Robert Hetherington | Exhibitions

The Reconfiguration of a Discipline: Part I

For as long as it has existed, the nature of graphic design has relied on the production of things; fundamentally it is the act of communicating through a physical means. From the paintings on the walls of ancient caves to the words on the pages of a book, when we talk about "the graphic" we are discussing the tangible expression of ideas and information.  

The archive of the Graphic Design department at the Royal College of Art can serve as a fine example of this physicality. Decades worth of printed posters and books, created through a wide range of production techniques: from letterpress through to high-end digital printing, each united by a seemingly straightforward characteristic: they have been produced, and their archive-ability is itself testament to that. The discipline of graphic design has long taken for granted its relationship to the physical world, perhaps because it has always been so unarguable. But as we move forward, ever deeper into our digital present (and its non-reality), the necessity for graphic communication to exist is being questioned more and more.

As a consequence of the rapid changes in technological capability, the communications industry has begun turning to digital media; finding ways to explore and exploit the potential of the latest digital platform and the RCA’s School of Communication has been no exception. The recent addition of the Information Experience Design (IED) course marks an official and ambitious exploration into how we as individuals not only receive but also interact with information.

But what then does this mean for graphic design? It could be argued that as the intake of information becomes ever more dependent on a holistic, experiential engagement; the visual (the graphic) will become just one small piece of the jigsaw, superseded by, for example, interface. Information is no longer just consumed in the form that it is presented in front of us; in order to fully understand we must experience some deeper personal engagement.

What has really been exploded in the digital boom is the process of how we communicate through visual means. What has typically been a one directional process, from the creator to the receiver, mediated by a solid object (be it textual or pictorial), has been blown open. We can think of this in the following way: the conventional receiver (reader, user, viewer) now has the opportunity to curate, adapt, and redistribute the material presented to them. Here we could say, the roles of author, designer and reader, as we have understood them to be, are now progressively becoming irrelevant. Take, for example, the network of individual but interconnected blogs that make up Tumblr, in which the consumption of images and information by the blogger corresponds directly to the process of constructing a new page, itself to be consumed. It is a culture dependent on the feedback loop, as the capital of information within the network comes from how often it is "reblogged." Within this culture the paradigms of creation and consumption have blurred to a point where they are almost completely indistinct.

Interesting comparisons can be drawn to Post-structuralist theories formulated in the late 1960s, during a very different communication age, particularly those of Roland Barthes who heralded "The Death of the Author." [1] In his essay, Barthes deconstructs the ingrained reliance on the dominant persona of the author or the originator of the text; the notion that the meaning contained within the written word is completely defined during the act of writing. Barthes instead suggests, “a texts unity lies not in its origin, but in its destination,” [2] implying that once distributed to multiple readers, all of whom will engage with the text differently, the concept of a singular or definitive text is impossible. With this in mind, consider for a moment Amazon’s Kindle, on which the "reader" has the ability to alter the typeface, point size, line length, and, in turn, the context of the reading process; the potential for a definitive design is therefore impossible. It may be a simplistic example (the potential adaptability of form on the Kindle certainly has restrictions), but I would argue that with the alterability of digital communication platforms, the individual authority of the traditional graphic designer has been significantly undermined, and the intrinsic necessity for the solid "design object" has been similarly negated.

In line with Post-structuralist theories, perhaps we can say that graphic design as a discipline, must attempt to deconstruct its assumed traditional models, models that we have always followed. Recently, the critical discourse surrounding the role of graphic design has had to take a long, deep look at itself. And this question of what the practice of graphic design should actually constitute in a digital age, has come to the forefront of the discipline, not least of all, at the Royal College of Art where the concept of graphic design is considered as a malleable practice for exploration as opposed to a rigid profession to be trained for. [3]

Part II will post tomorrow.

[1] Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author" (1967) in Image, Music, Text (London, Fontana Press, 1993), pp. 142–48.
[2] Ibid., p. 148.
[3] “Professionalism is a minimum demand and is merely regarded as the necessary framework within which each individual can develop his [or her] own talent,” Richard Guyatt, 1963.

Homepage illustration by Charles Rickleton, currently studying on the Visual Communication programme of the Royal College of Art. 

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