Blue Pencil no. 28—The Phaidon Archive of Design: An Assessment

The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design
(London: Phaidon Press Limited and New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2012)

‘The publishers would like to thank Kerry William Purcell for his help in the preparation of this book.”*
Commissioning editor: Emilia Terragni
Project editors: Alanna Fitzpatrick, Andrew Ruff and Davina Thackera
Specialist consultants: Steven Heller, Werner Jeker, Emily King, Hans Dieter Reichert, Teal Triggs, and Graham Twemlow
Phaidon team: Jane Ace, Laura Aylett, Enzo Barracco, Juliette Blightman, Emma Causer, Jacob Denno, Camilla Gersh, William Hall, Julia Hasting, Shari Last, Ellen Parnavelas, John Parton, Emmanuelle Peri, Natalia Read, Sabine Schroder, Beth Underdown and Emily Wraith
Production controllers: Paul McGuinness, Alenka Oblak, Laurence Poos and Rebecca Price
Design: Müller & Wesse (Berlin)

Despite the numerous encomiums heaped upon its publication since last fall, The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design is a seriously flawed endeavor, editorially and graphically. Other than the hideous appearance of the box itself, this is not apparent at first glance. But once one finishes swooning over the nearly 2200 images [1] of iconic graphic designs and actually tries to use the box its shortcomings rapidly surface.

The box is both heavy (28 pounds) [2] and unwieldy (16.3 x 11 x 12.9 inches). Trying to move it, even using the straps provided, is a chore. Although Phaidon is touting the box as an educational tool, it is too cumbersome for a teacher to transport back and forth to class without a car or, at the very least, a shopping cart. And where is it stored when not in use? A special coffee table? It won’t fit on an ordinary bookshelf, even one strong enough to bear it. Since I acquired my copy it has remained on the living room floor, serving as a pedestal upon which to pile other books.

Elena Terragni, editorial director at Phaidon, has been quoted by Steve Heller as saying that, “When we started to design the book, we realized that if [the pages were] bound, we would have ended up with the strange situation of having the back of an entry on the left page, together with the main image of another entry on the right page, while in reality, each entry was a kind of separate object.” Her implication is that the only solution to this perceived dilemma was a box of individual cards when, in fact, any competent book designer would have immediately realized that the main image and its supporting information could have been easily kept together by arranging the book as a series of double-page spreads. Clearly, Phaidon was drawn to the box format for other reasons.

Terragni has touted the creative and educational aspects of the box format. “I can see people flick through, and pick up things that attract their attention,” she says. “I can see people put them on their walls, or their desks to be inspired by, or use them in presentations, lectures, seminars as example of excellent design.” The first of these potential uses essentially treats The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design as the fancy equivalent of a set of baseball cards—but without the bubblegum. It is difficult to believe that this is what Phaidon had in mind when the publisher began this project five years ago. However, the book has been greeted by most reviewers exactly in this manner, with many gushing over the box as an unparalleled source of inspiration and a fun conversation piece. Blur Designs even went so far as to describe it on their blog as a “Designer’s Wet Dream in a Box”.

I would like to think that the second of Terragni’s potential uses is more believable as the impetus behind Phaidon’s decision to make the box. But if it was truly intended for educators then it should have been better thought out—and less expensive. The first problem lies in the cards that comprise the box. They are made of sturdier than normal card stock, yet not sturdy enough given their size (9.5 x 12.5 inches) and the amount of handling they will undergo—especially if they are used by students. Many of the cards in my box are already dog-eared from flipping through them in researching this review [3].

Secondly, the cards are arduous to sort through. They come arranged in chronological order, but without any separation among Phaidon’s fourteen alphabetical time periods: A for all dates prior to 1500, B for the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, C for 1900–1909, D for 1910–1919, E for 1920–1929, F for 1930–1939, G for 1940–1949, H for 1950–1959, I for 1960–1969, J for 1970–1979, K for 1980–1989, L for 1990–1999, M for 2000–2009, and N for 2010–today. Thus, it is not easy to pull out a specific card without having to riffle through tens, if not hundreds, of other cards first. And once a card has been taken out, putting it back in the right place is equally problematic without the help of a bookmark (er, “boxmark”).

Phaidon has provided dividers, described as being for those users (readers?) who want to organize the cards in a non-sequential way. “We had a lot of discussions on how to organize the content,” explained Terragni to Heller. “Someone said it was better chronologically, someone by designer, someone by category, someone by design title, and others even by who commissioned it. We then realized that it all depends on how and for what purpose you use it. And that with the cards format the reader would be able to organize in the way he/she wants to.” But the dividers are not blank as claimed, instead they are labeled on one side with each of Phaidon’s fifteen predetermined categories—Advertising, Books, Book Covers, Film Graphics, Identity, Information Design, Logos, Magazines and Newspapers, Magazine Covers, Money, Packaging Graphics, Posters, Record and CD Covers, Symbols, and Typefaces—and on the other alphabetically, which suggests that Phaidon expects the user to re-organize the cards either thematically or by name (whether title, designer or client). The former option is a distinct possibility since it is easy to visually group items, but I seriously doubt any user (other than a librarian) will want to re-alphabetize 500 cards, especially when several letters of the alphabet ( I/J/K, M/N/O, P/Q, T/U/V, and W/X/Y/Z) have been ganged up on a single card. Unfortunately, this latter decision rules out the possibility of using the cards to organize the box chronologically via Phaidon’s alphabetical ID system—unless one crosses out or ignores the pre-printed headers.

