Graphic description

In the quest to describe the design disciplines, Quentin Newark gives us his glossary of the graphics idiom

The activity we call graphic design is becoming increasingly unrecognisable. At its edges, it blurs into film, art, writing, digital and exhibition design to name a few, and its practitioners are branching out into fresh disciplines. We used to be able to identify graphic design by the fact it incorporated typography and that it was printed, but this is no longer accurate. Attempts have been made at renaming it. A recent essay by Rick Poynor, in Lost & Found: Critical Voices in New British Designí suggests the term ‘graphic design’ – coined in 1922 by the American William Addison Dwiggins – is limited, and ‘visual communication’ reflects more accurately graphic design’s extension beyond its classic boundaries. Eye magazine even calls its content ‘visual culture’. This desire to question the definition of graphic design comes from two powerful pressures. The first is the need for journalists (and critics) to use the idea of ‘new’ in their work: ‘this guy is on the cutting edge’, ‘the old terms don’t apply to these guys’. This energises the writing, and it is good for the publication to be bursting with freshly minted vitality. The second pressure is the absence, even among designers, of any clear definition of design disciplines. Rather than enter this thorny and contested area, it is easier for writers to pretend there was once a definition, but now it’s woefully inadequate. Certainly, we are not bound to continue using the term graphic design. But rather than worry about terminology, it helps to look at the influences on graphic designers and the everyday processes they go through. These terms will always be relevant, whatever blanket description is used. Avant-garde A popular phrase used too promiscuously to have much real meaning left. Once referred to artists, architects and designers who felt artistic expression could help transform society for the better. The idea that design can have a revolutionary effect is immensely appealing, since it elevates designers to heroic status. Avant-garde is a term now only rarely used, but substitutes appear willy-nilly – ‘cutting-edge’í ‘new’ and ‘experimental’ – regardless of any detectable revolutionary thinking. It is financially beneficial to have any of these terms used in descriptions of your work. Client A word used to represent the person, organisation or company paying for design work, who chooses which designer to use and sets the ‘content’ (see below). They are the customer who will receive or purchase the design and they establish the design’s purpose. Many designers wish clients were not necessary, but design would not exist without them. Content A fugitive word, since it cannot be shown to exist. Generally used to refer to textí with the graphic treatment of the text called style. But you can never have content without it appearing in some form or another, or style without content. Content is always seen to be important, and style not so. Deconstruction theory A form of literary criticism that worries away at the meaning of words and that nearly everyone misunderstands. Some designers, inþuenced by the teaching at Cranbrook and CalArts in the US, use phrases and fragments of ideas gleaned from deconstruction in describing work. It is positive that designers are now aware of theory and complex politically charged theory at that, but the relationship between theory and practice needs more reflection. Function One position states that design is essentially a functional activity, with the needs of the paying client, reader or user foremost. The opposing view regards design as too signiÞcant to be seen in such terms and that it ought to be used in ways that explore its expressive potential: function versus aesthetic possibility. These two ideas are always grinding against one another within each individual graphic designer. Mainstream A lazy term, which disintegrates under the mildest examination, usually used in a derogatory sense: the unthinking, tradition-bound rump made up of the majority of ordinary designers. Modernism Used in many different senses. At its start, Modernism represents a group of experimental and ironic artists like writer James Joyce and composer Igor Stravinsky. In graphic design it is typified by the Swiss school. The conviction of Modernists is now seen by some designers and critics as aggravating, the style as oppressive and insufficiently capable of allowing self-expression. (For staggeringly impressive examples of self-expression see the work of any designer from the Swiss school – for example, Karl Gerstner.) Politics Makes designers uncomfortable. It is a complex word, not meaning politics in any sense of a political party, but generally how you see the world. An individual’s politics are affected by who they are: a wealthy, white, male designer working in London is unlikely to see the need for much change. Politics has made an entry into teaching and writing about design, but in a covert way. Often, to use the word ‘political’ is enough to seem avant-garde. (As in, ‘my work is very political’.) Very few designers or critics are frank about their political positions. Style Designer/writer Lorraine Wild has a way of describing the advent and return of different styles: style – good design – mass-market – cliché – embarrassment – it’s over – fetish – revival – interesting – style – good design, and so on for ever. This implies the search for style is a natural cycle: like the constant need for food, the need for a different style arises naturally a few hours after being satisfied with the last one. But what is it that motivates designers to seek out fresh styles? Style has a function: it limits choices. It excludes certain possibilities, and makes others follow in a chain and creates a related set of design decisions. Typography The terms typography and graphic design are used interchangeably. But they are quite distinct. Typography is the arrangement of the mechanical alphabet. Graphic design is a broader term and includes typography, as well as the graphic disciplines of image-making and manipulation. Visual communication A very vague term. Except for radio and Braille, all communication is in part visual. As an alternative to graphic design, the term is not new. The example of one career, Herbert Bayer’s, can challenge the idea that graphic design today is rendered meaningless by new developments. Bayer’s career spanned 60 years: he taught at the Bauhaus, wrote influentially, took photographs and was a signiÞcant developer of the (then) new form of montage. His design took in almost all forms and he even undertook a redesign of the Latin alphabet. Any attempt to set up a new description of a newly expanded definition of design has a long way to go before it covers even a fraction of Bayer’s oeuvre. Word and image The core activity of graphic design is the integration of type and image. Psychologist Rudolf Arnheim sees word and image like this: ‘Language is used linearly because each word or cluster of words stands for an intellectual concept, and such concepts can be combined only in succession. The difference between word and image, and particularly words on their own, is that images are comprehended more immediately. In the hands of a highly skilled designer, the distinctions between words and images melt away into a new combination: graphic design.’ So if graphic design is the juxtaposition of word and image, in its broadest sense, other forms of the discipline – on-screen, on-line, 3D – should still be classed as graphic design. Rather than worry about the overall name, we ought to accept that it’s always going to be inadequate, like any portmanteau term.

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