Gunnar Swanson Interview

Gunnar Swanson
Interviewed by Gavin J. Grant

Graphic Design & ReadingFor those interested in the book as an object, Gunnar Swanson is a fascinating man to talk to. He is a graphic designer, media designer, writer, and educator. He has won more than 50 award from the AIGA, Graphis, How, the American Corporate Identity series, and other graphic design organizations, books, and magazines. His articles on graphic design have been published by How, Design Issues, the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, and others. Recently Swanson edited and designed a collection of essays by 18 writers on the relationship between reading and graphic design, Graphic Design & Reading. recently talked to him about his book, book design, and the future of graphic design. Where did this book come from?

Gunnar Swanson: I was asked to put together a show about graphic design at the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth. I knew that the problem in financing would be the catalog. It is expensive to do a short-run book like a catalog -- people are not willing to pay a big price for a small book, and foundations don't want to underwrite the cost of other people's book purchases. I figured that putting together a commercially viable book that would serve as a catalog (perhaps with a small supplement) would be a good solution. I also thought that soliciting various points of view on the theme would enrich the show itself.

I quit my job as head of the graphic design program at UMD, and suddenly my show disappeared from the Tweed's calendar. By then the book had a life of its own; it became Graphic Design & Reading.

I suppose that while you were designing this book, you spent more time on the design than usual?

Looking CloserI spent much more time than the designers of most of [my publisher] Allworth's books do. Much of book design tends to be choosing some type specs, along with page sizes and margins, and then just leaving it to be typeset. For some books that is the only economically viable way to go. For many books, general formatting is the main design that is required or appropriate. I certainly didn't use that approach.

Many books are "designed" books, and Graphic Design & Reading fits into that category. I approached it like I would any graphic design project. In that sense, it has more in common with a corporate annual report, a guidebook, or a major art exhibition catalog than with a novel.

Did any of the other contributors give you any input on designing their essays?

Some provided specific material for illustrations but most left that up to me. I provided all of the authors with prints of their pages when I was done designing. Only one author complained about my design, but I disagreed with her approach and was unwilling to redesign. Most of the authors seemed to really like what I did.

One question on the design of Graphic Design & Reading. Why did you put the footnotes alongside the essays, rather than at the foot of the page?

Envisioning InformationI don't like footnotes for most publications, and I like endnotes even less. They take you away from reading. That's fine if all they are is a set of bibliographic citations but these notes were often commentary, expansion, explanation...using footnotes would have either encouraged people to ignore interesting notes or would have broken their reading with the distraction of hunting for notes and then finding their places again.

The side notes intrude into the text block for several reasons. The most important is that it allows the notes to be big enough without making the margins overly large for areas without notes. Another was an attempt to integrate the notes, easing the flow from text to notes and back.

I also have to admit that I like the way it looks, but had it been mainly an aesthetic decision I would have used bolder type for the notes. I liked the way that looked better, but it drew the eye too much away from the main text.

What has the reaction to the essays been?

The reviews of the book have been mixed. Most have liked particular essays and some have disliked particular essays. I haven't seen any pattern emerge in the reception. I think that's a sign that I was successful in getting an interesting range of points of view.

Do you disagree with any of the essays?

Looking Closer 2I have quibbles with several of them -- including a couple of my own. I tried to point out some of the ironies in my introduction. James Souttar's point is valid -- that the separation of form and meaning is impossible, thus the talk about "content" on the web is misguided. On the other hand, he delivered the article to me as text that I gave form to. He still recognizes it as his article and, to a very large extent, the same article that he wrote.

A couple of the essays are interesting but leave me neither convinced nor in real disagreement. For instance, I think Hrant Papazian's proposal for alphabet reform warrants attention, but I don't know that I'm ready to endorse it. I'd love to see examples in action so I could better judge his theories.

While I'm largely in agreement with Stephanie Zelman's essay "Looking into Space," I think her explanations of the influence of computers on graphic design were a bit too pat. I could bore you with specifics but it's probably better just to say that anytime anyone tells you that X was the reason for anything in history, you should be suspicious. While X may have been an important, a vital, maybe even the vital reason, nothing is ever the reason for anything.

ClockersI have some philosophical problems with Katie Salen's article. Her subject is very complex -- the reflection of "otherness" in type and lettering. Certainly much of the early "ethnic" typefaces she showed and wrote about were evidence of racism or, at best, ethnocentrism, and her criticism of some of current type design as part of this tradition was solid.

I have questions about how the "vernacular" lettering functions, though -- what its intents were, etc. -- and wish that Katie had addressed that more directly. I also think the essay glosses over the notion of "majority," "establishment," "prevailing," or "normative" image and the assumptions of unity or singularity within the body of typographic voice she contrasted with these alternative voices.

I think the style of address within her article seems to deal too much with "good guys" and "bad guys," in a way that obscures some subtle issues that are vital to our understanding of cultural expression, self-expression, and legitimate and illegitimate reflections of other cultures in design. I hope nobody will read this as a dismissal of her essay as a whole or an argument with all of her points.