Each graphic design image in the Archive is given a unique identification number reflecting its chronological placement within the box. Thus, K013 is the thirteenth item chronologically within the 1980s. (The Foreword only explains the system for letters A and B, leaving the reader to figure out which decade M represents.) Not only is it awkward trying to remember which time frame each of the letter prefixes represents, but the system will present an obstacle if Phaidon follows through on its promise to add more cards in the future. How will they number a new design from 1913?—D008 is the last item from that year while D009 is the first item in 1914? The editors could have used a simple and easily memorable numbering system such as date and number (to account for those instances when more than one item occurs in a given year): e.g. 1957–1 instead of H001; or a system that would have incorporated Phaidon’s categories: e.g. 1914.1L (for logo) or 1914.7T (for typeface).

But worse than the awkward numbering system is the placement of the identification number on the card. It is not on the front with the principal image but in the upper left corner of the reverse side. Thus, one cannot flip through the cards as they are arranged to quickly find a specific item. Instead, one is faced with three choices: 1. recognize an item by its appearance (which is limited to only the most iconic of all designs, such as El Lissitsky’s design of For the Voice or Paul Rand’s IBM logo), 2. keep pulling cards out and turning them over to check the identification number, or 3. reorganize the cards so that they are in reverse chronological order. The designer, Stephan Müller, and the editors at Phaidon chose to keep the main image as pristine—as frameable—as possible at the expense of utility. The identification number should have been placed on the front of each card and set either larger than it currently is or printed in an eye-catching color such as red.

These are some of the physical and organizational problems that bedevil The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design. As serious as they are, they pale in comparison to the editorial problems. The first of these is the skimpy, unsigned Foreword which takes up less than three-quarters of a page. It neither explains the origins and purpose of the Archive nor does it situate it in the context of other surveys of graphic design history. Is it a competitor or a companion to Meggs, Eskilson, Jubert, Cramsie and Drucker/McVarish? The clearest articulation of Phaidon’s expectations comes from Terragni who, in her conversation with Heller, seems to be searching for potential uses: “I can see people put them on their walls, or their desks to be inspired by, or use them in presentations, lectures, seminars as example of excellent design.” Kerry Purcell, who made the initial selection of images for the Archive, told Heller that it was such a big project that it was too restrictive to have a single thesis behind it. However, what is missing is not a single thesis—whether historical, aesthetic or theoretical—but the sense of a clear purpose or raison d’être.

More damning than the lack of a well enunciated rationale for the Archive’s existence, is the absence in the Foreword of any explanation of the methodology or criteria behind the choice of images or even for the naming and selection of its fifteen categories. In the Heller interview, Terragni lamely says, “…at the end we tried to come up with a variety of designs that have quality, are innovative, represent a turning point in the development of graphic design, and are simply beautiful.” Are all of these criteria suppose to apply to all of the items in the Archive?

The Phaidon editors define graphic design as “a form of visual communication” which brings up the question of whether or not typefaces qualify. They are an indispensable component of graphic design, but on their own they have no communicative power. If typefaces are going to be included in the Phaidon canon of graphic design—and I agree they should—then why shouldn’t examples of calligraphy (e.g. cancellaresca corsiva or roundhand) be included as well? Or illustrations such as those of Thomas Bewick, Thomas Nast, Miguel Covarrubias or Chris Ware? The Phaidon editors argue that graphic design artifacts are products of the printing press and the Industrial Revolution, i.e. they are mass produced. This is a perfectly defensible position except that the Archive leaves out Asian printed books that preceded Gutenberg, such as the Diamond Sutra (China, 868 AD), while including items such as Morse Code and the International Code of Symbols and International Maritime Flags.

For the most, part Phaidon’s fifteen preselected categories make sense, though I am unsure why newspapers are ganged with magazines, why logos are separate from identity, and why symbols are separate from information design. More importantly, where are postage stamps, greeting cards and stationery, comics and graphic novels, exhibition graphics, television and broadcast graphics, and websites? Phaidon has provided no explanation for the criteria behind each of its categories. That can only be deduced by examining the items within each one. Thus, information design seems to include signage and any bound item that is not a magazine or newspaper is classified as a book.

The big complaint about The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design—as with all graphic design histories—is over the individual selections. The Archive began with Kerry Purcell Williams* who assembled a list of 5,000 or so entries which was subsequently increased to about 8,000 items with input from other members of Phaidon’s editorial team. Williams then chose approximately 450 works that he felt should be in the final box, leaving the remaining fifty to be determined by others at Phaidon. While the selection is inevitably subjective, and wholesale agreement is not to be expected, there are still many puzzling omissions and inclusions.

Here, in chronological order, are twenty-five flagrant omissions [4]. I have included explanations for a few that might not seem obvious.

• Erhard Ratdolt type specimen (1486)
• italic typeface by Francesco Griffo (1500)
Biblia Regia (Polyglot Bible) by Christopher Plantin (1568–1572)
The Universal Penman by George Bickham (1741)
Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance) by Stéphane Mallarmé (1897; 1914)
• Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky (1919)
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929) book jacket by Georg Salter
The Four Gospels (1931) with type, lettering and illustrations by Eric Gill
Westvaco Inspirations for Printers (1939–1962) designed by Bradbury Thompson
Smash Song Hits by Rodgers and Hart record cover by Alex Steinweiss (1938)—the first record cover.
• The Dymaxion Map by R. Buckminster Fuller (1943)
• Great Ideas of Western Man advertising campaign by Container Corporation of America (1950–1975)
Playboy logo by Art Paul (1953)
• Mistral typeface (1953) by Roger Excoffon
• Blue Note record covers (1955–1967) by Reid Miles
• The MIT Press logo by Muriel Cooper (c.1963)
• Dylan poster (1966) from Dylan’s Greatest Hits by Milton Glaser
Yellow Submarine (1968) film graphics by Heinz Edelman
• Q. And babies? A. And babies. poster (1969) by the Art Workers Coalition
• Chicago logo and record cover designs by John Berg, Nicholas Fasciano et al (1969–1980)—the first rock group to have not only a logo but a branding system, preceding that of the Rolling Stones.
Kompendium für Alphabeten (Compendium for Literates: A System of Writing) by Karl Gerstner (1972)
• Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation lecture posters by Willi Kunz (1984–1994)
Design Quarterly 133 (1986): “Does It Make Sense?”written and designed by April Greiman
The Telephone Book by Avital Ronell (1989) designed by Richard Eckersley
• Beowolf typeface (1989) by Letterror

