In this broadcast I’m going to try and explain what graphic design is and what graphic designers do. I’m a graphic designer, and I used to dread telling people what I did for a living. It was rare to find anyone who understood what graphic design was, and my faltering descriptions always seemed to confuse rather than clarify.
Considering graphic design’s ubiquity in modern life, I’m not sure that many people (non-designers that is) understand much about it. It’s something that people encounter every day — perhaps every minute of their waking lives — yet they hardly bother to consider the impact, either for good or bad, that it has on their lives. It’s a subject that means a great deal to the people who do it for a living, but rarely means much to the people it’s aimed at.
Graphic design has been likened to a wine glass. When we drink wine we barely notice the glass it’s served in. It wouldn’t be true to say that we don’t care what glass we drink out of — we wouldn’t choose to drink a rare vintage out of a Tupperware mug, for example — but it’s the wine that matters, not the vessel it comes in.
It’s the same with graphic design: people absorb the messages that graphic designers use their skill, training and ingenuity to make, yet rarely stop to think how the message is constructed or how it affects the viewer. This seems odd considering graphic design’s ubiquity in the modern world.
Occasionally, graphic design lurches into the media spotlight, as it did recently when the London 2012 logo was caught up in a media firestorm. In the U.S., many commentators have noted the role played by posters and illustrated images of Barack Obama in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. A documentary film about the typeface Helvetica has proved astonishingly successful, occupying the number 1 spot on iTunes documentary chart. But, graphic design mostly goes unnoticed and unremarked.
Despite being a graphic designer, I can still be surprised by design’s overwhelming prevalence in everyday life. The other day I walked into a branch of Borders and was hit by the realization that no matter where I looked, I saw graphic design. I saw tables covered with dozens of books, each with a different attention-grabbing cover. The walls were plastered from floor to ceiling with visually arresting book jackets. I was surrounded by magazine covers, display banners, and messages of all kinds. It was like being in a cave where every inch of wall space has been covered with symbols, letterforms, pictures, images, and graphic marks.
I recently saw another demonstration of graphic design’s ubiquity. Someone had taken a series of photographs of busy streets and then painstakingly removed all the logos, symbols, signs, colours, street names and road markings. In other words, they had removed all the graphic design from these photographs. The results were staggering. A world without graphic design is an unrecognisable world — more alien than all but the most extreme sci-fi imaginings.
But unless you are a graphic designer, most of the graphic clutter that surrounds us is a bit like the weather: it’s just there. Yes, we often have reason to be grateful for it, such as when an efficiently designed railway timetable gives us useful information; or when a well-designed instruction manual helps us complete a tricky task; or when a smoothly functioning website allows us to book tickets. Many of us treasure a favourite book jacket or record cover for its style and aesthetic heft. We might even be pleased to buy some soap powder because the cheerful packaging catches our eye.
But we rarely stop and look at this stuff — I mean really stop and look at it in the way that we might stop and look at a painting or a work of art. We absorb the messages, but only rarely take time to look at how the message has been constructed. In other words, we gulp the wine, but never look at the glass.
And there’s a good reason for this: most graphic design can be categorised as “quietly good design,” to use a phrase coined by the design critic Alice Rawsthorn. This is design — whether it’s product design, interior design or graphic design — that gets on with its job without drawing attention to itself. It does what it sets out to do, and is neither intrusive or particularly engaging.
However, a great deal of graphic design is ephemeral and inconsequential. This is mainly because the messages that graphic designers are asked to transmit are often precisely this — ephemeral and inconsequential. If we use our wine metaphor again, we might say that cheap wine comes in cheap glasses.
The ephemeral nature of much graphic design is neatly illustrated in a telling little scene in the Michael Mann movie, Heat, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The De Niro character falls for a woman played by Amy Brenneman, who he meets in a diner. He asks her what she does for a living and she tells him that she’s a graphic designer. She explains that she designs letterheads, logotypes, CD covers and menus for restaurants. De Niro looks at her and ask incredulously: “You go to school for that?” Brenneman laughs apologetically, and says yes.