Because several essays made reference to Beatrice Warde's famous "Crystal Goblet" essay, I included it. My "Clarety" essay mocks Warde's type-is-like-a-wineglass simile, not because it disagrees with the notion that typography and design should often take a subservient role to writing, but because her simile is more of a reflection of class values than of function. I see much of her writing as social-climbing boosterism and self-congratulations for the type industry, rather than as the brilliant analysis that many people seem to think.

Many people seem to think that my mocking Warde is a sign of adherence to some opposite stance -- that type should obscure meaning and be difficult to read. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Do you think the increased use of word processors will change people's reading habits as they get more used to setting text in type?

Straight ManI think it's made some things that were common seem strange. Have you tried to read a typed manuscript recently? It's strange and uncomfortable. People are also less apt to write at length by hand, so people are less and less used to reading handwriting.

I think it may have an indirect effect. It has definitely affected the way type looks. My essay "On the Democratization of Typography" in Graphic Design & Reading deals with this. It used to be that type was set by people who had learned to set type. They know the difference between hyphens and different sorts of dashes, between an apostrophe and the tick mark you'd use to stand for feet or minutes (in the sense of fractions of degrees of angle). Now stuff that looks like type is produced by people who don't know what type is supposed to look like.

How will that affect reading habits? That remains to be seen.

If ebooks ever take off, will there still be work for graphic designers? Most ebook devices are like the web, where the designer can only give directions (in HTML) to the browser. Since people can choose their favorite typefaces, where does that leave the designer?

Do you have a few hours? I'll try to do the short version.

One of the current ebook "standards" is PDF -- Adobe's Portable Document Format. Designing books for these or similar readers would be not too dissimilar to designing for standard-sized paper books. Ebooks will only get really interesting when they become something more than displays for pictures of paper books.

Navigation in an ebook could be much more than a book with a mechanical page-flipper. Designing a book that doesn't have to go page 1, page 2, etc. is an interesting challenge.

Interface CultureWhat happens when a book can also talk, sing, have pictures that move, become interactive? I suppose you could ask whether it makes sense to keep calling this a "book," but there are many design challenges. Steven Johnson's Interface Culture, while largely about the web, brings up many issues about how we've barely begun to understand the potential of interactivity.

If you worked in a bookshop, what would be on your Staff Picks shelf?

I'm not much of a fiction reader, but Clockers by Richard Price and Straight Man by Richard Russo come to mind if I were putting together a favorite novels list. Drug dealers and college professors...I better leave that one alone.

I enjoy David Quammen's writing about biology, especially his early stuff like Natural Acts. (I think that one's out of print so it probably shouldn't be on a Staff Picks shelf.) His more current work (like Boilerplate Rhino) is great at explaining major themes. His earlier work perversely delved into the exceptional and strange, but always managed to connect to wider themes.

The Tummy TrilogyAnything by Calvin Trillin, especially his food writing.

Steven Johnson's Interface Culture is one of the most interesting books about the web and interactivity. I've given away a ton of them, so I probably should try to sell a few.

There are a few people writing about design that would be of interest to other than designers. Jessica Helfand (who wrote the chapter in Graphic Design & Reading about talking Barbies) comes to mind. I haven't read Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture yet, but I'm familiar with some of the essays -- I'm sure it would be on my shelf.

Design Writing ResearchEllen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller's Design Writing Research includes some very interesting writing about graphic design and it is a very handsome book, too.

Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information is the best of his three books. I have many quibbles with him, but his books are seminal works on information design and are lovely, too.

Allworth Press' Looking Closer books are interesting collections of graphic design essays. If I were choosing just one I'd go for Looking Closer 2 -- and not just because it has a couple of my articles in it!

Maus -- 2 Volume SetArt Spiegelman's Maus series would be on my shelf, but also connects to your question about ebooks. In Spiegelman's case we have an example of someone using a medium/form (the comic book) in an unexpected yet straightforward way. The baggage of comic books produced another layer of irony that makes the story of Spiegelman's father in the Nazi death camps even more powerful. As ebooks gain assumed uses, the ability to play off of those assumptions might allow us another communication tool.

Understanding ComicsScott McCloud's pro-comics propaganda in Understanding Comics sometimes seems like an attempt at self-promotion for a world that mainly comprises adolescent crap, but the book is the best look at media, communication, and the interaction of word and image that I've seen. Although I have some arguments about terminology and substance, the book is a delight. You don't have to care about comics to love it. (I don't, and I do.)

Do you have a favorite local bookshop?

Hennesey + Ingalls[1] in Santa Monica is one of the great art, design, and architecture bookstores. I can't let myself go there too often with much time, or I'll go broke!

[1] Hennesey + Ingalls, 1254 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, California 90401 Tel: 310-458-9074