Publications / Occasional papers

Graphic heritage institutions and the irresistible rise of graphic design

Why do printing museums tend to overlook graphic design, preferring to use it simply as a means of illustrating technical processes or of providing period ambiance? Why is it seldom presented as the vital component of printing that it has been since at the very least the middle of the nineteenth century? And why do heritage institutions dedicated to graphic design pay so little attention to how the objects in their collections are produced?

Alan Marshall
former director of the Musée de l’imprimerie et de la communication graphique (Lyon, France)

As the graphic industries have been transformed, so has graphic heritage.

In the closing decades of the twentieth century the graphic industries were radically transformed by wave upon wave of technological innovation: fine screen/high-quality offset printing, photocomposition, digital and computer typesetting, electronic photoengraving, desktop publishing and digital prepress and printing. The ongoing technological renewal of graphic production required a very considerable investment by manufacturers in research and development in new processes and systems, and by printers in the acquisition and mastery of new equipment. Technological change also transformed the economic and social organisation of graphic production, demanding new skills and knowledge on the part of the industry’s craft workers. At the top end of the industry capital intensification was accompanied by the concentration of ownership of firms as printing was absorbed into the much larger and rapidly expanding communication industries. As for the general printing trade, it was fragmented by the advent of desktop publishing which created new markets by graphically upgrading office document production and by opening up what used to be known simply as ‘printing’ to new categories of workers and individual users that hitherto had little or no knowledge of traditional techniques and craft-based practices. In the professional domain, origination was split off from printing. Origination was increasingly shared between authors and designers while actual printing – the business of putting ink onto paper – remained in the hands of printers.

In the field of graphic heritage – the material and immaterial traces left by technological, economic, social and cultural change – the closing decades of the twentieth century saw the creation of a large number of printing and related museums, most of which had their origins in, and focused on, traditional letterpress printing which ceased to be a widespread industrial process during that same period. Letterpress had of course been the principal printing process since the time of Gutenberg. So its disappearance was an event of enormous importance. Somewhat curiously, however, the disappearance of several other major industrial processes generally found little more than a token position in the collections, exhibitions and programmes of the new printing museums. Direct litho printing, for example, disappeared and was replaced by offset almost without comment on the part of printing museums, the transmission of its material and immaterial heritage being left to artist-printmakers in their workshops. Similarly, the replacement by digital technologies of the image reproduction techniques that had been at the heart of phenomenally successful photomechanical processes since the late nineteenth century did little to increase their presence in printing museums’ collections and displays. Other major shifts in the second half of the twentieth century, such as the decline of rotogravure printing, the rise of industrial screen printing and the advent of so-called ‘strike-on’ typewriter  composition and digital technologies, have also remained largely absent from graphic heritage collections, and with them the history of the profound economic, social and cultural changes of which they have been a part.

The absence of many industrial techniques from museums’ collections and displays can be explained by several very practical considerations. The scale of the processes involved can render their preservation difficult – think of industrial paper-making and gravure printing or the presses used to print daily newspapers. Their complexity can make them very difficult to explain to a non-specialised audience: photomechanical processes, computer typesetting and electronic image processing are more difficult to explain than letterpress printing, for example. Or quite simply some machines and processes are more visually attractive than others, the classic example being letterpress machines which are infinitely more pleasant to look at than photo- or computer-typesetting systems which for most people can only be distinguished by the colours of the boxes containing their electronics. In addition, the speed of technological innovation has in recent times generally outstripped the preservation capacities of collectors and heritage institutions – though it has to be said that few collectors or museums have shown any great commitment to following the spate of innovations which has marked that last half-century and to preserving even the more visible among them.

The absence of one other major development – the emergence of graphic design as a vital, autonomous sector of graphic production – has also had a very significant impact on the graphic industries since the 1960s, is rather more difficult to explain however, for the profound changes that have taken place in the organisation and status of graphic design within the production process since the 1960s were not technologically driven and were not principally instigated by large-scale enterprises. Nor was the rise of graphic design a particularly complex process. Indeed, the rapid growth of graphic design and its recognition as a key profession within graphic production have been apparent to, and have been widely discussed and commented on by specialists and non-specialists alike.