De Niro’s raised eyebrow semaphores what most non-designers think about graphic design — or more accurately, he reveals the value most non-designers place on the visual clutter that swirls around us. Even for me, speaking as a graphic designer, I find it hard to disagree with De Niro’s sniffy attitude. Most graphic design is crass and formulaic. And the reason for this is that graphic designer’s best customers are the businesses and commercial enterprises who want to harness design’s power to package and present the products and services they sell.
This has made graphic design an important factor in modern business. In the commercial market place, where so many products and services are identical, often the only way to tell them apart is through design. But, if the only thing graphic design is good for is helping to differentiate one brand of toothpaste from another, then it’s hardly likely to be something to make the pulse run faster.
For many observers and commentators, graphic design’s embeddedness in commercial culture makes it into one of the specious modern black arts, like spin, hype and branding. And it’s undoubtedly true that most graphic design is about selling things in a consumer society. Yet not all graphic design serves purely commercial purposes. There are clients — and designers — who use graphic design in a constructive and socially useful way.
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Nor is graphic design new — it’s been around for a while, perhaps since Neolithic times: cave paintings were actually sophisticated pieces of info-graphics detailing the seasonal movement of reindeer and buffalo. Or, it could be said to have begun with the illuminated manuscripts of Medieval times. Yet, it would be more accurate to say that graphic design began in 1450 when Gutenberg perfected typographic printing, or when Caxton produced the first English-language book a few years later. (Although it’s worth noting that the Chinese had already learned how to print calligraphy as early as 1000 AD.)
The art of lettering was refined during the Renaissance, and many of the typefaces and typographic conventions that designers still use were formed in the hot house of Europe’s great artistic and cultural eruption of the 15th century.
Graphic design became a recognizable craft with the industrial revolution and the arrival of automated printing presses. Suddenly it was possible to mass-produce leaflets and posters, and the era of advertising and publicity began. Victorian playbills and turn-of-the-century posters are clearly the ancestors of contemporary design, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that graphic design became recognizably modern.
The architect Walter Gropius, who believed in the merging of crafts and the fine arts, founded the Bauhaus in 1919, in Germany. Gropius wanted to revitalize design by putting an end to the imitation of old “naturalistic” styles, and to allow designers to embrace the new age of mass production, and to develop a truly modern machine aesthetic. By 1933 the Bauhuas had succumbed to Nazi pressure and was closed, but by then it had given birth to a modern design movement that encompassed architecture, product design and graphic design. A new typographic style emerged which reflected the machine aesthetic, and which was to conquer the world. One writer noted: “The story of the Bauhaus is the story of how a considerable body of contemporary American printing and advertising came to be what it is.”
By the 1960s, the new Modernist typography, variously described as International Style or Swiss Style, had become the major stylistic force in world graphic design, largely due to its dominance in American corporate culture. It even found acceptance in Japan, where Modernist design was used in the posters advertising in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
From the 1970s onwards, graphic design invaded every aspect of modern life. Corporations discovered the power of having a dynamic visual identity, and no business could flourish unless it had a sexy logo and glossy graphics. Designers sensed that their moment had come: many abandoned their cottage industry roots and banded together into ultra-efficient, strategically-focused design consultancies offering big business the panacea of slick, consumer-friendly visual communications. Designers showed how shareholder value could be increased by the strategic and quasi-scientific application of graphic design.
In the 1980s, graphic design became established as a vital constituent of pop culture. Typefaces, logos, album sleeves and magazine covers all became part of a style-obsessed youth culture. One or two graphic designers even became known outside of the professional world.
Today, graphic design has gone super nova. As we’ve already noted, it has invaded every aspect of life from the cultural to the political. But with this ubiquity has also come a sort of redundancy. The more there is, the less it’s valued.
. . . graphic design is the art and profession of selecting and arranging visual elements — such as typography, images, symbols, and colors — to convey a message to an audience. Sometimes graphic design is called “visual communications,” a term that emphasizes its function of giving form — e.g., the design of a book, advertisement, logo, or Web site — to information. An important part of the designer’s task is to combine visual and verbal elements into an ordered and effective whole. Graphic design is therefore a collaborative discipline: writers produce words and photographers and illustrators create images that the designer incorporates into a complete visual communication.
