Review of Reading Graphic Design in Cultural Context

Reading Graphic Design in Cultural Context
Grace Lees-Maffei and Nicolas P. Maffei

Bloomsbury Press, London, UK, 2019
248 pp., illus. 25 col. and 84 b/w. Trade, £70.00
ISBN: 9780857858009.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
June 2019

Graphic design is uncomfortably sitting between two chairs, art and commerce, and as such it is suffering from a double handicap. For some in the art world, graphic design should not leave the field of vocational training. And those who want to promote the cultural and aesthetic excellence of graphic designers often fall prey to the temptation of merely focusing on highlights and big stars, not only copying the theoretical limitations of traditional art history but preventing themselves to elaborate new and more appropriated ways of thinking on what makes graphic design such an essential practice and endeavor.

In Reading Graphic Design in Cultural Context two experienced teachers and researchers give a simple but very efficient answer to this twofold problem: instead of trying to bridge the gap between the worlds of “real” art and research on the one hand and the merely “applied” status of graphic design, be it by claiming the aesthetic value of the whole field or focusing on its major achievements, the authors propose a paradigm shift that guarantees a much stronger defense and motivation of graphic design. Although it also includes an excellent historical framing of the discipline’s transformations, both as a professional field and as an object of scholarly research, their book chooses to study graphic design in what they call, paraphrasing Rosalind Krauss’s immensely influential essay on postmodern sculpture, “the expanded field”, a term that here mainly refers to the attempt to approach graphic design in its various contexts: technological, social, political, aesthetic, commercial. For Grace Lees-Maffei and Nicolas P. Maffei, graphic design as a relevant social practice can only be understood in light of its interaction with these contexts, which at the same time shape graphic design and are being reshaped by it.

In order to make this point, the authors select a wide range of case studies that often come from culturally less prestigious and certainly understudied domains, such as for instance T-shirts or the images on album covers. At the same time, the book is also smart enough to include some of the classics of graphic design, such as the logo and the gendering of advertisements for cars, more particularly cars aimed at female customers (if sex sells, the authors say, gender buys…). Yet the merits of this book are not limited to the broadening of the traditional corpus of examples. The “expanded field” approach allows first for a richer and more complex understanding of design processes, liberated from the mere concern of commercial constraints and objectives and aesthetics ambitions and successes. It also provides the reader with many perspectives and dimensions that in other, comparable studies remain invisible or unquestioned, such as for instance the collective aspects of graphic design. To reduce the field to directly involved stakeholders such as clients, customers, and graphic design creators or agencies completely misses the contact with broader social phenomena, which are as important in “making” design as the classic stakeholders of the business, as shown for instance in the political and ideological debates on the longed for or unwelcome presence of billboards in the public domain (a concept that is moreover permanently reshaped by the very presence of absence of this kind of advertisement). In a similar vein, Grace Lees-Maffei and Nicolas P. Maffei also succeed in making relevant a broad set of forms and practices that other studies may overlook (a chapter on fashion photography in Vogue is not necessary what readers expect from a book like this, and they will be pleased to discover that they are wrong by thinking that graphic design should stick to “typical” items and mechanisms).

Reading Graphic Design in Cultural Context is, once we know the rules of the game, a WYSIWYG book: a perfect match of graphic design in all its diversity, a clever analysis of the multiple interfaces that structure the back and forth movements between design and society, and a smart example of good writing. Grace Lees-Maffei and Nicolas P. Maffei take great care in providing their readers with all the historical and theoretical information they need to make sense of the sometimes surprising –but never excessively extravagant– examples they bring to the fore. The readership they target is that of the scholarly oriented graphic designer as well as that of the social and cultural researcher with a particular interest in graphic design. Both groups will find great interest in this work, which is an excellent springboard to further analysis and an invitation to return to traditional examples whose interpretation is still confined to strictly commercial or essentially art-historical schemata. The iconography is well-chosen, and the central full color section is a pleasure for the eye and the mind. Finally, Reading Graphic Design in Cultural Context can be enjoyed as well as an update of some important theoretical and methodological issues in graphic design, such as the eternal debate between minimalism and overload, local and global, unique and multiple, visible and immaterial, in short: design and its expanded field.