Towards a new graphic design education

Graphic design education in Curtin has to change.

This is the first hypothesis we encounter as we ask ourselves what Curtin graphic design (GD) and creative advertising should look like in the future.

Since art schools first explored the education and training of students to become graphic designers they have done so in an environment of technological, social and cultural change. Out of necessity, design educators have had to respond to the emergence of new technologies, economic imperatives and the needs of learners to revisit, rewrite and (sometimes) re-hash design curricula.

Setting aside the inevitable organisational constraints of timetabling, human resources and finance, the discipline of graphic design requires educators and researchers to look at the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ on a constant basis. In essence, graphic design education is (or should be) in a persistent state of flux – challenging what we do now to ask what might we offer in the future. Whilst sceptics might view this as being the undesired consequence of market forces in higher education, it might be better to look at this as an inevitability of human progress and evolution. The heterogenous forces of, for example, new technology, migration, religion, national identity, environment and science shape in some way the practice of graphic design and of graphic design education.

Accepting that nothing outside the world of higher education is static and that we should be prepared for a whole range of utopian and dystopian futures, how can we ensure that the next generation of designers are as prepared as we have been? [1] The following are the ‘must-have’s’  to the new graphic design programme which are to be tested:

Hypothesis #1:  A successful graphic design course needs to create a sense of identity to which it’s community of learners can belong.

It’s one of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: love/belonging. Along with the physiologicalsafety, esteem and self-actualization human needs, belonging is right there in the middle. We all need to feel that we belong to a community, a family or a friendship network and an education programme is no different. Only once students feel they belong to a community with a coherent identity can they even begin to develop self-esteem and actualize their potential futures. To create that sense of belonging, it means creating a ‘home’ for them to identify as their studio, using every opportunity to reinforce the name of the community they inhabit and for educators to be available and visible in the spaces the students inhabit. Food and shelter are a couple of essential desirables, but comfort and community are learning imperatives.

Hypothesis # 2:  To be active agents in society, graphic design students should be engaged in meaningful problem-solving.

By meaningful here I mean that the ultimate goal of all assignments in GD education should be located in the discipline of designing for the social, cultural or economic good. Economic good here may seem at odds with concerns of the social or cultural but it would be naîve to ignore that graphic design has a professional role to play in the creation of commodities. The role of the graphic designer is to meet problems head on; to solve problems through user-centred approaches. That is, even in instances where the problem presented to a graphic designer is defined by a client or brief, it is the designer’s task to challenge that client or brief to ask fundamental questions about aspects such as necessity, relevance, responsibility, sustainability, and  morals. Where designers are solving self-defined problems – for example where a graphic designer might identify a political or environmental issue – it is the responsibility of the graphic designer to act responsibly through evidence-based presentation of information, unswayed by predujice and in the interest of clarity and transparency. Graphic designers working in the public realm (e.g in national, regional or local government) should be cognisant both of the importance of reporting facts and the dangers of misrepresentation or persuasion.

Hypothesis # 3: You can only call yourself a graphic designer when you have mastered the grammar of visual language

Becoming a graphic designer involves more than the simple acquisition of technical skills and knowledges. The practice of graphic design requires a competency in the language of graphic design. Graphic design uses both written and visual forms of communication and mastering the grammar of these forms of communication requires not only an understanding of design principles, processes and technologies but visual literacy; a comprehension of semiotics, semantics, rhetoric and perception (for example). Visual literacy should not be confused with aesthetic elitism, for questions of aesthetics and style are secondary to message and meaning.[2]

Hypothesis #4: What we call graphic design today is never what graphic design is tomorrow

Historically, the emergence and development of graphic design as a profession has come about through the shifting sands of technological progress, cultural movements, political junctures, societal pressures and economic ruptures. The development of moveable type and the introduction of desktop publishing are, arguably, the most significant technological developments that have shaped the profession we now call graphic design. As a 20th Century construct, graphic design – the profession – has fragmented into sub-disciplines, joined forces with other disciplines or even become threatened by others. The roles that newly-graduated graphic design students take – the job titles they adopt and the tasks they undertake will be very different in 5 or 10 or 20 years time. Who would have expected “UX designer” or “SEO champion” to emerge on a job advertisement 20 years ago? We can guess what roles the next generation of designers/creatives are likely to have (indeed we might even help in defining and naming them), but it will be industry, society, cultures, politics and economists [3] who will tell us what they need.

