In my opinion

Friday, August 26th, 2005

I’ve reviewed a few books in the past few years, all related to education and/or art and design (a term I hate as it implies the two are one and the same). In every case I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read – even the one I really hated: Class War by Chris Woodhead, a bitter polemic that makes more bizarre claims than you’ll hear from any religious extremist, and making the author a prime candidate for deportation as a proponent of hatred towards educationalists.

But this week my latest review appeared in The Times Higher Educational Supplement (26 August 2005) of Graphic Design School by David Dabner. Reviewing it had been a tricky business for several reasons. Firstly, this is a small world and as I’m currently facing the end of my contract and looking, increasingly desperately, for a new job, I knew that if I didn’t like what I read and told the truth I might find a few doors closing. Dabner works at a university where I have links, largely through my work teaching on their postgraduate certificate in education – a qualification all lecturers are having to gain (quite rightly) but which many deem beneath them though not, I hasten to add, Dabner, so far as I know. If worst came to worst and I couldn’t find a full-time teaching post I knew it was a fairly safe-ish bet that I could get some part-time teaching hours at this place to tide me over (although to be honest it would still not be enough to pay the rent).

So the pressure was on because the likelihood of getting a job, or more likely keeping it, if I wrote a bad review would be remote. Academics, I know from bitter personal experience, don’t like each other but they don’t like people who criticise their colleagues even more. And it isn’t just that particular institution I’m talking about – the fact is that everyone knows everybody else and I could be criticising the Devil himslef but if someone once worked with him (something I don’t doubt in some cases) I’d find myself sent to Coventry (except even there I bet I’d be ignored. If you’re already in Coventry, where do they send you?)

The second difficulty arises from the fact that I have a book coming out myself in November. In fact I’ve got two coming out – a book on branding I’ve provided some sections for, and one on Visual Communication I’ve co-written with a well-respected designer. At the time of doing the review I’d just submitted the final manuscript to the publisher and, although relieved, I have to say I was going through the ‘oh my God it’s crap’ phase. I used to think it was just me, that I can never like what I’ve done until a year or so down the line, but I think most people suffer from this. At school I would never let people see my work, and as a designer I would hold off until the deadline (or after) before saying ‘here, what do you think?’
So I was thinking to myself ‘what goes around comes around’ and that if I submitted a negative review I’d find myself being reviewed by someone who felt I was going to get what I deserved.

The third reason, and the biggest, was simply politeness. Somebody has written a book and had it published. That in itself is an achievement, something I can relate to. Just flicking through the pages I was overcome by respect for the mind-boggling complexity of chapters, headings, box-outs, picture captions and footnotes. Would a negative review send the guy into a depression? I know that’s what will happen to me if I stumble upon less than positive feedback of my efforts.

There’s a common phrase in education of the ‘shit sandwich’, a model for providing students with feedback. Start off with the praise, then give them the criticisms, then no matter what the grade they got, end with more praise even if it’s just ‘well-formatted’ or ‘some interesting points of view’. It’s quite a good model actually, less formulaic and more constructive than it sounds and so, I thought, maybe I should use it here.

I have a bit of a process when I write reviews: I skim through the book first to get the general gist and write an immediate response to what I think the arguments are. If you read a lot of book reviews you’ll notice that many talk more about the subject than the actual book, and this is my preparation for that bit. Book reviewing is less about the book than placing it in a context and commenting on its contribution or failings in that context.
Then I read the book more closely and make a mental note of sections that stand out, for good or bad.
Finally I put it away for a bit. I might ‘free write’ my immediate thoughts but either way, I put it away for some time partly out of procrastination and partly because I want my thoughts to mellow. Something that makes you angry one minute might later, after much thought, turn out to be a good point that you simply weren’t willing to accept. I see a lot of this in student essays, incidentally. There’ll always be a body of students who think an idea you introduced them to is stupid and misses the point. In fact this sometimes comes out in the end of year feedback they provide on the course – among the positive comments there’ll be a few that are quite scathing about something and although it’s easy to get upset about them I know from experience that it’s often those students who, when it comes to their third year dissertation, will come up with the goods because they’ve engaged with the arguments and mellowed over time. Well, not always. Sometimes they just don’t like me.

So after the cogitation comes the writing process and again there’s a formula: general comment about the subject, how the book fits in to it, specific points and maybe a quotation or two, show off about your own knowledge, find something to praise or criticise (whichever provides a balance to what’s gone before) and then mention who you’d recommend it to (if at all). ‘Job’s a good ‘un’, as we say in Yorkshire.
Then if time allows leave it again and come back to it. Often I rewrite large sections, move bits around and generally mollify my language.

In the case of this book it needed a lot of mollification. It wasn’t the author’s fault – the problem with this book was that it reflected what I see as a bad state of affairs in graphic design education: the focus on the visual and the idea that all you need to do to be a graphic designer is learn how to use InDesign or QuarkXpress, Dreamweaver and Flash, and learn how to use a digital camera. The book is so broad in its coverage that it says not very much about lots of stuff. In that, it’s a perfect textbook for so many graphic design courses but that doesn’t excuse it. Remember, when someone is asked to review a book they are asked because of their assumed knowledge of the subject or their known views. Newspapers want a review that engages with the book and asks questions of it, that spark a debate. The idea isn’t that the reviewer knows more about the subject than the reviewee, or that their word is sacrosanct. In this case I was asked, I presume, because I’m known to the paper as someone with strong views on graphic design education and as a member of the UK’s higher education academy subject centre for art, design and media. Given that, I told myself, it’s appropriate to say what you think.

