Analyse and consider the relevance of Martha Scotford’s “Is There a Canon of Graphic Design History?” in todays culture.

Martha Scotford, an American teacher, architect and designer, constructed and created a catalogue with the desire to measure out if there was such thing as a “canon of graphic design history” (Scotford, 1991). But what does this mean and what can be considered or become apart of this canon? She described a canon as being “a basis for judgment; a standard; a criterion; an authoritative list.” (1991, p. 37). The National Gallery (2018) has described a canon within Art to be “art history attempts to question these rules of ‘greatness’, considering issues of gender, race, class, and geography among others.” However, the word was originally used to designate the books of the Bible officially recognised by the Church (‘Biblical Canon, 2018)

Scotford did this by analysing and comparing five different books which she claimed to be the best representatives of graphic design within the last 20 years.

She would also look into the beginning of graphic design work, some which would date back to the 1850’s. She set out an aim to understand which demographic was typically at the top of the canon, whether it was unintentional or not as well as establish which graphic designers may have been wrongly praised by having work that did not belong there or graphic designers that had been overlooked and didn’t receive as much appreciation as she believed they should.

Originally, the list was crowded full of 205 designers and was cut down into a smaller list of 63. She looked into their gender, the year of their birth, the total number of work reproduced, the amount of large productions and so on.

For this instance, Scottford employed the research methodology of quantitative data which is typically recognised as the better option. Why is this? Due to Scotford’s tally-like checking scheme, quantitative data is scientific. It uses allows large amounts of data to be analysed statistically compared to qualitative which can be affected by a persons mood, the weather or even your background. This means that it’s more susceptible to bias unlike quantitative data (Churchill, 2011).

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Scotford’s canon highlighting the amount of times a designer has been recognised (1991)

Scotford ended up establishing eight canons of graphic design, which were “Herbert Bayer, Afonse Mouron Cassandre, El Lissitzky, Herbert Matter, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Joseph Müller-Brokmann, Henri De Toulouse Lautrec and Piet” (Scotford, 1991)

So what is the relevance of the canon today?

The positives of the unintentional canon being invented? The blueprints for future and current graphic design students to learn about the best of the best; the works of designers that changed perspectives and are considered fundamental pieces of information to learn about.

However the negatives of the canon; all designers of the canon were male. This could potentially discourage female designers, whether this was unintentional to have an all male list or not, it does dawn down that our genders aren’t equivalent and could look into the fact that male work will always have a higher chance of being praised. However, this could also provide a push of motivation to create better, distinctive work.



‘Biblical Canon’ (2018) Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 3 February 2018).

Churchill, E.J. (2011) Is Quantitative Research Better Than Qualitative Research. Available at: (Accessed: 2 March 2018).

Scotford, M. (1991) ‘Is there a canon of graphic design history?’, AIGA Journal, vol.9 (2) pp. 37-44

The National Gallery (2018) Canon of Art History. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2018).

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