, in a medieval figure caption, that the horror vacui concept extended to the design "impulse . . . to fill graphic space" (58), but the reader waits over 200 pages for another brief note, on modernism's use of negative space in the International Style (265).

[5] Drucker carefully traces the interaction between fine and graphics art, but uncovers little on the relationships between literature and graphics, despite her many examples of illustrated texts. She cites numerous cases of graphic use in stimulating social and political change, and is thorough in discussing its monumental impact on advertising and journalism, but does not, otherwise, sufficiently address why or how certain kinds of images and graphic codes influenced cultural production and contemporary thought. The Arts and Crafts movement, for example, was a reaction to industry's influence in the nineteenth century (163), but what social effects did it have? If these were purposeful omissions in the interest of rejecting the modernist "notion of history as a narrative of causal forces" (314) Drucker is less successful in avoiding causal speculation—and more satisfying to the reader—in her discussions of current culture than in those of the past.

[6] In graphic presentation, Drucker and McVarish neatly practice what they preach, and their graphics devices echo and augment their textual arguments. Particularly, they demonstrate one of their main premises, that while graphics style is dependent on a host of cultural forces, it is also directly "related to the ways technology develops" and becomes part of that cultural sphere (xxv). The design of their text reflects the current digital impact on even printed material. Key ideas connect text to the multitude of images in header-level red Helvetica runners that span the centers of most pages like television news flashes. The boldfacing of key terms function like hyperlinks to the substantial glossary; the extensive figure captions operate in similar fashion, but to less success, as they imply tangentiality of material that is central to the main text. But design has historically become increasingly user-driven (334); the format places readers in charge of the information they will receive, and in a display that appeals and that readers have come to expect.

[7] The advertising industry has long used graphics for its appeal, and Drucker devotes many pages to its influence on graphic design. Judith Williamson observed in 2000 that advertising appropriates art. Via the graphic tools of color and composition, visual art elicits in its viewer an emotion that suggests an idea. (30-31). Drucker writes that "graphic designers had always been aware that display was part of content" (335), conscious that her critical history introduces nothing new in that regard, but in her comprehensive packaging, she underlines the crucial role of graphics in communication, and invites designers to assume the responsibility they have in the shaping of knowledge (335).

Works Cited

Engberg, Maria. "Speculative Aesthetics: Whereto the Humanities?" Electronic Book Review. Creative Commons, 5 Feb. 2011. Web. 15 Feb. 2011.

Williamson, Judith "A Currency of Signs." Advertising and Society Review 1.1 (2000). Project Muse. Web. 29 Nov 2010.