Advertisement for graphic design school, November 2008. This (as well as the ads that follow) was rescued from my spam filter over the course of the last six months.
Those of us who choose, for whatever reason, to enter the profession called graphic design have our reasons for doing so. Some stumble into it, as I did, having begun with ambitions of being an architect (and quickly realizing our shortcomings with regard to, say, measuring things properly), soon migrating to a parallel discipline which might be said to require less proficiency in things like engineering. (At least that used to be the case: suffice it to say I am still not allowed to measure things in my own studio without someone else checking my work). There are others who are artistically inclined, who thrill to the idea of working with the music always on, who proudly possess entirely monochromatic wardrobes (and see no reason to deviate), or regard the notion of a lifetime in the studio as one surefire way to avoid the cubicled, fluorescently-lit domain of the office drone, now made brilliantly televisual by the likes of one Dwight K. Schrute. (For graphic designers who are also fans of The Office, who among us has not thrilled to the notion of Pam escaping to New York to study ... graphic design?) Finally, there are those precious few, like Paul Rand, who cite a decidedly more majestic force at work: when asked in an interview why he chose to become a graphic designer, Rand famously replied: "I didn't choose. God chose."
For everyone else, there's still hope: have you received any graphic design spam in your mailbox lately?
Put your creativity to work! Enroll in a cutting edge program! And my personal favorite: Become a designer and quit your boring job! Not surprisingly, the ads themselves reflect little in the way of design ingenuity, with pretty goofy font choices and compositions that even the most visually-challenged would be unlikely to characterize as cutting-edge, unless the young man in the advertisement above is literally cutting the edge off something; or the slice directly beneath the word design is supposed to mimic "cutting-edge" in some kind of form-reinforcing-content attempt at hip, subliminal advertising. Hard to believe modernism plays any role in these programs, but then again, maybe if you put it on a record player and play it backwards, you can hear "Paul is dead." (With all due respect to Mr. Rand, of course.)
But the actual graphic design of these advertisements is only part of the problem: graphic design is more than practice, more than — as it was known long ago — commercial art. Let's assume, for starters, that graphic designers benefit from knowing something about the world around them, and that, increasingly, the challenges facing designers are not only formal and not merely local. Now more than ever, graphic design is a truly international language.
How to explain, then, the preponderance of white women in these ads?
Curiously, men — if and when they do appear — are frequently African-American.
Even more common is the idea that our students have no identities at all, let alone actual faces.
This trend in graphic design spam leads to illustration-heavy ads like this next one, suggesting that if you actually commit to studying graphic design, the horrors of global warming will cause a burning-hot red globe to beam down upon you with flashes of light that cast a purple aura upon your entire being.
Of course, if what these design programs are going for is cutting edge excitement, then maybe these symbols serve them well: spinning orbs, happy students, edges being cut. Regrettably, it's more like corners being cut — the opposite of doing the hard work that real design school entails. I'm loathe to criticize this next one as it is directed to graphic design students with muscular dystrophy, but then again, why should they be targeted any differently?
It may come as little surprise that in graphic design — an industry requiring little in the way of professional certification — the barriers to entry are nothing if not soft. Advertisements like this next one suggest that in the push-button and arguably, interchangeable world of career planning, Joe the Plumber might just as well be Phil the Psychologist, Andy the Accountant, or Gloria the Graphic Designer.
While they allege to promise access to first-rate design programs, such efforts comically reduce design to its most uninteresting components: in the flattened world of graphic design spam, it's all computers and color wheels, logos and Photoshop filters. (I am assuming that the stop-sign shaped cartoon portraits, above, are in a class by themselves.) Clicking on the ads occasionally reveals even more alien territory, including, in one instance, a rather terrifying video about the "graphical arts." Nowhere is there a hint of the underlying armature of design — and by this I mean really simple things, like form, balance, harmony, composition, typography. How daring it would be to see an advertisement brandishing nothing else: would it scare prospective students away, and if so, would that really be such a bad thing?
Clearly, the harsh economic realities facing all schools (and by conjecture, their design programs) oblige us to cast a potentially more forgiving lens and wider net, possibly accepting such questionably accredited curricula, but implicit in that notion is the lowering of standards, across the board, with regard to what we characterize as graphic design. The good news is, it's all up for grabs. And the bad news? It's all up for grabs. Never has there been more opportunity for designers to embrace multiple forms of expression, to work in different media, to produce and disseminate visual ideas on a global scale. But at the same time, never has there been a more uninformed community of graphic design wannabes. You may not choose to put these spam-promoted design courses in the same class as, say, RIsD and Yale and Cranbrook and CalArts (an abbreviated but by no means complete list of rigourous, international offerings that includes options in both Canada and the EU) but to assume the general public makes those same distinctions is a misguided assumption. Outside the design ghetto, there is no difference between graphic design and the graphical arts. But maybe there should be.