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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.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa


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.

Here’s a greatly shortened list (it’s only as sampling) of some of the subjects that are both discussed and illustrated: Letterpress printing. Typeface design. Popular forms of reading, such as broadsides, chapbooks, almanacs, and newspapers. Advertising and packaging. Posters. Information design. Color lithography. Photography and print technology. Mechanized type composition. Designers working with printers. And so on—concluding at last with a section of notes and a substantial bibliography.

Much earlier, in the book’s introduction, the author had described the role of the designer in relation to the printer as “analogous to that of the architect to the building industry.” At the end, there is a brief but powerful postscript, in which he reminds us that the paramount initial aim of the Weimar Bauhaus has never been realized. The arts and crafts were never reunited nor was there ever established (in the words of Walter Gropius) a “new guild of craftsmen.” Teachers of graphic design at that school, although they were briefly called “masters” (as in the traditional system of masters, journeymen and apprentices), soon after became known instead as “professors.”

“As the status of the designer grew,” concludes author David Jury, “so the function and prestige of the printer diminished.” He ends by quoting J. Horace McFarland, who wrote as early as 1910 that “No one now cares for the printer as a business man. He is the football of the publishers and the doormat [of others].” The status of printers has withered so much, he continues, that they are “nearly equal to the average plumber in commercial importance.”

Last Updated 1 January 2013

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