Graphic design is dead. Long live… what?

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

The New Views 2 conference held in London last week produced more light than heat – something far more design conferences would do well to aim for.
All credit to Teal Triggs (LCC), Laurene Vaughan (RMIT) and the organising committee for arranging it around conversations rather than presentations. (Russell Kerr agrees – this was an engaging format)


(picture from cluster 6 via Flickr)

I heard that some of the conversations erred on the argumentative side but, surprisingly, the one I was involved in, looking at the area of graphic design education, was remarkably consensual.

Despite the various focuses of each cluster, the subject of what we teach and why seemed to come up everywhere and when the final presentations were given at the end of the two days it was clear that there was one overwhelming conclusion: graphic design, as we know it, is a dead subject. As we recited at one point in the international language of Monty Python, it has ceased to exist. It has gone to meet its maker.

This does not mean we think graphic design itself is no more, but that as a university subject it makes little point to teach people about something so limited in conception. Almost everybody complained that students arrive with what they think GD is, which means any attempt to broaden their horizons meets with resistance. Meanwhile, as my talking point made clear, too many employers are recruiting our graduates into unpaid (or at best low-paid) jobs at the bottom of the food chain instead of strategic roles.

There are plenty of vocational qualifications out there that produce well-trained graphic designers. When the question was put forward “what is it that a degree, an academic qualification, offers that is different”, nobody had an answer. We could say what we thought it should offer, but were frustrated that we didn’t. There was also a strong rejection of the notion that universities should follow industry; instead we should be mapping out new territory through our research and involving our undergraduates in that so that when they left us they could go in to industry – and not just the design industry – and start making changes.

So differentiation is the key. Degrees shouldn’t be technical qualifications with a bit more writing, and an honours year (or even a Masters year) should not simply be an opportunity to make your portfolio fatter. There has to be a difference.

Having agreed that, the next question was “what do we teach” and there was a struggle to move away from the desire to list core competencies. Instead we tried to imagine what somebody graduating in 2028 would need to be able to do, not just as a designer, but as a person.
We came up with an impressive list which, when I get hold of one of the photos that was taken will post here. What was impressive was not its comprehensiveness but the fact that when we looked at it the word ‘design’ wasn’t there and it very closely matched the description that the UK Quality Assurance Agency already has of what a generic ‘graduate’ should be. As a few of us Brits lamented, if only people running courses would actually read those, things would be miles better.

We had been looking for a paradigm shift and this was it: we currently see design education as teaching people to design. Instead we want to teach people through design.

So we believe that graduates need to be politically and socially engaged. You’ll never achieve that teaching Photoshop and yet this is what we fool ourselves in to thinking and claiming. Instead we shift approach and teach students about the world in which they are living, using design as the tool to do that and allowing them to demonstrate what they have learned through design. Learning Photoshop then becomes a skill that is picked up to show understanding of the world, not because it is a skill in itself. This moves us away from training designers to educating graduates. They can still design, but what they are designing is a model of the world, a worldview if you like, rather than (god help us) a double page spread and a web site.

There’s no point in teaching people to design web sites, magazine layouts and so on – certainly not at university. Instead there’s an urgent need for graduates who can identify problems and design solutons to them, and these go way beyond the narrow concept of ‘graphic design’ – graphic designers can’t tackle crime, for example unless you think a nice leaflet will do that. But as ‘Design Against Crime’ has shown, designers can. Losing the word ‘graphic’ opens up so many possibilities it’s hard to understand why anyone would resist.

This philosophical difference between a degree and other qualifications is one that I think everybody at the conference with one or two exceptions subscribed to. So the next stage was “how do we do this?”
The conference was attended by over a hundred designers – practitioners and academics – from all over the world. In my group we had representatives from the US, New Zealand, Australia, the UK (including England, Wales and Scotland), Qatar, Turkey and a few others I forget. We also had people who were at the beginning of their careers, students (as delegates and as observers recording the proceedings), those in the middle of their working lives and those approaching or even past retirement. To get so much agreement considering this range of people was amazing but as I pointed out to Teal and others, the danger with conferences like this is that you get comfortable thinking “Wow, I’m not the only one who thinks like this” but then you get back home and find that there, you are. Most people I spoke to knew that even though the conference had a large claim to legitimacy, that it was a gathering of experts and leading thinkers in the discipline, that they would arrive home and be told by colleagues that the future lies in not changing a thing. Yet the clear message coming from every country represented there was: change or die. In the US and Turkey, delegates warned, the rise of private universities offering narrow vocational qualifications is sapping students who simply want to fit in to a junior and well-defined role. This leaves the students who want to think and explore a discipline, but they are simply being given exactly the same courses except over a longer time and for more money. If we don’t offer something different we’ll lost them to other subjects.

