Out of print for decades, Visual Design in Action is one of the most beautiful books on modern graphic design. Written and designed by Ladislav Sutnar and published in 1961, it has been called a “lost milestone" and a "treasure."
With your help, we're going to create a perfect reprint of this iconic book and make it available again to the creative community.
- “Sutnar is the most under-appreciated giant in design. Putting Visual Design in Action back into print will make that right.” — Stefan Sagmeister, graphic designer, Sagmeister & Walsh
While other 20th-century graphic designers are better known today, few have contributed in a more profound way to the literature of graphic design than the Czech émigré Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976). When he came to the United States in 1939, Sutnar brought with him a love for communicating information and he created an entire discipline that we now call information graphics, or data visualization. As a designer, he was ahead of his time.
The book in which he laid out his graphic design principles — grounded in rationality, with a focus on type and a sharply edited palette — is Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action. Published in 1961 to accompany an exhibition of the same name, the book was was precisely designed by Sutnar himself and illustrated using his own work. The result was a publication that was not only rational but beautiful. Visual Design in Action has long been out of print, but it has never been forgotten by those who appreciate the way that ideas, design, and print production enduringly complement one another.
To create a new facsimile edition — an exact reprint —we have assembled a world-class team. The team includes, as editors, the renowned graphic design authority Steven Heller and the award-winning designer and filmmaker Reto Caduff, with printing and production guidance from the distinguished publisher Lars Müller, known for his expertise in facsimile reprints.
The facsimile will be accompanied by a supplementary booklet featuring new writing on Sutnar by the editors as well as archival photographs and ephemera. If the project is funded, the facsimile and the booklet will be produced in fall 2015 by Lars Müller Publishers.
Both the facsimile edition and supplementary booklet are authorized and supported by Radoslav Sutnar, a son of Ladislav Sutnar, who is dedicated to preserving his father's legacy.
The project is coordinated by Designers & Books, as part of its new initiative to bring back into the public eye important out-of-print design books and to introduce them to new audiences.
Who is Ladislav Sutnar?
- “As we move further away from the twentieth century, it would be a grave mistake to forget the great oak trees that we are all indebted to. The great oak trees that designed the roots, the branches, and the leaves of visual design in the twenty-first century. Ladislav Sutnar is such a tree.” — Richard Saul Wurman
A native of Pilsen, Czech Republic, Ladislav Sutnar (1897-1976) gained fame in his homeland for his modern typography and exhibition design. He was also an industrial designer, creating glass- and tableware and even toys, as well as a noted design teacher at the State School of Graphic Arts in Prague. Following the Nazi occupation of his country, he immigrated to the United States in 1939, where he had come to design the Czech Pavilion for the New York World's Fair.
In New York, he re-made himself primarily as a graphic designer. He was hired in 1941 as an art director by Knud Lönberg-Holm at Sweet's Catalog Service, a leading distributor of trade and manufacturing catalogues, where he began the work for which he would become known in the United States during the 1940s and '50s.
In a 1994 article on the designer for Eye magazine, Steven Heller wrote:
"Ladislav Sutnar was a progenitor of the current practice of information graphics, the lighter of a torch that is carried today by Edward Tufte and Richard Saul Wurman, among others. For a wide range of American businesses, Sutnar developed graphic systems that clarified vast amounts of complex information, transforming business data into digestible units.
"He was the man responsible for putting the parentheses around American telephone area-code numbers when they were first introduced [by Bell]. As impersonal as the area-code design might appear, the parentheses were actually among Sutnar's signature devices, one of many he used to distinguish and highlight information. . . . Sutnar developed various typographic and iconographic navigational devices that allowed users to efficiently traverse seas of data. His icons are analogous to the friendly computer symbols used today."
His work was so clearly organized and structured that he was able to communicate them to a U.S clientele despite the fact that English was not his first language.
