Design theory and its critics

Saturday, July 31st, 2004

The problem with theory in relation to graphic design is that many practitioners, teachers and students believe that it has no relation to the practice of design. Because many designers cling to the mystique and romance of what they do, or seek to enhance them, the idea that there may be a set of “rules” or “principles” that govern what they do is anathema to them.

But this is a misunderstanding of theory’s place in the design process.

There are, fundamentally, two types of design theory relating, in turn, to production and consumption.

Theories of production concern such things as grids, text readability, working methods, materials, techniques, colour and so on. They are the “rules” that for some reason so many designers believe are only there to be broken as though they offer a threat to creativity. When (or rather, if) they are they are taught it happens in the studio and the lion’s share of attention is devoted to them. They are about “doing” graphic design, delivered not so much as theory, I suppose, as theorems, which is why the moment someone does something that contradicts them the whole house of cards tumbles and it becomes open season on “rules”.

The theories relating to the consumption of graphic design tend to be ignored or only given lip service, yet they are essential to the study of graphic design and to understanding how and why it has the effect it does. Critics of theory in this sense, who believe it to be irrelevant, perceive it as a threat to their aura of instinct and artfulness. Theoreticians are like the people at a magic show who threaten to tell everyone how the tricks are done, or like the theatre critic placed in a powerful position able to make or break a show but unable to write one themselves.

But critics of design theory forget that at the end of the day graphic design is used by people who have little or no sense of the designer. To readers of design the “author” is the client, the company who commissioned the designer. Critics forget too that design is an anonymous profession – more-so than the refuse collectors, the postman and the street cleaner even, because for one thing we see these people as they do their work and secondly we appreciate the service they carry out. It is tangible, real, and we know if it is done well or not. the only people who critique design in this way, or who know the names of designers, are other designers, and the ones who are named are not so much famous for being particularly good designers as famous for being famous.

Designers who ignore the theory that helps us understand how design works (rather than how it is produced) ignore the purpose of what they do, which is facilitate communication.

And yet, even with Graphic Design’s recent entry to the academy and its supposed intellectualisation as a field of study and research, we seem to be bombarded more and more by designers who believe the purpose of what they do is self-expression, and stake a claim for authorship of the work they produce over and above the true authors, the people who commissioned them. The designer who interferes in the dialogue between the journalist and her reader, the corporation and their customers, the musician and his listeners, is an egotist.

The blurring of the distinction between art and design is damaging to both, and in this environment the role of theories of cultural production and consumption is increasingly marginal, critical in the negative sense rather than the constructional way it should be seen. Not only this but theories of production go out of the window too; few graphic design students are taught about grids, type, colour theory and so on because of a dangerous ideology that such things are outdated or wrong. Instead, many courses adopt an approach that favours the modern art world’s nebulous idea of “concept” rather than the design world’s more definite meaning of the word. It is ironic that as advocates of greater academic rigour in graphic design education are criticised for being anti-vocational, the same critics are guilty of presiding over a generation of visually illiterate graphic design graduates unable to be the sort of designer industry wants.

Graphic Design as a subject and a practice no longer exists. It has fragmented into Graphic Art, in which the artist is the focus, and Graphic Communication, in which the reader is central. Yet there are few, if any, courses that take this latter approach and, while the demand is most definitely there from students, industry and society there appears to be little enthusiasm for the idea from teachers. Perhaps this is because the discussion of theory calls their bluff about what they really know of their subject; perhaps also because it challenges the guru-like status and air of mystery off which they trade.

In an academic environment where a teacher is rated by the number of exhibitions they have mounted rather than their effectiveness as a teacher, there seems little hope for either theory or practice in graphic design.

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