Robert Hetherington | Exhibitions

The Reconfiguration of a Discipline: Part II

Design Observer closes its week of posts celebrating the GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years exhibition at the RCA London, with the second part of Robert Hetherington's observations on the changing nature of design and the need for a reappraisal of the profession.

In his essay “The Useful Art of Graphic Design,” written for the book published to celebrate the 175th anniversary of The Royal College of Art, Rick Poynor suggests that: “The term [graphic design] has always been blurred at its many edges … It is not one activity or single form of communication but many.” [1] He makes this point in relation to the naming of the course at the RCA Graphic Design, as it was at its foundation in 1948. [2] As I see it, from the perspective of a student approaching the end of my time at the College, in order to move forward and weather the storm of the digitization of communication, graphic design may just have to deliberately embrace its increasingly separate areas of focus.

The first direction that I would suggest could be seen as the more traditionally commercial. Here, graphic designers will create overarching frameworks for others to personalise, in the Barthesian sense of “the death of the author,” [3] they will still be present and necessary but primarily to facilitate the authorship of others. The individual and definitive sense or notion of the object will no longer be present in the work, and in any case this will no longer be relevant for mass communications.

A second potential direction for graphic design is to fully embrace objectification and deliberately move away from the world of mass communication towards what will be closer to a fine art practice. As non-verbal communication becomes less dependant on a physical form, the cultural value of the tangible will be increased by its rarity. The gallery wall will take the place of, for example, the advertising billboard and so the design itself will become the commodity. Purpose and meaning will come from form or aesthetic as opposed to through it.  
Briefly, I would like to contextualize this possibility by mentioning the relationship graphic design has with a "post-conceptual" art world. The general aim of the conceptualization of artistic practice was an attempt to foreground the idea itself above the medium that was being used to describe it; the attempt to remove all unnecessary decoration and leave only a pure form of information, undiluted. In doing so the fundamental modes of artistic creation had to be rethought. The ultimate and, perhaps, obvious result being that the text began to gain prominence. In some circles the artist became closely affiliated with a process of writing seen as being outside of the conventions of artistic production. Consider Lawrence Weiner’s text pieces, in which the artistic exercise takes place not just in the formation of the words on the wall but within the construction of the language itself; or Katrina Palmer’s book The Dark Object which questions the position of the written word as an object and the parallels of artistic and writerly production (discussions which are reflected within the thingness of the book itself). The irony of the situation is that without losing an ingrained aesthetic sensibility the resulting texts become something not too far removed from traditional graphic design. The problem, or perhaps the opportunity, for graphic designers has been this: for us to have our own critical turn, to reappraise the possibilities of our discipline, we will have to be forced to go even further. 

Therefore, a third potential route that I would like to propose for graphic design is perhaps most difficult to relate to the current conventions of the practice. It may be time to completely overhaul the reliance on the idea of the "medium" that has traditionally tied graphic design to a trajectory that may now only be leading it to extinction. For me, the necessary critical discourse around what it means to be a graphic designer in the second decade of the twenty-first century has opened up ideas about the process of communication, and language in general; and in so doing it has shown that designers’ skill set is transferable outside and beyond the confines of the visual. I say that the sensibilities of the graphic designer, the understanding of the transfer of information, that has always been at the heart of the profession, could be well used outside of the creation of things, but instead in the construction of ideas. Design does not have to be solely confined to the translation of information and knowledge but should also be involved in its creation. 

Read part I here.

[1] Rick Poynor, "The Useful Art of Graphic Design," in The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art (London, RCA, 2012), p. 107
[2] The name has gone through various iterations but has currently paused with an overarching "School of Communication," within which there is a course in Visual Communication. Graphic Design is now just a discipline within that wider structure. 
[3] See part 1

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

Comments [2]

Wow. A lot to contemplate. I'll have to read these two parts over a few more times.
Randy Willoughby

Awesome! Too much deliberate. Love these.
Taposy Rabeya

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