Unit Editions have just released a two-volume survey of the front covers of design magazines, journals and periodicals – 1.0 (Unit 27) covering 1922–73, and 2.0 (Unit 28) covering 1974–2016. Spread over 768pp it offers ‘a helicopter view of graphic design trends and stylistics backflips’. Starting in 1922, and coming up to date in 2016, it’s a homage to the great design publications of the past (nearly) 100 years. In these two new books you will find the covers of design magazines, journals and periodicals of all kinds. They come from many countries – including Japan, India, Russia, Switzerland, USA and Iran, and they cover many topics – graphic design, typography, architecture, interiors, print, theory and history. But above all, they are brilliant specimens of innovative visual design. We caught up with the books editors Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy to find out more…
Why this book, why a double issue, and why now?
AS: This book began, like so many of our books, with a visit to an archive. Tony Brook came back from a trip to UCA Epsom (part of the University of the Creative Arts), raving about the archive the school has recently acquired. It’s the collection of the famous Amsterdam bookstore, Nijhof and Lee. No longer in existence, the shop was a mecca for designers for many years, and when Warren Lee, one of the founders, retired, his collection of graphic design magazines was acquired by Epsom. Tony came back from his visit with his eyes on stalks. The collection was staggering and, thanks to the generosity of Epsom, it soon became clear that a book was begging to be made.
The double issue came about when we started speaking to friends who had their own “archives” of rare specimens. Suddenly we had too much for one book, and with the time span – 1922 to 2016 – it was obvious that the book could be split logically into two volumes.
Why now? Well, as more and more design writing, reporting and image curating goes online, it seems timely to remind ourselves the debt we all owe to the editors, writers, designers and publishers of printed design journals. Without it’s printed journals, the craft and profession of graphic design would be infinitely poorer.
TB: As Adrian says the project just grew, we started off thinking that there was a something in the subject based on my own collection but soon realised that it was far richer and deeper than we imagined. It seems the perfect time to look backwards and forwards, there are some brilliant innovative new magazines coming through.
Steven Heller writes: “As we head deeper into the age of hand-held devices, covers will become obsolete.” – Do you agree? Or will there still be need for books like these in 50 or 100 years?
AS: Who knows if we will still have a habitable planet in 50 or 100 years, far less printed books, but as long as we’ve got graphic designers, we’ll always have printed matter. But of course, in a world of free online content, printed journals have to work harder than ever to justify their existence – and their cover price! The internet is faster than print and it’s mostly free: but so much online design publishing is gossamer thin, so there will always be a place for reflective and informative design journalism. It will be more niche than ever before, and there will be fewer big circulation mags, but that needn’t be a bad thing.
TB: The book is a tough technology to beat, it isn’t going to die any time soon. The initial impact is still going to be key whether the content is delivered via paper or pixels.
Out of the thousands of covers from the last 100 years how on earth do you go about selecting which to include? What was the criteria?
AS: Early on we realised that we couldn’t include everything, so we fell back on a trusted Unit Editions’ criterion – if we (Tony, the Spin/Unit team and me) admired a publication, then it was in. So the choice is mainly based on personal judgment, but also a desire to represent the range of design publications across international boundaries, and across subject matter. For instance, we agonised over whether to include architectural mags, but in the end we decided to include them, mainly because the covers were so often excellent examples of graphic design.
We ended up with something we didn’t expect – both volumes, when taken as a whole, give the viewer an almost unrivalled timeline of graphic styles and trends. I can’t think of anywhere else where you’d see this more clearly. It runs from 1920s German severity, though the postmodern eclecticism of Émigré in the 1980s, to the plurality of 2016 – you’ve pretty much got a helicopter view of graphic design in the past (nearly) 100 years.
TB: It felt important to represent the sheer scope of what has been made, I think that informed our choices to some degree.
I’m sure like me many buyers will be much more familiar with the covers in Impact 2.0 than 1.0 – do you have a favourite era from these books? and do you think they accurately represent the wider trends and styles evident in design work across the decades?
AS: We worried that 2.0 would be less interesting than 1.0. But we were genuinely surprised to find that 2.0 stands up really well. I thought I’d lean towards the 60s stuff, but there are mags being produced today that are really just as good.
TB: Personally I think there is a sweet spot between the 1960’s and the 1970’s when the language becomes more experimental and dynamic. As you go through the books it reveals the influence of various movements around the world. The way styles ebb and flow is fascinating. You would get a pretty good design education even if these two books were the only ones you owned.
The designers who have work included is a who’s who of superstars (Rand, Garland, Henrion, Brodovitch, Brownjohn, Vignelli, Aicher, Lubalin, Brody etc) – what do you think it is that draws so many talents into the world of editorial/magazines?
AS: Designing the cover of a design magazine has always been a sort of Holy Grail for graphic designers. I asked a few of the people I interviewed in the book about this, and pretty much everyone said that yes, it was a great opportunity, but because the audience was other designers, you had to work twice as hard.
You’re both avid collectors of design ephemera – and you both love print. Do you have favourite titles or covers you just had to include? Any special pieces from your own personal collections make it in?
AS. Yes, some my copies of early Idea magazine made the final cut, and another Japanese mag called Industrial Art News. I also like Stile Industria from Italy, and amongst current mags I’d mention Concrete Flux.
TB. Idea, Octavo, Neue Grafik, TM.
Adrian recently mentioned always aiming to keep photographed content readable on the page. Did you consider going with a larger format for these titles at any point?
AS: When we do a book, we spend more time discussing the format than just about anything else. We agonized over the size of Impact, but in the end we concluded that since magazine covers are bold and eye catching, we didn’t have to worry too much about not being able to read the small print. I think in all cases it’s readable.
Favourite magazine – of all time? And contemporary?
AS: For me, it’s the two Japanese magazines: Idea, of course. But also the wonderfully named and search engine bothering Graphic Design. There were only 100 issues printed and it’s full of good stuff. I’d also say Architectural Review is an undiscovered gem from the 60s. Covers were by leading British designers of the day – most of whom are now forgotten. Coming more up to date, I’m amazed at how fresh Émigré looks. Amongst current mags I really like Graphic (from Korea) and an architecture magazine called Archphoto.
TB: That’s an impossible question, all of the above plus TM, Neue Grafik, Form from then and from now – Eye Magazine, Slanted, ID Pure, Printed pages etc.
Lastly, 2016 has brought new titles, events and products – what can we look forward to from Unit Editions in 2017?
AS. Well, we are in danger of turning into a real publisher! We’ve got a pipeline! In other words we’ve gone from only working on one book at a time, to working on multiple titles. We have books being written and designed by other people. So if you like design books, hold onto your socks, next year is going to be busy!