What makes a particular design — the familiar Coca-Cola bottle, say, or the vivid yellow Kodak film box — significant and unforgettable?
That’s the question that I Heart Design aims to answer. Steven Heller, a former art director at the New York Times, asked 80 experts in the field — including designers, typographers and academics — to each pick an influential example of graphic design that resonates beyond the context in which it was made and place it within the historical framework of the discipline. Heller also asked them to explain why these particular pieces move their souls.
“Design triggers something in all of us that may be solely aesthetic or decidedly content driven, but in the final analysis, we are drawn to it through the heart and mind,” Heller writes in the introduction, “…What is it that touches the heart, as well as brain and eye, equally?”
The result is a handsome book — with its Milton Glaser-inspired title — that entertains as much as it inspires.
The personal pronoun in the title rings loudly through most of the essays. Take the selection by artist-designer Edwin Schlossberg (husband of Caroline Kennedy). He gushes about “I Object Defy Myself,” his own 1964 copper relief that alludes to Jasper Johns’ work of the same period in its use of stenciled letters. (Schlossberg’s choice of his own work trumps any notion that the choices here might be selected objectively.)
Selections run the gamut — magazines, logos, posters, maps, illustrations, architecture, album covers, sculptures, film title sequences, everyday objects and other ephemera.
Shepard Fairey picks John Van Hamersveld’s “Pinnacle Hendrix” poster, citing it as an influence on his Andre the Giant images. Fairey writes that Van Hamersveld’s iconic work possesses all the criteria of a “perfect image,” that it’s impossible to imagine the work any other way or to improve upon it. Van Hamersveld’s posterized black-and-white style informs much of the graffiti, street art and fine art today, including Fairey’s images (the Obama “Hope” poster), Banksy and his possibly manufactured alter ego, Mr. Brainwash.
If these artists and their designs are unfamiliar to some readers, others won’t be. The CBS logo is celebrated by two of the book’s contributors — designers Sagi Haviv and Woody Pirtle — who elaborate on its simplicity and effectiveness in terms of sheer communicative power. Designed by William Golden in 1951, the logo quickly reached iconic status. Pirtle says it is “unlikely to ever become dated,” and Haviv uses it as a benchmark to reach for — the logo, for him, “stands like a beacon, not only for the modernist ideal, but … for good design.”
One of the more obscure discoveries is offered by designers Ivan Chermayeff and Steff Geissbuhler, who both chose a poster created by Armin Hofmann for a Swiss theater production of Wilhelm Tell. Each makes the case that good design speaks to its intended audience by calling upon presumed understanding of the subject and then triggering different associations and interpretations in each viewer’s mind.
Some of the short essays get bogged down by their academic tone, but in general, readers will enjoy clear discussions of the ability of the best designs to inform, distill and clarify information and, ultimately, to cut through the visual cacophony that litters our lives.