On the other hand, who and what is included in the Archive is equally suspect. Admittedly, alongside the many deservedly expected items—the Gutenberg Bible, Alphonse Mucha’s JOB cigarette paper posters, the CBS eye logo, Helvetica, Avant Garde magazine, the 1972 Munich Olympics identity, and the original Macintosh icons among them—are a number of unfamiliar discoveries and delights, many of them in the Information Design category. Some of my favorites are: William Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas, printers’ fists, the Snellen eye chart, La Fin du Monde by Blaise Cendrars, the Hollywood sign, die neue linie magazine, Het Vlas, the zebra crossing, Abram Games’ advertisements for The Financial Times, the Swedish magazine Form, Karl Gerstner’s advertising for Rheinbrücke, The Last Whole Earth Catalog, Chermayeff & Geismar’s “soft” Claes Oldenburg MoMA catalogue, the Universal Product Code, and the Swiss passport designed by Fritz Gottschalk. At the same time the Archive contains items, similar in nature and category to those listed as missing above, that are of lesser quality or importance which could have been chucked out with only a few tears being shed.

Here is a list of twenty-five lesser items, with a few comments:

• Pierrot’s Alphabet (1794)—The Universal Penman is more significant and influential.
• Fette Fraktur typeface by Johann Christian Bauer (1850)—more historically important frakturs (e.g. Unger Fraktur(1793)) are absent from the Archive.
• Rizla rolling papers packaging (1866)—a number of more iconic examples of packaging, at least from an American perspective, are missing from the Archive: Wrigley’s spearmint gum (1893), the Hershey bar (1936), Wheaties cereal (1934), Tide detergent (1948), Campbell’s Soup (1898)….
• Fromme’s Kalender poster by Koloman Moser (1899)—how can this be included when Moser’s stunning (and widely known) poster for the 5th year of Ver Sacrum and the 13th exhibition of the Vienna Secession (1902) is left out?
• Edel-Grotesk typeface (1912)—Century Schoolbook (1919) by Morris Fuller Benton is more deserving of inclusion as are also Goudy Oldstyle (1916), Cheltenham (1899–1904) and Neuland (1923) among the many notable typefaces that are missing.
• Pierre Legrain bindings (c.1925)—this is one of the oddities in the Archive, an item that was not mass produced. A far more influential example of book bindings are the distinctive commercial bindings that W.A. Dwiggins created for Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1926–1956).
• Spratt’s logo (1936)—arguably the worst entry in the entire Archive. Numerous logos belong more than it does: not only the Playboy bunny, but J.A. Henckel (c.1930), Agip (1953), Electrolux (1950s), El Al (1963), Eastern Airlines (1964)….
• Danese logo by Franco Meneguzzi (1957)—also surpassed by other logos. For starters, I suggest the NASA “worm” (1975) by Danne & Blackburn, Motorola (1955) by Morton Goldsholl and Coop (1963) by Albe Steiner.
• La Biennale di Venezia poster by A.G. Fronzoni (1969)—Fronzoni’s poster for a 1966 exhibition of Lucio Fontana’s work in which he sliced the paper to mimic Fontana’s paintings is more arresting.
• Swiss Federal Railways identity by Josef Müller-Brockmann (1975)—the logos for British Rail (1965) by Design Research Unit and Nederlandse Spoorwegen (1968) by Gert Dumbar and Gert-Jan Leuvelink of Tel Design both make use of arrows in more innovative ways and both precede Müller-Brockmann’s design.
• Demos typeface by Gerard Unger (1975)—Marconi by Hermann Zapf (1973) was the first original typeface from Hell and the first to use the Ikarus system for production.
• 3M logo by Siegel + Gale (1977)—the truly iconic 3M logo is not this one, but the one designed by Gerald Stahl and Associates (1961) that used the same form for the 3 and the M
• Yale University Press logo by Paul Rand (1985)—this is far inferior to the MIT Press logo.
• Avenir typeface by Adrian Frutiger (1988)—as lionized as Frutiger is, there are typefaces by others that are more deserving of inclusion in the Archive, beginning with Syntax (1969) by Hans Meier and Photina (1971)  by José Mendoza y Almeida.
The Art Book by Alan Fletcher (1994)—one of several Phaidon items that seem to be included in the Archive simply because they are Phaidon items. There is no end to the list of books that could easily replace this one: Harpel’s Typograph (1870),  The Color Printer by John Earhart (1892), The Decorative Work of T.M. Cleland (1929) (as far as I know, this stunning book is the first designer monograph), The Four Gospels (1931) cited above, the original edition of Learning from Las Vegas (1972) designed by Muriel Cooper, and Kompendium für Literates mentioned earlier….
• Spiritualized—Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space record cover (1997)—if the editors at Phaidon wanted an example of minimal modernism applied to music graphics they should have included Barbara Wojirsch’s body of work for ECM Records (1972-1999). But the real tragedy of the Archive is the omission of any record covers by either Alex Steinweiss, the inventor of the genre, or Reid Miles.
• Miller typeface by Matthew Carter (1997)—as wonderful a typeface as this is, it does not merit inclusion over several others from the past twenty-five years: Scala (1989), Minion (1990), Meta (1991), or Carter’s own Walker (1995).
• The Alphabet by M/M (2001)—in addition to the Dylan, My Lai and Willi Kunz posters cited above, there are innumerable others more worthy than this series. The Archive has no psychedelic posters nor any by Edward Penfield, Tom Purvis, Leo Lionni, Seymour Chwast, Franco Grignani, Gunther Kieser, Leonardo Sonnoli, Philippe Apeloig or Art Chantry. And if it wanted a photographic alphabet, it should have included Anton Beeke’s  “nude alphabet” (Quadrat Print 14, 1970).
• Rain poster by Catherine Zask (2001)—see my comments above. But where is Ruedi Külling’s memorable Bic poster (1961)?
• Courier Sans typeface by James Goggin (2001)—Mergenthaler Linotype’s Legibility Group of newspaper typefaces (1922–1941), Adobe’s Multiple Master typefaces (e.g. Myriad, 1992 or Penumbra, 1994), Lucida, as well as Beowolf noted above, are all of greater technical and historical significance than this gimmicky design.
• Beauty and the Beast identity by Frith Kerr and Amelia Noble (2004–2005)—a goofy concept does not make for a design of lasting importance. How can this be in the Archive when so much else that is worthy and substantive is not? In the category of identity I would suggest Kurt Schwitter’s body of work for the city of Hannover (1929–1934), the ever-shifting Lord & Taylor logo (c.1933–present), Roger Excoffon’s work for Air France (1958–1965), Massimo Vignelli’s “unigrid” for the National Parks Service (1977), or Pentagram’s logo redesign for Saks Fifth Avenue (2007) as alternatives.
• Established & Sons identity (2005–2007)—ditto my comments above.
• Lettera typeface by Kobi Benezri (2008)
• Replica typeface by Norm (2008)—for both Lettera and Replica see my comments on other typeface alternatives above, but also consider the types of Miklos Kis (c.1689) as well as Memphis (1929), Mistral (1953), Snell Roundhand (1965), Trinité (1979) and Hoefler Text (1989)—all of which are of greater historical (and, in some cases, technical) importance.
Hella Jongerius: Misfit by Irma Boom (2010)—this book is nowhere near as innovative as The Telephone Book (1989).

