That was then, and this is now: but what is next?

Lorraine Wild reflects on what it has been like to be a a designer for the last 30 years, and speculates what full potential the age of digital design will bring. This article was first published in 1996 in Emigre 39.

The following essay is based on the transcript of a talk that I gave at 101: The Future of Design Education in the Context of Computer-Based Media, a symposium organized by Louise Sandhaus and presented at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht, The Netherlands, in November of 1995. It is highly speculative, and reading it now, I think that some of the conditions that I describe have already shifted, but that is the nature of the speed of change that confronts us. I was simply trying to capture and describe the moment that we educators and practitioners are in right now. (You blink, and it has changed). I wish to thank the Jan van Eyck Akademie for giving me the assignment and the time to collect and record my thoughts.
I stand here not as an authority on multimedia or design education, but from the position of working inside of design education for twelve years, and connecting it with my own experience as a student from the mid-seventies through the early eighties. That, and the context of my experiences as an educator at Cal Arts, and my ongoing experiences as a design practitioner in Los Angeles, have had an impact on the way that I see the future of work in design. I can’t pretend that what I say will apply to all graphic design educators and practitioners everywhere. But in the U.S., Los Angeles is usually regarded as the place where both good and bad things happen first, because Californians are crazy and will try anything. Yet, usually, what happens there ends up happening everywhere else, sooner or later. So today I’m just speaking from my own experiences, but on the other hand, all I can say is: you’d better watch out.
I’d like to to start by describing some recent observations that have affected my thoughts about what’s going on in the profession that we are educating designers to enter.
The Bigger Picture
Recently the Los Angeles Times featured an article about one of the many “invisible wars” of rivalry between the metropolitan areas of San Francisco and Los Angeles, over which one would achieve economic domination in the new field of multimedia.(1) The gist of the article was that northern California held the lead in “hardware” (as in technology) development and financing, and that southern California held the lead in “software” (as in content) and its financing, and that it was not clear which area would end up drawing the most benefit from the phenomenal growth attached to the new technologies. But what caught my eye was that the state tax rolls already had hundreds of businesses registered as “multimedia developers.”
A few years ago, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab predicted that the movie industry would be “the smokestack industry of the 90s,”(2) and the report in the LA Times reinforced this idea, claiming that the infrastructure dedicated to telling stories could contend, economically, with the infrastructure for delivering the stories. In fact, what the article summarized was the interweaving of Silicon Valley and Hollywood into a blended economy, and that “Siliwood” was already regarded as a source of economic regeneration in California.
This is the environment that ten or so undergraduates and six or so graduate students from Cal Arts will walk into this May, and on into the future…
High Anxiety
In October of 1995, the American Institute of Graphic Arts held its biennial national conference in a hotel in Seattle. Previous conferences have consisted of lectures by various graphic design world “heavyweights” of their latest work, or presentations by large-scale clients. Other issues are covered, such as history, professional practices, ethics, and design education, but generally, AIGA conferences in the past have functioned as professional love-fests, where the main goal was the (at least temporary) glorification of graphic designers by graphic designers. But a new more serious generation leads the AIGA now, and the 1995 conference was advertised with the following text: “We all know that design is going through a period of unprecedented change. Is the profession you care about passionately on the verge of a renaissance – or extinction? Is the business world finally beginning to appreciate the value of what you do? Or is public access to technology going to put us all out of business?”(3)
The Seattle conference was different. First of all, there were no general presentations by graphic designers of their current visual work and none of the speakers who addressed the topic of the future of the profession used any current work by other graphic designers to illustrate their notions of where the future was leading. In other words, there was a real disconnection between the work that graphic designers specifically produce now – good, bad, or ugly – and the preoccupation with the larger question of what we might be doing in the future.
