I think some graphic designers (I am including print and interactive in that title) have subtle inferiority complexes. In our day to day lives, we are not writing prose or researching cures or arguing cases, we are designing homepages and book covers and logos, and maybe that doesn’t seem to be “enough” for some people. For this reason, I think the profession sometimes attempts to intellectualize just what it is that we do, and tries to search for more cerebral backings to compensate. Our daily accomplishments are plenty challenging enough.
Design in Academia
I think one reason that the MFA in design program is still fairly new is that a BFA in design had traditionally always been plenty sufficient to ensure competence as a professional designer. But everyone is getting graduate degrees these days, so dag nabbit, we wanted one too. Don’t get me wrong, I learned A LOT, and I think most people really enjoy their MFA programs, but I question the applicability of some of the discussion and course work for day to day practice (unless of course you become another academic).
Who are we designing for?
I first started thinking about this in grad school in an MFA program in design. I went to grad school at California College of the Arts. Their program is in a rather academic camp that is shared by schools like Cranbrook, Yale School of Art, School of Visual Arts, CalArts, RISD, etc. I don’t say that to sound snobby (trust me), but to distinguish it from some programs that seem to be more vocationally oriented. I recently listened to a discussion with a Yale design professor and he explained it in much the same way as in my program. In these types of programs “form making” is a means of self expression rather than a means of meeting client objectives for print or online collateral. In this way I think these programs have become more like traditional fine art programs. Emphasis is on developing your “inner voice” rather than developing nice business cards or websites. I find these goals often antithetical to what we most often do as designers. Let’s be honest, a healthcare company or a nonprofit or a clothing label is not paying us to express ourselves on their dime. Quite the contrary, our skills and talent are being employed to advance their goals. And I personally find that more rewarding (depending on who the client is). If I can use my abilities to help a small nonprofit have a more professional face online and garner more donations, that has a lot of value to me. But since graphic design first recognized itself as a proper discipline and vocation, designers, with a slightly condescending tone, have been told that theirs is an “applied” art. Not a true “fine” art. And maybe this perspective has helped foster this insecurity which has contributed to graduate programs feeling that they need to make their programs more like fine art programs. This of course is nonsense, because even the great masters were working for clients, but I digress.
These programs are also heavy on theory. Not theory as in the Swiss-modern approach favors white space and structure vs the whatever approach that doesn’t. Theory as in reading French literary and cultural theorists and historians (Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Barthes etc.) who write about structuralism, deconstruction, and semiotics. How does this help inform our day to day work you ask? I think the argument was that it helps us interpret or reinterpret our visual culture (or something). In Design Writing Research, when describing a couple academic writers, Rick Poyner states, “They are interested in theory not as an end in itself but for the ways it can be related to the artifacts and practices of design.” I would challenge that. I do remember that Deconstructive texts were used as the intellectual underpinning for a new look in graphic design that came out of Cranbrook in the late 80s. You know the look, although perhaps without the fancy title. Seemingly haphazard objects dropped on a page, no real grid to speak of, gritty, maybe some found objects thrown in. Its been everywhere for a couple decades now and I don’t believe most of the most memorable designs were informed by the designer first reading Derrida. My point is that there is a consistent effort to give a scholarly backing to an aesthetic that doesn’t necessarily need one. We are making work for everyday people who don’t read this stuff anyway. It’s not meant to go in a gallery, discussed by a small self-selected group of people privy to the discussion.
I have never really been convinced that reading Barthe or Saussure will help me create a better designed website or brochure or banner ad. It’s all very interesting, but I think it is symptomatic of a certain underlying denial of what we spend the majority of our time doing — making things look visually appealing*. And there is no shame in that. While it is still accurate to say that we communicate ideas, the appearance of things is usually foremost (and inter-related). Academics, authors, and “alpha” designers (members of “design celebrity”), sometimes seem to exercise verbal acrobatics to make it sound much more cerebral than that. They talk about telling “visual stories“, “making a direct appeal to our emotional attention“, “creating aesthetic synergies”, etc. Winning over your client and the audience at large based primarily on the appearance of the thing you create is often very challenging. I don’t see the reason to make it sound scholarly or complicated if it isn’t (occasionally it is).
