Rare & Beautiful

Rare & Beautiful: Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action

A “lost milestone” of modern graphic design by the father of information graphics

By Stephanie Salomon April 22, 2015

While less of a well-known name than other twentieth-century modern graphic designers, Ladislav Sutnar (1879-1976) is acknowledged as the father of what today is called information graphics. Fact: He introduced the now common use of parentheses around area codes to distinguish them when Bell made area codes part of the U.S. telephone numbering system in the 1950s. Sutnar used grids, tabs, and geometric forms in his designs and he was enamored of the function and aesthetics of American punctuation marks. He is also credited with being among the first to use the double-page spread in publications to convey meaning across pages.

Spreads from Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action, 1961

The Czech-born designer, who spent nearly 20 years during the 1940s and '50s working as an art director for Sweet’s Catalog Service in New York—a leading distributor of industrial catalogues—was also a prodigious writer, producing numerous guides to information design. But perhaps his most important book was Visual Design in Action, published in 1961 to showcase his achievements as a designer, which ranged from branding for shopping centers to business letterhead to book covers.

The Book

Visual Design in Action Ladislav Sutnar

Sutnar both wrote and designed Visual Design in Action to accompany an exhibition of his work of the same name. In the 188-page book, which includes a preface by Mildred Constantine, then an Associate Curator of Art at MoMA, New York, he laid down his graphic design principles. Among one of his most well-known maxims was “Think first, work later,” and Sutnar was certainly the thinking person's designer. Design writer Steven Heller has said that Visual Design in Action “is arguably the most intellectually stimulating Modern design book since Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographie.”

The book is also extraordinarily beautiful. Sutnar’s meticulously designed layouts, use of type, and specification of varied papers and inks to enhance color and differentiate context contributed to a catalogue that today is considered a “lost milestone” of graphic design. The book is an example of Sutnar’s typographic philosophy that nuance makes the greatest impact. The text is set entirely in italics, to “intensify ideas,” as Sutnar explained. His standards were so exacting that when in 1961 he could find no publisher willing to pay the high printing and production costs that his design fo the book demanded, he paid Hastings House out of his own pocket to print a limited edition of 3,000 copies. These copies today, when they can be found, are a rare treasure.

Cover of Ladislave Sutnar: Visual Design in Action, 1961 (Hastings House). Hardcover, 188 pages, 8 ½ x 12 ½ inches, 188 pages, 36 color and 342 black-and-white illustrations

Images of book pages courtesy of Radoslav L. and Elaine F. Sutnar.

More information on Ladislav Sutnar:

• Ladislav Sutnar biography by Steve Heller, on the occasion of Sutnar’s receipt of an AIGA Medal in 1995. http://www.aiga.org/medalist-ladislavsutnar/

• “Sutnar on Sutnar” (Steven Heller interviews Radoslav Sutnar, a son of Ladislav Sutnar, on Ladislav Sutnar’s work in this video produced by the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2013). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDLwOMPo_uA

As part of a new Designers & Books initiative to bring back into the public eye important out-of-print design books and to introduce them to new audiences, we are happy to announce our upcoming Kickstarter campaign to fund a facsimile reissue of Visual Design in Action.

The Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action facsimile edition Kickstarter will launch Tuesday, April 28 and run through June 3, 2015.

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