A History of Design Ideology for the Future

Book design, 2016

Cover design and book edge of <i>The Responsible Object</i>, Valiz 2016.

Social and sustainable design is gaining momentum. Designers are developing ways of production that are less harmful or use waste materials more effectively. The ideas of social and sustainable design are not new. Design history is full of examples that can be very useful for today’s questions. Theorist and designer Marjanne van Helvert collected ideas from the history of social and sustainable design in The Responsible Object: A History of Design Ideology for the Future.

The eleven chapters in the book are written by different authors, and treat topics like William Morris, the Bauhaus and its Russian counterpart VKhUTEMAS, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Utility design from the U.K., Buckminster Fuller, Victor Papanek, the Italian avant-garde, queer design, Fab Labs and DIY culture in Brazil, and speculative design. To give insight into what the book has to offer, I will shortly introduce the chapter by Elizabeth Carolyn Miller on William Morris and his Kelmscott Press.

William Morris (1834-1896) was a designer from the U.K., as wel as a socialist, an activist, and author. In response to the exploitation of labor in the 19th century, he practiced design with socialist ideals. His Kelmscott Press produced high quality books and magazines which were made to last, in response to the wasteful abundance of print production of that time. Workers at the press were unionized and were paid good wages. His printing press is an example of responsible design but this made production very expensive, and the books became luxury items to his own disappointment. A paradox still encountered today by designers who are looking for sustainable production methods.

Medieval manuscript


The Responsible Object is a book about design without images, so the book design needed to accommodate a good reading experience, and easy navigation. The book has an important additional function as a reference document, with many notes and references to other books and authors.

The layout was inspired by manuscripts from Medieval Europe. These handdrawn texts had wide margins where other authors would comment or write notes. Over time this resulted in a dialogue between authors in the margins of the page. This layout allowed readers to use the book to add notes and comments much like the Medieval manuscripts. For easy reading and contrast with the large margins, the type was set at 14 points. With the author and publisher it was decided small images and book covers of cited works were added to the margin. Images were added not for aesthetic reasons but as academic references.

Spread from the VKhUTEMAS chapter, with related images and citations in the margins. Enlarge image for details.

Although the book is an historical overview, it is not an objective record of design history. The author stresses the urgency of changing the design profession into a less polluting and exploitative discipline. This book is a radical call to action that takes its inspiration from the past. I decided to add a second layer to facilitate this message. The text accomodates many excellent quotes from designers from the past who were passionate about changing design for the better, like Victor Papanek, William Morris, Walter Gropius, and others. I collected the most powerful quotes from the book to function as they were from protest signs or a manifesto. These quotes were typeset in a custom typeface in all capitals, and spread evenly across the book, breaking up chapters randomly. Typeset on a spread in horizontal orientation, the reader has to turn the page to read the quote, breaking act of reading. Since every quote was in the same typeface, and had no credit on the page (credits were placed on the back), the messages are meant to have impact beyond the author and the era they originated from. The quotes functioned as a series of posters within the book.

Quote by Victor Papanek & James Hennessey, set in custom designed typeface. Spread from the queer-feminist desig chapter, with notes and citations in the margins. Enlarge image for details.


The text is typeset in Founders Grotesk text and regular, designed by Kris Sowersby and published by Klim foundry in 2013. As Klim explains on its blog, Founders Grotesk was inspired by the specimen of Grotesque by Miller & Richard from 1912, and influenced by designs such as Breite grotesk (1909) and Doric (1919). Founders Grotesk is wider and is less rigid than later sans-serifs such as Helvetica (Max Miedinger, 1957) or Akkurat (Laurenz Brunner, 2004). The first sans-serifs that were designed in the early 1900s had a radical impact since the vast majority of communication was designed using serifs. Early grotesk designs helped spawn the modernist design era, and they can be found on the Bauhaus books and magazines. Since this book revolves around different ideas around modernist design in Western Europe, it seemed fitting to choose a sans-serif based on that early radical period of modernist type design.

Different widths of quote typeface.

For the quotes I created a new display typeface. Its design is based on stencil typefaces used in architectural drawings in the 1950s and 1960s. The angular style and letter construction have the futuristic feel to it, which seemed appropriate since the book’s content talks about ideas of utopia (and failed utopias) from the past. The quotes talk about different forms of utopias and dystopias without referring to a specific time or place. Since each quote has a different length and emphasis, I manually broadened or narrowed the typeface to accommodate the quote. Much like the letters on protest signs are made to fit the space and message, rather than follow a type design grid.

Quote by Walter Gropius, set in custom designed typeface.

Paper and colour

All typography was printed in an off-black spot colour on Munken print white. The initial idea was that the quotes could be torn out of the book. However a limited production budget could not allow a different paper type for the quotes, so an extra orange spot colour was used. The colour was chosen to go against cliché references to sustainability like grey, brown, and green. The book was perfect bound with cold glue, so it opens easy and reads comfortably.

The Responsible Object is highly recommended for designers, writers, and critics who are interested in social and sustainable design. The book can be acquired in art and design bookstores around the world and online. Commissioned by Valiz publishers. The design was selected as one of the Best Dutch Book Designs of 2016.

Marjanne van Helvert (ed.), The Responsible Object, Valiz 2016.

First page of the index. Enlarge image for details.