Bruce Kennett | Essays

W.A. Dwiggins — The Greatest Designer You’ve Never Heard Of

W.A. Dwiggins was a graphic designer ahead of his time. He worked on design projects across all design verticals—graphic, typographic, furniture, product, and more. While many of his accomplishments fall squarely in graphic design he was, and still is the quintessential maker. From the 1920s until the 1950s, W.A. Dwiggins was a powerful presence in publishing and print. He developed the look and style of Alfred A. Knopf's books and helped drive this entity to the top rank of trade publishers. Linotype retained him to design new typefaces — he produced more than a dozen, from text types to display faces including Electra and Caledonia. His 1928 book, Layout in Advertising, is an astute overview of graphic design and the general principles of communication, crammed with ideas and observations that remain valid today.

Dwiggins is famous in the puppetry world, too, for his engineering of marionettes — techniques still studied nearly a hundred years later. He established two private marionette theaters; built more than fifty puppets in wildly different styles; designed costumes, theatrical sets, and lighting; and wrote the plays. On top of this, Dwiggins fabricated kites and flew them expertly, designed and built furniture, and was an accomplished painter and sculptor. In other words, he could do and did do it all.

Although Dwiggins’s name is less prominent in the world of design than it once was, he remains a potent and inspiring figure. Bruce Kennett — a designer of books and exhibits, and a photographer — recently published an illustrated biography of the artist W.A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design (Letterform Archive, 2018). Kennett spent fifteen years researching, writing, and designing the book, which was produced with U.S. labor and materials, printed with high-precision stochastic screens on Sappi Opus Matte paper, and weighs in at nearly seven pounds: 496 pages, more than 1200 illustrations, many reproduced at actual size. In the Kickstarter campaign that funded the book's production, Dwiggins fans from forty-three countries backed the project, which has garnered praise from many quarters.

[T]he best design book I’ve ever seen. The balance of text and art is perfect.... Bruce made me understand the extent of WAD’s genius. I was always impressed, but I had no idea.” — Roger Black

“WAD” as Dwiggins is affectionately known, was the quintessential maker, working with equal skill in visual design and craft. Besides being the first writer to use the term “graphic design”, a few of his accomplishments include: receiving the AIGA Gold Medal, creating the original logotype for General Motors, reformatting Life, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, pioneering infographics, and designing the United Nations charter in 1945. Millions of books have been set in his Electra and Caledonia types since 1930s, and a celebrated wit, Dwiggins used humor to advocate for change as an author of satire, fiction, fantasy, and plays.

Want to know more? On October 11th in New York, Sappi is hosting an evening talk on Dwiggins beginning at 6:30pm at FI:AF. Click here to attend. Not in New York? There is also a webinar on Thursday, October 11th hosted by PaperSpecs featuring W.A. Dwiggins and led by biographer Bruce Kennett at 2:00pm Eastern time. To get more details and sign up click here.

In Chicago? On October 24th the STA (Society of Typographic Arts) in Chicago is hosting an event, Dwiggins, Cooper, Goudy and Holme in Chicago, wherein Paul Shaw will walk you through the early work of Dwiggins and others produced in Chicago. Click here to sign up. And on November 1, 2018 Bruce Kennett will be in Chicago giving a talk on Dwiggins in an event sponsored by Sappi. Sign up here.

And finally, on November 2–3, 2018 Bruce Kennett will be in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, giving a keynote on Dwiggins at the annual Wayzgoose at Hamilton Wood Type Museum. Sign up here. Can’t attend any of these events? Get inspired and informed through the Dwiggins biography available here.

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