The most attractive item in a wide-ranging exhibition of current advertising and editorial matter produced last year in this area, is a book designed in the typeface and style of John Baskerville, who lived in London from 1706 to 1755.

Since then, the legibility and eye-appeal of Baskerville's typography has seldom been equalled, except by a few of his contemporaries. One of them is Italian Giambattista Bodoni (1740 to 1813) who designed the type-face in which the headlines of this newspaper are set.

The exhibition is the 30th annual Washington art directors' show which opens today at the Pension Building (440 G. St.) and presents 170 pieces of printing designed for both government and free enterprise.

The theme of the show is "Then and Now," the "then" presumably referring to 1949, the year of the first regional art directors' show. And that - in addition to Baskerville's predominance - is the second thing that struck me: There is practically no difference between the looks of our advertising and graphic design between then and now.

Printing technology, to be sure, has drastically changed during the last generation. Type is set by photoseters, lettering is applied by "dry transfer," rather than drawn by hand, and most printing is done by photo offset.

But these drastic technological changes have no effect on design, on the appearance of the printed product. Printing technology has made reproduction a lot easier. But modern printing methods have no effect, they leave no mark on what is being reproduced, in the way Baskerville's lead letters, his application of ink, the pressure he applied to his printing press, left their mark as they bit into the paper.

The ease of the new capability means that anything goes. Creativity no longer has to rub up against technical obstacles. And so what we have in this art directors' show is an almost chaotic eclecticism. There seem to have been few challenges that ingenious new design had to overcome. Designers just selected from the medley of solutions already available 30 years ago, that is after the "modern," assymetrical Bauhaus and "Helvetica" style of typography was already established.

And that is why the best design in the show, in my view, acknowledges frankly that we cannot do better than old John Baskerville.

The book is catalogue of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection of prints donated to the Library of Congress. The challenge that faced the Library's designer, Harvey Sattenstein, was to convey the dignity and preciousness of the collection. The timeless dignity and beauty of the Baskerville typography, set not by photosetter but in monotype letters printed by letterpress and adorned by a striking gold-stamped cloth binding, was the unfailingly right solution. It would have been utterly inappropriate in all lower-case Helvetica.

And yet - although it seems just as inappropriate to me - that is what amtrak uses to tell us to "rediscover washington." Poor George Washington, whose picture adorns the travel poster, must wonder what has happened to his capital.

The judges of this show, which is full of such nonsense, were Eddy Byrd, art director for Westinghouse, Robert Heindel, nationally recognized illustrator, and Arthur Paul, art director for Playboy enterprises. They reduced over 2,000 entries - ranking from single-pages advertisements to complete books and from spot TV commercials to full-page photography - to 175 items.

Two things stand out:

The first is the high technical and artistic quality of the photography. The other is the encouraging improvement in the design of government publications.

Washington probably has as many top-notch photographers as New York City because we now probably have as many clients for good photography as New York, what with the Smithsonian, the National Geographic, the AIA Journal and other quality-conscious publications. And color photography is one area where improved technology may have enhanced artistic merit.

Washington also has what may be the finest color printing in the country. The best places in the show are the promotion pieces by one of these printers, Stephenson, Inc., which also printed the handsome catalogue.

The most stunning design is a cover for Print Magazine, a trade journal, designed by husband-and-wife team Jack and Pam Lefkowitz.

In past art-director shows, only what is now the U.S. International Communication Agency's Russian-language magazine America represented the federal government. This time, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are also included.

The efforts by the National Endowment for the Arts to improve federal design, not only in architecture but also in booklets, posters and other printed communications, are slowly bearing fruit.

Due in large part to the steady prodding of NEA's recently retired design director, Jerry Perlmutter, the stodgy Government Printing Office is about to revise its procedure to give designers in the various agencies a little more freedom and quality control.

Due also to NEA's friendly persuasion, the State Department as well as the Departments of Justice and of Housing and Urban Development are adopting consistent typographic styles to assure a clear "corporate image," as private industry calls it.

And, better still is that two of these agencies have overcome the trendy pseudo-modernity of Helvetica type. State has adopted Bodoni as its basic typeface and Justice will use Times Roman, a beautifully legible types, based on Classic letter forms and developed for The London Times in the 1930s.

The 30th annual exhibit of the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington in the Pension Building is open to the public through June 30 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.