Books: Graphic Design + Architecture

A 20th Century History Guide to Type, Image, Symbol and Visual Storytelling in the Modern World



With a quarter century of work in environmental graphic design, it’s safe to say the Tribeca based team of Richard Poulin and Douglas Morris has had a marked impact on the architectural landscape of New York – with projects that include the integrated signage at the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle as well as at John Burgee and Phillip Johnson’s ‘Lipstick’ building.

Poulin is also a scholar and historian, who’s penned a book entitled The Language Of Graphic Design, and another entitled Typography Referenced: A Comprehensive Visual Guide to the Language, History, and Practice of Typography.

Poulin’s third and latest book Graphic Design and Architecture, A 20th Century History: A Guide to Type, Image, Symbol, and Visual Storytelling in the Modern World was recommended by a friend recently.  I’ve had a chance to read it – it’s a fantastic book every design aficionado should have in their library.  I’ve also had a chance to meet with the author…..



Time Warner Center

I posed the simple question ‘Why was it important for you to write this book, at this point in your career?’  Here’s what he shared with me;


“I have always been interested in the multidisciplinary aspects of the design world.  I never wanted to limit myself in doing one type of work, or for that matter working for one type of client. 

When I started my career over 30 years ago, I was presented with some great opportunities to work on three-dimensional projects within the architectural, interior, and exhibition design worlds.  This was the initial catalyst for my interest in the historical development of these disciplines.

Since environmental graphic design has only recently been recognized as a key discipline within the design professions, little if any documentation of importance, substance, or critical evaluation exists that deals with the history of graphic design and architecture.  The built environment that we experience in our everyday lives continually relies upon graphic design to communicate information and identity, shape our overall perception and memory of a sense of place, and ultimately enliven, enrich, and humanize our lives.

This book is the first historical overview of twentieth-century graphic design in the built environment. It provides an invaluable and comprehensive reference of visual and narrative material that illustrates and evaluates this unique and important history.  It examines the relationship between typography, image, symbol, and visual storytelling by exploring principal themes, major technical developments, important manufacturers, and pioneering designers over the last one hundred years.  

Unlike many publications that focus primarily on isolated projects, this book places the unique marriage of graphic design and architecture in the context of artistic, social, and cultural movements and influences of the twentieth century.  I hope readers will derive inspiration and insight from this history when looking toward the future.”



Paris Metro

After an introductory chapter that establishes the pre-20th century influences of typography, image and symbols – including cave paintings, cuneiform, hieroglyphics, ionic alphabet characters, and stained glass, Poulin begins his exploration of environmental graphic design with the invention of the incandescent bulb as seen in Hector Guimard‘s Paris Metro entrances, through the introduction of the Broadway Marquis.

The book goes on the examine such iconic examples of environmental graphics as the Horn & Hardart Automat signage, the Art Deco facades in Miami Beach, and Lee Oscar Lawrie‘s architectural sculpture ‘Wisdom’ on the facade of the GE building at Rockefeller Plaza.


‘Wisdom’ at Rockefeller Plaza

He moves us through the 20th century with examinations of the War years, with highlights of the WPA,  the spectacle of the Las Vegas strip, Paul Rand‘s famed ‘Westinghouse’ sign in Pittsburg, and post modernism’s Georges Pompidou Center in Paris.


Pompidou Center

The book closes with a chapter that examines the first years of the 21st century, with a look at everything from ‘The Towers of Light‘ commemorative art installation at ground zero through to Poulin + Morris‘s own work for The New York Public LIbrary for the Performing Arts building at Lincoln Center.


 The Towers Of Light


 The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts


In closing I’d suggest that if you’ve got an interest in graphic design in the built environment, you’ll be fascinated by the historical insight someone with a lifetime of experience in this discipline, such as Richard Poulin, provides in his volume.  Here’s the link for a look inside the book for your consideration.


Written by CJ Dellatore