Unreliable Narrators and the Histories of Graphic Design.

An essay by Christopher Swift

When I taught courses in graphic design history, I would start the first day by getting either chalk or a whiteboard marker and tapping out dozens and dozens of dots in a big oblong cloud onto the appropriate substrate. I would then draw an x and y-axis saying this represents time, and this represents things that have happened. I would then connect dots moving along the y-axis, creating a zig-zag of connected dots. “This is how we tell our stories about history,” I would say. We connect some of the dots to fit the narrative we like; we ignore the vast number of remaining dots and only pick the ones the conform to our ideas about the world. The dots, in my mind, were real events that had happened, or very close to what had happened. The dots, I thought at the time, were real, but the connections we made between them were the fantasy, the narrative, the lies we told ourselves about ourselves to make sense of the world and the things that had come before us. I have always looked at the history of graphic design as a terribly flawed story that connected a tiny and specific group of dots across time while excluding the vast majority of stories, events, ideas, and people. I was critical, not of the reported events, those seemed reliable, but of how they were interpreted—the statements of fact that seemed to ignore the complex and meaningful stories behind the matter of fact statements of the author. I accepted the events, but I questioned the conclusions.

While researching for other essays I’ve written this semester on the history of graphic design, as I was looking at primary sources (like a real academic) to avoid allowing my patchwork of assumptions to fill in the narrative plot holes, I realized that I was wrong about a lot of the things that I “knew.” Sometimes I was completely off, sometimes I was in the ballpark at least—attributing a motive to someone’s actions that were likely not there, but the people they hung out with did have those motives. But getting it wrong is part of learning, questioning our assumptions, our facts, our sources is how we get it not right, but maybe a different kind of wrong. And those different wrong ways help us understand that there is no right, just lots of ways to understand a thing or an idea—and maybe that we always have to keep trying.

This essay is about a bunch of things I tried to write, but when I began researching the “facts” my initial thesis or idea was simply a bad one. This forced me to think about what that meant about how I understand the narrative of graphic design history, a narrative I had been telling myself (and my students) for years, not in a daily mantra kind of telling myself, but in a way that informed new ideas and information, colored how that new data had passed through my specific historical lens to be made into something new and different.

Grand national narratives, centuries-old myths, and the little stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world—these are related through the act of repetition. Telling a story out loud or in print, if repeated often enough, becomes a very common substitute for the verifiable facts that we hope and assume our histories are based on. Watson and Crick discovering the structure of DNA, Gutenberg inventing the printing press, the landing at Plymouth Rock, or how cool I am pretty sure I was in high school[1], these are narratives that persist, even when challenged with solid evidence to the contrary, because of the deep grooves in our history that repetitions of these stories has dug.

For every story that we repeat because it sounds nice or fits a larger narrative we like, there are a thousand stories we have ignored. Stories that challenge the dominant narratives, that ask us to question our firmly held beliefs, either personal or ideological, are easier to ignore than to face and attempt to answer or fold into our world and into our expansive narratives. Some of the earliest heroes celebrated in graphic design’s history, William Morris and the members of the Arts and Crafts movement, are held up as pure and honest, as paragons; their flaws and humanity are ignored to give us a better story. The contexts of their lives are ignored to tell a simple and smooth story about aesthetics and form; the acceptable norms of the era, omitted from the story, warp the meanings of the words and actions. They file down very essential edges and make an importantly complicated narrative into a children’s story about wallpaper and an elegant disgust at the excess of Victorian aesthetics.