One of the first things you learn when you read certain design publications and attend enough lectures, is that we need more lofty language for what we do. First (as best I can tell), we went from calling ourselves “graphic designers” or “web designers” to simply, “designers”, thereby including ourselves in the broader pantheon of design professionals. One could argue that this is simply shorthand, or that all designers share similar challenges (form and function and all that). There is some truth to this, but I will be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about industrial design, fashion design, or urban design. Therefore I would advocate a return to specificity and being clear about just what it is we do. Every instructor I had in grad school (not counting academic electives) was a graphic designer, and it was always from that perspective that everything was discussed. For that reason I personally think the degree should have been in “graphic design” rather than simply “design.”
I also don’t think graphic designers are exempt from the sort of “title inflation” that seems to go on in every industry these days. To some we are not just “designers”, we are now “design practitioners”. Or sometimes simply, “practitioners” (no need for med school). I’m not kidding, that is the term you hear regularly now in academia. There is also “visual problem solvers”, “creative professionals”, “visual communicators”, and a host of other upscale titles. This of course is not unique to design. Programmers now call themselves “engineers”, secretaries are now administrative assistants etc. And then within recognized titles there are further attempts to distinguish oneself, for example the company I work at now doesnt just have Vice President which was probably the case decades back but now has Associate VP, Senior VP, and Executive VP. I imagine at some point “executive” won’t sound impressive enough anymore and they will add “Platinum VP” or “Ultimate VP.” But before I get off track and start expounding on the troubled vanities inherent in human nature, let me return to design.
Designers have carefully trained themselves never to say that something looks, “nice”, “cool”, or “pretty.” Instead, it must look “visually appealing”, “aesthetically pleasing”, “optically riveting”, “graphically compelling”, etc. Now I strongly believe in making the effort to be verbally precise and articulate why something is nice to look at, but often these words are just clumsy search for synonyms that we hope sound more sophisticated.
I’ve seen a bunch of essays start this way. In fact I have been guilty of writing a few myself. “Designer as Author” was the original. School of Visual Arts even has an MFA with that focus, stating, “this program is the first designed exclusively to encourage authorship and entrepreneurship in a broad range of media” (also mentioning “Designer as Entrepreneur”). You can see both titles combined here. Rick Poyner often seems to see us as writers, and in one case suggests we read Umberto Eco to inform our practice. Ellen Lupton writes about the Designer as Producer, and in referencing “Designer as Author”, she says, “The word author suggests agency, intention, and creation, as opposed to the more passive functions of consulting, styling, and formatting.” Afterall, we must be doing more than merely, consulting, styling, and formatting! She ends with, “For the designer to become a producer, she must have the skills to begin directing content, by critically navigating the social, aesthetic, and technological systems across which communications flow.” Yup, all that. Evidence of the growing role in the world we give ourselves is everywhere. The Walker Art Center recently opened an exhibition about graphic design saying, “designers are becoming producers: authors, publishers, instigators, and entrepreneurs employing their creative skills as makers of content and shapers of experiences.” While I think there are very valid points in all these statements, I still see a connection to the general thesis of “no really, we do more than just make things look nice..”
The joy I get from seeing a well designed whatever is felt on a visceral almost knee-jerk level. Formal solutions (dealing with forms) are at the core of everything we do, not theory. We typically design for large audiences, and when we can generate that sort of appreciation for something we create, I consider that a great accomplishment. I don’t see the need to further validate our work.
There are some writers that seem to have a more “down-to-earth” appreciation for what we do and don’t see the need for the embellishments. One of these writers is Steven Heller. He has to be the most prolific writer on graphic design out there. It seems like every other book I pick up is coauthored by him or magazine article is written by him. The guy must not need sleep. He writes a lot about specific historic periods in graphic design or simply about interesting trends going on today. His writing is always accessible and unpretentious. He also seems to see graphic design in the more honest way that I am discussing it here and I would be curious to sit down with him one day and see if my perception of this insecurity/inferiority complex in our profession resonates with him at all.
*I use the term “visually appealing” and not “pretty” or “beautiful”, because beauty is not always the goal. Some of the most memorable public service posters, for example, are compelling (the viewer is “compelled” to look at them) but not beautiful. I’m guilty of choosing the word, “beauty” in the title of this post just for effect.