Willi Kunz
Forecast: cloudy

While changes in visual style, education, and practice evolved predictably in the past, some unexpected developments are affecting graphic design today. The profession many of us remember as bright and optimistic is now overwhelmingly introspective – permeated with anxiety, cynicism, and pseudo-intellectual debate.

Idealism and passion for creative work have been replaced by ego-driven striving for personal gain that inevitably leads to frustration. Compounding the problem for designers seeking personal and professional growth are production overcapacity, a crowded job market, and, most significantly, a shortage of meaningful work. These conditions have become such a part of life that we have to pause and reflect on what is going on right now.

Technology: hands off

Most designers are driven by creative ambition. Each will use his or her own talent differently, but ultimately every designer longs to create a unique, innovative visual product. Newcomers to the field, fresh from the academic studio experience, are often naïve about how a professional office functions. They assume their day will be about making designs, only to discover that much time is required for peripheral technical and administrative chores. They learn that instead of practicing their skills, the computer usurps them.

Today, tackling graphic design jobs is impossible without mastering a plethora of software products. Programs, most inelegantly designed to start with, require frequent upgrades, making it difficult for the designer to stay current. By the time the intricacies of a specific program becomes familiar, a new version replaces it. Mastering any program, in fact, mastering anything, is frustrating and time-consuming so this cycle of constant re-education diverts from more meaningful and satisfying work.

Electronic equipment has replaced the traditional tools of design expression: pencil, crayon, pen, and brush. Design has been “dematerialized”. The tactile qualities of materials such as trace- and colored- papers, boards and overlay film that often inspired ideas are no longer viable. For the designer who enjoys the sensuality of working with actual materials, the absence of touch, smell and even sound is disarming, as if part of the nervous system had been deactivated.

Devaluation: ready for landfill

Ideally, graphic communication used to be carefully planned and produced to achieve clear, realistic goals within a predictable amount of effort. The end product was respectable and used, then saved for a period of time. The means of design were limited to using type, photography, paper and printing to maximum effect. If everything went according to plan, the designer felt fulfilled and the client felt satisfied.

Today, many graphic designers struggle with overly ambitious, nebulous goals – often defined by committee – while at the same time finding their talents and products undervalued. For every decent piece of communication, a million horrendous pieces are produced. Digital design and printing, and easy access to inexpensive but excellent manufacturers overseas, have all contributed to reducing production costs. Graphic materials produced and distributed in such overwhelming quantities become a nuisance, and the critical consumer gets used to discarding ineffective communications instantly. The widespread attitude that design can be replaced quickly and cheaply has fostered negligence and waste.

Digital design furthers the problem by allowing instant variations, devaluing the carefully developed original and depriving the designer of a sense of authorship, recognition, and achievement. Witness how fast innovative designs are now bastardized and commercialized.

Isolation: so near yet so far

No designer can produce an effective solution without awareness of the assignment parameters and a familiarity with the client’s culture. Experiencing the client’s organization firsthand provides the designer with a sense of direction and empathy for all personalities involved. It also provides an opportunity to experience the world outside the studio.

Today, designers are tied to their computers for hours on end with little direct human interaction or contact. They produce work with a diminished sense of purpose and only scant understanding or sympathy for the client’s problems. Even though seemingly more “connected” to the world through the Internet, the designer is actually more personally isolated. Projects are sent back and forth electronically between the designer and the client with cryptic notes attached. Lacking physical presence, scale, and texture, designs seem disembodied, as if appearing from outer space untouched by the human hand, furthering a sense of disconnection.

Isolation, of course, doesn’t just affect graphic designers. We live in a world where personal isolation is becoming more the rule than the exception. Email conversations with colleagues half around the world seem no different than those with people nearby. We walk down the street oblivious to the immediate environment, isolated from surroundings by cell phone conversations or music wired into headsets. Everything seems overscaled – the cities we live in, the buildings and offices where we work in, the spaces for shopping and playing – reducing our sense of identity and reinforcing isolation.

