I wrote the following article last year sometime, and then decided not to publish it. Partly because I read something on the topic that enraged me and I thought maybe my article could use a little counter-rage. But I never got around to it, and the essay has been sitting in drafts for months. I decided to dust it off and post it now because of a tedious debate that is going on in my own design community, in Vancouver. When I was asked to comment, I thought “Well, actually, I do have something to say on this.” And here it is.
I have a friend—a designer—who often says that his clients ask him not to call himself a “graphic designer,” because it makes them think he draws things. He feels that the term “graphic design” actually does him a disservice in the eyes of his clients. This of course is part of an ongoing debate in the world of design as organizations and schools scrap the word “graphic” in favour of “communication” or something else. But as those former graphic designers struggle to elbow their way into the corporate zeitgeist, I begin to wonder what they are leaving behind and why.
Last year, 20 Fellows of the GDC (Society of Graphic Designers of Canada) were asked to create posters celebrating the GDC’s 50th anniversary. Being a Fellow usually means you’ve had a lot of experience in design, so many of the designers were older, and some of the posters depicted design in what we might now consider to be an outdated manner. Yes, there were some pencil crayons and some pencil shavings. Some designers I know were very distressed by these images, feeling that they “put us back 30 years.” Back, that is, to a time when designers were artists. Watch it, dirty word warning.
It is, of course, common to depict a profession by the tools of the trade, and if you look at older issues of design magazines, graphic design is regularly represented with markers, pencils, t-squares and Exacto knives. But while most of us have our amusing Exacto knife stories, for the vast majority of designers the tool is the computer, and not much else. As an icon, the computer is useless: in its ubiquity it depicts nothing … except the fact that we now have the same tools as everyone else, and they, us.
For any designer who has ever been called “artsy-fartsy” you know the derision implied in the term. Artsy-fartsy people are those who draw and doodle. Drawing is fun, doodling is idleness, and neither are considered serious activities. The implication is that this person is dreamy, unreliable and possibly unclean.
A while back I was reading something by Natalie Angier, in which she lamented the point at which the science-minded child, happily absorbed in the study of dinosaurs and chemistry, becomes a social outcast as the Science Geek. I could relate. In high school my artistic skills earned me a certain respect from the unlikeliest of foes (read: the football team), and may even have saved me from the ridicule reserved for most of the other loners and weirdos. Clearly, in this I was not alone, as Michael Bierut recently recounted similar memories. But once in the “real world” this drawing thing was seen as something that was admirable as a hobby, but highly suspicious in business circumstances. Perhaps it’s just jealousy, but the business community makes it very clear that artists do not belong there.
The response of most designers is to downplay the active, creative part of their work in favour of the strategic, results-oriented, business-minded part. A scan through most design websites will reveal an emphasis on “forming partnerships,” “sound business objectives,” “industry leaders,” “distilling information,” “marketing communications,” “story telling,” and a great deal more that hints at “creativity” contained in a controlled and mindful environment (i.e. the back room, out of sight). But Graphic Design’s embarrassment of its artistic roots threatens to do away with the very thing that makes it unique and valuable. In this sense, the computer becomes the perfect icon for design today, as Design begins to look a lot like what everyone else does in the vast market of business consultancy. As designers increasingly promote themselves primarily as strategists, consultants and business-people first, they do so often by sacrificing the one thing they have that separates them from their clients: the ability to think and express ideas visually. And at some point, you have to wonder: if you look like them, and act like them, and talk like them, and think like them, and use the same tools as they do … well, what the hell would they need you for?
And increasingly, in that atmosphere, they don’t … or at least, they think they don’t.
As many designers freak out by the ubiquity of our tools (software) in the business working place, and the plethora of barely trained individuals crowding the edges of our field, they mass together in an attempt to come up with strategies to re-brand and market our industry under a new banner. And so they fall into the classic mistake of believing that if we rename, or re-brand ourselves, the market will understand us better. And further, that the more generic or bland we are, the better chance we have of achieving acceptance. But when you hold up the mirror and say, “Look, I’m just like you!” don’t be surprised when the flicker of recognition fades to disinterest.
Don’t get me wrong. I would never argue that strategy is not an important part of design—it is certainly one of the most important—or that collaboration is not desirable, or that results are not necessary. These are all things that are integral parts of the design process and which separate designers from fine artists. But when I read about the lives of designers who practiced 20 to 40 years ago, I think about their approach and the environment that they necessarily brought their clients into: an environment totally foreign to the business person, full of pencil crayons and markers and a kind of mysterious magic of the other. Clients must have been very aware that they were buying something that they themselves did not possess and would never possess. It must have been a little frightening and a little thrilling for them.
Ultimately, this is not about whether you draw, or what tools you use, but about how you think and express, and how willing you are to be forthcoming about the validity of that process—and the outcome—without trying to disguise it or hide it under layers of business rhetoric. The pencil crayons and the felt pens may be outdated as tools, but I would like to think that they are still relevant as metaphors. And I wish that designers would take back the power of the words “graphic” and “arts”, because as career definitions continue to blur, they might find it’s the most valuable asset they have.