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Design Literacy: Understanding Graphic Design Paperback – July 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

Review

A trio of books recently published by Allworth Press offer a compact self-study course on the practice and appreciation of graphic design. The books . . . are intended as an alternative to the diet of eye candy that sustains many graphic designers. Of the three, only Design Literacy is illustrated, and that only sparingly, with black-and-white thumbnails. The message? Look with your brain first -- Metropolis, April, 1998

Each lesson could act as the starting point of a rousing argument or lengthy conversation. . . . Any modestly-priced paperback that can cover so much ground is welcome in the library. The reader may not always agree with the views of the authors, or with the histories they construct, but will come away feeling, indeed, very literate -- Communication Arts, March/April, 1998

Highly readable and informative, usually focusing on one object and providing some interesting insights into the object's creation and impact. Students of graphic design history will find appealing analysis and critical points of view to consider. Design Literacy will appeal to both the general reader, whose curiosity may be piqued by recognizing some of our most famous icons, and professionals/practitioners, whose knowledge and sensitivity to design may be heightened by these thoughtful essays -- Choice, March, 1998

Highly recommended. . . . In the past several decades various authors have objected to approaches to graphic design history that focus on individual masters, movements, and styles; that analyze the structural attributes of a work . . . or that feature highbrow examples while leaving out simpler, more popular works. This volume, which is one of the more inventive and thought-provoking books on design history in recent years, offers a plausible alternative: It consists of 93 "object lessons" in the form of engaging short essays about a wide variety of graphic icons, from the late 19th century to the present, ranging from the ubiquitous (shooting targets, the swastika, Joe Camel) to the esoteric (Emigre magazine, the Cranbrook posters, or April Grelman's self-portrait). Organized somewhat chronologically but in eight thematic categories (Persuasion, Media, Language, Identity, Information, Iconography, Style, and Commerce), the essays form readable "stories" about the objects, the designers' thought processes, and the social and political circumstances from which they emerged -- Ballast Quarterly Review, Autumn 1997

In their new book, Design Literacy, Steven Heller and Karen Pomeroy write that the whiff of Charles Manson makes the letters "kissing cousins of the swastika tattoo carved into Manson's forehead or the words helter-skelter that were drawn in blood on the walls of Sharon Tate's home" -- New York Times, January 8, 1998

Its great virtue is that it offers a lot of information and raises many provocative issues while avoiding the windy theoretical jargon that sometimes passes for serious thought in the field. . . . Nobody has been more successful than Steven Heller in reminding us that graphic design has a history and that it raises issues worth talking about. . . .

The implicit argument of Design Literacy is that even imagemakers have to slow down occasionally to think non-visually about what they do. Graphic design has a past, and designers' actions have consequences. It's an important cultural activity, and those who practice it need standards that go beyond communicative brute force -- Print, April, 1998

Readers come to understand what elements must coalesce to make certain ads, posters, packages, logos, and book covers take on a life of their own. The book delves into the origins of the swastika, what principles are key to effective propaganda, and what made Joe Camel so controversial -- Signs of the Times, July 1998

Steven Heller and Karen Pomeroy's Design Literacy is a winner: a guide to graphic design which presents over ninety object lessons examining the contexts in which works have made contributions to the field of graphic design. Design stories provide plenty of insights on how design works and how the field has been transformed by creative individuals -- The Bookwatch, November, 1997

This book intends to fill in some blanks and at the same time give an eclectic overview of the way graphic designs from the earliest decades of this century to well into the 1990s have become essential and influential images of not just graphic design culture, but of our culture at large. . . .

What is refreshing in Heller's book is his reverence for the lesser-known gods of graphic design history . . . [and the] wealth of case histories. Heller is at his best in concise stories such as these: funny, to-the-point, and erudite. . . . An interesting introduction to a design connoisseur's tastes -- Eye, March, 1998 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Steven Helleris co-chair of the MFA Design: Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts, New York. His many previous books includeTypographic Universe, New Modernist Type, and Scripts.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 433 pages
  • Publisher: Allworth Press; 2nd edition (July 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1581153562
  • ISBN-13: 978-1581153569
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 6.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,112,782 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Pumpkin King on November 17, 2002
Format: Paperback
This book isn't quite a history book, nor is it a book on design theory. While it has aspects of both, it's more like a series of case studies, in which almost 100 designers, magazines, posters, advertisements, icons, types... are analyzed and discussed and placed in a historical context.
So if you're expecting a comprehensive book on design history, this is not for you. In no way does it feel complete for a design education. What it does is provide thoughtful pieces to consider, and a perspective on the usage of design, originality, trends, etc. The authors do have a point of view, but it doesn't ruin the book. To the contrary, it makes it even more interesting. Design isn't just art and technique It's grounded in economics, history, culture, and politics. Heller and Pomeroy contribute a useful set of essays to help the reader become more aware of these relations.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By I'm a box-model on July 6, 1999
Format: Paperback
I attend a school with a lackluster offering in the area of graphic design history. This book closed many gaps in my seeming self-education. Every chapter was well thought out, well designed and an thoroughly enjoyable read. Kudos to the authors.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful By D.C. Creamer on October 15, 1999
Format: Paperback
I like this book a lot but found it to be full of very subjective opinions. It's not that I disagree with the opinions, for the most part i don't, but I'd prefer if it was more of a critique than a platform for the authors views on the world. I found that they would tend to defend one body of work (Brody) while slamming another (the Joe Camel complain) without fully explaining why. But then I guess that would be the point of writing a book in the first place, to voice you opinions.
And while I feel that one or two pages just is not enough space to dedicate to many of the designs discussed in this book, I was very surprised and grateful to see many of them at all. When was the last time you read about the history of the swastika? Let alone one that dared to go deeper that the obvious nazi reference. [lookup Manwoman the artist for more unbiased info on it's history.] I would have loved to read more on each of these topics though.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By ekgaither on May 22, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
After scanning through a few pages of a sample of the Kindle edition of _Design Literacy_, and discovering the full book was only 99 cents, I decided to purchase it. I was disappointed to discover the examples are tiny, low resolution black-and-white images. Seems an odd choice for a book about design. I've always enjoyed Heller's writing but this edition is a real letdown.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Design Literacy is much more than its title describes. It is a surprisingly revealing visual tour of the 20th Century, not through pictures but something more deeply imprinted on our psyches: the iconic vocabulary used to communicate our times to us - graphic design. Because graphic design effectively defines every image that becomes salient in ordinary life, Heller's design choices are always connected to us in personal ways, triggering memories as well as insight.

I started reading DL because I was looking for inspiration for the website I manage. I ended up spending the better part of the day engrossed in what felt like a cultural memoir of my own life and times.
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