Interviews, Essays, Etc.

Of Covers and Bindings, Pictures and Texts
May 10, 2011

Rick Poynor is a writer and critic specializing in design, media, and visual culture—and also founding editor of Eye and a co-founder of Design Observer. He answered some questions from Designers & Books about his book list and also about books and graphic design in general.

Designers & Books: We know the idea of lists of “must read” books about graphic design isn’t new to you—and that you have said elsewhere that the value of lists like this lies in their ability to “introduce new possibilities.” Of the titles you’ve chosen, which do you think might be most likely to be seen this way?

Rick Poynor: I’ll go for The World Must Change: Graphic Design and Idealism. Everything you need as a thinking, principled, committed designer is there in the two parts of that title. What good is any kind of design without idealism? And if someone doesn’t think the world needs to change even a little, then why contemplate a career in design in the first place? The book’s critical history of Dutch graphic design, one of the great national design cultures, shows what diverse, open, intelligent, aesthetically inventive graphic communication can achieve. I think younger designers, in particular, would find it eye-opening.

D&B: You have described Tibor Kalman as the most inspirational graphic designer you ever met. In an era of recessions, global competition, and relentless cost cutting and value engineering, does being inspirational matter any more? In the books about graphic design that are now being published, do you see any inspired or inspiring voices?

RP: How can we live without inspirational figures to prize open previously sealed doors and usher us towards new possibilities? In graphic design, I see fewer of these leaders now, though I admire the Dutch team Metahaven, who recently published the book Uncorporate Identity. If there is a shortage of bold, strong, and inspirational designers, who are prepared, like Kalman, to make a public stand for what they believe in, this might tell us something about the stranglehold that over-focused, calculating, market-driven thinking exerts on our times.

D&B: You didn’t have the chance to identify any of your favorite fiction. What novels have you read that were particularly meaningful and inspirational to you?

RP: There are too many to list them all, and I’ll invariably enjoy several books by the same favorite author. In my teens, it was Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Dostoyevsky. (I was big on existentialism.) That was also when I discovered J. G. Ballard, the fiction writer who has had most impact on me over the years—as an artist, thinker, social critic, and example—above all for The Atrocity Exhibition, an experimental text that remains utterly gripping. I don’t read quite as much fiction as I once did, but it’s still important to me. In the past decade, some of the contemporary writers I’ve enjoyed most are W. G. Sebald (everything), Michel Houellebecq (The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island), and David Mitchell (Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas). I’m also endlessly absorbed by the macabre short stories of H. P. Lovecraft. If I had to pick a single inspirational text, it would be Herman Melville’s mysterious and quietly devastating Bartleby, the Scrivener.

D&B: We are guessing you live with a lot of books. How many in your personal library and how do you have them arranged?

RP: Until you asked I’d never counted them. I now find I have around 3,500 books. They’ve overrun the shelves, congregated in towering piles, occupied cupboards, and colonized floor space under the bed. The books most essential to my work are organized by category: art, design, photography, film, ideas, culture, and society. I couldn’t do what I do without this library. But there’s also randomness in the “system.” I lose time searching for things. I need to purge.

D&B: What’s next up on your “to read” list?

RP: I’ve been revisiting some old enthusiasms of late, the philosophical science fiction writers Olaf Stapledon and Stanislaw Lem—I’ll continue reading them. For too long, I’ve been meaning to read Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I read J.-K. Huysmans’s Là-Bas recently and it’s high time I got around to his Against Nature.

D&B: Where do additions to your “to read” list come from?

RP: I’ve always scanned and read the latest reviews, and I read different kinds of criticism, where I get leads for future reading. But my sense of what I want to read mostly comes from years of visiting libraries (in younger days) and, more usually now, from bookshops. Books always point to other books. A bookshop, like a library, is a fantastic, spatially organized, easily navigable source of vast quantities of interconnected information about what exists for you to discover and know. If someone devised an online virtual space that allowed you to do this kind of rapid, effortless, multifocal, visual, and spatial browsing—perhaps someone has, though it certainly isn’t Amazon or the iPad App Store—we’d applaud them for a brilliant new concept. But these marvelous spaces already exist, at least for the time being, right there in your local shopping street.

D&B: What’s the best way for keeping up with the writing you do?

RP: I’m blogging every week at Design Observer, where I have my own pages, and I have posted essays about the visual interpretation of some of the authors I have mentioned above—J. G. Ballard, H. P. Lovecraft, and W. G. Sebald. I write about books regularly on the blog and have a strand there called “On My Shelf,” where I revisit a book from my library that is notable in design, content, or both, and is of particular significance to me. So far, these include titles about London architecture, Surrealism, and the 1960s counterculture.

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