Education: dumbing up

A classical design education used to integrate imagination, skills, knowledge, understanding and experience. Years of basic studies, search for personal interpretation, expansion of professional horizons through exposure to different specializations such as corporate identity, advertising, packaging and exhibit design were all typical steps. The knowledge and skills necessary for practice were clearly defined and understood. They were acquired by working with master teachers as well as by studying a small number of classic texts on design. Learning from books was an enjoyable and relaxing pastime that fostered a sense of shared value and community.

Modern technology has severed most connections to the past and put a new spin on education. We are operating in a strange hiatus, where traditional expertise is being replaced by constantly changing new standards. Digital media dissolved the boundaries of graphic design and altered the way skills are both learned and applied. The knowledge necessary to practice now has increased exponentially – so much that the “rules” are undefined. As a result, there are endless, contentious debates about what constitutes design education today.

Meanwhile, education has become experimentation, moving along free of ideologies and theories. “Good design” is no longer plausible, possibly the victim of political correctness or the zeal to eliminate boundaries at all costs. A multitude of visual approaches exists side by side, there for the taking. Baroque decoration is as accepted as bland modernism. Exposed to so many different styles, the young designer is robbed of a sense of direction, resulting in confusion.

Today designers who bother to look at books consume them by scanning rather than by carefully reading and reflecting on their content. Instead of relying on the theories and aesthetic principles that were the basis of visual communication for previous generations, designers derive bursts of inspiration from the Internet, magazines, film, video, music, and philosophy texts. The constantly changing landscape of popular culture does not provide a solid base for a career, making the designer insecure.
The more complex the design problem is, the wider the range of knowledge and skills necessary to solve it. From project to project the required specialized expertise and skills vary. We cannot hope to master them all. Today we need to be a print designer, tomorrow a web designer, the day after a wayfinding designer, and then an illustrator, etc. The idea of the designer as a Renaissance man no longer applies; there are too many competencies for any individual to attain. Inevitably, the designer’s role is becoming that of thinker, planner and coordinator of various specialist skills.

Identity theft: the disappearing genius

Brilliant visual ideas, outstanding artistic and technical skills, and the ability to present work convincingly used to be the hallmark of the great maverick graphic designer – a specie that has all but disappeared. Today’s highly competitive business environment is too complex for an individual designer to operate alone successfully. Designers instead collaborate in project teams on business strategies executed within budget and on schedule to produce projected results.

Any designer who is ill prepared or disinterested in the different skills required to function in today’s complex environment experiences insecurity and frustration. To function at a high level, the designer ideally should be conversant in marketing communication, business, economics, sociology, and psychology, and facile with writing and public speaking. In fact, most of the time a professional with outstanding communication skills edges out the visual designer. Furthermore, the computer fosters a dialectic approach. Every project soon evolves into a game between the designer and the client, who makes changes at a rapid pace without concern for visual consequences.

With the introduction of personal computers and graphics software in the 1980s, a new playing field was created. The domain of the professional designer, who used to be the expert in aesthetic and production questions, became accessible to virtually anyone interested in producing and disseminating graphic information. Technically proficient people without visual education increasingly take charge. In an age when speed of production is the overriding criteria for success, the graphic designer loses ground to the technical experts, succumbing to frustration.

In the 1970s and 80s many graphic designers were guided by the convictions that purpose and principles are more relevant than style; that individuality and passion are more important than conformity; that quality is superior to quantity, and that professional commitment and integrity are more important than the financial rewards.

It would be impossible to prescribe remedies to cure the various frustrations of graphic designers. The profession is too fragmented by educational, philosophical, economic, and generational gaps. Designers born into the computer age have a different perspective about today’s situation than those who have experienced profound technological change – and no one wants to turn the clock back anyway.

What we’re experiencing in graphic design goes hand-in-hand with other evidence of current societal decline: obsession with monetary and material values, craving for instant gratification, lack of manners, short attention span, foul language, etc. Graphic design will always continue to be produced in one form or another but no one can predict how future iterations will take shape. Human beings by nature are problem solvers so it is likely that today’s problems may spark tomorrow’s opportunities.

First published in profile magazine, spring 2007