I Am Not A Graphic Designer

Mark Busse – 77 Comments

we are not artists

The longer I stay in this industry, the more I realize the difference between producing graphically appealing (pretty) solutions and creating strategic communication designs that produce results.

Though I use my training in Graphic Design daily and often find much of what I do professionally to be based on visual language and aesthetics, it is only one of many services I offer my clients. Being labeled a Graphic Designer feels a little like being called a draftsman, colour artist, desktop layout artist or something else that does not come even close to describing what I do. I believe this is likely true of most of my colleagues in the communication design industry and I want to know. Though it irks me when people cite Wikipedia as a source of definitions, it is interesting to note the definition of Graphic Design on that site as a subset of the field of Communication Design.

As I’ve mentioned previously, a new definition of Graphic Design was presented to the GDC National Annual Meeting in Edmonton in 2006. It’s a dandy description and I have no problem with anything except the title. I think it’s time for more discussion and debate so we can create a strategic plan of action. If you have an opinion on this matter, please add a comment or send me my an email.

OK, OK, I am a Graphic Designer.
OK, stop. Before I go on, let me make something clear. Of course I’m a Graphic Designer. The title of this diatribe was more to get your attention and provoke thought than anything else. I love graphic design, though these days I end up doing far more managing of my team than actual design myself. I deeply respect the history of our trade and wish our craft and creative skills were as respected as they once were. Heck, I’ll even admit that perhaps if we all worked together hard enough, we might be able bring back some of the former glory and understanding of the title Graphic Designer. But is that realistic considering recent trends, technological changes and today’s design landscape? Me thinks not. Not without some significant changes from within. But I will say this: I’ll gladly admit I am wrong if a strong enough argument is presented to me. Show me up. Prove to me that I am just suffering a little crisis of faith about the state of my own design career and that I’ve missed the bigger picture.

It seems to me and the dozens of colleagues that I’ve polled in the last year that the word “graphic” fails to accurately describe the design solutions that we create. Many feel that the word “graphic” refers primarily to pictures and images — not the strategies, concepts, words, sound, animation or any other immersive experiences we may choose to include in the design solutions we produce. I suggest that it is time to ask ourselves if we are holding on to outdated terminology that is in effect putting our reputations and entire industry at risk of being misunderstood and confused with desktop layout providers.

Some people argue the other perspective – quite angrily in fact – claiming that trying to educate the public is too high a hill to climb and we’d be better served to just focus on doing good work. Easy to say, not so easy to do as the marketplace gets increasingly competitive. Many get hung up on arguing over the technologies designers use these days or the difference between an artist and designer, but computers are just tools and art will always be a huge part of what we do. Finally, many claim that we’ve come too far and built up too much recognizable brand equity with advocacy associations such as The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (of which I am a proud member and executive) and that a change now would do more damage than good. I’ll allow that is a possibility, but I don’t think that my suggestion to consider a broader view undermines what graphic design has, and always will be. I am not suggesting dropping all reference to graphic design at all, but challenging that we have on a whole become more than just designers of graphic language. Others have already acknowledged the change.

We’re falling behind.
Back in the day when webs were for spiders and nets were for tennis, it was fairly accurate to say that most of what we provided was primarily graphically focused. That is no longer the case. Our very society, culture and values are being shaped by a variety of media, each designed to communication more than just the words on the page. Literacy in this zeitgeist requires more than aesthetics and readability.

“21st century literacy is the set of abilities and skills where aural, visual and digital literacy overlap. These include the ability to understand the power of images and sounds, to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute them pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms.” – A Global Imperative (Adobe, April 2005)

If we take a look around at the design industry landscape we find design associations are wary to make drastic changes and put their brand equity at risk, while international design associations and education institutions have already taken the plunge, embracing new titles such as “Visual Communication Design” or just “Communication Design” – some even changing their very association names to reduce confusion and create opportunities to educate the business community and public at large about what we do as creative professionals.

The international association Icograda has recently switched from “graphic design” to “communication design” as part of their official vernacular. Evidence of this can be clearly found in official communications such as Icograda President Jacques Lange’s address to the International Forum on Cultural and Creative Industries this past December. This is a very important moment representing a paradigm shift as Icograda is the “world body for professional graphic design” and national graphic design member associations should soon follow. GDC and SGDQ are both members of Icograda.

Here is the official explanation directly from Icograda:

“A policy decision that was made by the Icograda board at our board meeting in April 2006 in Montreal. In 2006 we have been concentrating on renewing Icograda’s strategic objectives and measuring the relevance of our best practices and policies as well as identifying gaps.

