November 2012

Rebecca Silber


The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design

I fell in love with The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design when it was still on its way to my doorstep, merely an obsessively monitored tracking number on the UPS website. Once it arrived, I eagerly lifted it from its shipping box, even more smitten -- with the newly-printed papery fragrance, its glorious heft -- a treasure box complete with a nylon handle. And the bounty. This is most definitely more of an archive than a book. Inside the box are five hundred twelve-by-ten-inch double-sided heavy stock full color cards. On one side, each sheet has an image of an important graphic design -- nothing has been left out -- books, typefaces, posters, magazines, logos, album covers, advertisements, and even currency are included. The backside, in addition to a well-written history of each design, is also printed with accompanying images.

As a graphic designer and someone interested in art history, I know that there are different approaches one can take when researching graphic design. Philip Meggs's History of Graphic Design, a valuable and more traditionally academic resource for graphic designers, is shelved on one end of the spectrum. On the other end, there are online resources, such as Pinterest, not specifically created for designers, but becoming a relied upon source for "collecting" design project-specific inspiration. The gray area between these two extremes is muddled with image compilations of various varieties, bound, digital -- some helpful, others not to a graphic designer, or really anybody looking for design inspiration and information. In publishing this collection, Phaidon, self-described as the world's premier publisher of books on the visual arts, has created a completely different resource.

You may wonder why anyone would need a rather pricey ($235.00 retail) twenty-five-pound file box full of graphic design imagery and history, especially in a time when technology moves so quickly. Why purchase a giant carton of printed design examples when they could certainly all be found online? At its essence, it's quite fun to sit down and look through this archive. A romantic evening in the living room, fire burning in the fireplace, glass of wine, The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design. Yeah, well, I said it was love. There's something special about actually sitting on the floor with this large box, pulling out printed cards with designs that span from the birth of the printing press all the way up to the present, reading them, sorting them (they arrive chronologically, but pre-labeled divider cards are included to help sort by genre, if preferred), spreading them out, and putting some aside for a project -- or just because they are particularly appealing. Because the archive is so accessible, it could even be an excellent way to show non-designers the enormous breadth of graphic design. You cannot have this tactile experience online; it's not the same to "pin" ideas off the Internet. And that's kind of wrong anyhow, as these are print designs, meant to be seen on paper.

The editors of Phaidon have successfully gathered, from several different countries, the best graphic design of the past six hundred years, and promise to release more cards in the future to keep the archive current. It is not easy to choose favorite examples to discuss. If I could, I would list all of the included designs. There are many sheets featuring typefaces, including one of my favorites, Futura, a sans serif face designed by Paul Renner in 1927. There are fashion-forward designs from companies such as Chanel, Vogue, Shiseido, and Harper's Bazaar. There are logos, of course! GE, Braun, Esso, Volkswagen -- lots and lots of logos. Phaidon has even included book designs, among them, the literary journal Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. Also incorporated into the assortment are typographic successes, one of which is a rather beautiful calligram poem designed by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1918, titled "Il Pleut." Apollinaire combined poetry with the fine arts and formatted this poem to run down the page in five vertical-ish lines that make the words look like rain running down a window. That one, actually, may be my favorite.

Phaidon's Archive of Graphic Design is more of a need than a want for anyone in the design profession; it's truly a valuable resource. This is an anthology of so many great designers' creativity and successes that it goes beyond being something pretty to look at; it is an inspirational resource for graphic designers. Of course, it could also be fun to just have -- a conversation piece, a very heavy coffee table "book" that, due to its heft, probably shouldn't actually sit on a coffee table. The diversity of the contents in this archive ensures that there is something to trigger your imagination. Add it to your holiday wish list, or surprise your favorite creative person with it. This is a gift that almost certainly will not be returned.

The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design
ISBN: 978-0714848679
1000 pages