(Interestingly, when I said I wondered why we still insist on taking students who study art at school, then braced myself for the reaction, others agreed and two delegates said they’d already stopped looking at portfolios and instead made offers based on school grades. As a result they’d started recruiting students who had studied languages, sciences and more with no fall in standards and often better results. Although it’s something of a stereotype there was agreement that the danger of insisting students took art at school is that we attract people who think that’s all you need to do, or that our subject is easy. What these approaches seemed to do was filter out those who were good at painting and drawing but didn’t read or think or write critically. Design’s future lies in people like this, not people who have nice portfolios demonstrating skills in different mark-making media).

So lonely though it may be at the front of the pack, we need to keep going and for this we need someone to help us keep the pace. And that’s where networking comes in. We were determined for this not to be another conference where we collect business cards and then put them somewhere ‘safe’ on our return. I offered to look in to making a networking bid to the AHRC to get us back together soon, and there was an offer from Qatar to do something similar.

We also talked about an Open Source model, that instead of prescribing a curriculum as industry is attempting to, we agree on an international set of principles with our list as a starting point, and that individual institutions decide how they are going to get there. AS we develop modules or projects we share them with others so they can use them or adapt them and share them back. This could even be done by students who could build their own programme by matching intended outcomes (“understanding of ecological impacts” to give a deliberately broad example) and find a project brief from the library that they adapt to their circumstances. There would even be room for collaboration between students in different countries.

So we’re hoping to set up a web site that will allow the conversation to carry on, and to begin collecting ideas for this library of open source materials.

We all agreed, I think, that this is not the sort of change that should happen slowly – we haven’t got time. To misquote Terry Pratchett, if you drag this sort of change out people resist. If you do it quickly you just move from one state of normal to another. Graphic design hasn’t got 20 years. It has to change now, and degree-level design education needs to define itself so that it offers something to the world beyond simply churning out people who can make a leaflet selling crap nobody wants.

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5 comments on “Graphic design is dead. Long live… what?

  1. Michelewkf says:

    Sounds like a great conference. I am so sad I missed it but very thankful you summarized it so well! Very inspiring. This was one of my favorite lines : “There was also a strong rejection of the notion that universities should follow industry”m.

  2. Jonathan says:

    You’d have loved it – kept thinking you should have been there!

  3. James Corazzo says:

    I was part of this group, and returned back to work to be met with a resounding lack of enthusiasm to notions of change. Still change it must. After reading your summary of the conference one thing that I’d add, which came from another group, was the idea that the discipline should lead the profession not the profession leading the discipline, as it does currently. This makes it a collaborative project that doesn’t seek to separate academia / industry / critics. Good stuff Jonathan, I really enjoyed your contribution throughout the two days. Looking forward to continuing this connection.

  4. Eden Potter says:

    I have photos of all the ‘wall notes’ we made during the Friday workgroup, Jonathan. Shall I email them to you (yes, am still the consummate note-taker)? Someone else may have sent them already; they were well photographed. Thanks so much for your post encapsulating our group’s discussion at New Views 2. The collective shrug from work colleagues at some of the ideas proposed may be a widely-shared observation, I imagine! Still, as you said while we were at the conference, a forum like NV2 gives one access to farsighted thinking; and faith that you’re not the only one around who questions the status quo.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Hi James and EdenThanks for commenting – take a look at the ‘double standards’ post for an interesting response from the Chartered Society of Designers…James I agree entirely. I think the moment we make that break away from seeing ourselves as providing employees and instead providing knowledge we can make that case, but so long as we raise our sights no higher than churning out entry-level designers we will always have to provide what industry thinks it ‘needs’Eden – yes please, send the photos and I’ll post them here. They may need some ‘translation’ for those who weren’t there, mind…

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