Some stories we repeat, others we erase with omission and time, and others we simply do not want to look at—they are often painful, or they challenge something so fundamental to our modern understanding of the world and undo so many of the knots that tie our stories to the larger narrative that we close our eyes and hope they will go away. And sadly, with omission and time, they might in fact go away. The story of the Gutenberg bible and the first printing press is a simple narrative about invention and genius, about a transformative technology that changes the entire world, about the impact that one person can have on the world as a whole. It is fundamental to Western history generally and graphic design history particularly, and it is mostly all untrue. The less simple version of the story is messy, it is contradictory, it is unclear in many ways, it is full of questions and nuance, and it is crucial that it be known. The traditionally told story about Gutenberg and the printing press is full of holes, missing threads and leaps of logic that, when questioned, seems obviously problematic. For the tale to be told as it has been we must ignore that paper existed throughout North Africa and Asia for centuries, that the main library in Córdoba, Spain built in 970 AD had 440,000 books (more than all of France at the time), that movable woodblock printing had existed for centuries in China and Korea, that the European printing press was clearly just a modified grape/wine press, or that Korean printers had been using movable metal type to print for at least 77 years, and that there was not a huge amount of cultural trade between Asia, North Africa, and Western Europe. But the easier, traditional version of printing history is still told in schools in many places. I was taught this in the early 2000s, even though the simplistic narrative has been very clearly disproven.

Meggs’ History of Graphic Design was the first design history book I ever read. It is a very good catalog of a complex topic that tries very hard to make a clear narrative connecting cave paintings to April Greiman and everything in between. Meggs seems to attempt a neutral reporting style of writing, something like a crystal goblet, a frame so thin as to try and be invisible and hold the facts without comment. This neutrality, while often well-meaning, does not exist in any real way and is more likely to repeat an obscured but very specific world view without understanding that it is doing so. What this history book does is a very important first step in creating a messy and human telling of the history of graphic design. It tells the story the way we are most comfortable hearing it, it tells the story how we want others to know it, it is myth-making and only reveals the uncomfortable parts that we are comfortable telling. Given its status as the iconic collection of the cannon, it’s true and neutral telling, and its scope, Meggs’ work will always be the story of the dominant ideology that we should always be looking to subvert, or at least complicate.

My own interest in a richer history that subverted the dominant narrative has also led to problems related to poor research and too easily assuming that Meggs was likely on the wrong side of most stories. I have often done what I would criticize Meggs for, I would use my patchwork of knowledge and research to create a narrative that I thought was in some way better, usually at the expense of the canon and the dominant narratives we work with currently, and of Meggs.

Much of my thinking about Meggs was focused on his chapter on the Arts and Crafts movement. His inclusion of a quote by Walter Crane in his critique of the Century Guild always struck me as interesting: “Walter Crane, always ready with an unequivocal viewpoint, declared that Beardsley’s Morte d’Arthur had mixed the medieval spirit of Morris with a weird ‘Japanese-like spirit of deviltry and the grotesque,’ which Crane thought fit only for the opium den” (Meggs, 162). It was incredibly racist and seemed to highlight a generational pendulum swing that only further highlighted the xenophobic attitude of the Arts and Crafts movement. For years I accepted Meggs’ narrative about Crane because it reinforced my patchwork notion that the Arts and Crafts movement was not reacting to technological changes and their impact on the quality of work in England, but that they were, in fact, nationalist bigots reacting to the cultural impacts of empire and the changes that had brought. While doing research on Crane and going back to read the primary sources, I found that oddly Meggs had used that quote without any useful context. Crane is an Orientalist and bigot that is true, but no more than most of the era. His full quote is, in fact, praising Beardsley and somehow not as awful as Meggs presents. I had not thought to question the “facts” of the story, just the interpretation, and conclusions. I had not considered that misstated or missing context could further a narrative as much as inclusion or omission of the same content.

“Paper came to Europe in 1280 AD,” a statement of fact from Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. I was sure that this absurd “fact” about the origins of paper and its use and importance in European history was how Meggs had both introduced the technology and erased its origins in China and its long history in Asia and North Africa. At boring dinner parties with other graphic designers I would tell this anecdote as proof of the awfulness of the Meggs’ book. I proposed it as an essay topic that I was sure would align with my interest in subverting our dominate narratives. The essay was short-lived. I began researching Meggs’ claim and quickly and easily discovered that I was completely wrong about what he had said. His work on the topic includes an interesting history on the origins of paper and its migration across Asia and North Africa. The simple story I had made up or misremembered fit the larger narrative that I wanted to tell, it was easy to repeat and was never challenged, and it was wrong. Meggs’ focus is Eurocentric and excludes any significant exploration of the hundreds of years of design that went with the story of paper, but it is not the flippant and dismissive story that I repeatedly told.

