“Anyone who says that a manual is a creative straitjacket is a moron. Without a manual you will end up speaking a dialect. A good manual allows you to speak a language.”
Design legend Massimo Vignelli doesn't beat around the bush in his introduction to Manuals 1, Unit Edition's study of corporate identity design manuals from the 60s, 70s and 80s. The book boasts 21 examples of these printed design-bibles from the pre-digital era; each communicating a common purpose across fields as disparate as international sporting events and space exploration, telecoms and transport. Within them, the lexicons, syntax and grammar of each brand's design.
It's satisfyingly weighty and a pleasure to read, especially if you have a penchant for the printed. Each of the manuals has been lovingly photographed, with large images of notable spreads and thumbnails of others. The Swiss style dominates throughout, so as examples of information design, many haven't aged that badly. Needless to say, there is a lot of Neue Helvetica.
Of course, a lot of this has already been explored elsewhere: Jens Müller and Karen Weiland's Lufthansa + Graphic Design, goes into great detail about the execution of the airline’s corporate identity guidelines; Geigy's influential modernist design has been discussed in more depth in Andres Janser’s Corporate Diversity: Swiss a Graphic Design and Advertising by Geigy, 1940–1970. Nevertheless, surrounding them with other companies’ manuals adds a new layer of context and understanding.
In his opening essay, Adrian Shaughnessy gives passing mention to other curiosities that demand attention – such as Paul Rand’s famous work for IBM, Vignelli's guidelines-on-a-poster for National Parks, and the troublesome yet fascinating Nazi style guide (already covered in Steven Heller's Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State). It's a shame they aren't given the full treatment here, but perhaps these outliers would've skewed the purpose of the book off-course a little. To judge a book by its omissions is a minor quibble at best.
On it's own merits, the book is an impressive achievement, but there is a bigger picture. Manuals 1 appears at an interesting time: In recent months, the strained relationship between design and branding has seen champions from both sides trading blows. Just a few weeks ago, in an interview with Steven Heller recorded for Offset 2014, legendary designer Milton Glaser proclaimed that "the idea that branding is the highest form of design is reprehensible”. Shaughnessy shares this opinion; he views branding with suspicion, bordering on contempt, and doesn't shy away from that stance in this book:
“Branding today is decided by strategists and marketeers who often treat design (and designers) with suspicion, with the result that brand identities are frequently less ‘well designed’ than the refined, high-style identities of the past. In contemporary branding, anything goes, just so long as it can be smeared like sun tan lotion on everything – and everyone.”
Michael Johnson, of Johnson Banks, countered this idea that ‘designers should stick to design’:
“This strikes me as both simplistic and naïve, a viewpoint of someone hoping that ‘branding’ will just go away and let us go back to designing nice, simple, sixties-inspired geometric logos to put in the corner of a brochure or poster.”
And so the book appears amidst this conflict between the designers and the branders. However, despite being edited by Shaughnessy (alongside Sarah Schrauwen and Unit Editions co-founder Tony Brook), the purpose and value of the book falls within a grey area between the two camps.
Yes, it's the epitome of fetishised graphic design: a handsomely-designed printed artefact full of handsomely-designed printed artefacts, all discussed by (presumably handsome) designers. It is design about design about design.
But this isn't merely an act of clinging on to the good old days. Alongside the wealth of images are essays by NASA designer Richard Danne, Greg D'Onofrio and Patricia Belen (Display), Armin Vit (Under Consideration), Sean Perkins (North) and John Lloyd. There is an acknowledgment throughout that these manuals, as stunning as they may be, are things of the past. But they are not without value: they are lessons in how to set and convey a brand's language.
Surely this grey area is the only ground on which to progress the design/brand conversation? In an interview with idsgn.org, Debbie Millman, former AIGA president and host of weekly online talk-show Design Matters, identified the important role that design has in the branding process:
“Branding is a catchword for the perfect, meticulously crafted balance of cultural anthropology, behavioural psychology, economics and design … it is about design because if we don’t create a compelling visual language, then people won’t be able to connect with whatever you are trying to sell them … More than any other discipline, designers have the ability to impact our culture in significant and profound ways. Designers are creators and innovators; we find solutions where none previously existed, we imagine ideas and opportunities and we realise those ideas and opportunities.”
And that is what this book offers: artefacts that bring together incredible opportunities and solutions, that distill and convey an imagined language.
Communicating a brand's language today comes with new challenges. Whether or not the value of design has been diminished in today’s branding environment, the permanence, stability and consideration afforded by the slower processes of physical media certainly have. These guidelines were not fluid, they were not everywhere; they were produced and available in finite, physical forms.
The solid finality of a printed manual shared by all – a corporate design gospel – has been replaced by easily updated and shared digital equivalents, undermined by their own ephemerality. Armin Vit, designer and founder of design blog network Under Consideration, highlights that digital brand guides actually create a barrier between the user and the execution of a design. Understanding and value is lost:
“It's hard to take a PDF seriously, especially when it's labelled on the cover as ‘Version 1.0’ or ‘Version 1.5’ … what's the point of following this if it might just change next month? … With a PDF it's all in RGB and it's all low resolution. With a printed manual you are forced to understand how the identity prints and reproduces.”
Digital equivalents of these manuals may not be any less real for being pixels on screens rather than ink on paper, but perhaps their ease of access does suggest a sense of disposable design. Without the heft of the designer's work moving from shelf to desk, it bears no weight.
All of these creative straitjackets have survived to be photographed for this book because they were built to last. They demonstrate that design can be an awful lot more than nice, simple, sixties-inspired geometric logos. The examples within may not provide easy answers to problems facing brands today, but Manuals 1 is a valuable resource for those wishing to explore branding’s foundations and find what may have become lost.
UPDATE MARCH 2019: Unit are now kickstarting Manuals 2. Looks just as delicious as the first volume.