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The Sketchbook: A Designer's Best Friend

Behind every successful graphic designer isn’t the latest edition of Photoshop, a Wacom tablet or anything like that—it’s the humble sketchbook. Traditional and unassuming, the sketchbook is often a collection of messy drawings and half-formed ideas on pieces of paper, and is the backbone of any designer’s creative process.

“It’s the one thing in art and design that’s remained constant. It’s just a box for holding notes and notations,” says Steven Heller, designer and the co-author of Graphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers.

The book, which Heller wrote with Lita Talarico, is a compendium of the florid, colorful world of top designers like Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, Michael Bierut and more.

‘Just a box’, but once unveiled, sketchbooks become so much more. They are windows to the minds of designers and artists as they unravel surreal experiences, all in the spirit of creativity. They are images, letters and colors that are the designers’ realities, and at the same time, their imaginative epiphanies. They are evocative and personal.

Graphic was born out of Heller’s love for seeing these processes. “How we get there is often better than once we’ve got there,” says Steven Heller, referring to the difference between the importance of the process as compared to the outcome.

Focusing on the means and not the ends might appear counterintuitive to the field of design, which seeks to solve problems; but often, in the ideation process is where the gems lie. Da Vinci’s flying machine never left the ground, but his sketches gave birth to the form we now see in helicopters and hang-gliders.

Of course, not all sketches are proof of a great idea. Some can be read just like journals or diaries, communicating a designer’s thoughts and philosophies.One of the sketchbooks depicted shows a page painted in crimson red brushstrokes, with a half-naked Guantanamo detainee shamed and ridiculed, juxtaposed by a victorious-looking Bush giving a thumbs-up. The graphic carries a sardonic tone, driven home with the words “Bush at 2nd Inaugural, says spread of liberty is the ‘calling of our time’”.

And given the electrified current affairs arena today, many of these sketches are politically charged. Designers don’t live in an ivory tower, insists Heller, and his book reveals the influence of politics on a designer’s work, even if they don’t seem the likely sort to be at all interested.

“When the statement is strong it has impact,” explains Heller. “Politics is part of our lives. It’s not a four letter word for designers, it is part of our DNA.”

Politics is one thing, but the larger schema of where design fits in isn’t something as austere: popular culture. To Heller, design and pop culture exist in a Möbius strip, where each “informs the other”.

Take Shepard Fairey’s HOPE posters of Barack Obama, for example. The poster has since spawned countless spoofs, and has been firmly entrenched as a pop culture icon as much as it is a political one. But the poster and its dissemination themselves are based on Fairey’s own Obey sticker campaign, and the image Fairey used is a reappropriation of an Associated Press photograph of Obama. Art, politics, pop culture all swirled into one amorphous force. We’d love to get our hands on Fairey’s sketchbook.

And just like pop culture, graphic design is “ephemeral”, Heller says. He adds that for design to stand the test of time, it must be preserved, something Graphic performs meaningfully. Graphic is a physical archive of imagination—that of the artists and designers whose inner worlds make up the pages of Heller’s book.

“All the world’s a book,” says Heller. “And I like making books.”

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