Towards a Definition
First published in Strips Club #1, May 2014. Strips Club is a Graphic Design publication based in New Zealand. Issue #1 focused largely on issues surrounding Design education—and more specifically it's potential role in facilitating research-based practices.
What is a graphic designer? What do we do when we ‘design’, and what is the role of design education in shaping these definitions? For most designers, their time within an academic institution accounts for an important, if brief, chance to focus on these questions through the production of self-initiated, authorial projects, before worldly concerns like earning a living and servicing clients take over. It might be easy for those within the design industry to see these projects as self-indulgent distractions—irrelevant to the nature of work and skills required of new graduates. On the contrary, this work should be seen as underpinning such skills, not working against them. Of course, any design education should address the tools of the trade, the demands of the industry, and be accepting of the probable path of most students into that industry. But I would argue that being a graphic designer is more than mixing an aesthetic sensibility with good typography and the ability to work some software. The academic environment must provide opportunities for students to work in a context that encourages outputs at once more speculative and critical than would ever be possible within a commercial context. It must give students the space—without a client or given brief—to question what informs the design process, and by extension, explore the very nature of what graphic design is and can be. I would argue that this type of work is fundamental in developing a clear understanding of ones practice, and that to have a practice is to have a sustainable ‘way of working’; a contextual framework that informs methods and methodologies, translatable across all manner of jobs and projects, self-initiated or client based.
A Point of Departure
No matter what context a designer is working in, there is one core task performed: the visual formalisation of information. This process is driven by an aesthetic sensibility that enables the designer to re-interpret what they see around them, and broadcast that information back out into the world. From this point of departure—design as form giving—there are two inter-locking statements that follow, and that might go some way towards defining aspects of the self-initiated, critical and speculative brand of graphic design that can be especially emphasised within the academic context.
1) Design is inherently editorial—at the very core of the design process is the editorial act of visually ordering and representing/translating raw information. I want suggest that this specific, inbuilt editorial ability makes it natural for designers to take on larger, more general ‘editorial’ roles.
2) Design is inherently political—design finds its home in outputs ephemeral, pragmatic, worldly: public. It could be readily assumed that to design is to publish—and this makes the act of designing at once political—especially when divorced from the client and so immediately more authorial in nature. Again, the ability to visually legitimise information is key here—design being: “an antenna and a toolbox for the forms that manifest themselves in our world.”1
1. Design as Inherently Editorial
Graphic design only exists when other subjects exist first. It isn't an A PRIORI discipline, but a GHOST; both a grey area and a meeting point—a contradiction in terms—or a node made visible only by plotting it through the lines of connections.2
What defines graphic design? Where does it sit? What place does it hold? Recent design history is laced with terms and redefinitions concerning the role of the graphic designer: Designer as author, producer, editor and publisher.3 There has also been attempts to label certain movements within the discipline as: Critical, Speculative, Political etc.4 While I want to acknowledge the fraught nature of most attempts to nail down or label such things, and question the usefulness of needing to whittle down a movement to a title at the inevitable expense of wider contexts and details, I do want to investigate the nature of graphic design; its inherent qualities and specific skill set. I would argue that as an inter-disciplinary approach to graphic design becomes the norm, being sure of ones own context—where you are coming from—is increasingly important.
Graphic design can certainly exist outside of a client-based relationship; but generally it is the legacy of this relationship that continues to define the nature of the discipline. The strength of graphic design is its ability to give form. In this way—by visually legitimising data/information—it intercedes with the public on behalf of an idea, person or corporate body. But without some sort of content or inter-disciplinary relationship to act as starting point, can graphic design exist? The ghost that Bailey outlines in Dear X (2004) is ultimately reliant on input from outside sources and/or interaction with other disciplines—even if a project is self-initiated or clientless in the traditional sense, it still looks outward, needing input from other places, such as in cultural references, locations, circumstances. Bailey paints graphic design as small... insignificant perhaps… a parasite reliant on other, bigger things in order to simply survive.