Until 1961, Sutnar worked at Sweet's mornings and free-lanced in the afternoons, creating advertising and identity campaigns for companies that ranged from Addo-X, a Swedish manufacturer of business machines, to the popular "Vera" scarves and Carr's, a shopping plaza.
- "A designer's aim is always to intensify comprehension." — Ladislav Sutnar
In Sutnar, European avant-garde graphic design ideas met the needs of modern American life, raising graphic standards for business and industry. "Without efficient typography," he once commented, "the jet plane pilot cannot read his instrument panel fast enough to survive."
Sutnar used grids, tabs, and geometric forms in his designs and he was enamored of the function and aesthetics of American punctuation marks. He is also credited with being among the first to use the double-page spread in publications to convey meaning across pages.
By the beginning of the 1960s, Sutnar was no longer working for Sweet's and he began to recede into the background of graphic design history.
According to Steven Heller, "Sutnar’s friends banded together to inform the business community about his work. The result was the traveling exhibition Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action, which was curated by Allon Schoener but meticulously designed by Sutnar himself." The exhibition was the basis for the book of the same name in which lies the legacy of a master designer.
Sutnar was the recipient of many awards internationally and in the U.S. during his lifetime. For his influence on American graphic design, he was awarded an AIGA Medal in 1995, after his death in 1976. Today his work and his publications, including Visual Design in Action, are held by major institutions such as the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum and The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The Original Visual Design in Action
- “Sutnar did a huge service to designers by publishing Visual Design in Action. Today, the book retains its power as a practical manifesto and a guide to universal design principles. It is also a window into one of the great design minds of the twentieth century.” — Ellen Lupton, Senior Curator of Contemporary Design, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Sutnar wrote and designed all aspects of the remarkable catalogue that accompanied the 1961 traveling exhibition of his work, "Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action."
An exploration of his American information design work and theoretical ideas, the book was organized into three main sections: "Principles and Attributes," "US Information Design Progress," and Early Modern Design Concept."
Included is a preface by Mildred Constantine, then an associate curator at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, who wrote of the all-encompassing quality of Sutnar's design: "There is a force and meaningful consistency in Sutnar’s entire body of work, which permits him to express himself with a rich diversity in exhibition design and the broad variations of graphic design. Sutnar has the assured stature of the integrated designer.”
- Original specifications:
8 ½ x 12 ½ inches, 188 pages; 36 in color; 342 black illustrations
- Original production notes
[Production notes]: Text, 7 pt. Ionic italic, heads 8 pt. Ionic roman and Spartan heavy, set by Sterlip Press, Inc., New York Engravings by Capital-Majestic Photo-Engraving Corporation, New York Letterpress printing on Champion Kromekote cast coated enamel with dull black ink by Sterlip Press, Inc., New York; offset printing of introductory and closing pages, of color portfolios by Lynn Art Offset Company, New York Bound in Holliston Mills Lynton natural cloth by Russell-Rutter Company, New York Book jacket printed on Champion Ariel Lynnfield by Lynn Art Offset Company, New York Published 1961 by Hastings House Publishers, New York
Sutnar set the entire text in italics to "intensify ideas." He called for elaborate specifications, including changes in paper, textures, and inks throughout the book.
His standards were so exacting that if Kickstarter had existed at the time he surely would have used it. When he could find no publisher willing to pay the high printing and production costs the book demanded, Sutnar paid Hastings House out of his own pocket for a limited edition of 3,000 copies. The book did not sell particularly well but the few rare copies that can be found today are highly prized.
Why Reprint This Book?
We think the time is right (overdue, in fact) for reprinting the most important book by the "thinking person's designer."
- "It is the simple fact that what really makes a designer is using that other tool: the brain. Thinking has usually been underrated, overshadowed by style and noise. Ladislav Sutnar approached wicked design problems by thinking about them first, isolating the real issue: what needed to be communicated and to whom. Then he applied a visual style that is both illuminating and entertaining. Sutnar’s approach and the ensuing visual style have all the trappings to make a serious comeback, so reprinting this fantastic book is a timely exercise." — Erik Spiekermann, graphic and type designer, Edenspiekermann
Steven Heller has said that Visual Design in Action is "arguably the most intellectually stimulating Modern design book since Jan Tschichold's Die Neue Typographie."
