Monday, 19 September 2011

Moving Across Boundaries REDUX - Dwiggins, Frascara and Cement (2nd edition)

This post is a draft of an introduction for a new academic paper aimed at a graphic design journal. It continues on from the previous post, and represents writing-in-progress. Feel free to comment but questions on how or what next will be answered in future posts as I construct my paper.

Before I begin this (see previous post) I want to establish a context to the problem and solution that I propose Visual Communication as a discipline can address. To do this I first wish to unpack what I mean as ‘aesthetics of surface’ and to establish what I mean by the ‘aesthetics of use’. This will be crucial for the main thrust of this paper’s thesis.

Firstly I want to define my use of Visual Communication as the disciplinary name. The term ‘Graphic Design’ was coined in 1922 by American typographer and printer William A. Dwiggins “to confer a loftier professional standing” (Heller, 2006, p10). In doing so graphic designers were raised from artisan to professional designer, predominantly servicing the commercial world. This new term also 'cemented’ graphic designers into a fixed narrow view of their socio-cultural contribution to contemporary visual culture, that was unfairly denigrated by others as "decorationists/dictators of style" (Laurel, 2003). Design critic Rick Poynor reminds us that the Modernist progenitors of the discipline such as Rodchenko, Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy had naturally “moved freely across the boundaries” in the twenties and thirties “that later, more professionally-minded generations attempted to cement in place” (Poynor, 2004).

In 1999 Poynor made a statement that if, at the close of the twentieth century, the term Graphic Design had become too rigid it was “partly because it sounds like a largely technical procedure, but particularly because it fails to suggest the expanded possibilities of contemporary visual culture” (Poynor, 1999, p28). I argue that the term of graphic designer or graphic design is too narrow to describe the actual discipline that produces graphic forms of communication through the manipulation of the relationship between text | image. The outcomes of the design discipline have been more than graphic design, as it also encompasses illustration and now design for motion and interaction.

Since the end of the twentieth century the discipline has been undergoing true re-evaluation of it’s outcomes and boundaries. Therefore I follow Jorge Frascara’s use of the term Visual Communication as the purer definition of the creative design discipline, as it places the emphasis upon the method [design], the objective [communication] and the medium [visual], rather than just the creation of graphic forms [outcomes] (Frascara, 2004, p4). Frascara argues that the discipline of Visual Communication was deeper and richer than just the perceived design of the ‘artifice’, and it’s designers were more than mere creative facilitators of the ‘aesthetics of surface’ but facilitators of behavioural change. He suggests that the heart of Visual Communication is not the design of visual elements as artifice or surface, but the design of a “communicational situation” within which the design outcome impacts on the knowledge, attitudes and behaviour of its receiving audience.

The composition of aesthetic elements that rightly absorbs the attention of graphic designers is merely surface, tools and processes. It belies the actual true disciplinary strength of designing a communicational event through graphic outcomes that affect the “knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour of people” (ibid., p13) over time and space. Such a relational configuration of image and text affecting behaviour is reliant on a direct relationship with the person interpreting the graphic outcome. This relationship is situated within the internal and external life of the graphic outcome - within “itself, the medium, the place and the time” (Bergstrom, 2008, p82). This is where my argument for Visual Communication contributing more than what is usually expected beyond mere ‘aesthetics of surface’ through a communicational situation into a communicational event within the ‘aesthetics of use’. A way of achieving this, I will argue rests in a phenomenological methodology.


BERGSTRÖM, B (2008) Essentials of Visual Communication. London: Laurence King Pub.

BRUINSMA, M. and VAN DER MEULEN, S. (2003) Deep Sites: Intelligent Innovation in Contemporary Web Design. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

BURGOYNE, P. (2002) GB: Graphic Britain. London: Laurence King Publishing.

FRASCARA, J. (2004) Communication Design: Principles, Methods and Practice. New York: Allworth Press.

HELLER, S. (2006) Better Skills Through Better Research. In: A. BENNETT, ed. Design Studies: Theory and Research in Graphic Design - A Reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, p10-13

LAUREL, B. ed (2003) Design Research: Methods and Perspectives. London: MIT Press.

MACDONALD, N. (2004) British Web Design: A Brief History. In: R. POYNOR, ed. Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., pp200-215.

POYNOR, R. (1999) Made in Britain: The Ambiguous Image. In N. BARLEY et al. Lost and Found: Critical Voices in New British Design. London: Birkhauser Verlag AG/The British Council. Pp 28-31

POYNOR, R. (2004) Spirit of Independence. In: R. POYNOR, ed. Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., pp.12-47

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