Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Book Review | Design Before Designers

Ad for Chromatic Jobber printing press (c1886)

Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers:
The Printer as Designer and Craftsman 1700-1914
by David Jury
Thames and Hudson, London and New York, 2012
312 pp., illus. 219 b&w/560 col. Trade, $60.00
ISBN: 978-0-500-51646-1.

This is a richly illustrated book on the history of printing—or, more accurately, on one area of printing. It is not a history of “book printing,” but of a less exalted branch called “job printing.” Historically, book printers (or so it has long been widely assumed) are prestigious purveyors of culture, while job printers are those who produce “ephemera,” the everyday stuff that is rarely preserved—handbills, posters, tickets, advertisements, trade cards, stationery, labels, receipts, passports, charts, certificates, postage stamps, banknotes and so on.

When Samuel Johnson wrote his Dictionary (1755), he made no distinction between designing and printing—a typographer, by his definition, was “a printer.” Continuing well into the twentieth century, arranging elements on a page was part and parcel of printing, so there was no additional cost for “graphic design,” a phrase that is commonly said (erroneously, I think) to have been used for the first time by book designer W.A. Dwiggins in 1921. Today, as designers and their clients know, graphic design is its own thriving category, and the work of a graphic designer is billed in addition to printing.

This well-written and beautiful book, titled Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman 1700-1914, is a history of what printers did, as clandestine designers, in advance of the formal establishment of graphic design as a career field. It also provides an account of how the design services of craft-based printers were deliberately discredited by graphic and advertising designers in order to justify charging for a service that had once been gratis. Surely, it must have been argued, the author writes, “the modern businessman’s media requirements could only be addressed by a new profession made up of university-trained communication strategists.”

The book is organized in chronological, alternating chapters (there are six in all, plus other parts), each of which offers two components: First, a persuasively-written historical text, detailing what took place, in what order and why, including the names and achievements of individuals who were major players. These narratives are illustrated by well-chosen informative images from the history of printing. Second, each chapter also features about 30 pages of the most wonderful full-color images of examples of job printing, from every category imaginable. more…