The Archive’s creators are quick to point out that they weren’t looking to establish an incontrovertible pantheon of design. “It is not a definitive selection,” Terragni says. “Other people would have chosen other designs, but it doesn’t really matter. This is a celebration of the power of graphic design through 500 examples, and it shows that any piece of information, if well designed, works better.” This last comment is a debatable point as many images in the Archive seem to be included because they are iconic rather than well-designed.

The problem is not that different people would have chosen different items for inclusion in the Archive, but that Phaidon provides no justification for its own choices. While Terragni mentions quality, innovation, “turning points” and beauty in her interview with Heller, the Foreword only says that Phaidon asked its consultants for items that “successfully integrate communicative function with aesthetic form, and set a new standard for production and quality.” This is an impossible set of criteria that few of the items in the Archive manage to match. Nor should they be expected to. It is clear that Purcell and the Phaidon editors chose items with a varied set of goals in mind: iconicity, longevity, popularity, originality, influence, innovation, and so on. How else to explain the presence of the Spratt’s logo alongside the logos for CBS, Chase Manhattan Bank and Deutsche Bank? Or Seven-Segment Display in the typeface category? Or Time magazine and Der Spiegel as equals to Merz, Rolling Stone and Octavo? What makes the Archive so wonderful is this mixed bag of items. But instead of addressing its multifaceted criteria head-on Phaidon has chosen to pretend that everything included in the box is superb. Thus, the Foreword includes over-the-top shilling describing the Archive as “an unparalled resource of the world’s very best specimens of graphic design”, an “authoritative selection” and “a benchmark for excellence and innovation”. This is either wishful thinking or simple hype that belongs elsewhere.

The choice of items to include in The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design is overshadowed by defects in the manner in which they are presented. First, the authors of each text are not identified on the individual cards. The sole place their names appear is in a poorly designed list at the front of the booklet accompanying the cards. There they are listed alphabetically, followed not by the names of their contributions (e.g. IBM logo or Sabon typeface) but by a string of identification numbers (e.g. H025 or I042); and the list is run-in as one long block of text. Trying to figure out who wrote which text is extremely burdensome. While there are indexes for designs, creators, clients and dates there is none for authors. Thus, it took me several hours to match all of the authors to all of their texts; and in the course of doing so I found several texts credited to more than one author (e.g. E006 Bauhaus Programmes credited to Sony Devabhktuni, David Hyde, Graham Twemlow and myself) and several with no author at all (e.g. F052 Mercedes-Benz logo)[5].

To find out who wrote what, the reader must go through at least three steps: 1. locate the ID number following the author’s name; 2. scroll through one of the four indexes (title, designer, client, category) to find that number; and then 3. flip through the cards to locate the one with the relevant number (which, remember, is on the back not the front)—and then, voilà, author and image are mated. Or, in reverse, the reader must find the ID number on a card; and then skim through the list of authors to find who that number belongs to. Given that the authors and their contributions are all listed in a dense, continuous paragraph of text, this is not such an easy maneuver. The whole situation is ridiculous.

In order to be able to judge the accuracy and quality of an essay, it is essential to know who wrote it and what their qualifications are. Not only is it hard to link authors and entries but there is no biographical information for the authors in the Archive. This is a significant omission since the majority of the authors are not widely known. Having read the entries and tried, as best I could, to find out the backgrounds and credentials for each of the authors [6], it is clear that many, although well-credentialed, wrote about subjects beyond their areas of expertise—I am one of them—and that several should not have written for the Archive at all. There is a serious mismatch of knowledge in The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design and I think Phaidon tried to hide this by minimizing the presence of the authors and ignoring their credentials.

