A Book to Look At
by Will Novosedlik
March 7, 2017
Books that commemorate design milestones are few and far between, but a welcome visual treat
Twenty-five years is a long time. A quarter of a century. A third of the average human’s life expectancy (which stands at 73.6 years globally). The length of a human generation. The time it takes for your brain to reach maturity. And the age of some of the world’s most expensive single malts, with richly brogued names like Bunnahabhain, Tomintoul and Bruichladdich.
It’s also a long time for a design firm to remain in business, especially at the top of the market. Which, for a firm like Toronto’s Hambly & Woolley, is a perfect reason to publish a book celebrating their long, successful practice. And we should celebrate with them, for as anyone in this business knows (at least anyone of a certain age), sustaining a healthy practice for that long is a rare occurrence.
This kind of book is a time-honoured tradition in the world of graphic design. Giants like Paul Rand, Dan Friedman, Ladislav Sutnar and Bradbury Thompson all published milestone books on design, using their work to demonstrate their philosophy. One of my most cherished possessions is a facsimile reprint of Ladislav Sutnar’s 1961 book Visual Design in Action, which laid out his meticulously articulated thinking on design backed up by 40 years worth of professional work. It is a remarkable document, not only because of its content, but also because of its reliance on a multiplicity of printing techniques and varieties of paper stock used to produce it.
Spread from Visual Design in Action, by Ladislav Sutnar, 1961
In Hambly & Woolley’s book, there is no philosophizing, no story, no context. The book is instead a gleeful, light-hearted celebration of all things graphic—from shape to pattern to colour to type—executed as a series of spreads, each one a graphic interpretation of the theme of “25”: 25 tangrams, 25 misspellings of the company name, 25 important dates in history, 25 cigarette cards, 25 food labels, 25 designer chairs—there’s even a page of 25 design books.
The book is exquisitely designed and produced, using, like the Sutnar volume mentioned above, a variety of stocks and printing techniques to show off not only the designers’ imaginations but the printer’s production prowess (in this case, that of Somerset Graphics) and the paper supplier’s product range (that of Veritiv). To graphic design practitioners, it is pure, unapologetic eye candy.
And yet while the heart may be warmed and the eye delighted by this clever, luxuriant and entertaining volume, the mind is left a little wanting. While I love looking at this book, I find myself yearning to hear what these seasoned practitioners have to say about their 25 years in business. I want to hear about the culture they have built, their struggles, their victories and their failures. I want context. I want meaning. Not only as someone who has never been able to match such an achievement (and so is keen to understand how they did it) but also as someone who can remember what it was like to be starting out in this business without a clue in the world of how to succeed at it.
Design starts getting interesting when it leaves the studio and goes out into the world to do its work. Equally engaging is the boom-and-bust entrepreneurial envelope in which it gets treated. It’s a shame we don’t get to hear about either in this otherwise lovely document.
Will Novosedlik likes playing in traffic at the intersections of business, brand, design and innovation. He's worked both as a consultant and client on brands such as Telus, TD Bank, Bata International, Williams-Sonoma, Vodafone and Deutsche Telecom in Canada, the US, North Africa and Europe.
March 21, 2017
Thanks for the info. Great article.