Design Issues

Rantings of an African Graphic Designer

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The many faces of Design

My father, a psychology professor, once declared: I am an artist! Everyone is an artist! I was only 19 at the time and in my first year of college, but I felt slightly angered by his claim. He was good at math, statistics and psychology, all the things I had struggled with, and I felt art was the only subject that gave me the upper hand. I wasn’t ready to share my ‘special gift’ with anyone, even if that person was my father. I feel the same way about design today, although I’ve grown to accept the “democratization of design” (mainly because it’s here to stay and there’s nothing much I can do about it), I don’t think that the ‘designer hat’ can be worn by anyone as they please. 

Design has diverse disciplines, most of which are removed from its core practice, as Peter Merholz rightly points out in the article “Ladder of Fire”. Graphic design, interaction design, instructional design, experience design, etc. all have very different approaches and definitions, but I think there’s one attribute that strings them all together: User-Centeredness. The user is the most important person in the design process, and any attempt to ignore their emotional or physical tendencies may lead to a failed product. This is why I somewhat disagree with Frank Spillers' definition of Graphic Design. He states that graphic design is the “eye-candy or look and feel” and “designers operate from the heart”. This is not true at all, because the colors, shapes, patterns and other subtleties that he refers to as “fluff”, are actually careful considerations that every good designer makes based on a psychological understanding of the user. It is true that there's an aspect of design that remains visceral, but for the most part, design relies heavily on information about the user, no matter how nuanced that design element may be. 

The AIGA article, "What is Graphic Design", presents an interesting perspective to the definition of Graphic Design. It states: “Graphic Design is a creative process that combines art and technology to communicate ideas”. The mention of technology really piqued my interest here, I’m a huge advocate of idea-over-technology, but I think some graphic designers focus too much on the art and neglect how technology is increasingly widening and changing the platform of practice. For instance, a publication designer conversant with designing print magazines should also be aware of how digital technology and hardware such as the iPad, is changing the way people receive, interact and consume content. Failure to do so may result in the designer losing marketability and eventually being rendered obsolete.

The article also correctly highlights image-based design and type-based design as the 2 main communication tools used by graphic designers. Personally, I like to approach my ideas from a literary standpoint and then translate it into visual metaphors or puns. For me, the implied or actual meaning of a word is as important as the image it evokes. However you choose to approach an idea, be it visually or literarily, is a matter of personal choice, but the best designs I’ve seen use these 2 communication tools to simultaneously appeal to the intellect and emotion of the user. 

Overall, there’s a lot that designers can learn from each other. There are several advances that have been made in industrial designinformation architecture and interaction design by way of a process-driven, user-centered, collaborative capabilities that can be further explored by core disciplines such as Graphic Design. I think Peter Merholz hit on a very important point when he said: 

"Yet many designers will fault things that are successful if they don’t measure up to some arbitrary criteria they’ve set out, usually one of aesthetics. And every time a designer publicly discredits successful products and services, it allows non-designers to dismiss them as foggy-headed aesthetes" 

We need to look beyond design as just a surface element. I certainly respect commentators like GK VanPatter who are advocating the design community’s involvement in leadership matters although he comes off as a bit territorial. If designers fail to advance the cause of design and keep leaving it to engineers, anthropologists and the like, we may end up listening to hymns like, “everyone is a designer” for a long time to come.

Filed under graphic design instructional design information architecture industrial design interaction design

  1. africandesigner posted this