Paul Rand, in Design, Form and Chaos (1993) writes:
“To make the classroom a perpetual forum for political and social issues, for instance, is wrong; and to see aesthetics as sociology is grossly misleading. A student whose mind is cluttered with matters that have nothing directly to do with design, whose goal is to learn doing and making, who is learning how to use a computer at the same time that he or she is learning design basics, and who is overwhelmed with social problems and political issues is a bewildered student. This is not what he or she bargained for nor, indeed, paid for.” (page 217)
That this comes at the end of a book in which Rand discusses, among other things, sociology, politics, and business is strange enough. But unless there has been a seismic shift in attitudes among students in the ten years since that was written, Rand has got it wrong.
There are several points on which I would take issue with the above comments. Briefly, they are these:
- Higher education’s raison d’etre is to observe, comment upon and change politics and society.
- A mind full of understanding of the world is not a cluttered mind, while a mind devoid of them is empty. A graduate who is ignorant is not a graduate, and a designer who is bewildered by the thought that his or her design not only exists within, but contributes to, a politically complex society will not, at the end of the day, be a particularly good designer.
Students entering higher education are more intelligent and demanding than people think, and if Paul Rand spent five minutes with any of mine he would, I am sure, eat his words. Overwhelmed? bewildered? No. Conscious, thoughtful, intelligent, dedicated, socially aware individuals, several of whom I wouldn’t be surprised to see running the country within ten years? Most definitely.
There are several angles from which to attack Rand’s statement. Pedagogically, a convincing argument can be made for why any course that calls itself a degree should make the things he argues against a central part of their syllabus. The fact is, any course that does otherwise should be stripped of its degree status. It’s bad enough the British media labelling us “Mickey Mouse” subjects without people actually suggesting that’s what we should be.
Educational debates aside, the strongest argument against Rand comes from the subject itself. What is graphic design, and why is critical theory (embracing politics and sociology, semiotics and psychology, gerontology and any other “ology” you care to mention) an essential part of studying it?
Rand appears to take the view that graphic design is something you do, but don’t think about. Thinking about graphic design is something that critics and historians do, but not the producers (the authors). Therefore the study of graphic design must follow one of two strands: training in how to do it and education in how it works. The two shall never meet…
This divide between those who practise and those who critique is quite common. Yet oddly, teachers who teach art and design act as critics, and the “critique” is an integral part of most courses. Yet Rand, a famous critic, believes we should not teach the skills that develop the ability to critique – how odd. And how odd that students should allow themselves to be critiqued by people who have no formal training in how design works…
Graphic Design is not just an activity, it is a cultural text, because it stems from the need to communicate. This is something that Rand makes quite clear at the start of his book, but later forgets, and something I use to differentiate Graphic Design and Art as disciplines.
Communication theory tells us that all messages have authors and readers, and that in between these is “noise” that acts to disrupt the channel of communication. In order to ensure effective communication, the medium/channel used has to tune out, compensate for, or utilise the noise. This is as true of the graphic designer as it is for the television broadcaster, the telecoms company, the internet service provider.
Noise consists of lots of things, from the physical distance between sender and receiver to more conceptual problems such as generational distance (a 33 year old designer experiences noise when designing for 3 year olds and 73 year olds), and cultural distance (whether in terms of East v West, American v British, or high v popular culture among many others). Because most graphic designers will spend a lot of their time communicating with people who are not themselves, they will always experience “noise”. For their design to work, that noise has to be tuned out.
There are two ways a designer can do that: only do jobs that are within your limited cultural horizon, or expand your cultural horizon so that you have a greater understanding of what makes the world, and the people within it, tick.
A designer who opts for the first option, either voluntarily or because they haven’t been given the education they deserve, will quickly run out of steam. It’s something you see a lot in some students’ work – an obsession with whatever is faddish at the time (skateboard culture, tattoos, copying the style of designers of favourite CD covers and so on). This obsession has no context and no future. When the fad fades they will be busy playing catch-up with whatever new one comes up. But they will never innovate, never be the designer who the next generation of students copy.