And there is the simple fact that Sutnar's book is not only rational but beautiful.
The Facsimile Edition and New Supplementary Booklet
Our facsimile edition of Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action will replicate exactly the specifications, materials, and visual and tactile qualities of the original book, under the guidance of Lars Müller.
- Printing in eleven colors (10 Pantone colors plus black), our aim is to produce a "perfect reprint" — one that Sutnar would have been proud of.
Accompanying the facsimile will be a supplementary booklet that will set Sutnar in context and shed new light on the designer through archival photographs, correspondence, and other materials. It will feature an introduction by Reto Caduff and a new essay by Steven Heller that explores Sutnar as a great "philosopher, maker, and critic of design." The booklet will be 32 pages, saddle-stitched, and the same dimensions as the facsimile. A copy of booklet will be included with each copy of the facsimile edition.
- Pledge $9 and receive our *Editors' Thank You. This includes your name on a special page on the Designers & Books website dedicated to Visual Design in Action. You will also receive a personal email thank you from the book's editors.
- Pledge $30 and receive a silk-screened full-scale reproduction (18 x 24 inches) of the original 1961 exhibition poster on which the book was based. Suitable for framing, it will be shipped rolled (not folded), and produced by Lars Müller Publishers. Reward also includes the *Editors' Thank You.
- Pledge $55 as one of the first 500 backers of our campaign (Early Backer Special) or pledge $62 thereafter (new as of May 7, $57 if you're a student), and receive a copy of the facsimile edition and the accompanying supplementary booklet. Your name will be included on a featured page of acknowledgments in the supplementary booklet. As of May 12, you can pledge $121 and receive two copies of the facsimile edition and supplementary booklet and can specify two different names to be acknowledged. Reward also includes the *Editors' Thank You.
- Pledge $87 and receive a package that includes the facsimile edition and the accompanying supplementary booklet plus the exhibition poster described above. Your name will be included on a featured page of acknowledgments in the supplementary booklet. Reward also includes the *Editors' Thank You.
- Pledge $300 and receive a copy of the out of print exhibition catalogue "Ladislav Sutnar: Prague New York - Design in Action," which accompanied a 2003 retrospective exhibition of Sutnar's work presented by Prague's Museum of Decorative Arts at Prague Castle and includes an essay by Steven Heller. Each catalogue will be personally inscribed to the backer by Steven Heller. In addition, you will receive one copy each of the facsimile edition of Visual Design in Action, the supplementary booklet with your name on a featured page of acknowledgments, and the reproduction of the 1961 "Visual Design in Action" exhibition poster. Limited to 3. Reward also includes the *Editors' Thank You. Note: This reward is not included as part of any other reward.
- Pledge $500 and receive "Print 1," a screenprint created by Ladislav Sutnar in 1963 (by the late 1950s Sutnar devoted much of his time to abstract-figurative painting and printmaking) as part of his series "The Strip Street: Posters Without Words." The print measures 21 1/4 x 13 3/16 inches (unframed) and is from the collection of Radoslav L. and Elaine F. Sutnar. Limited to 2 prints. You will also receive everything in the preceding reward levels.
- Pledge $600 and receive "Print 2," a screenprint created by Ladislav Sutnar in 1963 (by the late 1950s Sutnar devoted much of his time to abstract-figurative painting and printmaking) as part of his series "The Strip Street: Posters Without Words." The print measures 21 1/4 x 13 3/16 inches (unframed) and is from the collection of Radoslav L. and Elaine F. Sutnar. Limited to 2 prints. You will also receive everything preceding the $500 reward level.
- Pledge $700 and receive a rare copy of the Honeywell Customized Controls catalogue by Knud Lönberg-Holmand Ladislav Sutnar, published in 1952 for Sweet's Catalog Services. In good condition. Limited to 1 copy. You will also receive everything preceding the $500 reward level.