Here are some instances where reigning experts on a subject did not contribute an entry related to their specialty to the Archive:

A007 Garamond—written by Caroline Archer instead of Hendrik D.L. Vervliet, the expert on 16th century French type design and author of The Palaeotypography of the French Renaissance (2009).
A016 Manuel Typographique by Pierre-Simon Fournier le jeune—written by Helena Michaelson instead of James Mosley, author of an introduction to a facsimile edition of the text (1995) and other articles on Fournier.
C004 Franklin Gothic—written by Frederico Duarte and Broadway (E061) written by Caroline Archer instead of Patricia Cost, the leading expert on Linn Boyd Benton and Morris Fuller Benton
C012 Priester matches poster by Lucian Bernhard—written by Phil Jones instead of Hubert Riedel, author of Bernhard (1999) and curator of several exhibitions of the designer’s work.
E002 National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the swastika)—written by Simon Bell instead of Steve Heller, author of The Swastika (2000) and Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (2008). On the other hand, Heller wrote the entries for E004 Cooper Black and F048 Peignot typefaces instead of type experts such as myself, Robert Bringhurst, John Berry, James Clough, Sébastien Morlighem or Jan Middendorp among others.
E011 The Next Call—written by Véronique Vienne instead of Alston Purvis, author of H.N. Werkman (2004).
E013 Lidantiu Faram, Ilia Zdanevich’s zaum experiments—written by Emily McVarish, instead of Johanna Drucker, author of The Visible Word (1997) which includes zaum as one of its subjects.
E015 Banknote for The State Bank of Thuringia—written by Melanie Archer; E026 Bayer Universal—written by Alison Barnes; E030 Kandinsky exhibition poster—written by Kimberly Elam; and F040 Adrianol Emulsion advertising—written by Peter Wolf instead of Arthur Cohen, author of Herbert Bayer: The Complete Work (1984) or Magdalena Droste, author of Bauhaus 1919–1933 (1994).
E036 Kabel typeface—written by Emily McVarish instead of Gerald Cinamon, author of Rudolf Koch: Letterer, Type Designer, Teacher (2000).
E039 Futura typeface—written by Alison Barnes instead of Christopher Burke, author of Paul Renner: The Art of Typography (1998).
E040 Opel designs by Max Bittrof and E058 die neue linie—both written by myself instead of Jeremy Aynsley, author of Graphic Design in Germany 1890–1945 (2000).
E046 Simfonia Bolshogo Goroda—written by Mike Sheedy and E060 Man with the Movie Camera—written by Liz McQuiston instead of by Christopher Mount, author of Stenberg Brothers: Constructing a Revolution in Soviet Design (1997).
E050 Die neue Typographie by Jan Tschichold—written by Richard Doubleday instead of Robin Kinross who wrote the introduction to the English translation of the book (The New Typography, University of California Press, 1995) or Christopher Burke, author of Active Literature: Jan Tschichold and New Typography (2008).
F009 NegerKunst [sic] poster—written by Chris Brown instead of Christoph Bignens, co-author of Max Bill: Typography, Advertising, Book Design (1999).
F041 International Picture Language, Otto Neurath’s Isotype system—written by Alan Rapp instead of Christopher Burke, author of Isotype: Representing Social Facts Pictorially (2009), or Max Bruinsma, Robin Kinross and Michael Twyman who have also written at length about Neurath and Isotype.
F055 Direction magazine—written by Michael Kelly; G015 Thoughts on Design—written by Kerry Williams Purcell; H025 IBM identity—written by Laura Ayett; I002 Westinghouse logo—written by Frederico Duarte; and I008 ABC logo—written by Stephanie Goldstein instead of Steve Heller, author of Paul Rand (2000), a Phaidon monograph.
F049 Rural Electrification Administration posters—written by Riikka Kuittinen and G008 Scope magazine—written by Peter Wolf instead of R. Roger Remington, author of Lester Beall: Trailblazer of American Graphic Design (1996) and Lester Beall: Space, Time and Content (2003).
G002 New Directions New Classics book covers by Alvin Lustig—written by Peter Wolf; G003 Ghost in the Underblows—written by Michael Kelly and G010 1945 Knoll advertising—written by Peter Wolf instead of Steve Heller, author of Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig (2010), or Kind Company, creators of
G009 Ballet by Alexey Brodovitch—written by Mike Sheedy instead of Kerry William Purcell, author Alexey Brodovitch (2011), a Phaidon monograph. Inexplicably Purcell is the author of F024 Times New Roman instead of Sebastian Carter, Andrew Boag or Christopher Burke, all of whom contributed to One Hundred Years of Type Making 1897–1997, the centenary issue of The Monotype Recorder (1997) and are knowledgeable about type in general.
G018 Seventeen magazine—written by Frank DeRose instead of Martha Scotford, author of Cipe Pineles: A Life of Design (1999).
G028 Typographica—written by Caroline Archer instead of Rick Poynor, author of Typographica (2001).
H016 Univers typeface—written by Jason Tselentis; I041 OCR-B typeface—written by David Hyde; I055 Frutiger typeface—written by Alison Barnes; and K024 Avenir typeface—written by Jason Tselentis instead of Heidrun Osterer and Philip Stamm, co-authors of Adrian Frutiger Typefaces: The Complete Works (2008).
I021 From Russia with Love film graphics—written by Frank DeRose instead of Emily King, author of Robert Brownjohn: Sex and Typography (2005).
I026 La Cantatrice Chauve Gallimard edition by Massin—written by Jason Tselentis instead of Laetitia Wolff, author of Massin (2007), a Phaidon monograph, and organizer of an exhibition on his work.
I017 1972 Munich Olympics identity—written by Kerry William Purcell instead of Markus Rathgeb, author of Otl Aicher (2006), a Phaidon monograph.
I048 Typographie by Emil Ruder—written by Steve Rigley instead of Helmut Schmid, author of emil ruder: the road to basel (1997).
I050 Knoll logo by Massimo Vignelli (Unimark)—written by myself instead of Jan Conradi, author of Unimark International: The Design of Business and the Business of Design (2009).
J012 U&lc—written by Frank DeRose instead of John Berry, former editor of U&lc and author of U&lc:  Influencing Design and Typography (2005).

