Thursday, November 19, 2015

Visual design in action: it's here

My copy of the new facsimile edition of Ladislav Sutnar’s Visual design in action arrived a few weeks ago, and there’s a London launch on 26 November at a meeting of the Information Design Association. It’s a beautiful and faithful reproduction of the 1961 classic, down to the multiple stocks and beige buckram binding.

I came to Sutnar very late – around 2008 I think. For someone who has spent his life promoting, teaching, researching and practising information design, it was embarrassing to find I had completely missed this extraordinary designer who had used the term (and pioneered the practice) in the 1940s.

Sutnar didn’t just use information design as a synonym for graphic design (as some early adopters of the term appeared to). In his introduction to the book, he actually distinguishes between the two. While visual design (he seems here to conflate this with graphic design) is about visual patterns and structures that appeal to the mind and the eye… ‘The term “information design” should be understood as the integration of meaning [content] and visualisation [format] into an entity that produces a desired action.’

That’s as good a distinction as you could hope for – there is plenty of graphic design that’s great to look at but that ignores content, users and effects.

Ironically perhaps, in view of this concern for meaning, Visual design in action is easier to look at than to read. The examples are quite stunning and it is inspirational, astonishing even, to see wonderful modernist design (the sort that actually works) applied to a wholesale trouser catalogue, among other things. But the text – somewhat cryptic and set in unsympathetic rectangles of italic type – is quite hard to follow if you are looking for a closely reasoned argument.

Instead, I find it a rich source of quotable quotes to hang on to – nuggets like ‘the memory value of a simple, clear shape to facilitate quick recognition’ or 
‘…text, tables, graphs, drawings and pictures. All these elements must be composed in space in such a way that they work together as smoothly as the gears in a machine.’

This last quote speaks to Sutnar's concern for visual flow, and his pioneering use of double spreads – now being chased out of town by the current obsession with responsive design.

Sutnar’s theory of information design is best expressed here:
‘The performance standards to meet the requirements for functional information flow necessary for fast perception are /1/ to provide visual interest to gain attention and start the eye moving, /2/ to simplify visual representation and organization for speed in reading and understanding, and /3/ to provide visual continuity for clarity in sequence’.

Today we might speak of engaging the user, making information readable and understandable, and supporting navigation. It’s actually quite a rich model once you start thinking through the techniques and skills needed at each stage ­– a combination of graphic design, information design, and UX.

Sutnar's work has that timeless quality you find in the best of modernism: to our eyes the exhibition designs depicted here are completely contemporary, while the adding machines displayed look like museum pieces. 

Visual design in action was published towards the end of Sutnar’s career following an exhibition of his work. He self-published it to exacting standards, and it’s just been reprinted to the same standards by Lars Müller on the initiative of Steven Heller and Reto Caduff, using Kickstarter crowdfunding. Heller’s 1994 article in Eye magazine is the best introduction to Ladislav Sutnar.

Look at it, read it and marvel.