There were three main criticisms of the book: its scope, its contradictions and its mistakes.
Scope I’ve already mentioned but to elaborate: animation is not, I believe, graphic design. Nor is photography. There are so many ‘best bits’ of other subjects that graphic design has pilfered in recent years that we no longer seem to know what graphic design itself is. At my last college there were three year degrees in photography, packaging and animation and yet the course I inherited seemed to think you could do each of those in five weeks. If the other courses had run five week modules in graphic design there’d have been uproar.
I don’t deny having a knowledge of those areas helps, as designers often work with or commission photographers, animators and packaging experts. But to suggest that you can be as good as them in, as in this case, two double page spreads, made me a little cross.

As for contradictions, one stood out in particular. On one page about ideas generation (and I take my hat off to the author for claiming, as I do, that creativity can be generated rather than being inate in just a few people) the book warns students to ‘avoid clichés’. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: why are clichés seen as bad? It’s another word for ‘easily understood sign’. The ultimate irony here is that just above this particular instruction is a rough for an advertising campaign for the London Underground. It’s a picture of the open doors of a tube train and the words (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘Opening doors to London’ or something. Whatever, it actually works quite well and is exactly the sort of thing you see. It’s a student effort, as so many of the examples in the book are and it’s rather good. But it’s a cliché. Is it there to illustrate the point that you should avoid clichés or is it a contradiction? Either way, in telling students to ‘avoid clichés’ in precisely the easy way that so many lecturers do without providing reasons or examples, he misses the point that humans communicate through clichés.

As for mistakes, there are several. In the section on advertising the text says something along the lines of ‘few people get to work in an agency without an art school background’. Right. Well ignoring the accountants and marketing people, the copywriters and project managers, oh and the ‘creatives’ who tend to come from politics, English, history and psychology degrees (to name a few) you’re left with the art school people. So yes, I suppose if you ignore 90% of the non-art school backgrounds the assertion is true.

What really got my goat though was the section on colours and what they mean. Green apparently means nature and youth. Doesn’t it also mean sickness and envy? Or ‘go’? Or ‘nothing to declare’? The answer, of course, is that it means nothing unless it has a context. Basically the author ignores and even contradicts basic visual theory – something a lot of studio tutors do. The peach is the claim that green causes less eye strain than other colours which is why we find the countryside so relaxing! Oh stop, my sides are splitting! Nothing to do with fresh air, exercise, silence, sun at all, then. And if green is so relaxing how come the first company I worked in spent a small fortune getting filters for the green monitors all the secretaries were using at the time?

Oh dear oh dear. You see, it’s things like that that clinched it for me. If a student had written these things in an essay it would have taken a great deal to pass them, so as I said in the review, for a book the publishers are selling as an essential textbook it is unforgivable.

So that’s the shit in the sandwich – what about the praise? Well my knowledge of how publishers and editors work means I was quite charitable in my review as I know from my own experience that when you’re writing a book you end up putting down complete and utter rubbish. It’s fatigue more than anything else. In my book for example I got the basics of semiotics completely wrong at one point and inadvertently misrepresented the ideas of some well-known authors. Not because I’m crap, but because we all make mistakes. It’s the editor’s job to spot these but it doesn’t always happen if you’ve got an editor who is either not knowledgeable about the topic or, as is usually the case, also working on umpteen other books at the same time. But I suspect that a lot of the problems in the book are to do with bad editing than anything else. Sadly this point was left out of the published review.

Another good point is that, despite the silly errors, the author knows his stuff and writes well. It is actually an interesting book to dip into. After writing the review I gave my copy to a student I bumped into and she told me she found it useful for a specific problem – but the implication there is that apart from the one section she found useful the rest of it was not. A symptom of the breadth of the book certainly, but evidence that the author and publisher would have been better off producing either a series of books on different aspects of graphic design, or getting rid of the other subjects and expanding the core elements.

So as I said, the review was published today. It’s odd seeing your work in the finished format – it stops being your own and you can be objective when you read it, unlike when you look at the original Word document. The same thing happened this week when I received the proofs of my book and I read it almost as though someone else had written it (and I’m a lot happier with it than I was). The review is rather negative and although I stand by my criticisms I can’t help wishing some of my positive points, no matter how trivial, had made it through the editing stage (my own and the publication’s). I know if I received a similar review of my own work I’d be angry and depressed and for that I’m very sorry. Ultimately though I was asked for my opinion and I gave it. I have no doubt that others would offer a different opinion and, although I ended the review by saying I couldn’t recommend it, I’d say here that if for no other reason than seeing if you agree with me, you should get your hands on a copy. There are certainly bits that could be useful – the section on mood boards for example is actually one I might photocopy and give out to students who’ve never been shown one. But as a whole it’s a let down – not because it’s bad (it isn’t) or because it contains basic errors (which it does) but because at the end of the day graphic design doesn’t know what it is, only that it wants to be the best bits of everything else.

Graphic Design School: The Principles and Practices of Graphic Design
By David Dabner
Thames & Hudson, 192pp, £14.95
ISBN 0 500 28526 8

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