“Graphic design” refers, in essence, to the artful arrangement of images and text on a variety of surfaces and in a range of forms. Typical pieces of graphic design include: posters; books; CD, DVD, and book covers; brochures and flyers; magazines and newspapers; logos, trademarks, branding and corporate identity systems; product packaging; annual reports; T-shirts; signage and way-finding systems; websites; and motion graphics (e.g., film title sequences, TV station identifiers, and promos). Related and sometimes overlapping activities include product design, exhibition and information design, type design and typography, and design for interactivity (websites, kiosks, DVD-ROMs).
Graphic designers might work individually, or in small-to-medium-sized studio partnerships, or in service-oriented departments within larger organizations, in sectors such as book publishing, the music industry, highways departments, computer software, or pharmaceuticals. Apart from their applied creative role, designers may have other duties: commissioning and overseeing printing, liaising with clients, or developing strategic plans for business, branding, or marketing plans.
Graphic design is an increasingly professionalized practice, with associations in many countries, such as D&AD (the Designers and Art Directors Association) in the UK, the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts), the SGDC (Society of Graphic Designers of Canada), and the SDGQ (Société des designers graphiques du Québec). The International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA) currently represents the interests of nearly 100 such entities in nearly 50 countries around the world. These associations cover only a fraction of those involved in the panoply of professional, trade, and artisanal practices that together constitute graphic design.
Despite these developments, the term “graphic design” has yet to receive broad acceptance and understanding beyond the confines of this emergent profession. As Mildred Friedman noted during her tenure as design curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis: “graphic design has played a key role in the appearance of almost all print, film, and electronic media, as well as architectural and urban signage. Today it literally dominates our visual environment. Yet . . . there is only nominal acknowledgement of the significance of this least recognized visual art form” (Friedman et al. 1989, 9 –10).
The terms “graphic design” and “graphic designer” are widely believed to have first appeared in print in the US as recently as 1922, in an article titled “New kind of printing calls for new design” (Dwiggins 1999). That said, the word “designer” – although somewhat undefined – appears in documentation produced by the US Bureau of the Census “as early as 1890” (Thomson 1997, 10).
Regardless, the roots of graphic design are both broad and complex. Influences and precursors in Europe and North America include: the creation of propaganda posters during two world wars; commercial art; and various art movements and schools, including Futurism, Constructivism, Arts and Crafts, the Secessionists, DADA, Bauhaus, and De Stijl (Hollis 1994; Meggs 1998; Weill 2004). The “ukiyo-e” movement was singularly influential in the development of graphic design practice in Japan, given that country’s extended cultural isolation until the nineteenth century (Meggs 1998; Weill 2004).
Some commentators have located the origins of graphic design in the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascau, France (Meggs 1998); in the development of the art poster and its associated printing technologies in Europe in the early 1900s (Hollis 1994); and in the emergence of printing and allied trade practices in the US in the mid to late 1800s (Thomson 1997). Accounts such as these are sometimes marred by a singular identification with the careers of “great men,” great works, sweeping chronologies, or the triumphs of technology.
The history of graphic design is inevitably bound up in the development of printing, photographic, and typographic technologies (Thomson 1997). As Thomson notes:
Technological advances in printing type and reproducing imagery were part of a larger development. The mechanization of paper manufacturing and printing, the invention and improvement of the rotary press, advances in ink chemistry, the use of wood pulp to replace rag in paper, at least partially, and the introduction of wood engraving occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century. At the end of the century the relation between design and production was recast. For the first time, letters and pictures, text and image, could be printed together. (1997, 12)
Graphic Design, Art, And Communication Studies
Graphic designers have often complained that, in spite of the ubiquity of their work, the profession is rarely identified by name in popular cultural discourse. Similarly, graphic design has been addressed only fleetingly, and often anonymously, in the communication literature. One exception is Dick Hebdige’s discussion of the Face magazine (Hebdige 1988). That said, graphic design has been used in highly memorable ways in the communication literature, as in The medium is the massage (McLuhan & Fiore 1967), a collaboration between Marshall McLuhan and the designer Quentin Fiore. Formal encounters between graphic design and communication theory have been rare. An early exemplar was the appearance of C. Wright Mills at the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA), where he gave a talk titled “Man in the middle: The designer” (Mills 1963). The IDCA, which still runs annually, has at times provided a novel, if somewhat elitist, forum for the discussion of issues rarely voiced in the day-to-day practices of architectural design, industrial or product design, and graphic design (see Banham 1974). Mills’s essay brought an early, and much-needed sociological eye to the activities of designers, and also anticipated Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the cultural intermediary: an individual whose function is to provide a bridge, or liaison, between two distinct worlds that can be variously labeled production and consumption, or manufacture and distribution, or commerce and culture (Bourdieu 1984; Nixon 2002).