One of the most important presentations of the conference was a dialogue on the main stage between Bill Drenttel, partner of Drenttel Doyle & Partners, a very successful design consultancy in New York, and Nancye Greene, partner of Donovan and Greene, an equally successful New York design office. They did not show any examples of their work, but spent 40 minutes discussing how absolutely confusing and challenging it was to be running a large design consultancy in 1995. The conditions that they described so persuasively could be characterized as follows:
– the problems that clients were bringing them had become exponentially more complex, in part because of the range of possible media that presented themselves as possible solutions;
– audiences themselves were more complex, split into micromarkets; and/or scattered globally;
– they were being asked to address these complex audiences; yet, paradoxically, the multimedia audience had to be seen as a large group of audiences of one;
– earlier models for staffing and managing and organizing a design practice didn’t necessarily seem appropriate to these challenges, which meant that designers were now faced with the challenge of organizing teams, often including expertise from outside of graphic design, to adequately cope with their clients’ projects;
– research was hard to define and hard to bill for;
– despite the delight in producing images, designers had to recognize that making visual things was now only one way of working in design;
– a “lack of credibility” was so pervasive as a cultural phenomenon that trying to create genuine communication through a haze of excess marketing was making life more difficult for everybody;
– and finally, the constant pressure of time continued to mitigate against the leisurely solving of any of these problems.
I thought that Drenttel’s and Greene’s presentation was a defining moment in contemporary American graphic design, although whether or not it was recognized as such by a large percentage of the audience in Seattle is debatable. Possibly, it made many of the designers in the audience very uncomfortable because it was such a definitive, intelligently expressed description of “not knowing.” Neither Drenttel or Greene delivered their message hopelessly, but by setting aside the seductive images of their accomplished work in favor of confronting the massive uncertainties of practice as it is experienced daily, it was perhaps the most painfully honest presentation that the graphic design profession had seen in a while. (Certainly just as honest a moment as when the audience, who obviously wanted to celebrate their embrace of technology, their plucky willingness to “accept change” no matter where it brought them, applauded wildly as a designer at Adobe Systems showed some video footage of herself destroying a Macintosh computer with a sledgehammer.)(4)
Anyway, memories of Seattle were still fresh when I encountered this statement by Michael Rock of the current Yale design faculty in a recent issue of the AIGA Journal: “That contemporary design education has been thrown into a state of confusion both aggravates and reflects a pervasive professional confusion. It is inherently impractical to fully prepare students to work in a field that has so little sense of its immediate future or professional position.”(5)
This statement took me aback; it’s quite extreme! Yet all the evidence of a severe realignment in design practice has been piling up. For two years now I have witnessed a steady acceleration of change – an expansion of the range of technical possibilities, which affects the nature of what designers aspire to do, and what they fear being denied if their skills somehow fail to fit the potential of the new media. These possibilities have been anticipated for years, really, since the computer started being integrated into graphic design as a production tool. It was so easy to say, “Oh, it’s just another tool” (or, more compellingly, “It’s just a really fast idiot”) as long as it was simply being used to replicate earlier manual tasks. But now, new media expand the problem of communication to encompass dimensions of time, sound, motion – and, suddenly, the “graphic” in graphic design seems constrained or parochial. The two-dimensional expertise of the graphic designer appears to be a professional liability rather than a ticket to greater participation in the communication of the future. And the new media tools open up the possibility for communication to a radically expanded number of people, challenging the fragile claims to authority that designers have worked so hard to establish. As Michael Rock stated, the inter-relationship between practice and education cannot be circumvented or denied. To build a future in the face of these challenges to the definition of graphic design practice, I think we have to look with somewhat of a cold eye at the source or sources of our current paradigms of education and practice that come from the past.
Way back in the eighties
In 1983, I was asked by the Society of Typographic Arts (now the ACD) to write an essay on the ideal design education.(6) At the time, I was teaching at the University of Houston in Texas in both the architecture and the graphic design departments. I had graduated from Yale University the year before, and while I was there, buried under the burden of completing my master’s degree thesis, I found myself envying the quality of the general education that the younger undergraduates were receiving. There were limitations on the amount of specialization that any bachelor’s degree student could take – and instead of holding them back, it seemed to enable them to communicate their ideas and intentions with the rest of the world.
Of course the arguments exist that an elite institution like Yale is merely a finishing school for privileged students already destined for leadership positions in society, but like a lot of other American institutions, Yale had diversified their student population from the late 60s on through the admittance of women and an increased percentage of minorities. The undergraduate student body did not fit the cliché of the old Ivy League, and still the education was impressive. The alumni newsletter chronicling an endless list of accomplishment in all fields seems to indicate that the educators at that university were doing something right.
