Design is in everything we make, but it’s also between those things. It’s a mix of craft, science, storytelling, propaganda, and philosophy.
~ Erik Adigard, Designer and Media Artist
I feel as though the term “graphic design” has become a huge misnomer in modern day language to describe a profession that encompasses so much more than the typical definition of graphics.
In general, graphic design is defined as an art or profession by which someone uses design elements (like typography and images) to convey information or create an effect. A connotation such as this could lead one to say that graphic design is an act of transmitting words (as typography) and images (illustrations, photos, and the like) together in a manner to channel messages. Can that not be said of a television broadcast, or perhaps social media? Is a television reporter considered a graphic designer? Is a content specialist considered one as well? Perhaps they are, or can be, but in its traditional sense, the definition of a graphic designer has always been founded in an understanding of and the possession of skills needed for print layout over anything else. It’s why so many graphic design educational offerings are chartered in typography, editorial, and layout coursework.
But I ask, don’t today’s designers do much more? Is the term of graphic designer too limiting? Should not all persons involved in the design field (print, digital, web, urban, fashion, etc.) be called designers? Are graphic designers limited to just “graphics,” which sprang forth from the printing industry? Are they not full-fledged multimedia, multi-platform designers with multi-faceted skill sets? Or is it just a matter of semantics?
In the introduction to Adrian Shaughnessy’s How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul, famed designer Stefan Sagmeister refers to himself as a designer, not a graphic designer. He states, “I love being a designer. I love thinking about ideas freely and observing them taking shape.” Here we find that Sagmeister expresses his penchant for the potential that design affords, its agency to allow ideas to form and embody the concept, whether graphical or not. It’s design thinking in a sense, allowing for the possibilities that design, not just graphic design, presents.
Though Shaughnessy’s book title refers to graphic designers, the author jumps back and forth throughout his tome, speaking of graphic designers in one section and designers in the next. He intermixes workplaces as well, describing them as design studios and design firms rather than graphic design studios or graphic design firms.
I don’t fault Shaughnessy for any incongruity in terminology. I’ve never met the man, nor am I a scholar on his work. My only connection is his book is required reading for the Professional Design Practices class I teach at George Mason University. I think the only time I use the term graphic designer in class is when I mention the book by its title and when I go into my introductory spiel, telling the class, “Sorry, you’re not graphic designers.”
The term graphic design has always stuck in my craw, ever since I was a freshly minted college graduate myself, from the bygone analog days. I think it’s because of what my diploma has written across it in pronounced Blackletter script—Bachelor of Arts in Design. Not Graphic Design. Design. With a capital D.
Sure, I studied all the prerequisites during my formative years. I did my stint in Design 101, grew into Advanced Design, executed editorial layouts, learned print production, mocked-up campaigns, I studied the whole shebang. But I always bristled at the term graphic design. I think it’s partially due to the student fellowship position I had with NIH during summer and winter breaks from college. I worked at the Bethesda, Maryland campus of NIH as an intern and I was assigned to, what else, the Graphics department. I’d spend my days creating countless graphs of the experimental medicine being conducted upstairs from our offices, while across the hall, no more than 20 feet from my desk, sat interns creating designs. In the Design department. They worked on brochures, and posters, and all types of creative four-color design work while I labored away at creating graphics for publication in a black and white medical journal.
Thinking back on those days from decades ago, and how I could have been a design intern rather than a graphics intern (luck of the draw), I pondered why do we, as a profession, still call ourselves graphic designers? Are we not at our purest core designers? If we produce a video, do we not design it? If we create a digital work, do we not design it? If design truly is giving shape to ideas, are we not designers first? Why keep throwing the descriptor “graphic” in front of what we do? Why do we limit ourselves by our own vocabulary?
I realize it’s not scholarly, but I have a penchant for referring to a time-tested source to define terms for me. It’s called the dictionary, and the online version from Merriam-Webster seems to sum up best (in my mind) what a designer truly is: A person who plans how something new will look and be made: a person who creates and often produces a new product, style, etc.
