How do we define design?
People ignore design that ignores people —Frank Chimero
For those of you following this website via RSS and impulsively, I recognize that I’ve done primarily all things thoughtful and quirky regarding the English language. But I now begin a new turn of events by adding one of my other favorite components in the world of Web 2.0 and publishing: the realm of graphic design.
But don’t run away yet. Hear me out.
Graphic design has always been an intricate part of what I do: I helped to design books; I’ve designed newspapers; I’ve even designed journals for art and poetry and literature. And as I sit here typing, 40 West Studios is banging away at completing our first e-publication: Decomposing Summer. The sad part of this is that even though I appreciate art and design, and I read about it, study it, admire it, and digest it every single day (as a consumer or even as a designer) I never have thought about how to define it. There is theory galore. There are spats and ramblings and deep arguments as to the very definition of design.
I have been allowed to participate in a graduate graphic design workshop at West Virginia University as an interdisciplinary augmentation to my graduate courses in journalism and creative writing. I intend to explore the nature of graphic design as a ruminant would, and I’ll only share the cud to spare you, dear reader, from the by-products and mental chewing.
Without further ado, here’s my attempt to explore the definition of graphic design:
In Defining Design, Jamin Hegeman offers a rather simple, yet profound observation that in almost any publication, text, or tome, designers and authors feel compelled to find the need to define what design is, and what it means. This echoes the standards of academia, for each time a researcher wants to measure or study something, s/he has the desire to define what “it” is, and the parameters of what they think it is. For example, one could read a thousand texts on communication theory, and could reasonably find a thousand different interpretations or cited interpretations from their predecessors.
But is it logical to define design? It’s well known in the art world that artists are continually challenging the question of “What is art?” Hegeman posits the notion that if we define design, then we could very well “become paralyzed and die.”
It sounds ridiculous that design could die. But perhaps it is also ridiculous to think we can define design, even though we must. For if we collectively became conscious of the futilely [sp] of our passion to define design, we might stop trying, and in doing so cease the momentum of design.
Hegemen continues to say that we should continue the argument, even though the end is futile. But this line of thinking should be normalcy in the scope of research, theory, and academia; it’s what defines (pardon the pun) us as thinkers—we continually argue and evolve our arguments for the sake of exploration and discovery. Why should there be an “end point?” It reminds me of a factoid I read when I was young, when in the late 1800s, it was suggested that the U.S. Patent Office should shut down soon, for there was “little else to discover.”
That being said, are designers their own worst enemy? Bruce Nussbaum provides the voice of the provocateur when he speaks of the “backlash against design.” In our newly minted Web 2.0 era, we have unlimited tools and not enough time to capitalize on all of them. We have tremendous power literally at our fingertips. Designers have unprecedented access to extremely powerful tools that move well beyond social media, Adobe Creative Suite, and 3G/4G smart phones. Nussbaum speaks of the use of those tools as having power. A 3D printer is an amazing chunk of hardware, but what we print in 3D is what gives us the power. Therefore, can we attach a definition of design as how we utilize this vehicle of creativity? Is sustainability our responsibility? What about ethics and perceived morality? What about the preservation of culture?
What if the theory of design is that design is the designer of theory? Chew on that one for a bit.
So Lesson One here is that the process of design, the management of the design process, is changing radically. Egos and silos are coming down, participation is expanding, tools are widespread and everyone wants to play. People want to be in the design sandbox so you have to figure out how to get them in and do design with them. This is a huge challenge.
Dan Brown (Green Onions) has another “take” on the cause/effect relationship of design, and that is how design demands a response:
What I liked about this approach was that “response” was a graded category—the range of responses is amazing. What bothered me, though, was that it does not sufficiently distinguish it from art, which also demands a response.
Does art and design, or one or the other, demand a response? If music is an art, must it be performed, or are there subtle qualities that make it exclusive to the creator? I heard on NPR this morning of a cellist that was able to find investors to help him secure a million-dollar cello from 1712 (the cellist’s name eludes me at the moment, sorry). NPR went on to play one of his concerts, but this is beside the point. My point is that the cellist said that although he isn’t religious, he does find a connection to a “higher level” that connects him to his music and beyond. Does this elicit a response if he kept the comment and his music to himself? Does his own response matter?
Brown suggests that if people respond to art poorly, then the art isn’t necessarily “bad art,” but if they respond to design poorly, then the design is flawed. But the flaw that I see in this statement is that design is sometimes meant to reach only specific people, or groups of people, and if someone responds poorly to the design, then they aren’t necessarily someone that was meant to be included in the first place. I view this as determined exclusion, such as in the case ofHiLoBrow. Take a look at it. You either like it or you feel alienated by it. Some people define themselves as hipsters simply by being associated with it. It is purposefully alienating in many regards. I find it to be a good example of how design can be viewed as flawed, but only to certain people
—Graphic Design should not be defined, only argued about.
—No one wins the argument.
—No one will “kill” design by defining it, because someone will always argue about it.
—Poor design is only “bad” to some people, and we need to be careful about who we think that is
—Poor art is only “good” to some people, and we need to be careful about using it in graphic design
—We have great responsibility as designers, and we must consider ethical and perceived moral obligations with our “powers”
—It is necessary to embrace everyone as contributing designers, but to harness their power it’s best to create the rules by which they play
—The tools of Web 2.0 and beyond are worthy of shredding preconceived definitions of design
—There is such a thing as accidental discovery
—Art and design are to each other as music is to sonar; sonar can be perceived as music, but it has a utility and function that is much more direct and comprehensive than a composition by Rachmaninoff.