Thursday, March 15, 2012


  • Graphic Design Theory?

    Graphic design has often looked to architecture as an

    intellectual model. We long to infuse our work with the same kind

    of dense theoretical knowledge and the same kind of broad ranging,

    legendary critiques. But we're not architects. We're graphic

    designers. Our role is less defined. We cross between print and

    web, 2-D and 3-D. Our work is easier to produce and more ephemeral.

    This fluidity, coupled with a discipline-wide pragmatic streak,

    makes it difficult to establish a defined body of graphic design


    Or does it?

    Graphic designers have written about the ideas behind their work

    since the inception of the profession. Consider F. T. Marinetti,

    László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Josef Müller-Brockman, Karl

    Gerstner, Katherine McCoy, Jan van Toorn and, more recently,

    Jessica Helfand, Dmitri Siegel and Kenya Hara. This body of work is

    small compared to architecture and fine arts, but it is passionate

    and smart.

    Texts about graphic design fall under different categories of

    “theory.” Some analyze the process of making. Think Bauhaus

    experiments, methodologies that fall under the umbrella of

    International Typographic Style, and contemporary explorations

    labeled “design research.” Some texts examine the ideas behind the

    visual work. Authors “read” designs or design texts and put them

    into a wider historical/cultural context. And some apply outside

    theoretical discourses to the field of graphic

    design—deconstruction, semiotics, gender studies. Many seminal

    texts, of course, blur such categorizations.

    Through my research I work to emphasize the value of our own

    theoretical base and inspire others to read and write more. Working

    on a recent book project got me thinking about a range of issues

    that face the profession today. Theory can help us address


    (Clockwise from left): Katherine McCoy's “See Read”

    poster for Cranbrook Graduate Design, 1989, a photographic collage

    of recent graduate student work overlaid by a list of possibly

    opposing design values and a diagram of communication theories—a

    model for how deconstruction and structuralist/poststructuralist

    literary theories might be applied to graphic design's visual and

    verbal processes; a spread from László Moholy-Nagy's

    Malerei, Photographie, Film (Painting, Photography, Film), 1925;

    and a spread from Graphic Design: The New Basics (New York:

    Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), written and designed by

    Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips, in which Lupton

    explores emerging universals within the practice of graphic design,

    including newly relevant concepts like transparency and


    Design increasingly lives in the actions of its users

    Think Flickr, Facebook, Etsy, Lulu, Threadless and the multitude

    of blogs. Users approach software and the web with the expectation

    of filling in their own content and shaping their own visual

    identities—often with guidance from prepackaged forms. Dmitri

    Siegel calls this phenomenon “the

    templated mind.”
    Designers are grappling with their own place

    in this DIY phenomenon. Creativity is no longer the sole territory

    of a separate “creative class.” Designers can lead this new

    participatory culture by developing frameworks that enable others

    to create; doing so, however, means allowing our once-specialized

    skills to become more widespread and accessible. That transfer of

    knowledge is threatening to some, liberating to others.

    Technology alters our aesthetics even as we struggle against


    Designers everywhere strive to create unique visual voices

    despite the prevalence of stock photography and the monolithic hold

    of Adobe Creative Suite. Simultaneously, as noted by design and

    media critic Lev Manovich
    , specific techniques, artistic

    languages, and vocabularies previously isolated within individual

    professions are being imported and exported across software

    applications and professions. This new common language of hybridity

    and “remixability,” through which most visual artists now work, is

    unlike anything seen before. Technology has irreversibly changed

    our sense of aesthetics, giving us both more power and less.

    We should encourage collaboration and communal experience

    What's the good of multi-touch technology if we don't want to

    sit down together? Collaboration and community fuel world-changing

    design solutions. Despite our connections online, many people are

    experiencing a growing sense of personal isolation. How can we, as

    designers, combat that isolation with projects that foster

    community? Media activist Kalle Lasn has warned designers: “We have

    lost our plot. Our story line. We have lost our soul.” Producing

    work that fosters real connections may be one way of getting that

    soul back.

    We all write more today than we did 15 years ago

    Blogs, emails, Twitter-we communicate with many more people

    through text than through speech. If grammar imparts order and

    structure to our thoughts, then this increase in writing brings

    value to our society and our discipline. Design authorship, an

    issue debated by influential figures like Michael Rock, Ellen

    Lupton and Jessica Helfand over the course of the last decade,

    foregrounded the active relationship between text and image and

    between a discipline and its discourse. The expansion of written

    communication makes possible thoughtful contributions to the larger

    discourse of design by a wider slice of the graphic design


    The central metaphor of our current society is the network

    Even if we don't all understand the computer codes that run the

    back end of our digital age, we can comprehend the networked

    structure of our day and design to meet it. Avant-garde artists at

    the beginning of the last century, including F. T. Marinetti,

    László Moholy-Nagy and Aleksandr Rodchenko, were adept at

    activating their own networks: newspapers, magazines, lectures and

    written correspondence. Recently, I heard lectures by Emily

    Pilloton of Project H and

    Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for

    , two young designers who are creating opportunities,

    locally and around the world, for designers to improve basic human

    living conditions. The connectivity of the web is critical to their

    success. Efficient networks for spreading change and prosperity are

    already in place. We just have to grasp them.

    Designers in the early 20th century rose to the challenges of

    their societies. We too can take on the complexities of our time,

    the rising millennium. Delving into our theoretical base equips us

    to address critical material problems in the world and our


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