Clarifying what’s what

In his quest for enlightenment, Tim Rich asks the abiding question ‘What is graphic design?’, of which Quentin Newark’s acclaimed tome provides some strong clues

Prod at this question a little and it turns into a conundrum only slightly less taxing than ‘Does God exist?’. Almost everyone defines graphic design a different way. Ask a graphic designer for a definition and you’ll probably be even more confused. Or as one mischievous member of the public put it to a graphic designer friend of mine: ‘So let’s be clear what you’re saying: You don’t take the photos or draw the illustrations. You don’t write the words. You don’t create the typefaces. You don’t make the paper. You don’t print it. You’re not the client. But you do collect the awards.’

Riding to the rescue of clarity comes ‘What is graphic design?’ (RotoVision, £19.99), a book by Atelier Works creative director Quentin Newark. On the first page the author presents a compelling answer to his own question. Then he enlarges the scope of his definition with extended sections on key issues (‘Function versus aesthetics’, ‘Is design the same as advertising?’, etc); the technical processes, languages, tools, rules and media used; and the work of 15 studios whose approach illuminates the varied way in which graphic designers work.

It’s a concise, informed, considered overview of an easy to misunderstand job. Somehow, Newark’s created a simple guide without being simplistic.

Given the impending conflict in Iraq, I was particularly drawn to a chapter called Changing the World. Here Newark pulls off a rapid, potentially dangerous trapeze routine with a troupe of theoreticians and critics – from Guy Debord to Ellen Lupton, Katherine McCoy and Rick Poynor – on the subject of whether design can be used for worthwhile purposes. His authorial acrobatics culminate in an impeccable dismount in which he offers his own view. The possibility is there, he says, for the designer to create ‘…change, gradual change, raised expectations for designers and clients and readers alike.’

Gradual change. It’s not a slogan that gets people galloping to the barricades. Yet, in our apathetic times, there is something stirring about that term. For it’s now fashionable to adopt the view that design can’t change anything at all. Or as the cynics sneer, ‘graphic design never killed anyone’, though the people who produce Fire Exit signs may disagree. Newark’s simple belief is unburdened by cool Postmodern detachment, and is most welcome.

Sadly, this view that graphic design is merely the inconsequential froth on the cappuccino of modern life seems common. A graphic designer recently told me his chosen profession generated no real value. He then subverted his own point by telling me how much he coveted a Design Effectiveness Award.

Certainly, much that is produced in graphic design studios is ill-conceived and poorly executed, but graphic design still plays an enormous role in contemporary life. As Newark writes: ‘…the uses and purposes of graphic design are so integral to our modern world – civilisation – that Marshal McLuhan named us “typographic man”.’

Graphic design can’t escape its ability to change the world. Merely by existing a work creates change – for better or worse. The challenge for the design team (designer, client, writer, image-maker et al) is, first, to decide what forms of change are desirable, and, second, how best to achieve them. Whether they succeed is another matter. This is why I like Newark’s apparently modest term ‘gradual change’. It acknowledges that it’s a big, complex, dirty world out there, but underlines that there is always an opportunity to make a positive difference, whether that’s creating wealth or some other form of value.

‘What is graphic design?’ includes an entertaining and thought-provoking list of what the world would be without if graphic design was banned. I have a few examples to add. Imagine an airport without signage, or the Web without a user interface. Imagine every book and newspaper written by hand. Imagine all corporate communications conducted verbally. Imagine Ikea furniture without the instructions. Imagine TV without written words or station idents. Imagine all your records and CDs in plain brown paper bags.

This is powerful stuff we’re talking about. Few people get to have such an influence on the messages, the things and the processes around us. So, what is graphic design? Clearly, it is many things to many people. Perhaps the very diversity of the answers to this question point to the increasing value of graphic design in our lives.

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