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05.02.10

Typomundus 20

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Adrian Shaughnessy

Another cult book from the graphic design archive of forgotten, neglected or overlooked classics. As a book devoted to 20th century typography, Typomundus 20 is hard to beat. As a compendium of the best graphic design from the past 70-odd years, I can’t think of many books that are it’s equal. And as a shining example of how to run an awards scheme, it is unsurpassed. There’s also a personal reason why I like this book so much – but we'll get to that later.

Typomundus 20. A Project of The International Center for the Typographic Arts (ICTA). Reinhold Publishing (1966)

Let’s begin by saying what this book is, and why its content is so dazzling. Typomundus 20 is the response to a call for entries made in 1963 by the International Center for the Typographic Arts (ICTA) – a body founded in New York in 1962 by Emil Ruder and Aaron Burns. The purpose of the invitation was to submit work to a jury of eminent designers who then selected the best work.

So far so conventional.

But this was no run of the mill jury. It included Hans Neuburg (Switzerland), Anton Stankowski (Germany), Lou Dorfsman (USA), Piet Zwart (Netherlands), Hiromu Hara (Japan) and Hermann Zapf (Germany).

The purpose of the exercise was to ‘gather, preserve and document as complete a collection as possible of the most significant typography of the twentieth century.’ This puts most design awards schemes to shame for their lack of ambition. But this was the 1960s and utopian dreams were in the air.

200,000 invitations were sent out to an international list of designers. Almost 10,000 entries were received. The jury of 12 chose 612 examples of work for an exhibition and inclusion in this book.

The result is an absorbing collection of top-notch graphic design. What makes it special, however, is that it provides evidence of the last flowerings of graphic expression before the marketing departments took control of visual communication. This is graphic design in its purest form devoid of the control freakery that is the inevitable consequence of marketing and branding.

But there’s one other factor that lifts this collection above the norm: the organizers didn't insist on a time frame for the work. Submissions could be from any period. The result is that we see a smattering of work from the 1930s and 40s sitting next to the sharp modernism of the early 1960s.

Significantly, the organizers avoid using the word competition. There’s a sense in which it really is a quest to find the best of the best. And at a time when design awards seem to proliferate like pizza flyers on your doormat, and when the whole notion of awards schemes with their high entry fees seems to be contributing to a sort of awards inertia, it is invigorating to see that it needn’t be like this. It can be, as Typomundus 20 shows, a genuine celebration of excellence.

And while we’re talking about bravery, I like the way all the work is reproduced in black and white. It’s a simple, bold gesture that plays a large part in making this book so compelling.

I mentioned I had a personal reason for liking Typomundus 20. This reason is financial. If you check out the prices of this long-out-of-print volume you will see that it sells online for up to $100. Well, I paid 20p in my local charity shop. If that’s not a reason for loving this book, please tell me what is.

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