What’s More

With the expanded variables of time, motion, and interactivity afforded by new media, graphic designers have the opportunity to be entrepreneurial both in their business and their design. The Information Age has given birth to content management systems or electronic means of dealing the world’s exponentially growing data. Image, text, and sound databases line the Internet, and data about data attempts to categorize it all for easy access. At the same time, the synthesis of performing arts languages (theatre, film, music, dance) with realized promises of ubiquitous computing have opened opportunities for a range of new media artifacts. Movies and games explore the means of engaging, interactive story-telling while spawning hybrids that illustrate the potential for new informative and educational experiences.

Graphic designers have much to learn from these developments and will find in them answers to better define graphic design proper and the skills needed to practice. Far too often graphic designers co-opt the language and ‘services’ of marketing in a move much like one to alter the title of what they do by calling themselves an information architect. These attempts to reposition and gather shares or cachet have done little to strengthen the inherent value in graphic design and convey its possibilities and roles to students, clients, or the general public. Instead of looking to what people may recognize—marketing, advertising, architecture—to describe and validate the field, there is a need to use the skills and modes of graphic design to position and define it on its own terms.

The need is for designers who can transcend static media and old definitions of the range and use of graphic design—those who can synthesize the mutable nature of information with creative new structures. The necessary skills include the ability to plan, manage, and facilitate the design of large-scale systems and anticipate how they interact with other systems. Signage and identity systems are now eclipsed by those with compound variables of user customization and emergent behavior. Designers are likely to find themselves defining rule sets and parameters instead of designing fixed, physical artifacts. In this environment the designer must be able to organize and reorganize along many lines with strategies for presenting both qualitative and quantitative information. In the information milieu, the savvy designer must be able to read a data set, recognize a hidden or arbitrary organizing scheme, and present the data with its flaws without forcing it into a deceptive container. In concert, the designer must employ with craftsman-like skill the full array of manipulative, immersive, poetic forms choreographed to make for a meaningful experience across a range of media and audiences. Theorist Roy Ascott has described this new working environment nicely as a shift from ‘content, object, perspective, and representation’ to ‘context, process, immersion, and negotiation.’

If anyone is still attempting to make a point about a graphic designer not requiring an education, those days are over. Many are asking if a four-year degree is sufficient to address the range of skills developed over the past ten years—let alone those required in the next decade. To address these concerns, the technology that has brought much of the complexity can help solve the problem. Far too little has been invested in exploring how the computer affects the design process and its results, other than it makes something look finished and falsely bestows on even the most uneducated of users the title of ‘designer.’

Learning the basics of visual composition while learning vector and raster drawing tools while also deciphering histograms, channels, and filters, and in the same breath, getting a mouse to draw with some life is not a state that supports formal sensitivity or focus. Nor is it a state that supports linear, reductive means of design. The computer environment with iChat and iTunes mixing multiple channels with multiple windows becomes far more than any one tactile tool used to draft a gesture on hot press board. One should not turn off any one of these channels to achieve the tool-to-paper experience, but should use the present medium to illustrate the complexity of the challenges and environments encountered in contemporary graphic design.

This means that design education fundamentals begin with a choreography of increased complexity and broad possibilities. This means an assignment where outcomes vary in breadth and depth, as well as form. It also means that students learn from an early stage not only to bring visual structure to their work but to organize information along well-informed conceptual lines that they identify through research and then craft into a range of directed messages.

This necessitates that students consider more, earlier, but it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming experience. Knowing when to move from the computer to paper is essential. Diagramming, mapping, sketching, and paper model-making can function both as stages in the process as well as a final artifact. In this way, print is brought back into the mix as fluid, temporal structures are translated in space. As students begin to draw contrasts between print and new media they are more critical of both. Written and verbal communication can be strengthened as courses integrate face-to-face and online activities so that contrasts in communication styles and media experiences can be identified and reviewed first hand. The goal is that each student is consummate in print and has begun to develop one or more areas of specialization in new media while developing a process that takes advantage of both. Through this balance they can develop sensitivity and understand both tangible artifacts and ever-changing systems.

Graphic design is still a field where far too many of its students start out wanting to do something else. Much like many Los Angeles waiters support their dreams of becoming actors, aspiring visual artists support their aspirations by choosing what seems to be a close cousin. This may not be entirely the student’s choice—parents may have a say too—but the initial reasons for choosing to be a graphic designer rarely match the goals of contemporary, multi-modal, multi-media, multi-cultural graphic design. In the end, this may not matter a great deal if one falls in love with the challenge and opportunity present in the field, but it does matter in how we talk about what is expected of a future graphic designer and the field in which they chose to study.

posted by Tony Brock on August 19, 2004 | comments: 1 | post a comment

Mild conditions are evidence that laying down design pedagogy with backbone is hard these days. This is never more apparent than when one attempts to reconcile one’s aspirations with one’s context within academia. While pushing and playing at the profession’s edges as an educator is admirable, the philosophical and generational divides among faculty makes such pursuits a curio if not an outright threat to a serene stability teeming with the promise of more of the same. Many design programs have come to accept that the point is to churn out the next marketable design specialist. It would seem that pursuing a design education is akin to radio programming: the catchier, the better and, ultimately, safer.

As variegated a discipline as it is, design is clearly much more than we teach yet there remains a tendency to approach the subject as one-off, static object making. The time for considering how deeply and how openly we embrace its multifaceted-ness is now. I suspect the unease in doing so stems from not entirely knowing how to prepare for hybridity, investigation, audience and information management. Design’s long history as a specialization has produced teachers (myself included) who instruct students in the methods sanctioned by the Modernist call for simplicity and universality with the intent to serve the public interest (i.e., big biz). The problem with market alignment is not that we’re playing their field; it’s the fact that programs are not discriminating about who students should work for. (I’m saying something about ambition here on the part of faculty and students.) As a consequence, courses are of the typical, compartmentalized sort (lots of print, some web, some motion, some illustration, digital photo, computer graphics) with little discussion about precedent, intent, inherent value or integration. This leads to agreeable and impressionable graduates who do not question their work and their working conditions and instead happily invest in their employer’s aspirations. Repeat play is virtually guaranteed.

The challenge, Tony rightly states, is to define the regions of design today. As educators, we are in a position to explore the strengths, weaknesses and reach of the discipline without relying on the market wholesale for validation. At our current clip, transcendence and integration are pipe dreams or that they should be left for later. I sense that many programs are banking on the crossover to occur sometime in their students’ professional lives, which, we should know by now, may or may not happen. This depends upon who students works for. At issue is how we prepare ourselves to teach broadly, inclusively and in a fashion that anticipates a more complex environment and equally complex content. What do we look at? What do we read? How do we teach our students to be multifaceted? We can no longer afford to continue teaching what is familiar. It’s a place to start but we must widen the territory immediately. We must address and admit more advanced methods into the undergraduate design experience. Faculty need to dive in and take even more risks regardless of the cost to personal comfort lest we give the impression that we’re asleep at the wheel. Can students just starting out take all of this in? Yes. They’ll have to. As Tony stated, it’s ‘in how we talk about what is expected’.

Posted by Anthony Inciong on September 6, 2004 06:26 PM