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The Encyclopaedia Britannica has this to say on the subject:
For most people, that’s a perfectly satisfactory definition. And yet, even here, we can quibble. The last sentence states that “Graphic design is therefore a collaborative discipline: writers produce words and photographers and illustrators create images that the designer incorporates into a complete visual communication.”
It is certainly true that most graphic design is collaborative in the sense that designers are supplied with content by writers, photographers and illustrators. And it’s for this reason that graphic designers are rarely credited with anything beyond the transmission of their client’s messages. It is widely believed that graphic designers have no authorial voice. Graphic designers make the glass, not the wine.
Yet this is not always true. In fact, there are graphic designers who write their own texts, take their own photographs, create their own illustrations and publish their own websites, blogs, books and posters. Pointing this out may seem like nit-picking, because admittedly it’s only a tiny percentage of designers who do it. But it means that designers can have an authorial voice, and not all designers are the opinion-less servants of their paymasters.
Another definition of graphic design comes from the American designer and writer Jessica Helfand:
Graphic design is a visual language uniting harmony and balance, color and light, scale and tension, form and content. But it is also an idiomatic language, a language of cues and puns and symbols and allusions, of cultural references and perceptual inferences that challenge both the intellect and the eye.
Helfand’s version introduces the notion that graphic design is a “language,” and clearly, if graphic designers are going to learn to speak this language, with its “cues and puns and symbols and allusions …,” they are going to have to be reasonably smart people — or at least people who have inquiring, culturally aware and semioticaly perceptive minds. In other words, they are going to have to be educated.
Any definition of graphic design would be inadequate if it failed to take into account the training and technical knowledge required to make a graphic designer. There are rules that govern typography, the structuring of information, and the technical aspects of publishing. And these can take years to learn, and places huge importance on the formal education of designers.
There is also a professional dimension to design: designers have to know about copyright, intellectual property, and contracts; they have to have negotiating skills, presentation skills; and they have to be able to write proposals, and a host of other business world requirements.
Designers also have to become technically adept at producing their work. They have to learn software programs, image manipulation, printing techniques, colour theory, web programming and the delivery of information on multiple platforms.
Not only this, but there are many types of graphic design. Let’s just take a moment to list some of the types of graphic design that exist:
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There is information graphics, which is concerned with hard cold facts such as timetables and the visualization of data and statistics. There is digital design, which is concerned with the presentation of information on electronic platforms such as the internet, mobile phones and data-display screens. There is graphic design for television, and of course graphic design for all kinds of printed matter — everything from billboards to books; from brochures to brand identities; from bubble gum wrappers to bus tickets.
Most graphic design is two-dimensional, but there are graphic designers who work in 3-dimensions. They design installations, murals, exhibitions and display units for shops. There is typographic design, which is concerned with the way textual information is displayed. There are designers who design typefaces. There are designers who work as art directors and direct photographers, illustrators and typographers to make visual communication in the way that film directors direct a film crew to make a movie. There are designers who only retouch photographs. There are even graphic designers who design the little icons that we find in our computer operating systems. (Well, you didn’t think they designed themselves, did you?)
Finally, no description of modern graphic design would be complete without reference to the moral and ethical dimension. In fact, moral and ethical decisions confront designers every day. If a corporation that made landmines asks a designer to create a website for them, most designers will say no. This is a simple moral question that few designers would need to wrestle with. But what about the cool clothing company that has questionable third-world labour policies — would the average designer say no to them?
Questions of morality and ethics often manifest themselves in an urge amongst graphic designers to use their skills to do good — raising awareness of charitable, social and green causes, for example. There is a long tradition of graphic design being used to aid protest movements. Think of the role of the Peace Symbol in the various anti-war and peace movements that have existed since the 1960s. Some designers use their skills to further their religious beliefs; others are engaged in research to aid readability amongst the visually impaired, or investigating new ways of communicating with non-literate audiences.
