Volume 4, Number 1: 2009
Rendering the visual visible: social dimensions of graphic design
We cannot separate our work from the social setting it inhabits, nor should we underestimate its impact. From inside the graphic design profession the last 50 years have heard several public calls f or designers to recognise their social impact and responsibilities. Ken Garland' s First Things First manifesto of 1964, revisited in 2000 and signed by 22 international visual communicators, urged designers to engage more overtly in the unprecedented and complex social, environmental and cultural issues facing us in the 21st century. Others (Buchanan, Friedman 2003, Conklin et al 2007)) believe that in the face of new challenges, we can contribute design-led approaches to problems of increasing scale and complexity. However, from outside the profession much of what we are engaged in and produce is regarded as ephemera cultural artefacts subject to what Australian cultural studies writer Meaghan Morris (1998) calls a ‘history of ignoring', frequently overlooked as insignificant and disposable. The question motivating this special issue was how can graphic design become a visible part of the ongoing living narrative of culture?
My own research investigates the role of designers working on projects that interpret and communicate about natural and cultural heritage such as national parks visitor centres. Motivating my research was the observation that these designers were challenging traditional forms of practice through large scale, complex and interdisciplinary projects that communicated in some of the most valued, contested and controversial sites in post-European contact history. Not only were these designers breaking new ground from a production perspective, but through their deep engagement with the content, ideas and ideological dimensions of projects. Interviewing designers revealed a desire to authentically communicate stories, issues and histories and that their ideological commitment to projects that dealt with conservation, reconciliation was a significant factor in pitching for such projects. Julie Hawkins, one of the designers I interviewed said ‘I think it's a great privilege to work on these jobs: the work has lasting worth (we hope),and in that sense is less ephemeral than much of the work that graphic designers do'. David Lancashire spoke of how he and his family lived for some months with indigenous communities in the Northern Territory as part of the design process for the Bowali visitor centre in Kakadu National Park, becoming as Sian Cook calls in her position paper an ‘embedded designer '. Unlike much of the ephemeral products of graphic design, these projects are large scale, enduring, and contribute in highly visible and visited public spaces to social, environmental and cultural issues. Rather than the designed artefacts themselves being overlooked or ignored it is perhaps the designers themselves who are less visible as agents of social change.
This special issue of visual:design:scholarship aims to make visible the social dimensions of graphic design, and the designers and researchers who are engaged in investigating the social aspects and impacts of graphic design. Contributors were invited to critically examine graphic design in its wider social context and its relationship to visual culture and social capital and its capacity to inform and inspire, enrich and enable change in people's lives. The papers presented here confirm that graphic designers are willing to move from the end of the design food chain to a position of thoughtful and critical engagement with issues, content and research from the outset. Sian Cook in her opinion piece argues for designers and design students to be more deeply involved, ethically and responsibly with their clients, while fully aware of the pitfalls of pro-bono and volunteer work. Doreen Donovan proposes a methodology of investigative graphic design as a way to negotiate and reveal contradictions behind the often opaque intentions of competitions and pro-bono projects. While Liam Dee calls for the political dimensions of design to be a more explicitly acknowledged as an antidote to proponents of ‘civil design', Neal Haslem reminds us to remember the socially situated dimension of graphic design and argues that this will strengthen its already strongly civic role. Yoko Akama and Carolyn Barnes argue for another form of visibility and question the diversity in Australian graphic design when there is a pervasive over-representation of Anglo-European male graphic designers in industry events and publications. Other authors focussed on audience participation and interpretation of graphic design including Peter Schumacher who provides a comprehensive literature review for those creating instructional graphics and illustrations for use in developing countries. Stuart Medley and Nicola Kaye examine the potential for information graphics to communicate the news in alternative media communication spaces using conventions that don't rely on photographic realism. Marius Foley proposes technologies that allow artefacts to ‘listen' to audiences and thereby facilitate and extend design conversations. Contributors in this issue highlight not just the social responsibility of our diverse practice, research and scholarship, but confirm that if graphic design is to be at the vanguard of change, contributing to and building social capital and visual culture, the social context and impact of design needs to be scrutinised more closely and rendered visible.
Investigative graphic design: a direction addressing the imbalance of corporate and independent production of visual materials and the Australian graphic design community
The contemporary graphic design industry is plagued by an inherent conflict of interest, with visual production of corporate messages vastly disproportionate to non-profit orientated cultural production. For the past forty years, many in the industry have sought to formulate various strategies to address this imbalance. While many graphic designers may feel they are adequately addressing their responsibilities as visual communicators, engaging in pro-bono projects and design competitions themed around social and environmental issues, it appears an effective methodology for the production and dissemination of independent visual design materials has not been established. This paper aims to highlight issues of appropriation and misconceptions of independent production in an attempt to motivate the Australian graphic design community in particular to engage in investigative graphic design.
