I made two mistakes when I chose this book. One I make all the time and may get Paul Sahre’s approval as a designer. I chose this book because of its cover. I’m rarely rewarded, but I do it anyway. The cover design for Sahre’s book looks like somehow all the cover information had been set on top of the book, and then someone picked it up and everything slid down in a ragged pile at the bottom. It immediately drew me in. My second mistake was thinking that this was a book written by or about Jean-Paul Sartre and that the “two-dimensional man” was maybe one who acted in bad faith or was unfulfilled in some way. While Sahre broaches some existential angst and anxiety, that’s not this book.
The first thing to hate about this memoir is the author’s style. It’s well-written and funny. I hated this because a part of me hoped if Sahre was this entertaining in writing, his design work would be awful. This, of course, counter to the fact that he likely designed the cover that piqued my interest. And that’s the second thing to hate. His work is really good. It seems unfair.
When I opened the book and realized it was about design, I thought that at least it would be a quicker read than the imagined Sartre book. It was so immediately entertaining, I had to go back and check that I was indeed reading a memoir about work in graphic design. Sahre’s intro about his early art and his family is as easy and fun to read as David Sedaris. I didn’t expect it. An early drawing, prominently and embarrassingly displayed in his parents’ house, gives the name to the prologue: “Demon Eating Human Flesh.” This picture was a favorite of Sahre’s troubled brother who renamed himself “Angus” after Angus Young from AC/DC. Sahre describes his grandfather’s choice of one day capping his Old Spice with the head of a GI Joe doll, and deciding to continue this until his death. What’s wonderful about this object is that it is at once a bizarre juxtaposition, like something in a Devo video, and also a functional aspect of someone’s toilet. Quotidian magic.
When Sahre’s book finally becomes the book one expects, the one about design, the reader may feel cheated, but that’s only in comparison to the rest, and then only slightly. The table of contents page for Part Three seems to be a clue. Echoing the cover, the contents are in a heap at the bottom of the page. He’s sifted through piles of ideas, work, and events from his career and offering lessons and observations. The sections are shorter and more matter-of-fact. He discusses everything from teaching to business, including what he learns after a profanity-laden shouting match with Steely Dan.
Two-Dimensional Man also reminds me of Stephen King’s craft book/memoir On Writing, one of the few books about the craft that non-writers seem to have read and enjoyed. Both books are worth multiple reads in the way they show how lives shape art and art shapes lives. Like other satisfying books about particular arts, Sahre’s book has important lessons not only for others hoping to go into graphic design, but also anyone hoping to improve their work or hoping to find inspiration. Besides seriously analyzing fonts and their features, and having a deep understanding of basics like shape and color, Sahre put in a great deal of sweat equity painting signs and creating his own silk screen machines to create posters outside of his regular hours of design work at a firm. He sometimes slept on a cot in his office. There is some luck to his process and success, but a lot of labor went into creating that luck.