So, the question we must ask ourselves is why have the functions, the skills, the organisation and even a large proportion of the final products of graphic design remained off the radar of most institutions concerned with graphic heritage? Why do printing museums tend to overlook graphic design as such, as opposed to using it simply as a means of illustrating technical processes or of providing period ambiance? Why is it seldom presented as a key sector of graphic production which, under various names and in various different organisational forms, has been a vital component of printing since at the very least the middle of the nineteenth century? And, conversely, why do those heritage institutions specifically concerned with graphic design – museums of the decorative arts or graphic design museums – pay so little attention to the techniques and procedures used to produce the objects in their collections?

Explaining the processes by which printers, publishers and, later, graphic designers organise texts, images, decorative elements and space on the page or printed sheet poses numerous problems, if only because they are virtually undocumented up until the end of the nineteenth century. (Although many discoveries doubtless remain to be made in the depths of library collections and archives.) In a museum context, however, it is not particularly difficult to explain the elements of how design works and how its forms, uses and status have changed over the centuries. So why is it that a large number of graphic heritage institutions have been so reticent to take on graphic design?

Why is graphic design so important and why is it not more present in printing museums?

The question has become central to the future of printing and related museums because of the unprecedented importance that graphic design acquired since the closing decades of the twentieth century. For it was during the 1960s that graphic design came fully of age in the form that we know today and affirmed itself not only as a key sector of graphic production, but also as a cultural phenomenon in its own right with its own history and heritage. Not to mention the impact of personal computers which brought authors into the loop and allowed designers to take origination away from printers. As such, the rise of graphic design has played a vital role in the transformation of graphic production over the last half century.

Rather curiously, and with the notable exception of a small number of decorative arts museums and an even smaller number of graphic design museums, it is not well represented in the museum world, not even in museums that are principally focussed on graphic communication such as those devoted to printing, books, printmaking, the periodical press or other specialised print-related activities.

The relative absence of graphic design from such museums can be explained in part by the origins of the museums and their collections and by the specificities of the historical disciplines which underpin their activities. The collections and vocation of older museums naturally reflect the fact that they came into being before graphic design (using the term in its broadest sense) became an issue. Similarly, many museums have for perfectly justifiable reasons chosen to concentrate on particular aspects of printing and print media and have developed their collections and exhibitions accordingly: for example, the book as a cultural phenomenon, printmaking as artistic production, the role of the newspaper in the dissemination of political ideas and information, printing as a technique and a trade, the role of branding, printed advertising and packaging in the development of consumer society, etc. No matter what the focus is, however, the design of the printed documents and objects is necessarily present to some degree, but it is rarely the object of more than occasional remarks in displays and other forms  of mediation.

In more recent times – since the 1970s – many printing museums have been created on the initiative of active or former members of the printing trade. So if printing museums have been slow to recognise the importance of graphic design it is perhaps partly due to the fact that the printing trades themselves were slow to recognise and accept the new found status of the graphic designer in the closing decades of the twentieth century. For centuries printers had an important, often decisive, say in how texts and images should appear as finished documents. In earliest times printing and publishing functions – and with them decisions as to what form the final product should take – were generally assumed by the same enterprise. Then, with industrialisation, the roles of the printer and publisher became increasingly distinct. Despite many publishers’ desire to have the first and last word as the initiator of, and principal investor in their printed products, printers were generally able to maintain a firm grip on ‘design’ thanks to the fact that administrations, merchants, manufacturers – and even some publishers – continued to rely on them to produce printed documents which met their specific needs and those of the printed documents’ final users. By the First World War, however, advertising agencies, whose original business had been to sell press and outdoor advertising space at preferential prices, had begun to provide ‘design’ as an integrated part of their service. Originally a marketing ploy, the practice had led by the Second World War to the establishment of fully-fledged internal design studios under the control of the advertising agencies.

By the 1960s the printing trade’s self-attributed status as the guardian of ‘good’ (often simply traditional) design for printing was already being eroded by advertising agencies’ design studios who were now among their most important customers, a trend which was accentuated by the emergence of graphic design beyond the confines of the advertising agencies. To begin with the new generation of graphic designers functioned somewhat as a ‘cottage industry’ with a large proportion of independent designers or small partnerships.

By the 1970s the situation was changing rapidly with the growth of a certain number of big independent design studios to service  corporate, administrative and other large accounts, and among more design-conscious printers there was a serious debate about whether printers should set up their own studios. But by the end of the 1980s the majority of general printers had come to accept the fact that the organisation of graphic production had irrevocably changed. Graphic designers had come to stay as important print buyers and patrons in their own right, and had largely replaced printers as the arbiters of usage and taste in graphic communication.

