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Book Review: Graphic Design before Graphic Designers

The proportions of the book itself, the soft printing on the half cover, the way the pages are set, and the quality of the imagery and the writing are phenomenal. If you are at all interested in the history of our profession, you must own this book. If you’re interested in history at all, you should own this book.

Well, I’ve set this up in pretty epic fashion, right? None of the above paragraph is shallow lip service. Every facet of this book is impeccably made, and oozing with polish. Jury describes the book as such:

“This book traces attempts by the jobbing printer to gain recognition for his adaptation of tradition and craftsmanship to serve the needs of a growing industrial sector. Here, some 300 years before the ‘invention’ of the 20th century graphic designer, the printer was establishing the visual language of graphic design.”

Once you can force yourself to tear your eyes from the soft cover with its glossed compositional works scattered across the cover and open the book, you’ll find something that’s not only filled to the brim with gorgeous specimens of the era, but you’ll find the writing is masterfully handled and extremely compelling. I can’t recall a book with more thoughtful and informative captions as Jury has placed here. We have all purchased design books which are filled with lovely pieces, but there’s no narrative, no context, no insight into the process, no window into the designers viewpoint. That’s not the case here. Jury has gathered countless stories to support the examples he is archiving, and the text is woven together so well that frankly the book would be a compelling read even if the visuals were removed.

The composition of the pages is varied and a work of art in its own right. Work tends to gravitate towards the center or outer edges of the spreads and related examples are carefully grouped to illustrate a particular technique, style or trend. The book alternates between full color pages filled with imagery and monotone sections which begin each chapter and hold the majority of the text in the book. The beige background fill on these introductions soften the appearance of the bold single-color works and also lending the book a nice sense of variation and pacing.

“We have all purchased design books which are filled with lovely pieces, but there’s no narrative, no context, no insight into the process, no window into the designers viewpoint. That’s not the case here.”

I’m fascinated by the idea of a person or a group of people inventing a new profession; proving that there is a void their skill-sets can fill. The book centers around so-called “job printers,” who were tasked with pushing the boundaries of what could be done on the printing press and in the process created an entirely new field of work. These printers worked jobs that were considered undignified by their peers: they worked for advertisers, printing posters, advertisements and labels instead of crafting books like the nobility of their field. How funny it is to write that statement and see how things in our field haven’t changed in a few hundred years.

Job Printers worked on thankless tasks (that a client would be receiving design along with the payment for the print work was an assumed fact), but that did not stop these artisans from producing work that beautiful, clever and timeless. It’s difficult for me to image recreating the majority of the work housed inside this book with the aid of a computer; I simply can’t imagine the skill it would have taken to accomplish by hand. Jury’s examples cross styles, countries and eras, but they share a common thread of excellence.

Jury ends his introduction of the book with this Dr. Jonathan Miller nugget: “It is in the negligible that the considerable is found.” That’s some million dollar wisdom in a $40 dollar book. I doubt this book will ever lack for things to teach me, and I will continue to revisit it and soak up a little more knowledge and beauty each time. If you haven’t clicked on any of the other links to purchase this that I’ve sprinkled throughout this review, here’s your last chance. You’ll learn countless things, appreciate how the field of design has grown, and your eyeballs will be delighted. After you’ve placed your order, check out this video of Jury speaking on the subject. It is clear what a labor of love creating this masterpiece was, and I can’t live with myself if I don’t do whatever I can to evangelize his work.