John Baskerville was the topic of another of these dead-end gotcha essays. In the chronological history of type design, the Transitional step, which featured Baskerville prominently, always seemed like too convenient a story. The needed steps between Old Style type design and Moderns seemed like a large hole in the record, a shift in thinking that lacked a compelling narrative to explain it. The need for the story to make sense, the need to move the plot along, to get us from Caslon to Bodoni seemed to need its missing link. Enter the Transitional type style and its famous figurehead John Baskerville. His type designs were unpopular at the time, according to Meggs people complained it gave them headaches to read, but they were also so similar to Caslon’s Old English style designs that Benjamin Franklin famously (famously in terms of graphic design history) switched them, and no one noticed. After his death, Baskerville’s type was in archives for a hundred years, with no one using them. That this would be the figure in history that was the face of Transitional style type design made me unsure about the historical value, importance, and accuracy of that narrative. Baskerville seemed like a convenient answer invented after the fact to help move the story along. Type classification is an unreliable story that is has been told and retold to highlight different winners and losers over time to value and diminish different people and crafts to fit various interests. It is an untrustworthy historical tale. Once again, I did not question the veracity of the “facts,” just the reading of them. I was certain that the flaw was that Baskerville was not what was claimed, and that meant something larger and more important to the history of type design. But inside of the model that I had accepted as accurate, John Baskerville is not the only Transitional type designer in that chronological category. Even if Baskerville’s importance was overstated (for which I have no real evidence), many others existed.

In another failed but revived and revised essay I wrote about the problems that racism created in our modern reading and understanding of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. My initial thesis was built once again on an acceptance of the facts, as stated in Meggs and others, but with a new critique of the conclusions drawn from them. Victorian England was a huge empire that was built on a racist colonial impulse shared by most of the English population. Arts and Crafts members like Walter Crane made very clearly bigoted remarks, the Arts and Crafts output was often very nostalgic and fanciful in its retelling of stories about an ideal England, and the members seemed to reject very forcefully any acceptance of Japanese art influences on the younger members of the Century Guild. All of this informed my ideas about the likely problems that a blanket, unexamined acceptance of the theories and methods of the Arts and Crafts movement posed. Once again, I was wrong about some key assumptions.

In reading primary sources, I discovered that Meggs’ framing of Walter Cranes comments was misleading—he was an Orientalist to be sure and shared the cultural racism of the era and place, but was arguably not an outlier in the context of the time that should draw the spotlight. Crane’s comments about Aubrey Beardsley were also taken out of context. Crane himself was an early adopter of many techniques taken from Japanese printmaking and was, in fact, complementary to Beardsley and his work. I discovered that William Morris was a better person than I assumed—he shared much of Crane’s (and all of Victorian England’s) bigotry, but his socialist ideals filtered his view to see class-based issues as more important than those of race. John Ruskin, celebrated in much of our graphic design history and especially celebrated by Meggs was in fact an extraordinary bigot. Meggs omits this important fact about the thinking and philosophy of Ruskin, one of the main characters of the movement, perhaps to protect his celebrated status. In this case I was wrong again in my patchwork of understanding; some ideas held up, others were reformed, others abandoned for being false.

The New Typography of the 1930s is another area of graphic design history that seems full of holes, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations. Its aesthetic resilience may say more about its absorption and success in the commercial areas of the industry than anything else. A clear understanding of why one of its principal architects, Jan Tschichold, abandoned the movement and its philosophies is almost never discussed. What it means to our history and philosophy that the New Typography was so readily consumed by commercial interests is not included in our discussions of the works and the culture of the movement. Kurt Schwitters is described in design histories as the designer in the new typographic movement that also tried to make a commercial business out of the new ideas and aesthetics. His Merz work and his advertising for Pelikan ink are featured in most graphic design history texts.