- Pledge $850 and receive a copy of a rare book by Sutnar, published in 1950, Transport: Next Half Century, 1951-2000. In good condition, cover slightly discolored on one corner. Limited to 1 copy. You will also receive everything preceding the $500 reward level.
- Pledge $2,000 and receive a rare copy of Catalog Design: New Patterns in Product Information by Knud Lönberg-Holm and Ladislav Sutnar, designed for Sweet's Catalog Service in 1944. In good condition, and comes wrapped up in an envelope with Sutnar's pencil note on it. Limited to 1 copy. You will also receive everything preceding the $500 reward level.
Invitations to Events
We hope you'll be able to join us at one or both of these events. For additional information, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-777-9080.
- July 30, 2015, 7:00-9:00 PM, New York City: "Ladislav Sutnar: The Information Graphics of a Master Designer" — Gallery Talk & Reception. A special reception and gallery talk by Nicholas D. Lowry, President of Swann Galleries and Director of the auction house's Vintage Posters department. To take place at Swann Galleries (104 East 25th Street, NY, NY) on Thursday, July 30, 2015, from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM. Mr. Lowry is one of the world's leading experts on Ladislav Sutnar and has an extensive collection of Sutnar's graphic design works, a selection of which will be on display for viewing. Also in attendance will be Steven Heller, one of the editors of the Visual Design in Action facsimile, will be on hand to answer questions. Details on the invitation to come.
- October 28, 2015, evening (exact time TBA), New York City: "Ladislav Sutnar Seminar." Steven Heller, Reto Caduff, and other Sutnar scholars and experts will discuss Sutnar's work generally and Visual Design in Action specifically. Lars Müller will also be in attendance to celebrate the publication of the book. To take place at SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street). More details will be available soon.
Schedule for Project and Rewards Delivery
- Thank you and special Designers & Books website page acknowledgment: August 2015
- Poster: October 2015
- Facsimile edition with supplementary booklet: October 2015
- Facsimile edition with supplementary booklet plus poster: October 2015
- All $300 and greater rewards: October 2015
RETO CADUFF (editor) studied typography in Switzerland. Currently he works as a photographer and director for film and television. He is the director of an award-winning documentary, The Visual Language of Herbert Matter.
STEVEN HELLER (editor) is co-chair of the MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). He is the author or coauthor of over 170 books on design and popular culture, including biographies of Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig. He is the recipient of the 2014 Ladislav Sutnar Award from the city of Pilsen, Czech Republic, and the 2011 Smithsonian National Design Award for "design mind."
LARS MÜLLER heads a distinguished international publishing house (Lars Müller Publishers) with specialties in architecture and design, established in 1983 and based in Zurich.
RADOSLAV L. AND ELAINE F. SUTNAR are partners in Sutnar+Sutnar consulting partnership, with a focus on in land and real-estate development and crisis control. Radoslav Sutnar is a son of Ladislav Sutnar.
DESIGNERS & BOOKS (project creator): Steve Kroeter, Founder and Editor in Chief; Stephanie Salomon, Managing Editor; Gayatri Mullapudi, Social Media Consultant
VIDEO CREDITS: Reto Caduff and Nicolas Heller
Thank you for your support!
Risks and challenges
We may be a little bit crazy (Lars Müller tells us we are), but we're excited to take on the technical challenges of this project — replicating a book that is a work of incredible craftsmanship created over 50 years ago. We're confident we can meet the challenges. With our editorial team's extensive background in illustrated books — writing, designing, and producing them — the full support of Ladislav Sutnar's son Radoslav, and the expertise of the head of a major design book publisher experienced in fine reprints, we foresee very little risk for our backers if this project is successfully funded.
We're eager to make this book available once again to an audience that, like Ladislav Sutnar, believes in design as "a convincing statement of visual or tactile delight and functional effectiveness."Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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