Graphic Design Theory: Our Book

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The third essay in Karen Armstrong’s Graphic Design Theory is El Lissitzky’s Our Book. El Lissitzky was a Russian deeply invested in the Soviet cause. He served as an ambassador for the Russian avant-garde in Germany in the 20s, sending Constructivism’s geometric abstraction throughout Europe. In his essay he discusses book arts in depth and the dissolution of thought-communication forms.

Every intervention in art is a single event in time, has no evolution… Gutenberg… printed a few books… that stand as the highest achievement in book art. Then there follow a few centuries that produced no fundamental inventions in our field… What we find, more or less, in the art of printing are masterly variations accompanied by technical improvement in the production of the instruments.

It seems as if Lissitzky is disappointed with the development of book arts, but really he is always looking to the future and the media it will bring. His look towards new media fits in with his view of the way communication.

…correspondence grows, the number of letters increases, the amount of paper written on and material used up swells, then the telephone call relieves the strain. Then comes further growth of the communications network and increase in the volume of communication; then radio eases the burden.  The amount of material used is decreasing, we are dematerializing, cumbersome masses of material are being supplanted by released energies. That is the sign of our time…

If we follow Lissitzky’s idea through television, computers, and the internet it’s clear that he was on to something. Communication is a powerful force that is no respecter of tradition, specialized craft, or nostalgia. It has expanded to every medium presented to it and swallowed many whole. The internet is the latest mass communication platform and it will continue adapting and growing. Lissitzky complained:

…in this present day and age we still have no new shape for the book as a body; it continues to be a cover with a jacket, and a spine, and pages 1, 2, 3…

The internet is an answer to the complaint against formulaic trends in books. It is a web that can be linked and rearranged by millions of individuals. In this way it is a great leveling force in society. Lissitsky praised the printers and artists of his day because they did not discriminate in who they took their message to. Posters and paperbacks could reach laborers as well as bibliophiles. In modern times everyone can not only listen to the conversation but can directly participate. The internet is truly Our Book

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As the Soviet government because a more obviously totalitarian regime the geometric abstraction of the Constructivists was slowly supplanted by heroic figures in a style known as “Socialist Realism”². Fortunately the abstract principles of the constructors would be adopted by many movements throughout Europe in the years to come.

  1. Lissitzky, El. “Our Book.” Graphic Design Theory (2009): 25–30.
  2. Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. page 220.