Combatting the balkanisation of graphic heritage

Just as printers were slow to accept the growing importance of graphic designers as major players in all aspects of printing and visual communication, the same can be said of historians and heritage institutions.

Graphic design has never attracted much attention in academic circles apart from a small number of heterodox art historians and a few stray social historians. Indeed today, when any self-respecting bookshop has a flourishing graphic design section, it is easy to forget just how little was published on the subject forty years ago.

Graphic design history, for its part, only began to develop in the 1980s when it took its first tentative steps toward academic recognition. However, apart from a handful of general histories, research and editorial production were largely limited to monographs and the occasional exhibition catalogue devoted to the most successful designers and to the establishment of the official canon of graphic design – studies which very seldom discussed the social, economic or more general cultural aspects of the profession.

As for the heritage aspects of graphic design, it is only in recent years that they have become a subject of discussion among a small number of designers, teachers and researchers interested in exploring questions such as the origins and nature of collections, what should be exhibited and why, how and why the perimeter of what is considered legitimate graphic design has expanded over time, and the role of designers in its mediation. Even among printing museums, which one would expect to be the first to be concerned with such questions, an awareness of the importance of the tectonic shift in the social uses and organisation of graphic production produced by the rise of graphic design has been very slow to develop. One of the results of the absence of a tradition of displaying and explaining graphic design (with the exception of typographic design) in printing museums, has been that its recognition as an autonomous sector of graphic production is often seen as a side effect of the digital revolution, an epiphenomenon without veritable roots in museums’ collections or intellectual development. The emergence of graphic design as a major cultural phenomenon since the 1960s (that’s over half a century ago), and its extensive ramifications in digital media since, have still not produced a significant shift in the centre of gravity in how the institutions of graphic heritage deal with the material and immaterial heritage of printing.

The corollary of this has been that the still relatively rare institutions with an explicit focus on graphic design – whether graphic design museums or decorative art museums with extensive collections in the field – continue to pay remarkably little attention in their exhibitions and other mediation activities to the printing industry which has been producing such material for over five hundred years.

Such divisions perpetuate the traditional balkanisation of the study of print culture and the institutions of graphic heritage whereby printing historians, book historians and design historians and their corresponding heritage institutions seem to inhabit different worlds. Indeed, one of the most salient problems facing museums, libraries and other organisations working in the field is how to create bridges between historians of printing and historians of graphic design, between printing heritage collections commonly thought of as being largely of hardware and graphic design collections which tend to be seen as devoted primarily to the more visually exciting products of printing. Similarly, the history of graphic design in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is seldom dealt with in detail by printing historians, while historians of graphic design generally make only passing references to the technological and economic changes which have affected the printing industries, the history of which they ‘take as read’. And while the creative and problem-solving aspects of graphic design have been widely discussed by design historians, rather less attention has been paid to its role in the separation of the tasks of conception and realisation which has been at work since the mid-nineteenth century in all sectors of industrial production where volume production and economies of routine can obtain a cost advantage.

And on a more down-to-earth, practical level it has to be said that professional and industry attitudes have often had a decisive impact on what was considered to be ‘legitimate’ heritage and, as a result, on what survived materially – usually machines rather than processes, documentation, working production documents or finished printed products.

But perhaps most important and problematic of all for museums and other collections is the fact that the interpretation of graphic design requires a high level of understanding over a wide range of technologies, and that this is not being provided for by the usual educational routes.

When reviewing existing graphic heritage institutions and their collections it is clear that such factors have had – and continue to have – a profound influence on the ways in which collections are constituted and enlarged and the missions of such institutions evolve.

That said, some progress has been made in recent years in the study of graphic design as a broad cultural phenomenon. Social and cultural aspects of graphic design have to some extent found a place alongside the traditional focus on formal and aesthetic considerations, and vernacular graphic design – previously the almost exclusive domain of ephemerists and social historians – has begun to feature on the margins of the pantheon of the established canon.

But a more than superficial recognition of the important role that economic and technological factors have played in the long history of graphic design is slow to come. For the moment, much (if not all) remains to be done to develop policies of acquisition, conservation, study and mediation capable of fully embracing transdisciplinary approaches among the various collections, institutions and disciplines involved in graphic heritage without which it is impossible to make sense of twentieth century, one of the most turbulent periods in the history of the graphic industries.