Monday, 22 March 2010

What Is Graphic Design?

This is a question that I find myself coming up against time and time again. I am asked it by parents, by ninety-year-old grandparents, by uncles, aunties and cousins, by people in the pub who used to put me in bins at school and by members of church congregations. Yet after nearly four years studying the subject, I still find it a hard question to answer. I'm not the only one either: it seems writers have been tussling with this particular definition for years. Quentin Newark, for example, has a 254 page book published, dedicated solely to answering the burning question I am talking about. What exactly is graphic design?

In 'Graphic Design: A Concise History', Richard Hollis defines graphic design as "the business of making or choosing marks and arranging them on a surface to convey an idea". In my opinion, this rather perfunctory definition doesn't really begin to scratch the surface in attempting to define what the subject is all about. I will try to explain why not. Graphic design encompasses a wide ranging set of trades, crafts and disciplines and in the modern age, it represents a broader spectrum than ever before.

So how would I define graphic design? Perhaps a pertinent question we must ask is: when did graphic design begin? Some like to point to cave paintings created 32 000 years ago. After all, these marks aimed to communicate concepts to viewers other than those who created them. Richard Hollis goes so far as to say that animal footprints were viewed by early man as pieces of graphic design. "His mind's eye saw the animal itself" he says. Graphic design doesn't even have to be created by humans it seems.

Many writers like to cite Johann Gutenberg as the granddaddy of graphic design. He changed the course of history when in 1440 he invented the first moveable type printing press. His invention involved typography: the creation and arrangement of type to convey meaning. Or as Phil Baines puts it: "the mechanical notation and arrangement of language". So yes, Gutenberg was a graphic designer, but graphic design does not just involve typography.

Another important distinction we need to make is the difference between graphic design and art. While art can be a means to an end in itself, graphic design, by definition, aims to communicate a message to an audience. Newark calls it "commercial art". In short, graphic design aims to sell.

However, graphic design is not advertising, although the two are intrinsically linked. Graphic design can simply inform. For example, road signs, instructions on medicine bottles and airport signage systems do not attempt to sell people consumer goods they don't need.

At this point, I should perhaps bring attention to the term 'visual communication'. This is a phrase preferred by many in the industry including one of my lecturers who argues that it is a more succinct description of the subject he teaches. So graphic design is the art or business of communicating visually then? Well, no actually. A coursemate of mine spent a year working as a graphic designer for a local radio station. Her duties included writing radio adverts. While this involves no visual design, it is another of the many crafts that falls firmly under the jurisdiction of the graphic designer.

Another of these crafts is branding: the discipline of projecting the image of a product or service to its market. Branding is another hugely important arm of graphic design and contrary to popular belief, is not about creating a logo. Branding involves creating a relationship between user and provider. It's about making an emotional connection: how an individual feels about a company. Again, it's not just a visual phenomenon either. We are told that the future of branding will involve a company's smell too. Anyone who's ever walked into an Ambercrombie and Fitch store will know that this is already a reality.

There are many more disciplines that concern the modern graphic designer. Hollis's definition of "arranging marks on a surface" is a misleading one. Graphic designers may be involved in gathering large groups of people together for example (a 'flash mob' is the in-vogue term I believe). Does this involve a 2D surface? Equally, I recently saw hologram artists featured in Creative Review. Graphic designers make films, animations and websites – things have changed since Gutenberg's time.

Graphic designers have a harder job than ever. Research shows that the average person encounters 3000 messages a day. A graphic designer's job is to cut through this static and deliver a clear message. Graphic design can be used for good to promote charities. It can be used for evil to tell the public that cigarettes are good for you. In the example of Saatchi's 'Labour isn't working' campaign, it can help to win elections. In the example of Kitchener's recruitment poster, it can help to win wars. In the example of a badly designed road sign, graphic design can kill. As Adrian Shaughnessy puts it: "death by typography is a real possibility". Graphic design is all around us and is an indispensable part of our lives. When it needs to be, graphic design is invisible. When it needs to be, it is... un-ignor-able. Graphic design, as Susan Sontag so pretentiously puts it, is all about "modifying consciousness".

Why then, the next time I'm asked by a relative what it is exactly that I do, will I mutter something about designing leaflets?

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Celebrating The Ordinary

For my latest University project, I was set the brief to 'celebrate the ordinary'. From the given list, I chose to celebrate elastic. Here is my solution:

Yep, all the sounds were created by twanging elastic bands. Oh and the project, from research to conception, development, filming and editing etc was completed in a week.

I have to finish this post with my favourite piece of work produced. Fellow course mate Matthew produced this film to celebrate the umbrella.

The amount of work put in to create this much stop frame animation in a week is incredible, well done Matt. But more than just a lot of work, this film is funny, moving and just a great piece of story telling.

Friday, 9 October 2009

He's just a rascal

I like this shopping channel pastiche that Dizzee Rascal has been using to promote his latest album. I wonder how they got him to look so plastic and still.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Starwars Uncut

This website was brought to my attention by none other than Stephen Fry via his Twitter account. Starwars Uncut invites visiters to remake 15 second clips of Star Wars which will later be strung together to make a complete film. The last I looked there were only 19 free clips left, so you'd better get a move on if you want to get involved. Go and have a look!

Also, from a web design point of view, check out how the stars scroll behind the death star image in the bottom left, nifty.

Data Flow

Data Flow explores the fascinating subject of the way designers can display information and data graphically. The collection of graphs, charts and diagrams range from highly technical to hand drawn but all give intrigue to what is essentially lists of boring numbers.

This book is really inspiring and will really come into it's own next time I need to graphically represent some data – I'm sure that will be soon.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Antoni Gaudí

In the past three years, I have ended up in Barcelona three times – twice this summer. You can't be a tourist in this amazing city without becoming aware of the architecture of Antoni Gaudí. The impact that this one man had on the city can't be underestimated.

His huge church Segrada Família was started in 1883 and is projected to be finished in 2026 which gives you an idea of its size. Gaudí dedicated the last 15 years of his life to the project.

I love the Art Nouveau look of the facade of Casa Batlló as well as the amazing chimney sculptures.

Another of my favourite Gaudí works is Parc Guell located toward the north of the city.

I love the fluid forms that Gaudí uses and the effect of the broken ceramic that is often used to clad his work. Gaudi died in 1926 when he was hit by a tram. Barcelona subsequently removed trams from its streets.

Gaudí's work has become a symbol of Barcelona, Catalunya and the whole of Spain.

Cinema Redux by Brendan Dawes

In this project, Dawes took eight of his favourite films and attempted to distill them down to a single image.

To do this he wrote a Java programme that, for each second of a film, took an 8 by 6 pixel image. The captured images were then laid out in rows, each row representing a minute in time.

The results create some startling images. This is Scorcese's 'Taxi Driver' from 1976.

Cinema Redux was exhibited at MoMA in New York last year but you can buy prints of the work here if you happen to have $300 going spare.