Hypothesis #5: To survive, designers will need to be entrepreneurs

Back in 2014 at the International Enterprise Educators Conference in Newcastle, David Price OBE claimed that by 2020 fifty percent of young people (university students, school leavers, NEETs) would be working in self-employment. Whether his forecast has genuine merit or not, it is undeniable that graduates from subjects in the creative arts live out portfolio careers – often working for clients directly as self-employed creatives whilst supplementing their income in less-desirable occupations. As Price points out, it is cheaper to employ a web designer or coder in India or China to build projects on behalf of global corporations rather than use increasingly expensive white-collar labour from Europe, the US or Australia. This leads to the reduction in the earnings potential of graduates from the so-called ‘west’.

In tandem with this global trend towards the atomisation of the workplace is the challenge that emergent design agencies have in securing necessary billings to properly scale up as businesses or – quite often – to survive. There is a crisis in the sector brought about by this advanced form of globalisation, made easier by the Internet and our inability to find new business models for what can only be seen as a broken agency model.

In response to the broken economics of ‘design consultancy’, studio owners and freelance designers are looking to start up businesses of their own. Kern & Burn produced a book – Conversations with Design Entrepreneurs  which features many of these new entrepreneurs finding alternative ways of making an income.  I argue that the next generation of graphic designers at Curtin will need to be properly equipped to be able to create value for themselves in the market place. They simply will not survive unless they can show how they can contribute to the global market of goods and services, either through their own invention or by helping others. These goods and services need not be exploitative – indeed they might even be able to create products and services that promote the social good – but they will need to be disruptive, value-laden and ultimately ‘sellable’.

Hypothesis #6: We need a new age of rationality and pragmatism

To enable new generations of designers to contribute wholeheartedly to society, it may be necessary to take a revisionist turn towards rationality and pragmatism – a new pragmatism if you will. Audiences strive for authenticity and truth, which is much harder to find in a social media-dominated landscape where style can triumph over substance and younger audiences trivialise predujice, violence and crime. A new pragmatism in graphic design confronts the excesses of the late 20th century with a grounded approach to problem-solving and solution-finding to tackle the real problems facing us: extreme nationalism, anti-intellectualism, anti-sectarianism, global warming, migration, poverty/ (the search for economic prosperity for all), challenges to human rights and global health issues.

Design professionals have a responsibility to make decisions not based on the latest trends on Instagram or Behance but on rational argument, communication and persuasion. This is not a suggestion to throw out playfulness altogether – and it certainly isn’t a threat to ‘being creative’. Simply, every design decision should be focussed on the end-user experience, legibility, clarity and sense-making. Thinking more widely, this means looking at all parts of the value-creation chain (or supply chain) and designing with consequence in mind. Does using a particular printing process have an environmental impact that cancels out the economic benefit of the development of a new supermarket product? More importantly, are the projects you are engaging in as a designer helping the world – people – navigate through an abundance of textual and visual information that is often misleading or just plain wrong?

New pragmatism in graphic design education sees a refocus on information, interface and editorial design (for example) and a re-visit to rational, constructivist approaches to design; a design-as-science if you will.

Hypothesis #7: Design educators must tackle the problem of learning in social media age head-on

The coming of the Internet age has created a problem of legitimacy  and credibility in, for example, news and opinion; education and instruction. To challenge this acquiescence to popular media and culture, it is important that design educators don’t simply provide “the way things were” and a hark back to studio-based education in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s as a romantic solution to this problem. Instead, we must confront the dumming down of the education experience and concomitant questions about the credibility of the design tutor with an enthusiastic approach to social media. As the poster of the early 20th century helped shaped whole communities and nations perceptions of the world, so too do tools like Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. Being disengaged with these questionable media platforms will only alienate us from the audiences we need to reach. We should use them – and other digital platforms – to our advantage and provide for a new unexpected. That is, using social media in ways that have to-date not been anticipated; using designed forms that audiences are yet to encounter.

The seven hypothesis above are the sketch of ideas that are to be tested, expanded upon and – ultimately – proven or dismissed. There’ll be other ideas that emerge over the coming year which likewise need to be debated, disputed or adopted. The place to discuss these ideas and any of those of your own is here on newGD. Play out your discussion not just in the coffee bar and corridor, but through discourse; through analysis, discussion and writing.

Without sounding too rhetorical about this, our geographic remoteness from many parts of the world affords us a unique view on the world. Unshackled by dogmatism, the pioneering spirit of a Western Australian research and education in graphic design can make it’s impression on the world. Such an impression we can only make through rigourous, intelligent and creative thought. Between us, let us build a framework for a New Graphic Design at Curtin.

[1] We have been prepared – how else would we get here?
[2] The Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Ulm (1953-1968) included the study of semantics (meaning of signs and symbols); syntactics (how signs and symbols are connected and ordered into a structural whole; and pragmatics (study of the relation of signs and symbols related to use/users).
[3] Take a look at any policy think-tank or national government department and you’ll find economists influencing the decisions of our representatives . Economics graduates are the smart ones really shaping our future

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