05.01.2015

I stumbled across my own book on the bookshelf the other day. What is Graphic Design?, published in 2002. There is much in it that makes me wince. But this chunk of the introduction I can still stand by. I have altered a few words here and there in the extract below. This isn't a sales pitch for the book, by the way, just that there are a few ideas in the writing that are still useful.

Graphic design is the most universal of all the arts. It all around us, explaining, decorating, identifying: imposing meaning on the world. Its in the streets, in everything we read, its on our bodies. We engage with design at every turn; road signs, advertisements on buses, shop signs, in everything we touch; magazines, cigarette packets, headache pills, the logo on our t-shirt, the washing label on our jacket. It is not just a modern phenomenon. Streets full of signs, emblems, prices, sales messages, official pronouncements and news would all have been just as familiar to anyone in any era in human history in any city in the world; ancient Egyptians, medieval Italians or schoolchildren in Soviet Russia.

Graphic design performs a number of functions.

It sorts and differentiates. It distinguishes one company or organisation or nation from another. It informs. It tells us how to bone a chicken or how to register a birth. It acts on our emotions, helps to shape how we feel about the world around us, perhaps more effectively and completely than we realise.

There are two ideas that inform this book.

The first main idea is that graphic design operates as a language. No individual piece of design can be made, or understood, except within a visual 'language'. A language of interrelating conventions covering pictures, colours, letterforms, typography, and ways of using text. Much of this vast and rich language was established before what we regard as modern design came of age - in the Renaissance - but it has been recast, extended and added to by graphic design's innovators and creators.

A language is defined as a "structural system consisting of rules that relate particular signs to particular meanings". It works for sounds and for the depiction of sounds, and images. This book sets out dismantle system of visual language that design uses and examines each of its elements and how they form part of a whole, for example; the extended alphabet as it is used for printed text, the typefaces that the alphabet appears in and their seemingly endless styles and variations, and typography, the organisation of typeset words and text on a surface.

Is graphic design the same as advertising? How does it differ from art? We can recognise graphic design in certain objects, magazines for example, but how is this different from the organising of type and the placing and cropping of pictures found in the adverts within the same magazine? The second main idea is that graphic design is best seen as a process, a set of values and ambitions that separate it from its close relatives; art and advertising. At times the differences are subtle, but they are there.

Trying to reduce such a wide-ranging and variable activity into a definition, or one portable phrase, is painfully difficult. Especially since what we call graphic design seems so fluid. The common method is to seek certainty from the early years of the twentieth century, an era in which the issues seem more clearly delineated than now. The father of the actual phrase 'graphic design' was an American, William Addison Dwiggins. He was a very successful designer producing advertising material; posters, pamphlets, adverts in newspapers and periodicals. His advice was very practical and aimed at achieving the right result, in 1922 he wrote: 'In the matter of layout forget art at the start and use horse-sense. The printing-designer's whole duty is to make a clear presentation of the message - to get the important statements forward and the minor parts placed so that they will not be overlooked. This calls for an exercise of common sense and a faculty for analysis rather than for art.'

In the same essay he proposed the phrase 'graphic design', he also suggested 'super-printing'. The word 'super' meaning before, in advance of. We are graphic designers by a whisper, we could all so easily have been super-printers. And super-typographers, super-animators, super-branders.

This book examines a very varied group of practitioners - whose work covers writing, curating, photography, websites, entrepreneurialism, even art and advertising - to show how flexible any definition needs to be. So flexible it strains the very idea of limits inherent within a definition.

Having said how difficult it is, I don't shy from try a definition of graphic design of my own. Here it is... words and pictures on a surface.

There is an old joke: 'bad graphic design never killed anyone'.

This is meant to show that design is inconsequential, a decorative pastime, a question merely of picking one typeface or colour rather than another that would work just as well. Bad design doesn't kill, so good design can't matter either. Journalists delight in using the adjective 'designer' to stand for a particular kind of cynical consumerism that distracts us with a jazzy visual appearance; fancy bottle-tops, cod-Victorian labels, new logos for unethical companies. Pointless consumerism that consumes ordinary things needlessly fiddled with; 'designer water', 'designer jeans', even 'designer babies'. Depressingly, designers do produce tinsel, but like any human endeavour, such as journalism, design should not be judged purely on its weakest examples.

Much graphic design is not done by professional designers. It's impossible to calculate, but you make a claim that most graphic design is created by non-designers, people unwittingly acting as designers. Scientific papers, school books, small ads, most novels, the majority of the world's websites and blogs, have been made by printers, programmers, and people who don't call themselves anything, quietly engaged in the practices of graphic design without feeling the least sense of professionalism. Blissfully unaware of kerning or french folds. We live in a world of amateurism. It's the same in many professions. The majority of cooking is not done by cooks, writing by writers, football by footballers. Not that it matters, any human activity is defined, advanced and perfected by a tiny minority.

Lest we think design is dispensable, try to imagine a world without graphic design.

Without design's process and ingredients - typefaces, typography, structure and organisation, illustration, differentiation and branding - we would have to receive all our information by the spoken word. There could be no written word; no newspapers, no magazines, no books, no internet, not much money, no literature, no universities, no science to speak of, the crudest medicine, everything would have to be painstaking written by hand. We would be disappear into another Dark Ages, like the last one, a thousand years of ignorance, prejudice, superstition and very short life-spans.

We live at a time when all human culture is being converted into graphic design. What is the internet but words and pictures on a surface? Every other art, all of science, human culture in every form transmuted into, communicated by, and experienced as graphic design. If Dwiggins thought there was a revolution in information a hundred years ago, he would be astounded now. And he would certainly err towards the superlative in his choice of what to call us. If in an era of print we were super-printers, today in the internet age we are super-communicators.

Quentin Newark
Super-person

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