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Despite the diversity of design practices and the plurality of modern visual communications, I think there are only two sorts of graphic designers.
This split is fundamental to understanding graphic design. There are many different ways of defining the split, and there are, of course, huge areas of overlap. Massimo Vignelli, an Italian born graphic designer who has lived and worked in New York for most of his life, and who is responsible for much elegant and refined work, defined the split with his customary precision:
Vignelli nails it for me. He succinctly describes the two approaches to graphic design — the structured and the emotional. He also uses a phrase I’ve avoided up until now — “problem solving.” For many designers, problem solving is what they do. A client brings them a “problem” and they use their skills as a graphic designer to solve the problem visually. This notion of being a problem solver suits the mentality of many designers who are naturally analytical and objective: to be a good graphic designer, you have to be able to see things from the viewpoint of the intended user.
But as Massimo Vignelli noted, there’s another sort of graphic designer as well. So far, I haven’t mentioned the A word — Art.
None of the graphic designers I know consider themselves artists. It is certainly common for designers to like art and have a keen eye for it, and it is also common for designers to envy the apparent freedom of artists.
Most recognise the fundamental difference between artists and designers: artists create work that comes from an inner impulse. Or to put it another way, they write their own briefs. Graphic designers, on the other hand, respond to briefs supplied by others — they are reactive. To go back to our glass of wine — artists supply the wine, graphic designers supply the glass.
Except it’s not as simple as that. There are designers who have a personal and singular vision of how their work should materialize. They work in fashion, music and cultural design, and while they may function like traditional problem-solving graphic designers, they rely far more on intuition and on an inner aesthetic lexicon.
They tend not to view their role as “problem solvers.” What others see as problems crying out for solutions, these designers see as opportunities crying out for graphic expression. These are designers with a signature style — often backed up by aesthetic and moral convictions — and clients know what they are getting when they hire these individuals or studios.
So — two types of graphic designers. One pragmatic and problem solving; the other emotional and visionary. Of course, there are many things that unite them: craft skills, technical know how, historical tradition, and the commercial realities of survival in the business sphere, to name just a few.
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But there is one fundamental characteristic that both types of designer share — a quest for a sense of authorship.
This quest for authorship is a stubborn little urge in nearly all designers that never quite reconciles itself to being suppressed. Even the most pragmatic and service-minded designers want to do things their way, and to claim some sort of personal stamp on their work.
To understand this “stubborn little impulse” we need to look at why people become graphic designers in the first place. It usually happens when we discover an aptitude for creativity or drawing, or when we discover that we have an aesthetic sensibility. This sensibility is raw and unformed in our early years, but over time it becomes more sophisticated, and we discover that we have convictions about shape, color and form. This discovery also provides the first taste of authorship.
This is not authorship on the same scale as a great novelist, for instance, but it is an impulse to make a mark, even if is in the service of problem solving on behalf of clients. As designers we are inclined to solve the problems of our clients, but we want to do it in our own way and in our own voice.
Of course, this takes us to the essential paradox at the heart of all types of design: the urge for a personal authorial voice is considered to be antithetical to rational objective design. To be truly objective, the designer needs to remove all personal feelings from the equation and zero-in on a rational solution — or so we are told.
Yet there never was great design of any kind that forced the designer to eradicate his or her own voice, and all great design, the stuff that matters, has a strong personal signature which doesn’t impede functionality. Designers may not be artists, but they still want to — metaphorically and literally — sign the work they do.
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I want to end with an observation that says something about graphic design’s place in the modern world.
Design is now one of the most popular subjects for study in UK universities. There are 160,000 people studying Creative Arts and Design. (There are only 140,000 people studying Engineering and Technology.) This seems astonishing to me. But it also tells me something about the culture we live in. In our industrialized, corporatized, technologically sophisticated society, people fear becoming faceless cogs, just as much as they did during the industrial revolution. They crave the ability to make things, to make a mark that they can call their own. What better way to do this than to become a graphic designer?
That’s worth toasting with a glass of decent wine, surely? In a beautifully designed glass, of course.