On the contrary, it could be equally argued (and perhaps equally evidenced through many self-initiated/research-based design projects) that design in fact already ENCOMPASSES other disciplines and activities within its everyday practice. In this scenario, the editorial nature of formalising information is transferred over into editing in more general terms. This might led to a definition more in line with the one outlined by James Goggin in his text Practice of Everyday Life: Defining Graphic Design's Expansive Scope by Its Quotidian Activities (2009):
One should instead judge the idea of an inherently expansive design practice less as a renegotiation of design and art boundaries and more as an acceptance of graphic design as emphatically “graphic design”, with all the aforementioned scope, activities, and contexts the term encompasses. Indeed, we should embrace the idea that graphic design might happily operate as a paradoxically ubiquitous yet overlooked system.5
At first, these two ‘definitions’ read quite differently; Goggin seems to be going for graphic design as big, all encompassing—inherently inclusive and broad in it's activities and scope; a more optimistic view. But having said that, there are definite similarities apparent in the two (after all, Goggin goes on to quote Bailey’s text later in his article, only for Bailey to do the same with Goggin’s in a more recent text An Open Letter from 20106 ) What both definitions make room for is the idea that a certain degree of editorial vision is intrinsic to the graphic design process. Bailey’s Ghost is constantly looking outside of itself, bringing other activities in, acting as a meeting point. While Goggin openly argues that this is the case:
The experienced graphic designer—whether working by commission, or a mix of commissioned and self-initiated projects—becomes naturally skilled in all of these areas (dialogue, research, organization, management, reading, writing and editing).7
Perhaps the most striking historic evidence for this editorial nature of graphic design can be found in Robin Kinross’ evaluation of the role of ‘The Transformer’—as invented and used by Otto and Marie Neurath in the production of their Isotype charts:
Neurath developed the notion of the transformer (it was ‘Transformator’ in German) to describe the process of analyzing, selecting, ordering, and then making visual some information, data, ideas, and implications. Now we might call this process simply ‘design’.8
When contextualized against the contemporary discussion propped up by the likes of Bailey and Goggin and perpetuated by current design outputs—the Isotype project (1925-1971) is as essentially modernist an application of graphic design methodologies as could be exampled. The process of making an Isotype chart was an exercise in the marriage of type and image to display information in the clearest, most digestible manner. Given central place amongst these core processes of the discipline was the editorial initiative needed to make such a transformation.9 This, to me, feels like a crucial piece of the puzzle; evidence of an intrinsic skill inbuilt in the design process that might help to qualify the ability of the designer to move so fluidly between designing and editing—and be put in the unique position of having both the tools needed to edit, design and print a publication as well as the theoretical agency to do so.
What is concerning is that this central importance of editing (by which I mean everything that happens before, between and around the writing of a text/production of content and its subsequent presentation to the public sphere) often goes unmentioned—absent or neglected in present designer-as-publisher processes. As Kinross points out in contrast to the example of the transformer:
(Contemporary) Designers move too fast into the final presentation; there is a cult of the found, the copied; leaving crucial choices and decisions unmade.10
The danger of this, especially in light of the heightened cultural production we are now seeing, is that all these books end up being no more than empty vessels; existing to be part of the scene,11 at risk of being judged on style alone, neglecting any further substance. A re-focusing on the role of editing would go some way to remedy this—the editor is at once thinking on behalf of the material and of the public, as stated by Marie Neurath in her own description of the transformer:
It is the responsibility of the ‘transformer’ to understand the data, to get all necessary information from the expert, to decide what is worth transmitting to the public, how to make it understandable, how to link it with general knowledge or with information already given in other charts. In this sense, the transformer is the trustee of the public.12
By emphasizing this editorial responsibility to the public, Neurath strikes at the heart of what should be driving the production of any designed object. Who is it for? What qualifies its place in the world?
