Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

What the New Yorker teaches us about visual literacy

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Richard Adams on the New Yorker cover ‘scandal’ makes a valid point:

John McCain can say that he doesn’t know much about economics and later deny it flatly, then have one of his top economic advisors say it will take one term for a McCain presidency to balance the budget, only to turn on a dime and say it will take two term, and almost nothing of it gets reported in the media. But hey, Jesse Jackson gets overheard using the word ‘nuts’ and it’s time to break out the ink.

If that’s what the ‘mainstream’ news media can do when left to their own devices, a cartoon is nothing.

Seems to me, as one of the commenters on this article says, this is another example (like the ‘nuts’ episode) of the media reporting on itself rather than on the stories.

But it also suggests something else: when we start summing up complex issues in illustrated form the scope for misunderstanding is huge.
At the New Views conference it was asked why critiques of design have to rely on words, why can’t we use design? (Similar arguments are made in favour of letting students create ‘visual dissertations’) Because writing depends on redundancy – it contains clauses, clarifications, opportunities to go off on tangents or rehearse devil’s advocate positions. Create a design to critique a design and you can’t guarantee that the message will be decoded correctly. The irony here is that I’ve just read several thousand words explaining what the New Yorker cartoon is supposed to be saying.

I think the New Yorker cover is a brave attempt to highlight the way the media and others pick apart minutae like the Obamas’ fist bump, unpicking images (often because there’s not really enough real news to fill a 24 hour news ‘culture’) but falls foul of precisely the same problems: images have no redundancy. The article that accompanies the cartoon is a few thousand words long and makes it clear what it is saying. The cartoon has no words and is consequently translated differently depending on who reads it, or (importantly in this case) reads about it. If the cover had instead been a cartoon alongside the article it might have made sense. As a cover, it doesn’t and simply exacerbates the problem it seeks to analyse.

Barthes famously said that images are polysemous, they have multiple meanings. Text, he said, fixes meaning.
I don’t think we’ve yet reached a level of visual literacy (or ever will?) where images like this can be divorced from the textual context.

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Accidents are part of the design process too…

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Discussing clients’ need to know what the design process is, Michael Johnson writes: “Recently I’ve also realised that a whole series of our projects have almost been designed by accident.

At that critical stage where only a finite series of days remain until the big presentation anything goes in the johnson banks studio, so critiques and commentary and indeed design by accident can happen at any point.

I’ll give you some examples.”

It’s worth looking at the examples, many of which will be familiar to UK readers.
But I want to take (gentle) issue with the idea that ‘accident’ isn’t process.
If you read the stories Michael tells you’ll realise that they are all connected by the fact there is a clear process going on. It’s just that the process is particularly fluid.
And if you extend the case studies to include the briefing, the clients’ identification of needs, the presentation, the production and so on the process becomes clearer.

There’s a difference between macro and micro here, I think. It rained today, but it was generally sunny and very warm. The weather forecast usually summarises: bright and sunny with occasional showers. But if I’d been caught in the shower, which was quite heavy, I’d have said “it rained hard today”.

Erm, that’s not making any sense is it?! Trying to be enigmatic and I can’t quite pull it off.
Let’s try again…

A former student of mine once interviewed several well-known designers to identify their working processes. All of them, if I remember correctly, insisted they had no process and were almost angry at the suggestion they would. For them, the lack of process, the serendipitous nature of their work, was a badge of creative honour. They would pick out individual projects and say “we did it this way on this one” and “we did it this way on another one” therefore we don’t have a process.

But when my student and I read this and looked at the different examples they cited, we could see quite clearly that there was a definite process, almost an habitual approach to the way they worked. It’s just that each one had an ‘aha!’ moment where an idea appeared and was used. This, they said, was accidental. Creativity, then, is accidental and those of us who teach design as a process are evil. (I think one did actually say something like that!)

Reading “Designerly Ways of Knowing” by Nigel Cross (a great book, scholarly and well researched but very expensive in hardback – wait for the paperback) he identifies that a lot of designers actually have an idea fairly early on, discard it, go through a process and then keep coming back to the original idea. But, it seems, they don’t see that this is what they do. Designers are actually quite conservative!

Yet none of this takes anything away from the effectiveness of the examples Michael cites – I like all the designs he talks about.

It’s odd that a lot of designers and creative types assume that creativity is random (and that it can’t be taught). If it were true, no one would make a living from it. But I think it has a lot to do with trying to make out that creativity is a magical and rare talent that can’t be forced.
While that’s okay as a sales technique it annoys me if I hear teachers saying this, as though all they do is ‘facilitate’ a student’s already existing creativity. It’s more than a little lazy.

