How graphic design writing causes problems in student learning

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

Earlier I mentioned that there was a need for the design industry and press to ensure it reflects more closely the realities of how design is produced and consumed.
One example worth looking at is the book Dialogue: Relationships in Graphic Design by Shaun Cole. This book intrigues me because designer/client relationships is a particular research interest of mine. Unfortunately, none of the examples cited in the book matches up with my own experience of designer/client relationships, either as a designer myself, or as a researcher on the outside looking in.

That’s because the book focuses exclusively on the ‘prestigious’ end of the market. All the clients and designers here are well known, or share certain cultural backgrounds, knowledge and tastes. It’s an interesting book, and I heartily recommend it, but with the proviso that it is an accurate description of a tiny aspect of the graphic design profession and you don’t have to move far outside that little world before you begin to encounter the sort of horror stories recounted on Graphic Design Rants.

But this is a massive problem in graphic design – just about all the writing on the subject focuses on a tiny proportion of the industry. I would wager it’s not even a classic 80:20 split (where 80% of writing about graphic design focuses on 20% of the industry), more 99:1.
This is what I meant when I mentioned the focus on ‘the visual’ and ‘heroes’ in my last post – pick up any design history book and the link between it and the truth of how design is produced is infinitesimal – which is probably why there’s little market for it among most designers themselves, never mind the general public (pace Rick Poynor). It isn’t quite fiction, but it’s not far off when compared with the experiences of 99% of designers and their clients.

Take a look at the index of Dialogue and you’ll see what I mean; it’s a roll call of the great and the good: Jonathan Ive, Ken Garland, Bjork, Madonna, Steven Spielberg, Dream Works, Saul Bass… not one mention of the everyday realities of getting graphic design produced – finance, trademarks and copyright, spreadsheets, negotiations, chasing clients for copy and images etc etc.
But it’s books like this that students read, and that give them their impression of what working in graphic design is all about. If employers think graduates lack a sense of realism they blame people like me, the teachers. But I, like so many of my colleagues, am constantly placing design in to a real world context, but we’re fighting against this tide of publications that ‘big up’ design and attempt to make it sound sexy and arty and heroic. And the biggest culprits in this mis-selling of the job of graphic design? Industry. It is seeking to reposition itself, to give itself a legitimacy (academia has a big role to play in this too – the elevation of design to academic status means it has needed to develop a sense of history and it has done this by borrowing it from the art world). This legitimacy comes from ignoring the dirty little secret, that graphic design exists at a basic, fundamental level in society and commerce and instead focussing on prestigious jobs and clients.

It’s no wonder that potential clients for design are turned off by what they perceive as irrelevant (a major threat to the future of the industry), but equally it’s no wonder that employers complain that graduates have no understanding of the context in which they will work. They’ve been lied to for years, reading articles in Creative Review and Grafik that try to hide that dirty little secret. Yet it’s those self-same employers who encourage this, by trading in prestige and taking part in profiles and case studies that contribute to the idea among students that ‘business skills’, of the sort CSS says should be taught, are irrelevant

Funny, though, how it’s teachers who get the blame.

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