This is not a blanket indictment of the authors listed above—the great majority of them contributed serviceable, sometimes even good, texts—but a criticism of Phaidon which did not enlist the most qualified people available to contribute to the Archive. Among the prominent design writers and design historians who are absent are Jeremy Aynsley, Rob Banham, Alan Bartram (d. 2013), Christoph Bignens, Lewis Blackwell, Robert Bringhurst, Kees Broos, Sebastian Carter, Doug Clouse, Michael Dooley, Magdelena Droste, Stephen Eskilson, Gerd Fleischmann, Ken Garland, Peter Hall, Jessica Helfand, Richard Hollis, Alastair Johnston, Roxane Jubert, Eric Kindl, Emily King, Robin Kinross, Pat Kirkham, John Lane, Mathieu Lommen, Ellen Lupton, Victor Margolin, Jan Middendorp, James Mosley, Rick Poynor, Martha Scotford, Paul Stiff (d. 2011), Alice Twemlow, Michael Twyman, Armin Vit and Lorraine Wild.

Why are they absent? Were they not invited? Did they turn down an invitation? At least one author, Richard Hollis, has told me he rejected the offer from Phaidon because the remuneration (£50) was too low. But I sincerely doubt that all of the others did not participate for the same reason [7].

Another issue regarding authorship is why multiple entries related to a single designer or company in the Archive are rarely written by the same person (e.g. the six entries on the work of Paul Rand are by six different authors, and the three entries on Knoll are by three different authors).

As best I can figure it out—based on my own limited experience writing for the Archive—is that Phaidon invited numerous people, presumably including many of those listed above as missing-in-action, to contribute and then, after getting rebuffed (for whatever reason) by some, widened their pool of potential contributors to second-tier choices such as myself. But the real reason that there is such a mismatch of expertise to entry in the Archive is due to the method Phaidon used to determine who wrote what. Instead of assigning entries to qualified individuals, the editors simply allowed authors—on a first-come-first-choose basis—carte blanche to pick what they wanted to write about from a list of roughly 900 pre-selected topics. And they apparently allowed contributors to pick as many topics as they wanted. Thus, early invitees had plenty to choose from while later ones such as myself (a last-minute addition to the contributor list) were stuck with the leavings. In my case, most of the topics still available in November 2008 were either of lesser importance, lacking in source material, or required knowledge of a non-English (often non-Western European) language. Consequently, despite my inability to read German I ended up writing about the Pelikan logo, the 1923 Bauhaus catalogue, Opel posters and die neue linie—not because I knew anything about them, but because I hoped to learn something. On the other hand, items for which I felt eminently qualified to write about—e.g. typefaces, especially those of Morris Fuller Benton, Hermann Zapf and Adrian Frutiger—had already been snapped up. (Oddly, the worst entries in the Archive are overwhelmingly those in the Typeface category where not a single one stands out.)

That Phaidon did not use a very reliable method to choose who wrote what for the Archive shows in the erratic quality of entries. On the one hand, some of the best entries are by authors I was previously unfamiliar with (e.g. Graham Twemlow especially, but also Phil Jones, Mike Sheedy and Anne Odling-Smee). And on the other, so are some of the worst entries (e.g. Frederico Duarte and Helena Michaelson). And then there are the unfamiliar authors whose multiple contributions are wildly uneven, ranging from atrocious one moment to excellent the next (e.g. Alan Rapp and Carol Choi). Among contributors whose work I already knew, some lived up to expectations (e.g. Kerry William Purcell and Véronique Vienne) and some did not (e.g. Natalia Ilyin and Caroline Archer); while others, unfortunately, lived down to them (e.g. Jason Tselentis) [8]. What all of this means is not that Phaidon needed to rely exclusively on big-name writers but that it merely needed to choose the best person, well-known or not, for each item instead of allowing a Gold Rush frenzy among contributors to determine the outcome.

Not only does the Archive booklet lack an author index, it is also missing one for dates—it has indexes for title, designer, category and client [9]. Furthermore, there is no table of contents (i.e. a simple list of the cards in the box in the order in which they were assembled). Thus, there is no easy way—short of laboriously flipping through the cards themselves—to situate items chronologically (e.g. what happened in 1927 besides the release of Futura?). The ID numbers attached to each entry are chronologically-based but no one is going to remember that items beginning with F are from the 1930s and those beginning with K are from the 1980s. In the course of preparing this review over the past ten months, I have been constantly stymied by the difficulty of quickly being able to locate a particular card. (For those of you who have a copy of the Archive stop reading this review for a moment and see how long it takes you to locate G030 Bauen + Wohnen.) The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design is a reminder of how effortless it is to navigate through a paginated book or periodical.

The problems with the Archive booklet extend to the cards themselves. Not only is there no author’s by-line, but there are no sources for the texts—even though contributors were required to provide such information [10]. Consequently, there is no way for readers to check the accuracy of the texts or to use the Archive as a step toward further research of their own. The omission of bibliographic information irreparably damages the reliability of the entire project. It alone is sufficient reason that The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design cannot be seriously considered alongside Meggs, Eskilson, Jubert et al as a primary guide to the history of graphic design—despite all of the hoopla Phaidon has generated for it. Maybe Terragni is right: the cards are best treated as frameable art. Why should users care about the text side if Phaidon doesn’t?

