Monday, August 20, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 3, On Graphic Design

Download Episode 3

Design guy here. Welcome back.

This is the show that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Last episode we defined design as the act of creating order out of chaos. And whether we're talking graphic or interior or environmental design, the basic definition stands because we're all engaged in the same PROCESS. It's a process that STARTS with a number of unrelated pieces and ENDS with an ordered unit. (1)

Looking closer, Graphic design has its own set of concerns that distinguish it from other forms of design. And, I think, right from the start, we have to be clear about what graphic design is not. And that's Art. Oh, sure it is AN art. It's practitioners are artists. But it's not Art with a capital A in that it's not fine art. This is where people get confused. Especially when we see some of the stunning works of graphic design by luminaries like Paul Rand (2) or Milton Glaser.(3) Their work should be viewed in a gallery. They're models of artistic excellence. So, what's the difference? Are we splitting semantical hairs, or what?

The distinction... is a question of motivation or purpose. Fine art is something that can be done in a loft, which is to say, it can be done for highly individualized ends. It can be done with no conscious purpose. It can be highly SUBjective. You might do it for your own enjoyment. Or to get a certain technical effect or for any other reason in the world. Sometimes there's a statement being made. Other times, if there's meaning, we'll leave that to the eye of the beholder to interpret. In other words, it's subject to personal interpretation, and IF it's subject to interpretation, it can mean anything.

When we cast the issue in these terms, we begin to see that graphic design is different. It's inherently Objective. Sure, it INVOLVES art, and designers can leave room for some ambiguity or personal interpretation, after all, this generates questions in the viewer, which intensifies their interaction. But, ultimately, Graphic design is done with a clear, specific aim in mind. And what is that aim, but communication? Communication of what? The artist's inner feelings on the day of creation? No, it's not about that. It's not subjective, as we've said. Graphic design is linked to an objective, typographic message. We can communicate that message artistically, in a stylized way, there may even be a strong individual signature on the work that makes one aware of the artist behind it.

I mentioned Milton Glaser before, and I'm thinking of his famous, iconic Dylan poster.(4) It's distinctly Glaser. But, in the end, it's commercial art. It's meant for commerce, to support a music company's product. And we're usually trying to sell stuff, whether that's the advantages of a certain denture cleaner, or a socially conscious screed about the impacts of deforestation. Regardless of subject matter, we've got to transmit specified meaning. And if people HAVEN'T understood, for example, that the iPhone is the most advanced, hip, web-capable phone available, then we've failed at our mission. If our work is not tethered to an objective typographic message, then we might as well stay in our lofts, because we're doing fine art.

Massimo Vignelli (5) describes Graphic Design, in its purest form, as Information Design. As such, it doesn't even require imagery. It's about creating readable, ordered messages. In fact, type IS our primary imagery. Letterforms are symbols that create words which have power of themselves to produce pictures in the minds of our audience. If we set the word, "home," all by itself on a page, it evokes the most primal associations in all of us. There's no need to pay Corbis licensing fees for that photo of a house on a hill. Words are your best clip art.

Hence, the rise of the swiss graphic school of design (6), which placed a premium on functional objectivism. Josef Muller Brockman (7), a pioneer associated with grid systems (8) moved away from an illustrative style of advertising to an objective, typographic approach. When images were used, they were not sized arbitrarily, but according to their importance. The driver of his work was words. Pages were structured, not treated as a free form canvas. And the structure was based on the metrics of type. The measure of their leading, their point size. Typography is the primary discipline of graphic design. Without it, there is no graphic design.

I'll conclude by quoting a portion from Quentin Newark's great book, appropriately titled, What is Graphic Design? (9)

Graphic design is the most universal of all the arts. It is all around us, explaining, decorating, identifying, imposing meaning on the world. It is in the streets, in evertything we read, it is on our bodies. We engage with design in road signs, adverstisements, magazines, cigarette packets, headache pills, the logo on our tshirt, the washing label on our jacket. It is not just a modern or capitalistic phenomenon. Streets full of signs, emblems, prices, sale offers, official pronouncements and news would all have been just as familiar to ancient Egyptians, medieval italians or the poeple of Soviet Russia. Graphic design sorts and differentiates - it distinguishes one company or organization or nation from another. It informs - it tells us how to bone a duck or how to register a birth. It acts on our emotions, and helps to shape how we feel about the world around us. Imagine if graphic design was banned, or simply disappeared overnight. There would be no written word, no newspapers, no magazines, no internet, no science to speak of. We would enter another Dark Ages, a thousand years of ignorance, prejudice, superstition and very short lifespans. Rather than a frivolous extra, the uses and purposes of graphic design are so integral to our modern world - civilization - that Marshall McLuhan named us "typographic man."

There's much more to say about this topic. I'm tempted to start a series on it. But I won't. I think we can move to a lower tier of discussion and revisit the grand subject from time to time. We'll look at the trees, and sometimes look at the forest to maintain perspective.

Well, that concludes today's discussion. I'll post info on some of the references I made today, including links to related books at Amazon, because some of you will want to add these to your library. My blog is located at That's Music by

Thanks again for listening. Hope to have you back again.

1. White, Alex,
The Elements of Graphic Design: Space, Unity, Page Architechture, and Type, Allworth Press, 2002



4. (Scroll down to view the referenced poster.)




Muller Brockmann, Josef, Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Arthur Niggli Publisher, 1996 Ed.

9. Newark, Quentin, What is Graphic Design,? Rotovision, 2007 Ed.


melanie magee said...

your show is like a classroom, but better. i can listen over and over and think about and integrate them into my work. thank you so much for doing this! wish my old company of designers would listen and grow.

marry said...

Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

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