On Connecting the Dots
As Paul Rand, a driving force of design history, once said “The expression graphic design is rich in meaning but difficult to pin down”. Graphic designers fifty years ago complained about this profession only being partially recognized and the ambiguity remains today. You can tell two different people you are a graphic designer and be sure the mental image and associations they make in their heads are completely different. “Oh, so you make logos?” is a question you can be sure a graphic designer will want to roll his eyes at. Yes, we design book covers, logos, packaging, labels, tags, brochures, identities and websites. What is hard to communicate isn’t the extent of what we can make but the critical thinking that is required to produce a good design and the difference it makes to a product and to the user’s experience.
This is when the difficulty to pin down comes in, good design is taken for granted until it is compared to a design that is not effective. Earlier this fall, for my environmental design class, I visited multiple art museums in Boston and paid close attention to the museum’s wayfinding. Wayfinding Design refers to the tools provided to navigate a space with ease, these include signage, maps and more. I picked up collateral from both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard and it’s not until I compared the MFA’s brochure to the Fogg’s that I realized how much it could be improved! It was astonishing, if I hadn’t had an example of an excellent design to place beside it I would have accepted it as your average museum brochure. And I’m not basing this comparison solely on their beauty, but on their functional purpose, on the ways in which the content was shaped.
To create a successful brochure for the Fogg, the designer wasn’t thinking of making it look good, or elegant, or smart. The designer was thinking of what information the visitors needed to facilitate their journey through the museum. The designer also acknowledged the range of visitors: the very young, the very old, the foreign, the disabled… The designer had to familiarize him/herself with the galleries and spaces, to translate this information visually, in a way that would avoid confusion and visitors getting lost. This is all the work that is difficult to communicate when we tell the woman sitting next to us on the bus that we study graphic design, and she walks off thinking we make nice pictures. I don’t mean to sound cynical when I stress the disparity between what people think graphic designers do and what we really aim to do. Author and designer, Jessica Helfand, says “ Where does this come from – the notion that thinking and making are a separate act? That graphic design must be inherently anti-intellectual because it is a creative enterprise?”