I suspect that Phaidon would argue that there is no room on the cards for full bibliographic information. But such an argument betrays a lack of design vision. For the cards such information could be presented in an abbreviated form (e.g. Burke 1998 for Paul Renner: The Art of Typography by Christopher Burke (London: Hyphen Press, 1998)) with full details included in the booklet. Given that many of the texts are inevitably based on the same sources, adding such information to the 40-page booklet would not have been onerous—especially since the number of required sources per text was only three.

Sources are not the only thing lacking in the cards. There is no information on the physical nature of the items—typefaces, logos and symbols exempted of course—displayed in the Archive: no dimensions and nothing about the materials and techniques used in their production. There is not even an indication about the scale of the images as reproduced in relation to the originals (e.g. is the B018 Rizla image so small because that is the real size of the package?). Dimensions are necessary to understand scale, something which too many design monographs and histories ignore. Information on materials and production techniques is essential for anyone using the Archive’s contents as a research or educational tool. This could have been solved by the simple addition of codes or symbols (e.g., LP for letterpress, L for lithography, O for offset printing and S for serigraphy). Including such information would not have been burdensome and it would have gone a long way to making the Archive live up to its hype.

The captions for each card in the Archive—which include supplementary images on the reverse in addition to the main image on the front—are inconsistent in their presence and content. Sometimes the front image is captioned and sometimes it isn’t. For the most part it does not need a caption as the title block serves that purpose, but on occasion that information is insufficient (e.g. I009 Helvetica). Sometimes the captions for the back images include design or illustration information (e.g. E016 Time magazine) while others simply provide dates and serial information (e.g. the covers for E058 die neue linie which are not individually credited to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy—he did numbers 1, 2 and 5—and Herbert Bayer—who did numbers 3 and 4); and some are completely vague (e.g. H046 Twen). Sometimes dates are only provided for a few of the items illustrated (e.g. H043 ty i ja where there are dates for five covers of the magazine but not for two spreads). Sometimes interior spreads of a periodical are described as such and sometimes they aren’t (e.g. E043 Arts et Métiers Graphiques). And sometimes the captions are simply wrong (e.g. E014 Merz in which 1. on the back is identified as Merz no. 8–9 when it is clearly Merz no. 4).

“For the archive concept to work well,” Steve Heller has written, “it was necessary to have a large image on the front and explanatory text with additional images on the back.” This may have been Phaidon’s theory but it is not fully borne out in practice. The front image is not always large (e.g. A009 Orbis Sensualium Pictus, A013 Join, or Die, B008 Bradshaw’s Monthly Railway Guide, B018 Rizla, D001 Oxo, E015 Banknote for The State Bank of Thuringia and others). And sometimes the front has multiple images (e.g. Eo46 N.V. Nederlandsche Kabelfabriek 1927–1928, F032 10 Let Uzbekistana SSR, Ho46 Twen, and I039 Munich Olympic Games) [11].

The supplementary images on the back of each card in the Archive are not only welcome but often essential to fully understanding the primary image (e.g. H014 RCA—Paul Rand’s Weintraub advertisement soliciting the RCA account is accompanied by a diagram of Morse Code and a photo of the Weintraub staff; or H042 Rheinbrücke includes a sketch for one of the advertisements). But often Phaidon seems to have merely included the extra images to fill out the design format of the cards (e.g. F009 NegerKunst [sic] where the back shows Max Bill’s poster, partially obscured, at the 1936 Milan Triennale; or H035 Die Zeitung (1958) which has Emil Ruder’s Glaskunst poster (1955) on the back; or E005 Chanel where the interlocking C logo is on the front but nowhere to be found in any of the four images on the back). And there are some back images that are entirely mystifying (e.g. B012 Fette Fraktur which has the New York Times masthead [an example of textura—not fraktur—hand drawn by Ed Benguiat] on the back and nothing else).

There are also times where Phaidon seems to be confused as to which image for an entry should be the primary one (e.g. D002 Opel where Hans Rudi Erdt’s iconic poster is on the back and another, lesser poster by him is on the front; E050 Die Neue Typographie [sic] where an interior spread rather than the dramatic double-page title is shown on the front; or H016 Univers which has a lone eszett on the front while the famous chart explaining Frutiger’s pioneering numbering system languishes on the back). Finally—and worst of all—there are too many instances where the image on the front does not match the title information and/or date (e.g. A017 Didot has the cover of an 1819 type specimen from the foundry of Pierre Didot on the front even though the text is about the work of his brother Firmin Didot; B008 Bradshaw’s Monthly Railway Guide (1841–1861) has only images from 1939 on the front and back; or H043 ty i ja (1959–1962) which has a cover from 1968 on the front).

The principal problem with the images on the back (and occasionally on the front) of the cards, however, is the frequent disconnect between them and the text. This is due to the fact that the images for each entry in the Archive were chosen not by the authors of a text but by the editors at Phaidon without any consultation. Thus, texts describe or comment on specific designs that are not illustrated while designs that are shown go unremarked upon or, worse, contradict what the text says. A few instances: in E007 Dlya Golosa [For the Voice] the text describes “concrete construction (an ‘A’ made of rule), prefabricated representation (a pointing hand) and stylistic reference (a blackletter, or Gothic, typeface for the word ‘Berlin’)”, none of which is present in the five illustrations; in E062 Vogue the text says “covers incorporated the title into the composition… as seen in the Surrealist cover by Salvador Dalí (June 1939)” which is not shown; or in I007 The Graphic Artist and His Design Problems the text explicitly describes the book as having “a distinctive deep orange cover” while the front image is of a tan cover).