I think this definition is closer to what a designer accomplishes in their profession, but often the moniker of designer begins to be limiting when considering the level of involvement and varied skills a designer needs in the modern day world.
In an article on the AIGA website, designer, educator, and author Juliette Cezzar writes, “Graphic design, also known as communication design, is the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content. The form of the communication can be physical or virtual, and may include images, words, or graphic forms. The experience can take place in an instant or over a long period of time. The work can happen at any scale, from the design of a single postage stamp to a national postal signage system, or from a company’s digital avatar to the sprawling and interlinked digital and physical content of an international newspaper. It can also be for any purpose, whether commercial, educational, cultural, or political.”
Cezzar begins to get closer to what the field of design embodies in modern society, but still falls short by limiting himself through two of the three work examples provided. Of the three examples he cites, two are clearly related to printing (postage stamps and newspapers), which in turn throws the definition back into the realm of the legacy term graphic design.
In my opinion, and it is a humble one at that, what we are seeing is a paradigm shift in the consideration of the profession of design. A designer may, and can be, solely dedicated to the narrow version of creativity that is known as graphic design. But if that were the case, the teaching and the application of design would be so limited as to prevent designers from becoming immersed in new technologies, methodologies, and approaches. The rise of design thinking, the yearning for design leadership, and the growth of design in public institutions, commercial enterprises, corporations, and other sectors is proof that the graphic designer of yesterday is a far cry from the designer of today.
Design’s traditional methods and practices, while still kept intact through inference, reference, and denotation, have been repurposed and rethought by design professionals and by stakeholders as varied as there are differing applications of design. I think the profession categorized as graphic design has become a hybridized discipline, with multiple proficiencies in multiple subjects necessary to simply enable one to apply for a job. Steven Heller, American art director, journalist, critic, author, and editor, calls into question the profession’s name in his article, “What Do We Call Ourselves Now?”
Since graphic design is not a licensed profession, we can call ourselves anything we want, with the exception of maybe doctor or Monsignor. Likewise, anyone can claim the graphic designer mantle (or ‘graphics designer’, which is a dead give-away that they’re not graphic designers) simply because they made a letterhead, newsletter or website on their home computer. So, if our nomenclature is this fungible, it stands to reason our bona fides are in question, too. A designer by any other name may still be a designer, yet what we call ourselves is key to our professional health and wellbeing. As professionals we are hired to be clarifiers, organizers and even namers for our clients. So, if we don’t know what to call ourselves, who does?
Nonetheless, given the growing intersection of graphic design with time-based media, information design and associated disciplines such as writing and producing, as well as the blurring of boundaries between fine art and design, who and what we are (and ultimately want to be) is becoming more complicated to define and, therefore, to name.
In the 21st century, to be a designer means you are a typesetting psychologist with a proclivity for marketing strategy. You need to be a web designer and app developer, one of the elite Digerati, well versed at storytelling. You must be an experiential manipulator; able to use your design thinking skills to lead innovative endeavors others wish they had the wherewithal to accomplish. If these skills sets weren’t enough, you must be a futurologist as well. You have to see the forest despite the trees, and you have to be able to envision what is far over the horizon.
Graphic design is becoming an extinct profession. It is a morphing into a craft that’s partially based in science, driven by data, and powered by persuasion. It is now a pursuit of answers to questions yet to be asked, a line of work that has so many avenues to explore it becomes difficult to map career paths. Graphic design has changed into an avocation requiring knowledge of so many things that it cannot focus on one portion of lifework. It has crossed over into multiple businesses, occupations, teachings, and professions.
Graphic designers are no longer graphic designers, even though they touch that world on a daily basis. Graphics is what the profession came from, but it is not everything the profession is based in. Today and future designers will be many things to many businesses and people, so labeling designers as graphic designers is a misnomer. In actuality they are the creative strategists, the creative developers, the creative leaders the world looks to for new ideas, more effective solutions, and the “next Big Thing.” They are the New Designers. They are Design with a capital D. They are what the future has become.