A Century of Graphic Design is a delight to look at, with the cultural sensitivity for ephemera and the profound in the everyday with which graphic design history supplements the history of fine art. It is not, however, a joy to read. The prose is dry and the book neither conveys what others have said about changes in seeing and being, nor contributes a new point of view about the designers featured. The text often attributes significance without elaboration. Passages on individual designers taper off into a list of studios where they studied.
Yet as a visual encyclopedia the book is a valuable resource, and not a bad place to start examining who influenced whom in the twentieth century. The collection of images makes a good job of covering the breadth of the period, with all of the nations, individuals, and movements that have contributed to the way we see things over this quickly evolving time.
There are already histories of the Constructivists, of designers of heroes subverting Stalinist and Nazi dictums about how the clean master-race was to be depicted. But there is room for more interpretation over the rest of the era as well. Glancing over the ashtray of a century is a grand invitation to think about the objects that were, about how they marked their world. The movie theatres of stacked neon lights which have stood on every main-street in America since the 1930s were offshoots of the pictures that Art Deco graphic designers were promulgating in posters. Entire cities look like the fantasy-worlds of a designer who was working long before architects and builder made the ideal city real in brick and stone. Designers leave a world behind them. What this world means for citizens of the century is a subject still waiting to be explored.