What’s in a name?

by Alex Cameron

Having been somewhat press-ganged into design and ‘self-taught’, I rapidly developed imposter syndrome. It took years before I could say with any confidence, ‘I am a graphic designer’, without choking on my words.

To compensate, I became an avid reader of all things related to graphic and typographic design. I devoured the canon like Eric Spiekermann’s “Stop Stealing Sheep, & find out how type works”, Geoffry Dowding’s “Finer Points in the Spacing & Arrangement of Type”, Robert Bringhurst’s “The Elements of Typographic Style” and Jan Tschichold’s “Asymmetric Typography”. These became my bibles. I pored over Josef Müller-Brockmann‘s “Grid Systems in Graphic Design”, Richard Hollis’s “Graphic Design: A Concise History”, Paul Rand’s “A Designer’s Art” and Frank Whitford’s “The Bauhaus: Masters and Students by Themselves”, to name a few. Those and many more besides became a defence against my own ignorance and my lack of a formal design education – I am still working on it.

But, by the time I felt I had sufficiently learned my craft, all the things I loved about design started to recede into the background. What I found interesting and exciting about graphic design at conferences, in magazines and books was being increasingly relegated to the fringe, and at quite a speed. Throughout the nineties, noughties and to date, talk was less about the craft of graphic design – colour, typography, photography, illustration, balance, wit, aesthetics, form, function and format. We stopped talking about design history too. The canon and debates that once divided “designer as transmitter vs designer as author” or “content is king vs layers of meaning” now seemed to assume that the scores had been settled. Nowadays, all there is to talk about are concerns external to the discipline. I now worry when graphic designers tend to refer to themselves as artists, or worse still, advocates.

From the late nineteenth century and through the best part of the twentieth, graphic design was refining its scope, role and function in culture and society. How we saw ourselves and what we were called were indicative of a new discipline coming to terms with its place in the world. The numerous synonyms that followed were attempts to expand and enhance the definition of graphic design, but importantly it also spoke of social, cultural and technological disruptions and designers’ attempts to respond to it from a design essentialist perspective. While there was certainly much disagreement and contestation about the veracity of design approaches, they were by and large from a design perspective.

The poster artist was born of The Belle Epoch, circa 1871. That period saw the consolidation of pictorial design – graphic design by another name – it was as colourful as it was an explosively creative intervention by artists that took on and transformed the mantle of the “jobbing” printer and began the transformation of print into a new visual language. This colourful and dynamic feast, the fusion of typography and image echoed the dramatic expansion and excitement of the urban public throughout Europe. Poster art reflected the social transformation of cities like Paris from cramped arrondissements into the sprawling and wide boulevards we know today. The modernisation of Paris by Georges-Eugène Haussmann demanded a new way of communicating with the growing urban public. A new set of social relations in sprawling urban centres created the conditions for a new visual language.

By the 1920s the commercial artist and the graphic designer announced their arrival, eclipsing the artist as society moved in ever-increasing numbers into the cities and were concentrated in new burgeoning industries. William A. Dwiggins, who coined the term “graphic design” in 1922, could only do so – with effect – because pictorial design had become mainstream in a society that was rapidly expanding in urban structure, industry and its interconnectedness, nationally and internationally.

Throughout the twentieth century each social, cultural or technological disruption was marked by a response from the field, the information designer (coined by Richard Saul Wurman in 1976) was responding to the increased use of data-driven thinking, the Web designer (the new digital frontier of the world wide web) responded with a design intervention. And so too the communications designer, visual designer, multi-media designer and the motion designer – all were reactions to social, technological and cultural fissures.

What designers do, and how they describe themselves, is important. Throughout the relatively short history of our discipline how we refer to ourselves speaks volumes, for the design community, clients, and even the public. How we understand our function and role and how we transmit it is also indicative of the state of the culture of design.

By the 1990s, the graphic designer and the craft of design was being written out of the script. There is now a marked contrast in how graphic designers refer to their role and function compared to the past.

We hear more today from the ethical designer, citizen designer, social designer, climate designer, transition designer and life designer. None of which tells us anything about the practice of design and everything about their political persuasion and personal desire to be seen to be “on the right side of history”. It begs the question, why would the public defer to graphic designers about politics? It is not exactly part of their skill-set!

The response by elitist designers to the changing climate (or “climate emergency”) is not marked by a search for a new visual language but rather it signifies a departure from graphic design as a mediating, social and cultural activity in favour of graphic design as political activism and a tool of social and moral engineering. Graphic design’s professional bodies, the academy, books, magazines, conferences and commentary are all infused with the belief that the primary role of the designer is to be a Social Justice activist [1,2]. Of course, it is not all a one-way street. There are still those ploughing the furrow of design essentialism but it is demonstrable that graphic design has been captured, at least at an elite level, by the ideology of social justice (or similar ESG agendas). London College of Communication’s Chief Social Purpose Officer, Polly Mackenzie, announced in a rather presidential-style address late last year, that the university was part of the “social purpose movement” and that social purpose will be embedded in all its teaching. It is just the latest illustration of the widespread impact of this ideology on graphic design and design more broadly [3, 4, 5, 6].

It is deeply troubling that the leadership of such an internationally-renowned educational institution shows no embarrassment in instrumentalising education to further their ideologically-motivated, political project. The very idea that there may be a problem with corrupting and dismantling a centuries-old liberal idea of the role of the university is an anathema to the new elites.

This is important because it tells us that graphic design is being uncoupled from its historic role and function – to communicate the interests of others, individual clients, corporations and civic institutions to the public. It is a non-partisan role, a creative intervention. Now the elites want it to be something that it is not equipped to do – even if it were desirable – change what and how people think and how they should act.

For a vital and dynamic discipline like graphic design to thrive, excite and engage, we need to understand the craft, who we are and what we do. Then we can better serve our industry, our clients and the public. The problem is we have taken such a disastrous turn away from the craft towards the delusion of graphic design activism.



[1] –https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/our-mission/

[2] –https://designobserver.com/feature/its-time-to-find-your-people/40673

[3] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCYolTF5KxA

[4] – https://medium.com/@press.office/why-social-purpose-and-why-now-4f350cd1d8ce

[5] – https://nickasbury.substack.com/p/purpose-wins-who-loses

[6] – https://metropolismag.com/climatetoolkit/




Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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