In April, as part of the policy discussion on competition guidelines and best practices on soliciting design work, it became apparent that there was consensus amongst the board that the term ‘graphic design’ did not reflect either the current state of the profession or how our members described themselves. So we made time within the agenda to devote a session to the topic of defining the profession.

As designers, our members work in increasingly rich media and collaborative environments. In addition, the senior members of the profession are working increasingly in consulting capacities with less focus on ‘traditional’ design production. In many ways, it reflects the shift from thinking about design as an artifact – producing a thing – and embraces the reality of design as a process – a means of creating communications solutions.

There was unanimous support as the outcome of this policy session and subsequent follow up in a virtual environment to shift from ‘graphic design’ to ‘communication design’. In general, it has been well received by our stakeholders, especially design buyers, who understand the idea of communication design more clearly than graphic design and the value and role that it plays in their businesses.”

Icograda Vice-President Russell Kennedy recently published a terrific article on this subject, called “Blurred Borders Sharpen the Focus: Adjusting to the New Paradigm” suggesting that trying to ‘reclaim’ the term graphic design is like trying to beat the tide coming in the Bay of Fundy. From the article:

“The borders between graphic design and its associated creative disciplines have been blurring for some time. The discipline is currently in a state of flux. This is due in part to the computer revolution and the multimedia phenomenon, but mainly to a changing attitude towards design itself. Design is now referred to holistically. Multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary practise is growing.”

Even our US brothers and sisters at the AIGA have dropped use of the term “graphic” from the title and gone with only “design”, positioning themselves as “the professional association for design”. They have decided to keep the “G” (for Graphic) in their name which may cause confusion with other design fields such as interior, industrial, fashion, etc as the descriptor “designer” can be rather vague. But the reality is that they too have dropped the old term, recognizing the difference between aesthetic design versus strategic communication design. “Design is the intermediary between information and understanding,” says AIGA President Richard Grefe, “it’s not just something with an aesthetic or style.”

From the AIGA website:

“In an ongoing quest to fulfill both needs, AIGA’s board and chapter leadership recommended a shift in positioning. The organization has begun using the existing acronym along with a new tagline that better describes AIGA, its members, and their interests instead of using the full name of the organization. “AIGA, the professional association for design” was chosen for its ability to help the organization create a greater understanding of our members’ potential role, the value of their role and importance of their contributions. Retaining the brand equity of the acronym “AIGA” has been a priority, as it preserves a rich legacy of graphic design. By shifting the language away from “graphic arts” and towards “design,” AIGA can achieve greater recognition for design’s role in culture, civic society and business.”

Other respected “graphic” design associations followed suit, not only dropping the old title but also changing their association names. In 2005, the Professional Graphic Design Association (PGDA) debated the risks and benefits of repositioning and rebranding itself with a new name that was felt to be more inviting, more international, and more distinctive. Championed by President Catherine Morley, PGDA decided a change was necessary as a response to sweeping changes in the industry to focus design on clients instead of graphics, ultimately deciding on a new name: the Professional Society of Communication Design, or Proscodi.

Even international award competitions have recognized the need for change. With more than Since 1955, the Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen sponsored Red Dot Award has been one of the oldest and most sought-after design competitions globally with over 5,000 entries each year. They officially adopted the term ‘communication design’ back in 2001, no longer making any reference to graphic design in any of their award categories. Likewise, the influential German-based iF Awards, considered by many as an international display window on the latest design developments and trends, has dropped using references to graphic design – also choosing to embrace the title communication design. Many other competitions have adopted this change in stride and more are surely to follow.

Errol Saldanha has perhaps put forth the most articulate argument in favour of this sweeping change to our own self-identity on his recently updated website and in his article on Cat Morley’s Creative Latitude. A former professional GDC and RGD member, Mr. Saldanha has approached both graphic design associations on this matter with little results. Frustrated by the lack of movement on the issue in Ontario, he and several other professional Communication Designers formed a quickly growing professional association called the Communication Designers of Toronto, or Cdot, serving as a local forum uniting professionals, educators and students of the communication design discipline throughout the GTA.

From the Cdot website:

“Cdot emerged out of the need for graphic designers to go “beyond graphic”. Industry research via made it clear that once again the role of the “graphic designer” was evolving — and that our professional title must evolve with it. The term communication design deliberately emphasizes readability (function) first and aesthetics (form) second. Design with a message…”

We are losing ground and I fear the longer we as a creative industry cling to this dated term the more we’ll be misunderstood. The public and business community may not immediately understand what Communication Design means, but at least we’ll have the opportunity to explain, demonstrate and earn their respect for doing something more than make things pretty.

