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(Fogra 29_WF)Job:08-28858 Title:RP-Writing & Research for Graphic Designers
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Writing & research for graphic designers
Scholarly writing has gotten something of a bum rap, particularly as
it applies to design writing. For decades, architecture monographs
were written more as brain drains than as prose poems—they tend
to be streams of historical, critical, and anecdotal consciousness.
When designers began to write in a scholarly and critical manner,
this model was often followed. The discipline has improved greatly
since the early days when design writing was either overly “trade”
or oppressively “academic” (think jargon, footnotes, and lots of
substantiating quotations).
When I started writing in the late seventies, I adopted a se-
riously serious tone influenced by the anthropology papers my
then-wife wrote when she was a doctoral candidate. She would
edit my texts and insert words that were not mine (like mode
and paradigm) but sounded viable—and intelligent—so I
retained them. In fact, I would insert them when I wanted to
make some design trope or mannerism appear a significant
“mode” of expression. I will admit it gave me a certain level of
credibility, although people who read my work often said,
“We expected you were much, much older.” The caricaturist,
Ed Sorel, himself an entertaining and fluid author, chided me
for “writing like Charles Dickens.” In other words, I found it
difficult to be loose. And that is because I enjoyed reading
back my texts and thinking “this guy is so smart.” This fal-
lacy ended when my wife and I divorced—I got the apart-
ment and the car; she took the cat and the scholarly words
and phrases.
Still, academic writing demands certain rigors that are not
routine in more journalistic prose. Presumably, an academic
work is a more thorough report, analysis, and telling of the
subject. Footnotes or internal reference notes are compulsory
to not only show where the scholar’s ideas derived, but also
guide readers to additional information or even contradictory
positions. But even more than footnotes, scholarship demands
that every stone is unturned to become expert in your field,
and that must be apparent through how the text is structured
to answer even the unasked questions.
In the following case study, by Kerry William Purcell, the
author of professional biographical monographs on the art
director Alexey Brodovitch and Swiss design pioneer Josef
Müller-Brockmann, very important and all-but-forgotten
English design magazines are historically recalled. Although
Purcell does not use footnotes, the authority of his voice is
bolstered by relevant dates and outside quotations. His decided
mastery of historical fact contributes to the credibility.
This essay, which has been excerpted, serves as a resource
for others interested in this specific subject, or like me, in
the overall history of design magazines.
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section 2
surveying the diciplines
excerpts from
alphaBet anD image
Kerry William Purcell is a lecturer in design history at The University of Hertfordshire. Originally published in Baseline #50, 2006
British graphic design was a profession in search of an identity in
1945. As with most occupations, war had marked an unyielding
pause in the workaday routines of the industry.
During this period the obligations and urgency of conflict
had called for the production of posters, pamphlets and
publications that, by necessity, demanded a simple graphic
immediacy. Whether through the use of typography in mass
propaganda, or photography in the Royal Society for the Pre-
vention of Accident (RoSPA) posters, a softened modernism
had proved its worth for a newly emerging group of young
designers. It would be a mistake, however, to imply that the
design landscape ensuing from this period was changed radi-
cally after 1945. On returning to their duties, many printers
and designers were quick to realise that while many other
industries had exploited the new practices and technologies
brought about by wartime innovation, the post-war design
world was still dominated by an earlier generation of conser-
vative typographers and craftsmen. Changing from military
attire to civilian suit, the young typographer or designer was
also required to don a willful ignorance toward the extensive
possibilities peacetime afforded.
One figure who attempted to bridge the gap between the
earlier artist-craftsman of the twenties and thirties and the
new post-war graphic designer was Robert Harling. Born in
1910 in Highbury, London, Harling was educated in Brigh-
ton and London, before attending the Central School of Arts
and Crafts. Soon after completion of his studies he quickly es-
tablished himself as a significant figure in the British design
scene. Alongside design work at the Daily Mail, he occupied
key advisory roles
at London Transport
and the celebrated
foundry Stephenson
Blake & Co., where
he also supplied
the new typefaces
Playbill (1938),
Chisell (1939) and
Tea Chest (1939).
Harling’s abilities
as a designer were
more than equaled
by his talents as a writer. In 1936 he became one of the earliest
critics to familiarize the English design world with the work
of Jan Tschichold in his essay ‘What is this “Functional” typogra-
phy? The work of Jan Tschichold in Printing’ (even if he did
later charge Tschichold’s early work as ‘really too refrigerated
and mathematical to be true’). It was in this same year that
Harling brought his combined experience of designer-writer
to bear on the founding of Typography. The origins of this in-
fluential quarterly magazine (originally published in an edition
of 1,200) came through Harling’s association with the printer
James Shand (and to a lesser degree, Eric Howe). Together with
Shand, Harling set out to create a publication that encom-
pArT foUr : ACADemiC
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