More recently, art historical scholarship has highlighted the formative tensions associated with the movement of trained artists into an emergent commercial design sphere. The contradictions and conflicts inherent in these dynamics are neatly captured in Michele Bogart’s phrase “art for publicity” (Bogart 1995, 4): the continual attempt to meld a highly personal mode of expression with the broader needs of sales and marketing. Patricia Johnston’s Real fantasies: Edward Steichen’s advertising photography (Johnston 1997) focuses on one artist in particular: Steichen was extraordinarily successful in adapting his skills to the needs of commerce. If he initially had difficulties reconciling the ethical implications of this relationship, Steichen still ended up making his name (and his fortune) out of it.
The development of graphic design as a distinct practice, and in relation to the principles and priorities of Modernism, has been explored extensively in Allen (1983), Friedman et al. (1989), Meggs (1998), Jobling and Crowley (1996), and Margolin (1997). Among the major institutions referenced in these studies are the Bauhaus, the New Bauhaus Chicago (ultimately renamed the Institute of Design), and the International Design Conference in Aspen (Banham 1974).
A connection is often made in these historical studies between the activities of artists, illustrators, photographers, art directors, industrial designers, and graphic designers and visions of social, cultural, and political change. Indeed, idealistic sentiments and utopian urges perhaps find their most intense realization at these “borders of art” (Bogart 1995). Jobling and Crowley contend that:
[t]he expression of such aspirations for the future implied a messianic role for the modern designer to prefigure a better world where visual communication would enlighten rather than simply reproduce the prevailing taste, attitudes and conditions of the day. Graphic design would, in [Bauhaus designer László] Moholy-Nagy’s words, be “part of the foundation on which the new world will be built.” (1996, 143 –144)
Some of these studies stress the erosion of the political tenets of modernist art and design as the movement gradually migrated from Europe to the United States (Wild 1989). This appears to have been located less in the specifics of graphic form or appearance than in formative impulses and underlying intent. Indeed, it is perhaps a peculiarity of graphic design that slippages of this nature routinely occur; that one can easily mimic a particular radical aesthetic without any recourse to the political or cultural moment that generated it – and often for the most mundane or normative of purposes.
Discourse Of Graphic Design Practice
The discourse of graphic design practice is overwhelmingly celebratory, promotional, and technique-oriented; the trade literature far outweighs the available avenues for more reflective, critical perspectives. That said, newer, more supple approaches to history and criticism are also reflected in recent writing and scholarship about graphic design (see, for example, Blauvelt 1994/1995). In addition, the commercial and corporate investments of the profession periodically come under attack from designers themselves. The two iterations of the First Things First Manifesto (in 1967 and 1999) are a case in point (Soar 2002). In this instance, a group of influential designers and design writers produced a short polemic excoriating the profession for its narrowly conceived vision of design as a commercial (and often highly trivial) practice. The fallout was inevitably divisive: arguments ensued over the true role of graphic design, a perception that the signatories were simply exploiting their position of privilege, and the connotations of professionalism. Regardless, some graphic designers continue to use their skills to draw attention to specific political, social, and cultural issues, or to produce independent work on a variety of highly personal themes.
Key here has been longstanding arguments about what graphic design should be used for. In the 1930s, Otto Neurath introduced ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education), a highly formalized graphic method for presenting complex statistical information using only pictorial icons. The system was used to present comparative information on child mortality and unemployment rates, standards of living and factory productivity. This approach has been highly influential in the development of information graphics, international signage systems, and computer icons.
The general theme of social engagement is not a consistent aspect of graphic design. Paul Rand, for example, was an iconic designer responsible for developing logos for IBM, UPS, NeXT Computer, and Enron. For Rand, and for many of his contemporaries, design professionalism meant honoring the communicative aspirations of the corporations for whom he worked. Questions about, say, ethical standards or environmental records were beyond the scope of the designer’s role. A rising skepticism about this narrow approach has most recently been fueled by critiques such as journalist Naomi Klein’s book No logo (2000).
Unlike the historically related practice of advertising art direction, it is evident that graphic design has a demonstrably broad range of potential cultural and political commitments: while it is also intrinsically about information and persuasion, what we now call graphic design has long been used as a form of personal and political expression in, for example, the protest posters of John Heartfield, Grapus, and Gran Fury, and the recent rise of culture jamming (see McQuiston 1993). Through its ad spoofs and activist campaigns, the Canadian magazine Adbusters has championed culture jamming as a kind of visually oriented form of dissent; more importantly, it has recently targeted graphic designers and ad creatives as the avant-garde in a culture jamming revolution. While perhaps an exercise in hyperbole, this perspective underscores the ubiquitous if generally unacknowledged role of graphic design in commercial or consumer culture.
Graphic designers have occasionally developed niche activities that draw on their understanding of the relationship between text and image, but which are not static or printoriented. One such example is “motion graphics,” a broad term encompassing film title design, broadcast graphics, and computer animation. A celebrated moment in this realm is the work of Saul Bass, a graphic designer who developed film title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock, among others.
Graphic design practice has changed markedly with the emergence and take-up of digital media production tools. For example, the task of preparing finished concepts for print has been greatly simplified, both for the designer, who used to have to create accurate artwork “mechanicals,” and for the printer, who would typically have an entire department set aside for “prepress”: the process of taking the artwork and preparing it for proofing and printing. The emergence of the world wide web has required the development of new skill sets focused on programming, interactivity, and the design of user interfaces.
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