Civil disobedience: First Things First and the politics of civil design
As the theoretical archetype for contemporary socially-engaged graphic design the First Things First manifestos of 1964 and 2000 locate a non-commercial civil realm as the place where such design should take place. This article is a critique of such a conception of ‘civil design' as actually a retreat from the kind of politics needed to make a significant contribution to social engagement. This will be done by highlighting the power relations within civil society that are often ignored or downplayed by proponents of civil design and arguing that any design that is conceived as apolitical in its ‘social responsibility' tacitly approves these relations. As an alternative a demand will be made within the article for a more explicitly acknowledged political design in opposition to the pseudo-neutrality of civil design.
Communication design: towards a 'socially-situated' practice
This essay agrees with the editorial stance of this special issue of the AGDA research journal; that we cannot, as designers, separate ourselves from the social setting we inhabit. Saying that however, this essay makes the point that designers, and graphic designers in particular, often tend to deny their connection to the social setting and instead support design's sense of separation from the greater context. The essay makes the argument that with the change of name from graphic design to communication design, and the growing awareness of the ontological nature of design practice, it becomes essential to recognise that communication design is essentially a civil, or social, act.
Where is our diversity?: Questions of visibility and representation in Australian graphic design
Akama, Yoko and Barnes, Carolyn
This polemical discussion explores the lack of diversity of representation in Australian graphic design. It questions what it means that the image and voice of a cultural field is limited to a narrow category of individuals, especially when there is increased awareness across society of the value of opening representation to previously excluded or marginalised groups. The discussion of diversity builds on established analyses of the situation for women in graphic design. This may seem to skew the argument towards issues of gender not diversity, but the matter of women's participation in design is an open, if unresolved, topic of discussion. The nature and extent of other groups' participation in design remains largely unstated and undocumented due to the sensitivity of broaching issues of ethnicity and indigeneity in Australian society. The paper argues that a creative industry that lacks plurality and inclusiveness in its leadership is unlikely to provide the nuanced, receptive and well-informed responses required to communicate to a diverse Australian public. The paper does not seek to provide answers to the questions it raises. Rather, its aim is to prompt discussion about the nature of graphic design as an industry and a cultural institution.
Pictorial communication in developing countries: a literature review
Creating illustrations to communicate technical information in developing countries for people with little or no literacy and limited or no exposure to pictorial media is a challenging design activity. This paper presents a review of the research based on user trials with visual media conducted in developing countries. It provides an overview of the findings and methodologies for creating and evaluating images. It also discussed the modes of research and advocates a practice based research approach in order to
develop heuristics to inform future design projects.
Listening through interaction
All designers engage in a design conversation when making a design artefact. We confer with the client, other designers, service providers and others throughout the process. In this paper I outline research into the design conversation. I then speculate on extending the design conversation to include the audience. I put forward the idea of listening through interaction, where we extend the use of the ‘inquiring materials'(Gedenryd 1998: 364)- such as moodboards, design roughs, sketches and so on - to engage with the audience. I will also discuss a propositional project that has been set up to explore this notion.
Figures: a social application of infographics
Medley, Stuart and Kaye, Nicola
Figures: The social in the visual is a research project exploring the potential for information graphics to tell news. To date, the research manifests itself in a website (http://figuresmag.com), tertiary level teaching materials, and a printed zine. This article details the principle aspects of our research. Firstly, it states our issues with the status quo of mainstream news imagery and dissemination. Secondly, we discuss our media choices: Why information graphics, and why the Internet? We will explain information design as a graphic form within a contested space: The form itself requires experimentation so that its users, including ourselves, can be more confident about what approaches to information design communicate what messages. This experimentation leads us to the Internet, using the Web 2.0 as a space for efficient and socially focused experimentation. Our research uses a reflexive methodology which sees us as creative practitioners within the space we have set up as well as audience members seeking explanation. We demonstrate how we use the Internet as a reflexive space in developing Figures. Thirdly, we will describe some outcomes of the research so far: Tertiary assignment briefs for design students at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia (ECU); graphics created for Figures have been published in Visual Language for Designers (2009); and, another design school (at the University of Otago, New Zealand) has published information graphics on our site.