Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

The Thin PMS185 Line

September 9, 2006

What follows is a critique of the traditional graphic design community and its various instruments, albeit from someone other than a traditional graphic designer. I don’t write this article in order to bring ridicule upon graphic designers, but rather to shine a light on misguided practices and destructive ideals I want kept out of my own segment of the community: interactive/experience design.

There is a difference between art and design; the same distinction that describes the difference between doing something notable and doing something useful. It has long been my perception that too many traditional graphic designers don’t understand and don’t care to understand these distinctions. And I continue to see evidence to support this impression as graphic designers struggle to approach and embrace business and the Web.

Communication Arts Magazine

And I do mean struggle. In her column in Communication Arts magazine issue 331 (in late 2004), DK Holland quoted that year’s AIGA National Conference organizer Terry Irwin as saying, “There is still a fairly big old guard [in AIGA] that wants to practice design as a primarily decorative, artistic practice in a market dominated by the ‘celebrity designer.’” How unfortunate that this “old guard” doesn’t understand that decoration and art are not design. And what’s with this preoccupation with celebrity?

What’s more unfortunate is that AIGA’s old guard is a product of a misguided organizational and educational culture that clearly still exists, largely unaltered. I say clearly because that ill-conceived approach to design is still common today, to the detriment of all members of the now disparate design communities.

Role of Design

When leaders of the design community consistently confuse art and decoration with design it causes problems for the design profession. It also causes problems for clients of the designers who come from this misguided culture. From the previously cited Communication Arts article comes this unfortunate passage:

Some accomplished designers like Margaret Youngblood see the emphasis shifting in design – from boutique to teamwork, where designers are expected to face serious communication challenges. She says, “You have to do what’s best for the client. Sometimes you do not need to pull out all the stops.” Designers are not seen as team players when they push for beauty over other more compelling considerations. (1)

This excerpt was from 2004 – and designers were just noticing emphasis shifting toward doing what’s best for the client? That’s troubling. Evidently, there are plenty who even after a couple of years still haven’t yet caught on to this “shift in emphasis.” How can one not be aghast at such unbelievable myopia?

The graphic design culture clearly champions peer-driven accolades for over client benefit from its work.

There has been a growing bewilderment among many graphic designers, traditional design organizations, and the publications that serve these groups at how to remain relevant as the design landscape changes. It’s my contention that the design landscape has not changed, but merely grown in scope; only the graphic design community’s conscience and condescension to perceive the obvious has changed. But it has certainly not changed enough. For instance, in 2004 AIGA board member Terry Irwin noted in a Communication Arts article,

“I think it’s our preoccupation with the decorative or form-giving side that has excluded us from participating in bigger conversations. This further diminishes our role in culture.” (1)

Truer words were never spoken. In that same article, Irwin goes on to observe that there are some in AIGA that want to see change on this front, but that AIGA “must represent its members and reflect their needs and desires.” AIGA may be relevant to its members, but so much for AIGA being relevant to the design profession. This preoccupation with art and decoration at the expense of design in the design community has lead to other problems in addition to cultivating cultural irrelevancy.

Awards Culture

Open any graphic design magazine or go to any graphic design organization’s website and there is one feature you will always find: information about design awards. There is always a Call For Entries or a listing of what individuals or which agency just won some award or another. Visit just about any ad agency’s website and you’re apt to find a main navigation link to “awards.”

The graphic design community is terribly distracted by the urge to win awards and then to show them off to others. And there is one common thread running through the vast majority of these awards contests, that of subjective beauty and evaluation of pure creativity. One has to wonder how tangible value to clients figures into all of this. The graphic design culture clearly champions peer-driven accolades for over client benefit from its work. And this is especially troubling, as the design profession has little to do with subjective appreciation and everything to do with problem-solving success.

In most cases, design is employed to serve a client in some sort of marketing, branding, or communication effort. Whether commercial or not, design is supposed to do something or serve some need. The marketing effort was either successful or not, the problem was either successfully solved or not, the communication was either effective or not. But these vital issues, really the only relevant ones to design, are seldom if ever referenced in any graphic design awards contest. Why?

