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smug, self-congratulatory pap dressed up as profound insight
on November 2, 2010
What an annoying, disappointing waste of money "Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design" by Michael Bierut turned out to be! Nearly all of the 79 essays are smug, self-congratulatory pap dressed up as profound insight.
In their original context the essays would have been targeted at a specific readership and perhaps those readers liked this stuff and were used to it. But when published as a collection, specialist "occupational" essays like these reach far broader audiences who may find the material and style not to their taste - if not downright silly.
Individually, the essays might be worth casually browsing if you have run out of soup can labels; but as a collection read through as a normal book they reveal their shallow superficiality only too graphically. Frankly, after reading the first five essays I already felt cheated.
Take the essay "How to Become Famous", for example. It is basically semi-humorous, insider nonsense that includes exhortations like "when in doubt, make it big. If still in doubt, make it red." OK, that's worth a knowing chuckle the first time you read it, but the humour palls after reading endless injunctions in the same vein.
Here's another example of the pretentious claptrap sprinkled throughout the book: "our traditional conception of graphic design history reduces what is actually a complex and ever-shifting melange of incident and influence to a falsely organised canon of images."
Some of the essays (eg essays 6, 7 and 11) are abbreviated book reviews; but book reviews used as a platform for the essayist to expound his own ideas. In fact, many of the essays seem to be more about their author, the pronoun "I" appears early and frequently, rather than about the subjects themselves. Personally, I find that sort of egotism distasteful, not to mention disrespectful to the putative subject of an essay.
Essays 9 and 10 are obituaries - of a sort. Essay 10 is particularly crass in that the author uses the occasion of another man's death to talk about himself - yet again.
Most of the essays are mercifully short, often only a page or two, so I was able to heave a sigh of relief after reaching the end of one of these forgettable pot-boilers, hoping that the next essay might be better. Such hopes were invariably dashed, and my heart sank ever lower as the interminable pages of the book ground on to the end. Eventually I was able to read one of these essays in about 45 seconds with no loss of comprehension.
Each of the essays is set in a different font, which is not obvious at all if you just flick through all the pages. That's rather novel and I suppose it has some mild curiosity value for the reader.
The design of the book itself is sparsely minimalist. I rather liked that - it's in keeping with the content of the essays.
General readers might glean a few interesting insights into the self-absorption of the author, but I doubt if professional designers would get anything insightful (or even useful) from the book at all. It goes without saying that design students should give this light-weight pot-boiler a miss and spend their time and money on more worthwhile publications.
I suppose I should try to end on a positive note. The Appendix lists all the essays, the fonts used and the original sources. That's helpful in case the reader wants to check out the references, and to note authors and publications to be avoided in future. Oh, and the paper has a nice, heavy feel.