Return to Form
My graphic design education, in the late 2000s, was mostly an aesthetic education. That is to say: when we talked about graphic design, we were talking about how things looked. This was before design thinking took off. User-centered design barely registered (there was no App Store when I started school). To learn graphic design was to learn typography, color, hierarchy. Our classes were spent making magazine spread layouts, posters, logos, and brand systems. Every now and then we made a website.
Critiquing and talking about this work was easy. We were taught about the International Typographic Style and the Swiss modernists. We were taught that less was more and that grids were your friends. It’s generally best to use 2 typefaces in a design, but you must never mix two serifs. We were taught, in essence, a series of visual rules and we were evaluated on how much we followed them and how far we diverted from them. But these rules were never put into a context. We didn’t learn about the specific cultures that produced them and what they were responding to. We didn’t connect technological innovation with cultural change. I have no memories of talking about audience, user, context, or goals. Terms like semiotics, signs, signifiers, metaphor, ideology, were absent1.
After I graduated, I started seeing graphic design that didn’t seem to follow these rules but still, somehow, worked. I saw graphic design that was conceptual, that was personal, that was exploratory. I saw work where the designer had embedded her own ideas into the piece, subverting what I was taught good design could be. I saw graphic design that was self-reflexive and contextually critica. I saw graphic design that didn’t fit neatly into the modernist/postmodernist; minimal/experimental axises I was taught2. I started to wonder if graphic design wasn’t actually about what it looked like but what it was saying. Maybe it was less about the product and more about the process? Maybe aesthetics were actually the least important part of graphic design?
I spent the next decade trying to rewrite my design education: instead of form, instead of aesthetics, instead of what things looked like, I was interested in ideas, in process, in authorship. I was interested in why things looked the way they did, why the designer made the decisions she did, what larger narrative was she telling, how she revealed her authorship (another word absent from my education). I was interested in criticism. I read philosophy. I read visual theory. I read art and design history.
I came to believe there was no good and bad design, at least visually. A piece of design could look like whatever it wanted, as long as there was a reason for it. The rules weren’t meant to be broken because the rules weren’t really rules! I spent my career trying to subvert expectations of what good design looked like, often to the frustration of my colleagues who were uninterested in my experiments and concepts. They just needed an icon drawn.
When I started teaching, this is where I focused. I wanted to expand what graphic design could be and how we talked about it. I wasn’t going to teach the rules of typography or why a 12-column grid is the best grid because I wasn’t sure I believed them. I thought that to teach future design leaders, you don’t teach them how to follow rules but how to think, to cultivate ideas and a point of view. My students read a lot. We talked a lot. We tried to find ways to break the rules and ignored boundaries of quote-unquote graphic design. For the last six years or so, then, I’ve taught graphic design primarily as a set of ideas, not a set of rules. A conceptual practice not a visual one.
But something strange has happened over the last year or so: I’m finding myself wanting to talk about form again. I want to talk about type choices and hierarchy and all the things I told myself no longer mattered. I find myself pushing my students to experiment visually again to think seriously about the shape of their work. I find myself talking about grids again and trying to see what my students can do with them. I’m asking students about visual decisions more directly than I had before. Terms like orphans and widows and tracking have creeped back into my vocabulary.
My move away from form follows a larger trend in graphic design discourse away from purely formal critiques of work (unless we’re talking about corporate redesigns!) towards cultural criticism about how the work lives in the world, who gets to experience it, and why it matters. These are all positive changes and I welcome the expanded discourse. I take pride in being a small part of that discourse. But I look around at the work my students make (and the work they are looking at and the work that gets promoted in design media…) and it all looks the same. This is the paradox: a more conceptual understanding of design does not always lead to more interesting results. In class, we talk often about the visual sameness of everything. I’ve been pushing to think about what an app could look like, for example, without shades of blues and rounded rectangles and humanist sans-serifs. The ideas only matter if you can execute them in a formally inventive way. I leaned too far towards one side that I lost sight of the other.
The challenge now is how to talk about aesthetics, how to critique visuals, without reverting to those old rules. At the risk of pretension: this is the Hegelian dialectic: the thesis is aesthetic education, the antithesis is conceptual/theory education, and the synthesis is, obviously, both! Aesthetics, form, typography, color: all of those are important to a graphic design education and the key is to connect them. The question on my mind most days is how to get students (and myself) to critique the formal qualities of the work both as pieces of form but also as containers for ideas. (I think often of Elliott Earls’ notion that the ideas of the creator should be imbedded and found in the work itself.) I don’t think I’m saying anything new here; this is well-trodded ground. The insights are obvious. This, instead, is a record of my thinking, a marker in a shift in my own approach.
I got into design because I wanted to make things that looked cool. That was it: the form got me in the door. My students, often, are similar — they are seeing a visually-dominated world and want to contribute to it. Recentering aesthetics in graphic design, then, should and could be about pushing the possibilities of form while giving students permission to exercise their own authorship. As more and more of design education is spent on the first half of the design process: research, user experience, personas, content and concept development, how do we better connect that to unique, innovative, and exploratory aesthetic forms?3. I thought we moved beyond the surface. But the surface, I’m starting to think, is also the core.
I mean no disrespect to my professors or my curriculum: I have nothing but the best memories from those years. In many ways, I’ve often wondered if I peaked as a designer then. ↩
A lot of this work would now be considered The Global Style, the term coined by Mr. Keedy, but I was unfamiliar with that term at the time. ↩
I’ve come to think that one byproduct of Design Thinking (as a brand) and codified design processes generally is that when every project follows the same process, you’re always going to get similar results. Perhaps we can attribute to some of the sameness of visual culture to the sameness of design processes around the world. ↩