2. Design as Inherently Political
Next to what graphic design is (by its very nature and—to reiterate—outside of a traditional client-based relationship), sits a second question; what does/can/should graphic design (given this context) look like? The answer here is perhaps tied more to methodology and outcomes than any theory surrounding interdisciplinary practice; design, after all, exists in the real world. It is exposed to the elements; it is public. It intercedes on behalf of a person or idea through very pragmatic means—signage, symbols, words, flags etc. Design is on the coalface, and is asked to perform a different task than that of, say, an art object or work of literature. Whether it is designing logos, signage, car stickers, or publications... all are at once more pragmatic and worldly. In this way, to design is to look outward, to publish. And while the self-initiated design project might start to look/act more speculatively, be critical and poetic (closer to the task performed by art and literature) it is still through the pragmatic outputs noted above that this kind of work chooses to enter the world. Perhaps this is the strength of the working class nature of graphic design. To go along with design as a ghost; its lack of resources forces it to beg, borrow and steal. This parasitic graphic design is then based on contingency; using and responding to its surrounds. As a passage from Herbert A. Simon's book The Sciences of the Artificial (1969) explains:
...certain phenomena are 'artificial' in a very specific sense: they are as they are only because of a system's being molded, by goals or purposes, to the environment in which it lives. If natural phenomena have an air of 'necessity' about them in their subservience to natural law, artificial phenomena have an air of 'contingency' in their malleability by environment.13
This idea of contingency works on two levels. Yes, as a way of thinking about the nature of graphic design and its relationship to other disciplines—its place in the pecking order. But more importantly, contingency comes very close to being a definition of sorts for the kind of methodology that drives design when divorced from the client; graphic design as a tool with which to engage with and process the world around us, leading to a filtering and re-presentation of information. As Simon continues:
Engineering, medicine, business, architecture and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent—not with how things are but with how they might be—in short, with design.14
Design—at once editorial and form giving—is able to make projections, offer an alternative to prevailing/popular narratives, or re-package current circumstances. It is able to use its everyday context—engaging with the public—to say something through traditional and familiar means. It can use its knowledge of traditional media but alter the message, or take a convention such as the client proposal and suitably re-purpose it as a rhetorical and speculative exercise; offering a critique by simply suggesting a different path.15 Again, it is the central role that graphic design plays in visualising content that plays an important part here, differentiating it from other political activities in its ability to transform ideas into tangible models for action, or mimic existing visual language. To quote Carl Disalvo from his recent book Adversarial Design:
Both awareness raising and critique are important aspects of political dialog, but design can offer something more. Design can produce a shift toward action that models alternative presents and possible futures in material and experiential form. This provides a foundation of examining and reconstructing political conditions as they are and also imagining the political conditions that might be.16
What this might inevitably look like is design mimicking itself; design working simultaneously as ‘an antenna and a toolbox’; design becomes a tool for thinking—a way of processing the world and re-presenting it.
Towards a Definition
The designer’s role is to visually formalise, legitimise, transform, interpret and represent information. But exactly where this process ends and other processes begin is ultimately variable. Whatever the case, it is from this aesthetic starting point that design can start to branch out—offering a different perspective by way of its particular method of processing the world. The two statements noted above (design is inherently editorial and design is inherently political) have shaped my particular practice as a graphic designer, and informed my outputs by constantly challenging me to qualify my reasons for producing and distributing work. They seem to fit within the small corner of the discipline I inhabit—that of design education—but can these statements act as a wider definition for what graphic design is? Well, yes, and no… my intention in exploring these statements was to start building up a picture of what graphic design inherently is, in the hope it would be a more useful pursuit than focusing on any perceived differences between academia and industry. If there were any conclusion to be made here, maybe it’s that the design school SHOULD provide a different experience to that of a design studio—a simple observation when you think about it, considering the nature of each beast—but its amazing how often it feels like they should mirror one another. Regardless, the design industry needs more designers who are thinking editorially and using their own voice—more designers who view their output as evidence of an underlying practice; an output that equates to a body of work, rather than a set of individual problem solving exercises, and it should be the role of a design education to equip them as such.
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