The largest professional design organization and most popular publications have committed themselves to perpetuating the rhetoric and emphasizing evangelism of one sociopolitical ideal.

In the context of the graphic design culture, the answer to this question is clearly evident; graphic design is not meant to actually be “design.” It is treated largely as art and is meant to serve as a vehicle for individual expression. I believe the popular idea is that if that sort of work is effective for a client or sways the clients’ target audience, all the better, but that’s clearly not the aim or the point so far as the graphic design community is concerned.

For instance, there is a shockwave of nausea going through the advertising world now as clients demand to measure the effect of the marketing they purchase. They dare to demand a return on their investment! Go figure. This terrifies the advertising world. Why? Because they've likely not been involved in crafting design. Instead they’ve too often been indulging in art and creativity for its own sake. Things are different now and it freaks out traditional ad and design agencies.

But that’s not all that has the graphic design community floundering these days. In addition to a misguided approach to and misapprehensions about the definition and role of design, there are fundamental problems with the design community’s core ideals. Unfortunate distractions in the graphic design culture have led to the cultivation of a measure of contempt and slight regard from the rest of the world – especially the business world.

Political Preoccupations

Imagine for a moment a world where most CPAs were Pentecostals. Imagine if all of the large professional accounting organizations were greatly concerned with religious ideals and if Pentecostal rhetoric and discussion of evangelism permeated these organizations’ conferences and the community’s published materials. It is easy to imagine how, in such a world, the accounting profession might be regarded as unprofessional and self-involved. There is certainly nothing wrong with the Pentecostal denomination, but what does religious ideology have to do with accounting?

This very same irrelevant and destructive preoccupation taints the design profession. The largest professional design organization and most popular publications have committed themselves to perpetuating the rhetoric and emphasizing evangelism of one sociopolitical ideal. Designers, as represented by their most visible instruments, are committed to a Leftist, even Socialist agenda. It would be equally bad if they were a committed and vocal right-wing group. The political choice is not the issue; rather, it is that politics of any sort should not be an issue in this context. We’re talking about a profession, for goodness sake, not an activist wing of a particular political party.

Interactive design is consistently relegated by the graphic design community's perception to a place of inconsequence.

But the traditional graphic design community is, in fact, an activist wing of one particular political party. In the U.S. in both the prominent professional organizations and the prominent community publications, liberal Democrat ideals are promoted and defended while conservative Republican ideals are maligned and ridiculed. This agenda is clearly represented in the community discourse, the organizational programs, and the celebrated examples of “design” work (actually art and decoration) exhibited in publications and elsewhere.

As a result of this culture, the design profession is then appropriately characterized as irresponsibly self-involved and irrelevantly distracted by an ideology that has nothing to do with either the profession or its endeavor. What’s more, this ideology often represents stark opposition to the ideals of the primary segment of society that the design profession needs in order to survive: business.

The community’s propensities toward this end harm the design profession and its members. Furthermore, the cultural climate of, for instance, AIGA irresponsibly excludes many who might otherwise join its ranks. But why? How can this be allowed to happen? The answer is that members of the community leadership have put their own personal agendas ahead of the profession’s best interest. This behavior is both hypocritical and destructive. Yet they lament the design profession’s exclusion from the “bigger conversations.” And that behavior is juvenile and obtuse.

Further Distractions

The graphic design community notices the result of their behavior and then tends to misdiagnose the problems associated with it. In our now smaller world and technologically advancing culture, American graphic designers are slow to adopt practices that keep them relevant. But instead of clearly defining the problems that then arise, they fall back on what their community’s social view tells them. And this error is significant, as it creates an increasingly larger divide between graphic designers and their potential clients; in addition to artificially segmenting various groups of designers.

In 2003, Communication Arts magazine columnist Carolyn McCarron wrote:

Business leaders, however, are beginning to turn away from American creative professionals and are instead pursuing guidance in their world communications and international branding from other sources…

…but in a time of economic difficulties and market uncertainty – and when it’s clear the American way of life and capitalist success are resented in other parts of the world – they are seeking smarter, strategic-driven solutions and culturally-insightful expertise elsewhere. (2)

McCarron misses the mark here, again due to indoctrination in the distractions of her community’s political agenda and inane preoccupations. What she and others were noticing back in 2003 had nothing at all to do with resentment for “the American way of life and capitalist success”. Given the capitalist context of the entire ball of wax she’s referencing, her conclusion makes no sense at all. Rather, the trend she and others were noticing stems from graphic design’s failure and refusal to warm to the Web. Therefore, they are quite useless to those needing to cover a wide range of media and address a global marketing strategy.

