The latest in a series of reissued vintage design manuals serves up a few surprises.
I’ve been trying to cut down on design manuals lately.
For those of you unfamiliar with this genre, there’s been a recent trend of reproducing the historic design manuals of beloved brands and organizations, turning the once-mundane graphic rule sets into objects of both design history and design fetishism. For every insight they provide into iconic 20th century graphic identities, they bundle dozens of repetitive pages filled with type samples, color swatches, and exacting specifications for logo placement.
As many of these books emanate from historians and collectors rather than publishers or the original designers, they tend to get funded via Kickstarter. And after a few years of accumulating manuals sight-unseen – representing NASA, the EPA, the US Bicentennial Committee, and the NYC Transit Authority, among others – I’ve cut back. Because ultimately, these are not books that one reads, but books that one flips through quickly before adding to a design library, in the hopes that they will provide inspiration at some point in the future. And I’ve got too many of those already.
But last summer Kickstarter beckoned with another manual on a subject I couldn’t resist: IBM. IBM was arguably the most design-centric big business of the 20th century, working with iconic mid-century designers like Eliot Noyes, Charles & Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and Paul Rand, lending credence to Thomas Watson Jr’s proclamation, “Good Design is Good Business.” And so, with the hope that the manual might offer some insights into IBM’s design excellence, I chipped in.
The book kicks off with a short, single-page introduction by Stephen Heller, then dives directly into its vintage contents. Each page of the original three-hole-punched manual is immaculately photographed and reproduced here; the authors referenced multiple archived copies to achieve the most complete recreation possible. The original manual, developed by Paul Rand and his team, was in fact a living document whose three-hole-punched pages were meant to be replaced and appended over time. As such, the pages mix content from 1962, 1969, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1984, and 1987.
Across almost 300 pages, the book lays out the expected basics: logos, typography, and color, played out across letterhead, packaging, wayfinding, and other design collateral. You’ll find 24 pages on envelope design and another dozen on safety signage. There’s little explanation here – type samples from different eras seem to contradict one another, and there’s no indication of when each should ideally be used. This perceived omission may be a case of context: a 2018 manual can make its way to marketers, copywriters, and software developers, but in the years before desktop publishing only a skilled graphic designer could have really implemented these standards; internal communication may have filled in the gaps.
The most surprising part of the guide is how open the standards are to improvisation and interpretation by designers. As Rand states,
“…the practicality of a self-imposed limitation to a single style of design is questionable… The relative size of a corporation, however, does not alter the fact that effective communication is largely dependent on novelty, that is, on the unexpected, for its impact.”
Sample layouts in fact display an unhindered freedom, mixing and modifying IBM’s logo with glee. Elsewhere, designers are encouraged to turn the logo sideways, making it appear more graphic, so as not to draw attention away from headlines. Rand continues:
“In keeping with Mies van de [sic] Rohe’s dictum that less is more, there are instances when the omission of the IBM trademark may be appropriate or even necessary. When a trademark impedes reading, it should not be used. When the effectiveness of an advertisement or brochure depends on soft sell, on subtlety, or on a ‘teaser’ approach, a similar course may be desirable. And there are times when good taste dictates the omission of company identification.”
Having seen my share of contemporary brand books, where the placement of logos is micromanaged by the millimeter, this is refreshing – and it’s common sense. This is a design manual seeking to unify a brand through smart choices rather than strict rules.
A few pet peeves:
- While the “found object” feel of the photographed pages is authentic, it would have been useful to see a clear demarcation of which pages originated in each era. In fact, the manual’s genesis as a constantly-changing document is not mentioned anywhere in the book itself – I had to look this up on the original Kickstarter page.
- Despite the subtitle’s promise to lead us all the way to 1987, there’s no trace of Rand’s iconic 1981 rebus logo.
- Worst of all, there are production issues with the book itself – while most of the other design manuals I’ve collected are high-quality, hardcover art books, this one is softcover with thin paper and was shipped shoddily from France. As a result, there’s visible damage to the cover, which has resulted in some warped pages. Fortunately, my collecting habit prodded me to purchase several copies, one of which arrived in great shape.
For those looking for a more curated source of inspiration, take a look at the Manuals series from Unit Editions. Volume 2 includes excerpts from multiple iterations of IBM design guides, but unfortunately it’s out of print and hard to find. Volume 1, more recently reissued, includes colorful highlights from NASA, British Telecom, Lufthansa, and other 1960s-1980s identity guide books.
But if the rigorous authenticity of the IBM manual sounds interesting to you – and you know who you are – I’d definitely recommend purchasing the book. The insertion of Rand’s insights make this one of the more readable of the manuals I’ve seen, and a fantastic addition to any design history library.