We are Communication Designers.
Design is rapidly growing in its importance in modern society. As our friend Rick Poynor says,

“It is no exaggeration to say that designers are engaged in nothing less than the manufacture of contemporary reality. Today, we live and breathe design. Few of the experiences we value at home, at leisure, in the city or the mall are free of its alchemical touch. We have absorbed design so deeply into ourselves that we no longer recognize the myriad ways in which it prompts, cajoles, disturbs and excites us. It’s completely natural. It’s just the way things are.”

While much of what we do as visual communicators still involves aesthetic choices and artistic skills (craft), our professional practice revolves around a message-driven design discipline that involves research, learning, concept development, structuring and presentation of messages designed to facilitate better understanding within an audience. The terms “communication design” or “visual communication design” or even “information design” seem far more accurate and suitable to express the uniqueness of our trade.

“The focus of information design is on the reduction of noise in the communication channel by eliminating extraneous content, simplifying formal options, and narrowing possible interpretations. The general economy of this kind of thinking leads from the many to the few… Contrast this with a practise of graphic design that adopts a general economy of excess, one solution produces a multitude of interpretations: the tendency is additive, not reductive.” – Andrew Blauvelt, Editor @ Emigre

Of course we still use the elements of traditional graphic design such as image, type and colour to communicate, but often use important elements of modern messaging such as sound, animation, touch–or even smell in a recent case in my studio–to produce effective human experiences and targeted message via print, electronic, three-dimensional or environmental applications. We also no longer work in a narrow field of specialization, but rather work across and/or specialize in various fields such as branding, marketing, packaging, advertising and publishing – both in the traditional print space and online (interactive). To say we practice Graphic Design is to disregard much of what we do in our practice.

Change can be very good.
As I imagine the next ten years and a continuing trend of “design democratization” where anyone with Adobe Creative Suite, camera, printer and Internet access can potentially teach themselves the basics and begin selling their services as a “graphic designer,” I fear that our industry may continue to lose its influence and ultimately wither and die as we cling to a dated term that only partially describes what we do professionally. It is more crucial than ever that we demonstrate what differentiates us from the self-taught or poorly trained amateurs.

If we decide to embrace this evolution and are smart about how we spread this message, I believe we can use this as a powerful branding and PR moment for the entire professional design industry. If we all adopt this new identity that more accurately reflects who we are, we can create buzz and grab the attention of designers, educators, the media and the business community around the world. This idea upsets the staunch defenders of the craft of Graphic Design and I completely understand why, but I am not suggesting we drop using the term entirely. Some will indeed remain practitioners of primarily Graphic Design and call themselves this to be clear. But for the rest of us that have expanded our skills and responded to the changes around us and our clients’ needs, using much more than graphics in our designs, the title just doesn’t fit anymore.

Many of my respected colleagues feel this discussion is tired and irrelevant, some even penning wonderful rebuttals which argue that fretting over the words we use to describe ourselves rather than promoting our craft is tantamount to hiding our true creative skills beneath layers of business rhetoric. Perhaps, but I am not suggesting that we drop “graphic” or “arts” from how we describe what we do. On the contrary, I firmly believe that our craft skills and training in the traditional visual arts – sketchbooks, pencil crayons, felt pens and all – are a big part of what differentiates us from the pretenders. But without the understanding that we use more than just pretty things to produce successful design solutions, we’ll always be viewed as the “artsy fartsies” and the strategy, interactivity and innovative work will be left for the others while we proudly show off our lovely poster designs. Can we take back the power of the word “graphic” as an alternative to adopting new ones? Maybe. But I doubt it. Not in this zeitgeist. But if we truly desire the professional respect and increased patronage of the business community we need to evolve our own brand identity, perhaps by using a little business rhetoric.

Will claiming we’re Communication Designers, or even Visual Communication Designers, make it much clearer to those who don’t already understand? Likely not at first, and adopting a new title won’t automatically bring more respect or higher hourly rates either. But it will create an opportunity for a conversation and open the door for change. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I suggest that we need to make this change now or it may haunt us forever as part of our legacies. Respect starts with self identity, and the core of self identity is what we call ourselves. As for me, I am no longer a Graphic Designer, I am a Communication Designer, though I offer graphic design as part of my services.

If you have thoughts, opinions, facts, ideas or anything you think relevant to this discussion, please take a few minutes to send it in or post in the comments below.