Interactive design is consistently relegated by the graphic design community's perception to a place of inconsequence. This coupled with an entirely self-indulgent approach to the profession produces predictable consequences, as McCarron goes on to observe:

Steven J. Heyer, president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola Ventures and executive vice president of The Coca-Cola Company, said that he believes creative agencies today are more focused on producing “good creative” than planning effective strategy and delivering integrated campaigns through new channels – and “good creative is no longer enough.” (2)

Absolutely not enough. Good creative is not design. Even in the very same article as cited above, then AIGA president Clement Mok is quoted as saying, “Clients are justified when they say, ‘You’re an artist. You don’t understand business, how things are done.’ We need to find new ways to offer real value to our clients.” Mok notes that he and AIGA were aware of this problem and were taking steps toward rectifying it. This was in early 2003. Surely the last three years have brought significant positive change, right?

And so, Today…

So today I open the latest issue of Communication Arts magazine, the Interactive Annual 12, to find yet another article by DK Holland, this time partnered with Ben Whitehouse. Again there are several unfortunate and telling observations in her article. It’s been 2 years since she referenced that designers were noting a shift in emphasis toward doing what was best for the client. And yet she now she makes this observation:

“Traditional graphic design has become more and more about style, not content. And perhaps there are not going to be any more Milton Glasers, Ivan Chermayeffs, Paula Scheres, Stefan Sagmeisters. Is the role of graphic designer too undistinguished to command much authority?” (3)

The graphic design community makes my job harder as it serves to mis-define and garner contempt for my profession.

So still, there is this preoccupation with being notable and doing notable things rather than being relevant and doing useful things. As a designer, such ideals inspire contempt, at least from me. As I’m surrounded by people who concern themselves with doing right by the client and serving the client’s aims and needs appropriately, I can find no kinship with such ridiculous concerns as lamented by DK Holland. She goes on to observe:

“…but graphic designers (at least the ones I have known and admired) …their motivation is creative expression. It’s about tackling a problem with gusto and arriving at an exquisite design solution; more specifically, it’s about creating beauty, and loving the beauty they create.” (3)

Again, subjective concerns, introspection and self-indulgence. I guess I am not cut out to be a graphic designer; at least as AIGA defines it. Designers I know and work with are too concerned with solving problems and communicating effectively for clients. To my perception, that is design. Anything else characterized as design is just some perverted ideal perpetuated by people and organizations I just don’t understand and don’t care to.

Finally, one of the more compelling and ridiculous examples of how out of touch the “old guard” of graphic design remains comes in the postscript of the above-cited article. At the end of the article, author DK Holland notes:

“I wrote this article with the help of Ben Whitehouse. We collaborated and organized material on http://backpackit.com. Interviews for this article were recorded with Skype and AudioHijack Pro and edited using Adobe Acrobat 6.0 Pro.” (3)

You just have to laugh. It comes off as a “see how hi-techy we are!” proclamation. Desperation in the voice of the graphic design community leadership is undiminished and there’s good reason for it. The community, its leaders, and its organizations, even after so much examination of this issue, are becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch. Actually, it seems like they’ve almost always been blind to the credible and viable purpose of design, and therefore irrelevant, but they’re just now catching on. So far they’re not doing much about it and I have to wonder if they ever will.

I’m not a “graphic designer” by the traditional definition but I take no joy in seeing these things. But as a designer, I’m not happy about being associated in any way with such irresponsibility and distraction. The graphic design community makes my job harder as it serves to mis-define and garner contempt for my profession. That community is floundering today and I look forward to the day when it finds its feet, its common sense, and its relevancy. And perhaps it’s time for the prominent organizations and publications to stop reflecting the needs and desires of the “old guard” and start representing the needs and desires of the profession and its clients.

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