DJ Stout’s book, Variations on a Rectangle: Thirty Years of Graphic Design from Texas Monthly to Pentagram, was released in 2015 through the University of Texas Press. The oversized, 300-page volume, Stout’s first comprehensive design monograph, covers three decades of his 35-year design career. The title Variations on a Rectangle is a reference to the art of publication design, primarily magazines and books, which has been a major focus and the heart and soul of Stout’s design work over the years.
“I coined the phrase 'Variations on a Rectangle' when I was at Texas Monthly,” says Stout. “I was the art director for 13 years and every issue we designed over that period of time was composed in the exact, same-sized rectangle—either a single page or a spread. Since then my Pentagram designers and I have designed hundreds of books and magazines—all in rectangles.”
Variations on a Rectangle presents both a career retrospective of Stout’s work and his inimitable, often humorous perspectives on publication design. Using nearly 800 images to illustrate more than 250 design projects, Stout describes the inspiration and creative process behind his innovative designs for magazines, books, brochures, posters, and even some old-school neon signs for a chicken joint through personal memoirs, in-depth captions and instructive essays.
“I ended up writing quite a lot for this book—a lot for a design book that is,” says Stout. “It took me five years to write and rewrite all the text for this book. I have a whole new appreciation for writers and their craft. Now I just hope somebody will actually read it—because as we all know, ‘designers don’t read.’"
Stout, an internationally acclaimed graphic designer and the principal of Pentagram’s Austin office, is from Texas after all. He’s a fifth-generation Texan born in the small West Texas town of Alpine, a graduate of Texas Tech University (a distinguished alumni), and has spent his entire design career in the Lone Star State. Stout’s strong sense of place has informed his design work for clients in Texas and all over the world.
In the book's foreword, Paula Scher writes: “Editorial design is the art of storytelling, and DJ’s brand of it is uniquely American. Western American. It starts out slow and builds. It wins you with a bit of humility (almost ‘shucks-gee-whiz’) and then comes back at you with a surprise punch. The pacing and analogies feel like a Will Rogers narrative... When he first began presenting his work to his London Pentagram partners, they thought he could have just as easily been from the moon. But the storytelling was so strong, so funny, so completely designed but guileless at the same time that the Londoners, and the rest of us, found ourselves confronted with something real, authoritative, and probably definable only as pure American Graphic Design.”
Variations on a Rectangle features work from Stout’s Texas Monthly days (1987-2000) and his 16 years as a Pentagram partner, so in order to weave the older magazine covers and layouts in seamlessly with the more current Pentagram work, the designers and Carla Delgado, who was co-designer of the book, concocted an organizing principal based on the way encyclopedias traditionally organized content. The book is built around broad subject categories like Animals, Agriculture, Western Heritage, Politics, Education and Sports, and sub-categories like Horses, Cows, Lawmen, Cowgirls, Sex, Conflict and Race. The navigational scheme does a good job of mixing design work from different eras but also leads to some interesting juxtapositions of imagery and written content in the book.
“One of the best quotes in the book is in the ‘Agriculture/Pot’ section,” says Stout. “It was a compliment from the owner of a leading hydroponics company based in Vancouver (and one of our all-time favorite clients) after receiving a new product label we designed. ‘Beautiful, good to go. And very very cool,’ he said, ‘especially when stoned.’ High praise indeed.”