My essay about Schwitters was going to focus on the failure of his Pelikan ink ads as pieces of communication. When I considered the ideas and execution of the ads through a modern understanding of communications, and idea I thought I cared about, but it turns out in fact I do not. I abandoned this essay topic because I don’t agree with my original thesis, and I might even think the opposite of it. Maybe one day I will write an essay about how great it is that Merz made awful marketing materials as commercial design. In this case, the essay failed not because of the facts of the narrative or its commonly understood historical interpretation but because I made the choice that every author of histories does, to ignore an aspect I find to be uninteresting.

Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish wrote what I think is the best graphic design history text, Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide. They consider context and apply useful critical theory methods to their telling. Aside from that, most graphic design history books seem to attempt to be neutral catalogs without a strong point of view, they attempt to be objective: the crystal goblet. Steven Heller has developed an iconic status as the industry historian employing a crystal goblet method, attempting a neutral reporting in his archiving of the industry’s history. And this is incredibly important work, Heller has highlighted and celebrated important designers who might have been lost to our memories. Designers like Ladislav Sutnar whose work lost popularity in his later working years might have been forgotten if not for Heller and his research.

Heller’s work to document is fantastically important. I am very glad that it is being done, but his archives are being mistaken by our industry as an actual history, as an academic study, as something beyond a surface level reading of form and simple narrative. This is not his responsibility to correct, it is the responsibility of our academics to write those compelling and complex stories, the deep and thoughtful histories, the challenging theoretical readings of what might seem like a simple story. Claiming no point of view is a point of view, to repeat the common narrative is to reinforce the dominant cultural views of the world. Claiming a strong point of view allows us to challenge the assumptions we know we have, and the ones we might not know about yet.

All histories focusing on the story of graphic design as a tool of a wage-labor system are inherently conservative in their world view. The limiting of what is worth reporting, what is worth researching, and who and what is omitted is made by our world views and our acceptance of them or our experiences with other modes of thought and critical response. It is understandable in non-academic writing that this would not be a consideration, that the effects of the filter on how the world is understood and then reported would be assumed to be shared by the reader.

A lot of graphic design history is the footnote of another “larger” history that we ignore to focus on the small thing that we are concerned with at that moment. The development of the Carolingian minuscule is a fascinating story, but to read most accounts of it you might think that was the most interesting thing happening at the time and not consider why Charlemagne would think this worth developing in the larger story of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire.

I am an unreliable historian, but also no historians are reliable. That is the nature of history, there are no truths, all facts are debatable, what has been told is not more important than what has been omitted. This critique can sound outlandish, but it shouldn’t—we just haven’t talked about our histories as more than simple narrative and formal style guide in most of our educations. We typically have one or two “History of Design” courses that are intended to cover everything from cave paintings to today. Those same courses cover form and theory. Imagine an English department with one or two courses about all of the books ever written, and also composition.

We need more promotion of our theoretical and historical writings by the academy. Steven Heller (as important as he is) should not be the most famous living design historian in graphic design. He is a pop history writer, not an academic historian. I saw one of our industry’s best design historians, Johanna Drucker, speak at Typecon in 2010. Her talk was very good, and was met with confusion from the audience. We lack the structures to consider our history in a deep and academic way, we seem incapable of a feminist reading of the Bauhaus, we can’t conceive of a Marxist reading of Massimo Vignelli’s American Airlines identity work, we are stuck on the surface of something very important and very interesting.

Graphic design history is important, not because it is deserving of its rightful place in some sort of library, but because we continue to practice what was learned, invented, refined, and developed still today, but we don’t know why any of it happened. We have simple stories that continue as unchallenged narrative, one that is most likely wrong in lots of very important ways.

Work cited.

Meggs, Philip B., Alston W. Purvis, and Philip B. Meggs. 2006. Meggs' history of graphic design.