What is clear, however, from Michael’s introduction to the article, is that clients like to assume there is a clear process to the way designers work. To be honest, I wouldn’t disabuse them of this notion. For one thing, clients need to know their roles and responsibilities, otherwise they end up being nightmares (because we haven’t told them what’s needed). For another thing, if I hired someone to come and do a job for me and they started spouting some of the pretentious crap I hear some designers come out with, I’d run a mile.
You only need to give them the “macro” process, don’t go in to detail about what happens within that. As Cross points out (I think it was him) most people think design is a linear activity, that if you give ten days for a project then it will be half-done at day five, 70% done at day seven and so on. In actual fact, most design occurs in a sort of logarithmic fashion – little apparent progress for most of the project and then BAM! it all comes together at the last minute.

Of course, whether that’s because this is how the creative process works, or because designers are just shysters who piss about for 90% of the time and only work when the deadline’s looming is anyone’s guess… (I jest).

(Or do I?)

The threat of ‘ignorant’ designers

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

“Ignorant designers have been singled out as one of the biggest obstacles facing design last week by one of the leading commentators on design and innovation in the US, Bruce Nussbaum.

In a keynote speech given at the Royal College of Art’s annual Innovation Night on Tuesday last week, the assistant managing editor of Business Week concluded by saying, ‘The two biggest barriers to innovation are ignorant chief executives and ignorant designers’.
Nussbaum suggested that undergraduate designers need to expose themselves to the tangible, everyday challenges facing the outside world, rather than rely solely on abstract, college-based learning.

He went on to say that design, innovation and technology are merging at such speed that it is pointless to try to classify disciplines.

‘You may as well call [the phenomenon] a banana,’ Nussbaum says.

Speaking to an audience comprising design practitioners, academics, students and the media, Nussbaum reiterated some of the prominent issues affecting design and innovation, as well as social trends that influence global business, including sustainability and social networking.

The US business community, he says, still associates design with cosmetic change, rather than practical problem-solving, technology and innovation.

‘This is something that needs to change. Design is ‘the’ way of reaching the consumer populace,’ he says.

(Via Design Week.)

The irony is, I think most design ‘academics’ have been pushing to diversify courses beyond the simple studio aesthetic approach for years, but ‘industry’ pushes us back to it. So long as cultural studies and ‘theory’ are separated out and given a 20% weighting against ‘practical’ work, we’re never going to produce the sort of designers we need. So long as students only get an hour and a half a week of teaching about the issues surrounding design, but no opportunity to develop their understanding in the studio, we will continue to produce ‘ignorant’ designers.

A little aside: last year I was invited to give a talk to students at a well-known university that did very well at last week’s D&AD Awards. In it I said designers need to be polymaths, and that design students need to stop reading Creative Review (designers’ porn) and start reading a decent newspaper. I posed a question – this was November last year, just before the US midterms:

“The art director at The Guardian calls you up and says he needs a graphic to accompany a story on the US midterms. Do you a) say ‘the what?’, b) say ‘OK’ then go look it up on Wikipedia or c) say ‘No problem, I know exactly what’s going on’.”

Half the students put their hands up to option a. The other half put their hands up to option b. Only one student put his hand up to option c, but when challenged actually didn’t know what the midterms were.

Given that these were graphic design students at one of the leading graphic design schools in the world (according to its reputation), never mind the UK, it was a little embarrassing.

This isn’t ‘abstract knowledge’ – it’s bread and butter to graphic designers. And it isn’t even knowledge that has to be taught – I’m not advocating weekly lectures on the world’s news. I simply think design students should read newspapers, watch the news, think about the world and how design operates in it beyond the shallow way it’s represented in most of the design press.

It’s a state of mind – the idea that being interested in the world is ‘a good thing’ should be a core value of any degree level course. It should permeate every aspect of it. And I don’t think it does in many design courses. We don’t reward students who know stuff, we reward those who can do stuff. If anyone says that’s okay then I’ve got a folder full of Photoshop Actions that are all due degrees.

Reading some of the early documents from Creative and Cultural Skills, for example, it’s clear that there’s a suspicion of ‘academic’ learning in the industry that sees colleges as employee producers. Academics are seen as ‘out of touch’ and there’s a call for more practitioners to teach (more? The vast majority of teachers in design are practitioners!). But surely that just turns courses into critique-based masterclasses focused on art direction? When Nussbaum says “undergraduate designers need to expose themselves to the tangible, everyday challenges facing the outside world, rather than rely solely on abstract, college-based learning” does he mean more social studies, more ‘theory’, more cultural and political awareness, more ecology, and less skills-based learning?

