I have this great set of books which contains advertising from the past – separate volumes for each decade from 1920 to 1990, and another which covers the first ten years of the 20th century. I once laid them all out on a table and looked at them side by side, flipping through all the pages. It was remarkable to me how much styles have differed – how our visual world moved from being hand-drawn illustrations (I guess labor was cheap) in the 1920s, then to mostly photography, then back to illustrations.
I collect airline timetables and travel literature, and have found that I can quickly glance at any brochure and tell you which decade it came from – the styles become instantly recognizable after you have studies a few. And usually I could not tell you exactly what graphic devices and elements were my clues.
I love good design – and think that most people feel the same way, whether they study it or not, whether they are conscious of it or not. Many companies ignore its importance – at their own peril. The great successes of Apple and Target largely hinge on their great design standards.
Graphic design touches us everywhere – signs in airports, magazine ads and articles, product packaging, book and magazine covers, type styles and brochures. But what is in vogue today may be totally out in a few years. And old styles may come back into vogue.
The best single book I have found on the styles of different eras is Retro Graphics: a visual sourcebook to 100 years of graphic design by Jonathan Raimes and Lakshmi Bhaskaran (Chronicle Books, 2007). This concise paperback takes you through each evolution of graphic design from 1860 to 1989: from 19th century Victorian through Art Nouveau and on to Dada, Futurism, and Art Deco. Then to Modernism, Psychedelia, Pop Art, and the beginnings of Punk. Even if you have no idea what some of those terms mean, when you see all the great, colorful illustrations in this book, you’ll say, “Oh, so that’s what Dada is!”
I think this book was intended as a working tool for art directors and designers trying to achieve the “look” of some bygone era. It includes examples of the right colors, the right fonts, and even how to layer in and place those elements to get the right look. All this practical information must be great to have for those who need it.
But for a learner like me, it just adds to my comprehension of how all this stuff works, how great design comes about. Above all else it is a wonderful book to browse through, seeing the best examples of design from the last 150 years, and finally getting to know what all those terms mean. Maybe I won’t seem so stupid at the next gallery opening I attend!
Like most Chronicle Books, Retro Graphics is in a great oversized paperback format, incredibly well-designed, and not overpriced. If you want to know how designers shape the world you see, there are few better places to begin.