THE FUTURE OF GRAPHIC DESIGN
To talk about the future of graphic design we must first determine the parameters of ‘the future’ and
of ‘graphic design’.
What period are we considering? And what kind of future? – possible, probable, aspirational? – the way forward? There are many simultaneous futures. In some ways the future will be the same as the past. I will talk here about an aspirational future, and one defined by the paradigm shift that has occured in modes of communication, access to information, and perception and definitions of environment. In this sense it feels as if the future may already have happened and it is our job to assimilate, absorb, adapt and respond to the possibilities that it suggests.
While we could say we are in a transitional period, the walls and ceilings have already eroded – convergence is everywhere – public and private, hardware and software, real and virtual, external and reflexive, work and leisure, consumption and passivity, information and noise, are all being renegotiated, so it seems less like transition and more that a new paradigm already exists, we are just catching up.
THE TROUBLE WITH ‘GRAPHIC DESIGN’
Graphic Design is the commonly accepted term for various activities relating to (visual) communication. The term though does us a disservice. Coined in 1922 to describe various activities including type & book design, illustration and calligraphy, we have been lumbered with it now for almost a century. As the activities and technologies around it evolve the description remains unchanged. Technology and terminology are seldom in sync – the digital click of the shutter on your (camera?) phone.
‘Graphic’ has its etymological origins in (the profound activities of) writing and drawing, but has become deeply entangled in popular misconceptions about the activity of a graphic designer. It tends to convey ‘surface’ and with it imply something superficial. The work of graphic designers is too often superficial. When used in the sense to ‘make graphic’ as-in explicit and arresting, it has power, but it only describes part of the activity.
‘Design’ has some more credibility – we ‘design’ buildings, computer programmes and courses of study afterall, but it also carries the connotation of style. Style is important, but on its own it is empty.
‘Visual Communication’ might be better but what about the other senses!?
THE TROUBLE WITH GRAPHIC DESIGN
The heart of the problem is that Graphic Design is widely held to be an add-on aspect of a larger design process. Graphic Design is used for ‘added value’ and this it can surely provide, but Graphic Design is too often annexed (or has annexed itself) from wider pursuits, and often from context and content.
I was once invited to prepare a scoping document for the design of a wayfinding system for a new-build library. The library was already built and almost ready for occupation before the necessity of this had become apparent.
WHAT I BELIEVE GRAPHIC DESIGN TO BE
I believe design to be an activity firmly rooted in thought. It’s often called design thinking, which is a bit fuzzy, but it combines creativity and analysis. As John Cage observed though, these are different processes and should not be done at the same time. It is characterised by the following:
It is about people.
These elements come together as extremely potent, powerful tools.
I trained as a graphic designer; I work as a designer, musician, curator, photographer, film-maker, writer, editor, author of content. I produce work for print, screen, wayfinding systems, installation and exhibition.
I approach design as a joint venture, a series of exchanges between the various parties involved.
I operate at the interstices of disciplines and activities; demonstrating a non-adherence to category or description.
While by no means a diagram or example of how to practice I believe this approach to be at the core of what Graphic Design can be.
HOW THIS RELATES TO STUDY, RESEARCH AND INDUSTRY
Given the seismic shift that has occured in our relationship with material and our environment there seems to me an opportunity to rearrange the furniture. An unfixing of categories. There is a resultant decoupling of ‘traditional’ industry roles and outcomes. People wear technology. The library needs to be reimagined.
It is a chance for ‘graphic design’ to redefine itself, to un-annex itself from the larger design process; more central to an integrated, holistic process, working collaboratively to not only shape but to author content, and societal concerns. Over time Graphic Designers acquire highly-atuned sensibilities and an exactitude in shaping and extending a message. If this is the case, then surely we also need to address what it is we choose to lend a hand to. Designers as authors of content.
An holistic overview emphasises the importance of specialisation – specialists who realise the limitations of their abilities and know how to source and work with other specialists – a design process that is collaborative, and one that looks outside the discipline and lets that impact upon it, is capable of operating within new parameters.
Real culture takes place in small rooms. Things that go on to have great impact.