Can anyone be a graphic designer? Thanks to the Internet, this question perpetually plagues design students, not to mention their parents. With the rise of technology and design thinking, it seems like everyone wants to try their hand at graphic design. Although the design sensibility of this generation has advanced toward visual sophistication, not all users of professional software, like the Adobe Creative Suite, can be called graphic designers. So, what is a graphic designer?
According to researcher of user-interface design Ruth Rosenholtz, “Designers are taught to create, and social scientists to criticize what already exists.” This definition reveals two criteria for graphic designers: graphic designers produce objects and provide solutions. Furthermore, Rosenholtz goes on to assert, “When we need to go from ‘insight’ to ‘solution,’ designers are indispensable.” From this, we can deduce that graphic designers integrate the roles of both designer and social scientist because finding a solution requires observation, critical thinking, and interpretation.
When describing the role of graphic designer as social scientist, the study of social media becomes the anthropology of modern culture. At the heart of the Internet universe, social media encompasses the blogosphere, the Twittersphere, and every wormhole nestled with information. Information. It’s the hot topic trending for longer and faster than occupy during the months of Occupy Wall Street. The widespread use of social media results in the proliferation of information and accumulation of data. Prominent in popular publications, both print and digital, information visualization represents the intersection of information and design. It’s evident that we live in the Age of Information, but are we really in the Age of Design?
Bad design, it’s everywhere. It lurks around every corner onscreen and just outside your door. Worst of all, it exists in plain sight.
Several cultural factors have contributed to the new paradigm for design: availability of resources, the Do-It-Yourself movement, and design education. Finding access to expensive software has proven easy with the Internet. Not only are free-trials at users disposal, one can also find pirated versions off torrents. This increase of access and software users has led to an explosion of tutorials from basic to expert-level technical training. The escalating availability of software and tutorials exacerbates another cultural trend: the DIY movement. Websites like Instructables and Make promotes the resourcefulness of do-it-yourself attitude along with the culture of environmentalism. More than just a culture, DIY has transformed into a massive community joined by the power of the Internet. The DIY values reach beyond the domestic life and into the design world. We see not only trends pertaining to the handmade quality of DIY, but also a rapidly increasing number of “graphic design hobbyists,” those without professional experience.
This is not to say good design exists purely in the realm of the degree accredited, or even the classically trained. Likewise, “bad design” can be found in the professional world, especially in advertising. New Media scholar Lev Manovich attributes the increase of user-created media content to the social media boom in 2000s. In “The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life,” he asserts, “The world of professional art has no special license on creativity and innovation” (Manovich). While I agree to an open perspective and open source attitude on creativity, I cringe at the thought of how many people list creative and innovative as personal attributes in resumes. After a scream, my next reaction goes along the lines of, “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” I wonder how many people have pegged themselves as designers, in the way some designers call themselves programmers if they understand the HTML/CSS in Dreamweaver. So, what is a designer?
Dutch graphic designer Daniel van der Velden emphasizes the role of designer as scientist by describing design “as a discipline that conducts research and generates knowledge that makes it possible to seriously participate in discussions that are not about design.” Research is not limited to works of academia, but, rather, it requires what designer and writer Michael Bierut calls “a meaningful range of culture.” The formal education of our celebrated designers comprises of a well-rounded curriculum including, but in no way limited to; form and process, technique, typography, design thinking and strategy, art history, and art theory, just to name a few. The definition of formal education extends beyond the bounds of the university. In fact, design legend Tibor Kalman, the late husband of Maira Kalman, was self-trained in design. Kalman’s design ethics challenged the role of graphic designer believing in the necessary presence of a social message in design. In today’s age of ethical and environmental conscience, Kalman’s philosophy holds more weight and relevance than ever. It is graphic designers in particular who play a crucial role in expressing ideology and facilitating conversation.
Along with the remarkable advances technology has brought to graphic design, the effects have yielded in less positive phenomena. The influential nature of consumerism on graphic design has resulted in the globalization of design aesthetic and taste. Similar to assuming what’s fashionable as style, “designers” have grown reliant on trends. As expressed by Beirut, the public’s reception lauds “the way graphic design looks, not what it means.” Design, like art, observes the saying “Form follows function.” Using Kalman’s understanding of graphic design as a means to visually inform viewers of a social message, graphic design in the domain of advertising fails. Even if the message of advertisement is “buy this product,” what is actually being communicated is confusion.
