As part of a new initiative to revive seminal, out-of-print design books, Designers & Books has assembled a star-studded design team to create a facsimile reprint of Czech designer Ladislav Sutnar’s 1961 masterpiece, Visual Design in Action, for which they’re currently raising funds on Kickstarter. Designers Steven Heller and Reto Caduff, collaborating with publisher Lars Müller, want to produce a “perfect reprint” that the exacting Sutnar would’ve been proud of–one that can sell this screen-addicted generation of creatives on the superiority of ink on paper over Google image search.
Though Sutnar’s legacy is still ubiquitous in visual culture (he’s responsible for the parentheses around American telephone area-code numbers, for example), many contemporary designers don’t know much about his work, or about his rare book that’s more than poised for a revival.
So who was Ladislav Sutnar?
Sutnar was one of the most pioneering modern graphic designers of his time. In his native Czech Republic, he was a celebrated typographer, exhibition designer, and industrial designer; he made toys and glassware, and worked as a design teacher at the State School of Graphic Arts in Prague. After the Nazi occupation of his home country, he immigrated to New York, where he’d designed the Czech Pavilion for the World’s Fair.
Following this span, he remade himself as a graphic designer, working for Sweet’s Catalog Service, a leading distributor of trade and manufacturing catalogues, and doing freelance ad work for businesses like Addo-X, a Swedish manufacturer of business machines, and Carr’s, a shopping plaza.
Soon after, Sutnar became one of the godfathers of contemporary infographics. Working for a range of American businesses, he developed clear visual languages for distilling complex, dry data into simple graphics. The subtly clarifying parentheses around American telephone area-code numbers, which he implemented when they were first introduced by Bell, exemplify one of Sutnar’s main working principles: “A designer’s aim is always to intensify comprehension.”
What is Visual Design in Action and why is it important?
Sutnar’s 1961 practical manifesto, Visual Design in Action, is an in-depth exploration of his American design work and his theories on the practice, a book for the thinking designer which accompanied a traveling exhibition of his work. Organized into three sections–“Principles and Attributes,” “US Information Design Progress,” and “Early Modern Design Concept. At 188 pages, with hundreds of illustrations, Sutnar expounded on these design principles using a variety of high-quality inks, papers, and textures.
Why even reprint Visual Design in Action?
Visual Design in Action has long been out of print. The exacting Sutnar, unable to find a publisher willing to pay the steep production costs his book demanded, paid Hastings House out-of-pocket for a limited edition of 3,000 copies, the remaining few of which are mostly housed in museums and special collections libraries. The rare book has become a Modern design bible that today’s headlining creatives drool over.
Steven Heller, in an essay on Sutnar, said it’s “arguably the most intellectually stimulating Modern design book since Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographie.” Making it accessible to designers working today will restore a crucial piece of graphic design history into the contemporary conversation. As graphic and type designer Erik Spiekermann puts it on the book’s Kickstarter page:
It is the simple fact that what really makes a designer is using that other tool: the brain. Thinking has usually been underrated, overshadowed by style and noise. Ladislav Sutnar approached wicked design problems by thinking about them first, isolating the real issue: what needed to be communicated and to whom. Then he applied a visual style that is both illuminating and entertaining. Sutnar’s approach and the ensuing visual style have all the trappings to make a serious comeback, so reprinting this fantastic book is a timely exercise.
Designers & Books aims to replicate exactly the specifications, materials, and visual and tactile qualities of the original book. It will be printed in 11 colors (10 Pantone colors plus black).
How can I get a copy?
If funded, Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action will be available this fall. Go here to pre-order a copy for $62. The reprint will come with a supplementary booklet of archival photos and writing on Sutnar by the editors. Sutnar’s colorful screenprints are also available for pre-orders. Estimated delivery is October 2015.