The cards in the Archive are vertical in orientation with the only element on the front being the main, iconic graphic design image against a white background. This format is often ill suited to the image, especially books and periodicals. Some need to be larger to properly appreciate details (e.g. D021 La Fin du Monde) while others look awkward shoehorned into the portrait format (e.g. E057 You Can Be Sure of Shell). I noted fifty-eight instances (more than 10% of the Archive) where front images would have benefited from being rotated. Stefan Müller and the Phaidon editors occasionally break their formula and show more than one image on the front where it is essential (e.g. F059 London Transport—Keeps London Going)—and where it is counter-productive (e.g. H046 Twen)—so why not violate it more often and give horizontal images their due?

There is no denying that the great majority of images—especially those on the front of each card—that comprise The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design are beautiful and worthy of framing [12]. And many of them can be used as educational aids—flash cards is what I would suggest—but the project as a whole falls short of what it could have been and what it should have been. For something that involved so many authors, editors and advisors it has a half-baked air about it. If Phaidon follows through on its plan to issue additional cards in the future then some of the lacunae will be filled—whether or not the identification number dilemma is solved—but it is too late to fix the other flaws detailed here. Phaidon can still create an author index for the entire box and any new cards, but it is too late to revise the existing cards to add author credits, bibliographical sources and improve captions without overhauling the entire edition. For now, The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design remains a graphic design bauble more than the graphic design landmark it desires to be.


*Kerry William Purcell was apparently the instigator of The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design. He was the editor when I was contacted to contribute to the project. It seems odd that he is not credited with any specific role in its genesis, beyond this vague bit of thanks.

1. Despite the claim that the Archive contains 500 images, it actually has far more. Not only are there several entries with multiple images on the front (e.g. E045 N.V. Nederlandsche Kabelfabriek 1927–1928), but the backs have additional auxiliary images, often as many as six.

2. Steve Heller claimed the box only weighed 10 pounds, but other sources say 13 kilograms.

3. I am not the first to point out that the book-in-a-box concept has practical drawbacks. Creative Review wrote: “One point to note, however, is how well the cards will stand up to repeated viewings. Entries of course have to be put back in the correct place in order to be found again later (not a tricky concept, but one likely to go awry when the cards are routinely referenced) and this could make for a less than enjoyable user experience. The emphasis is firmly on interacting with the work, but the down side to this is that once cards are removed from their slot in the system, the system starts to fall apart. And that’s something that conventional books, with their fixed pages and indexes housed reliably at the back, don’t really have to worry about.” One solution would be to abandon the box provided by Phaidon and group the cards into a set of smaller acrylic boxes that would make sorting both easier and less damaging.

4. This list is only the tip of the iceberg. The Archive has no work from a number of significant individuals in the history of graphic design, among them Jonathan Barnbrook, Lou Dorfsman, Gert Dumbar, W.A. Dwiggins, Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Faucheux, Louise Fili, Carin Goldberg, April Greiman, Oldrich Hlavsa, Jost Hochuli, Alan Kitching, Roger Pfund, Leonardo Sonnoli, Erich Spiekermann, Albe Steiner, and E.R. Weiss.

5. I wrote an entry for Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar 1919-1923 which has been exerpted and folded in with text by others—apparently Sony Devabhktuni, David Hyde and Graham Twemlow—about the Bauhausbücher to form the entry labeled E006 Bauhaus programmes. I was unaware of this situation until I began preparing this blog. This despite clause 8 in the contract with Phaidon which expressly states that, “The Author confirms that he/she will read, check and correct the Texts at layout stage and return corrected layouts to the Publisher within such time period as the Publisher specifies to the Author which will be determined by the Publisher’s production and publication schedules.” Phaidon never sent any of my texts back to me at the layout stage.

6. For each author’s credentials see my post Blue Pencil no. 27.

7. It is one thing to be paid very little for an essay—even though perfectly understandable from Phaidon’s perspective as the cost of over 500 entries (many were submitted but not yet used) surely added up quickly—but another to be denigrated by not having a proper byline. To add insult to injury Phaidon consequently asked contributors—regardless of the number of entries they wrote—to buy the box, albeit at a discounted price of roughly $150 instead of the $235 list price. The Archive currently sells for $104 on

8.  My assessment of the individual entries in the Archive is limited by my lack of knowledge about a number of them, especially those not found in the graphic design surveys of Meggs, Eskilson, Jubert, Drucker/McVarish and Cramsie or anywhere else in my library of design books and magazine (e.g. A009 Orbis Sensualium PictusB008 Bradshaw’s Monthly Railway Guide, C020 Seven-Segment Display, F016 RoningyoI037 Asahi Stiny Beer, or J023 Genealogy of Pop/Rock Music). But what I do know is that in the areas where I am knowledgeable—especially those involving type, typography and book design—the entries tend to fall short of expectations.

9. Oddly, in the designer index there is no entry for “unknown” even though it appears under the designer heading for a number of items in the client index. Similarly, in the client index “self-commissioned”—an abused designation throughout the Archive—does not appear, although it is in the title index.

10. The contract with Phaidon stipulated that authors must “supply a full bibliography of all sources consulted, including websites. We recommend that you consult a minimum of 3 sources for each entry if possible to ensure a good range of information.”

11. I am ignoring those instances where multiple images are essential on the front (e.g. F022 Dubo Dubon Dubonnet or Ho45 North by Northwest).

12. Not all of the images are as suitable for framing as they could have been. Somewhere between fifty and a hundred of them are either small or horizontal in format and thus not shown to best advantage. And some front images are, quite frankly, not as appealing as some of those on the back side (e.g. F023 Wohnbedarf or L018 Thinkbook) or not attractive at all (e.g. G021 Der Spiegel or I055 Frutiger).