Hidden in dense references to sexuality, or, rather, sex appeal, and cultural trends, ads hold no meaningful social message. Take for example the narrative structure of television advertisements for pharmaceuticals. The commercial introduces the viewer to a fairly attractive upper-middle class, middle-aged couple. In the next 55 seconds, the viewer watches the couple going about mundane everyday things, but with a smile! Finally, in the last moments of the ad, a voiceover announces the name of the drug, often a compound of some adjective describing happy and –enz, -ica, or -sta, and leaves the remaining seconds to speed-read through the ghastly list of side-effects. Unfortunately, the seal of approval degrades into a false value when “programs will pay lip service to meaning in design with references to “semiotics” (Swiss) or “conceptual problem solving” (slick), but these nuances are applied in a cultural vacuum.” With the big bucks, companies hire smooth talkers to sell these ads by accrediting the design to something based on a cultural trend, consumer reports, or psychology. In this regard, the body of recognizable graphic design becomes commercialism. Does it compete with other brands, but suit the trend? Will this appeal to the consumer? Can we sell it?
Writer Soren Petersen reviews this phenomenon in an article in the Huffington Post. When the design is deemed sellable, “people identify with and vote by means of purchasing power on the design philosophy, a design trend is created and a strong trend becomes the prevailing taste.” The problem with this model is the obscene power companies hold in driving this vicious cycle. It carries the same logic of “trends are trends because they are trendy.” Consumerism aside, the evaluation and value of a work of graphic design should root itself in the foundations of art and design. One of the foundations finds truth in “Form follows function.” The function relies on the effective communication of the message. Good design is nothing less than that primary function. In designs today, communication is muddied with a clutter of messages, references, and cues. A study published by the MIT Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences suggests an operational definition of clutter as “the state in which excess items, or their representation or organization, lead to a degradation of performance.” Visually and conceptually cluttered design is bad design because the intended message becomes confused, or too complex. The reason we study graphic design is to avoid these principle offenders of design, move beyond the visually ordinary, and incite an intelligent reaction in the viewer.
Yes, bad design is everywhere and more prominent than ever, but it is not the fault of graphic designers, at least not good graphic designers. A good, or well-informed, graphic designer operates with technical skill versed in history, stays receptive to current events, and familiar with popular culture. Trends and gimmicks exploit design. No doubt the understanding of design has been diluted, but there still exists hope because good graphic designers are out there! So, back to the first question posed: can anyone be a graphic designer? To answer this seemingly impossible question, I leave you with a quote from Tibor Kalman, “Everyone can hire a good photographer, chose a tasteful typeface and produce a perfect mechanical. So what? That means 95% of the work exist on the same professional level, which for me is the same for mediocracy. We’re not here to give them what’s safe and expedient, we’re here to make them think about design that’s dangerous and unpredictable.”
Bierut, Michael. Seventy-nine Short Essays On Design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.
Manovich, Lev. “The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life.” Graphic Design Theory. Princeton Architectural Press, 10 Mar. 2008. Web. 06 Apr. 2012. <http://graphicdesigntheory.net/essaysmanovich2.html>.
Petersen, Soren. “What Is Good Design?” The Huffington Post. 27 Jul. 2011. Web. 06 Apr. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soren-petersen/evaluating-good-design_b_909037.html>.
Rawsthorn, Alice. “Celebrating a Graphic World.” The New York Times. 7 Feb. 2011, Global ed. Design sec. Print.
Rosenholtz, Ruth, Yuanzhen Li, and Lisa Nakano. “Measuring visual clutter.” Journal of Vision. MIT, Apr. 2007. Web. 6 Apr. 2012. <http://www.journalofvision.org/content/7/2/17.full.pdf>.
Velden, Daniel van der. “Research & Destroy A Plea for Design as Research.” Graphic Design Theory. Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. Web. 06 Apr. 2012. <http://graphicdesigntheory.net/Velden.html>.