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?