I’ve just finished reading Paul Sahre’s autobiography: Two-Dimensional Man: A Graphic Memoir, and it is one of the most untypical graphic design related books I have ever read. ‘Untypical’ because for much of the book Sahre writes about his personal and private life; and graphic design ‘related’ because, at times, his profession seems incidental to the main narrative. For this is no design monograph as he weaves stories about his first car; his family; his relationships; and even his dog Sid, in and out of talking about his graphic design practice. Most powerfully, hanging over the entire book from cover to cover, is Sahre’s relationship with his brother.
I’ll give few spoilers here but to say that it is rare to get a glimpse in this much detail into a designer’s life outside of the day-job. In some places it is a brave and raw narrative, but Sahre’s honesty shines through. The fact he has a light and sensitive touch in dealing with heavy, personal topics, and that these are presented with a large degree of humility, helps in this. It is interesting to compare Two-Dimensional Man to The Happy Film, which I coincidentally saw this week. In the latter, Stafan Sagmeister explores his personal happiness through the use of meditation, therapy and drugs. Its constant, obviously, is Sagmeister himself, coupled with tales of his multiple female relationships and the quest in these for ‘ultimate’ happiness. While watching it, I often felt like I was second-guessing how much of the film was ‘psychologically choreographed’ in the edit—despite enjoying The Happy Film, I came away feeling that it was merely an extension of Sagmeister’s ego, and that the film had been moulded to fit the public perception he wants to world to have of himself. Where-as in Two-Dimensional Man, Sahre comes across as is being completely genuine. He openly admits his arrogance, when it occurs, and he battles with huge emotional events openly by discussing their contexts and his feelings about them. There is little in the book that says Sahre is constructing a narrative to fit his self-image, and you come away from reading it with the overarching sense he is simply being completely honest.
This isn’t to say that graphic design doesn’t run through the heart of the book; it certainly does. There is much to learn in here for the design student trying to battle through their education, for the professional designer wanting an insight into someone else’s practice, and even for those who know little of the discipline. For the latter you will get an insight into a designer’s obsessive personality along with some technical typographic terms thrown in for good measure. Sahre talks about his time as a freshman and ‘not getting it’, his falling out with other designers when he’s worked in studios and had to compromise his own vision, various battles with clients, setting up his own working spaces and creative studio, and feelings of becoming pigeon-holed as ‘the poster guy’. At one point he even discusses breaking off from working in his Manhattan studio to see what was happening outside and finding himself in the middle of the events of 9/11. After the shell-shock of living in an unfolding and traumatic situation, and feeling helpless to be of use to others, (while being a safe enough distance away himself), he goes back to his studio and continues working on a job with a tight deadline.
Sahre’s work is littered throughout the book as well, although these are mostly to illustrate a specific point he wants to make. There is no mistaking Two-Dimensional Man for a portfolio coffee table book, although it is, as you would expect, expertly designed and beautifully typeset. Sahre’s graphic thinking is evident every step of the way. His sense of wit seeps through the printed page, such as in typographically illustrating a party at college.
I especially liked the story of guessing why his school-friend’s Mum and Dad destroyed their son’s record collection after Sahre found the remnants. This is illustrated through ripped album sleeves, and he states: “As I sifted through the pile of smashed vinyl, I could almost tell how upset Doug’s mom was with a particular recording: the smaller the fragments, the more terrible the sin.”
What is ultimately refreshing about this book though, is that throughout you can not divorce the personal from the professional, and it is a healthy reminder that no-matter what job anyone does, it is the individual that lies behind the role, and that this is what makes all work about humanity. In this, Paul Sahre, like the rest of us, is certainly not two-dimensional.
Paul Sahre, Two-Dimensional Man: A Graphic Memoir was published in 2017 by Abrams Press. For more images and to read an excerpt, go here.