I suspect he does and I agree with him. After all, there are plenty of step-by-step books and magazines available if you want to learn Photoshop. You don’t need a degree to be an artworker. (And you shouldn’t employ a graduate if all you need is an artworker. The role of industry in encouraging an unnecessary growth in design degrees is something they fail to acknowledge.)

We need to be clearer about what we mean when we call design education ‘degree level’ and not be ashamed to ramp up the ‘academic’ content of courses. ‘Academic’ does not equal ‘abstract’.

But Nussbaum needs to know that he isn’t the first to say these things and that some of us are trying. I wish someone would give a speech praising some design education rather than lumping it all together and calling it crap. It really pisses me off to be labelled like that.

Reading his comments, and those in C&CS publications among others, it’s obvious that the problematic term is ‘academics’ which seems to take in everyone from technicians to researchers. This is not one homogenous group but a collection of tribes, each with their own territory and traditions (just like the design industry, in fact!) Debates like this need to be clearer in their terminology because one group will read the criticism of ‘abstract, college-based learning’ as a call for less theory and more ‘real-world experience’ (i.e. an industry, skills-based focus), while another (including me) will read it as a call for less of an industry focus and more of an industry changing focus.

It’s a subtle difference when you write it down – a major difference philosphically.

Memories as jewellery

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007


We had our degree show a few weeks ago – my first up here. I always find degree shows a mixed affair for various reasons: you can never get to see everything, they’re sad (especially if you know the students well), they’re happy, they’re packed, they look depressing when the crowds go, and finally they tend to reduce students’ learning to ‘look at me’ – seeing all that work with no context is problematic. I’ve been to some shows where the work looks great, but you wonder what the student learnt in the process. Similarly I’ve seen some shows that on the surface look a bit rough but you know the students have been too busy learning to polish the work. I think that’s fine, but I know others think the show is everything.
As we come up to New Blood (D&AD’s student show), New Designers and Free Range, where hundreds of design students will show off their work in London, I think anyone visiting with the idea of recruiting needs to make sure they look beyond the work on the wall – it’s the ideas that count and the thinking behind them.

Since moving up to Scotland I’ve had to learn an awful lot about fields of design outside my own experience. Teaching jewellery and textiles students isn’t so different from, say, graphic design students, and the concepts I cover are equally – if not more – applicable to them. But the examples I show to make points tend to come from graphics and advertising (often because those fields are the most ‘obvious’ examples we encounter day to day). This causes problems though as some students will reject ideas if they think it only applies to graphics.

Wandering around the jewellery show the other week I was struck by a few students’ work in particular, and by how they (maybe without knowing it) knocked on the head the idea that theory and practice have nothing to do with one another, or that teaching design students stuff from other disciplines isn’t worthwhile (something Paul Rand rather bizarrely claimed in ‘Design, Form, Chaos’).
One student had been inspired by images of bacteria and germs, another had created shapes that were straight out of omnidimensional mathematics, while another, Kate Pickering, had examined the idea of memory to create a range of pieces.
The two images above show some of these. The vials contain (I’m told) her blood, sweat and tears (don’t ask! The ‘blood’ one was missing when I saw the exhibit but a red stain on the floor suggested what had happened to it…).

The idea behind the second piece, ‘Heart to Heart’, escapes me for the moment (my own memory being a bit temperamental at the moment) but I do remember being intrigued by it. In a way, it’s the fact that I can’t quite remember the meaning, but I can remember the feeling, that I like.

There were some other pieces, not shown, that took me back a bit. Kate had some items that looked like vials combined with a censer, one of those incense holders they swing in church, and they contained items linked to people (lovers, friends etc). They reminded me of the relicry in my old school, a convent in York, that contained items like the bloodstained robes of martyred saints and, most chillingly, the actual hand of St Margaret Clitherow (below) who was executed in a particularly nasty way on the banks of the River Ouse in York.

Kate had, perhaps unconsciously, produced modern pieces that have a long tradition and that mix memory, emotion and (to me) a little bit of a chill factor.

I’m going to show these images to new students next year because they are great examples of how ‘contextual studies’, far from being irrelevant to design practice, can be a source of ideas and depth. If Kate decides to take this idea further there is a wealth of literature from fiction to cutting edge research that could inform her ideas.

Kate is showing at New Designers in London from 5-8 July, along with her classmates and others from here and around the UK. Worth a visit if you’re nearby. (Week 2, 12-15 July, includes graphics, illustration, product design and more.)
Kate’s email address: kate-pickering at hotmail dot co dot uk