So what was it? After looking at it really closely, and after going on to teach at a state university that had incorporated more specialized job training in lieu of traditional academic development under the rubric of a more “pluralistic” and “pragmatic” definition of an undergraduate curriculum, I could see that it was the Yale tradition of endless writing and reading, requirements across a general field of subjects, and most importantly, a constant stress on intellectual inquiry and curiosity that sustained graduates far beyond their years on the campus. It seemed clear to me then, (and that’s what I ended up writing about in 1983) that the best thing an undergraduate design education could do would be to embrace that serious commitment to cultural generalism, because designers needed to be literate and intellectually flexible if they were going to be able to communicate with any meaning, energy or authority in their society and culture.
I should add right away that this spirit of inquiry was notably missing from my own graduate education in the very same university. In 1980 the master’s degree program at Yale was one of the last bastions of late modernist design rigidity, enforced with discipline; all rules and mannerisms combined to produce an exterior facade of professionalism, no questions asked. I will always remember when a visiting tutor asked us graduate students to describe what it was that was important to us as designers. Everyone responded mechanically with clichés about problem-solving and communication, when in fact, methodologies of communication had never been discussed; we were really most anxious to complete our typography problems in the blandly abstracted “Swiss” style that our faculty deemed correct.
It was true that this style, which passed for well thought out graphic design at Yale and other design departments in the late 70s and early 80s, was also the style of corporate America. If you mastered it, you were guaranteed employment in any one of a score of offices on the eastern seaboard. Though it was certainly never articulated as such, the intellectual preparation of students as communicators had become secondary to a sort of vocational education limited to the production needs of the profession, or at least what the profession thought that it needed, in the short term.
Even before the eighties
But a hallmark of modernist design education in the U.S. has been its see-sawing relationship to the field of practice. There was no academically sanctioned design education in the U.S. before the arrival of various European designers associated with the avant-garde, like Moholy-Nagy, who brought the New Bauhaus to Chicago (independent for a brief while, eventually finding a home at the Illinois Institute of Technology), or Gyorgy Kepes at MIT, or Joseph Albers, first at Black Mountain College, and then at Yale. The work of these educators a mere sixty years ago began the development of a professional design pedagogy in the U.S., connecting education with the modernist promise of social and cultural amelioration through practice.
I feel queasy about the series of broad generalizations I am about to make in an attempt to summarize the evolution of this modernist ideal in the U.S., because I don’t want to make it seem simplistic, but for the sake of brevity, please bear with me:(7) The big shift in design teaching that was brought by this first generation of emigres to the U.S. was a move away from the constant production of visual novelty, or restyling as a commercial art. They also expanded design activity from aesthetics to encompass a conceptual operation, where design projects and problems in two or three dimensions were generated by an internal analysis, without preconceived notions of solutions, from inside the problem to outside the surface. Form would follow function, which was understood in graphic design as meaning. This new idea brought about an explosion of creativity to a field that had not been noted for a great deal of conceptual innovation. But this new approach was also accompanied by a very strong aesthetic of its own, which we are all familiar with, and which over time tended to shift from being a visual signifier for the conceptual basis of the project to becoming a stand-in for substance itself.
And the way that happened in the U.S. has something to do with the struggles of the first generation of designers who worked hard at promulgating the modernist project in the commercial/professional context of the U.S. after 1945, and who fought for recognition in that context. They found that a most efficient way to connect to their clients as consultants was to tie their own identity as artists and individual creators (or “stars”) to the work that they produced. Like movie stars or famous artists (figures more easily understood by commercial/popular culture), their work was increasingly championed on the basis of personal authorship (even if the work was actually the product of a 30-person office), rather than for its merits. This is not to say that there weren’t plenty of meritorious projects; they just weren’t sold or understood on that basis: not only by clients, but by the design profession itself.
By the time I was in design school in the mid-70s, the phrase “the star system,” describing the process of getting known for one’s work on the basis of receiving awards, and building one’s reputation and personal identity on that, was openly acknowledged by students with more than a bit of cynicism (and a bit of jealousy, especially during the 80s when even minor league stars were making so much money).
This had its effect on design education, obviously. Since work that succeeded was presented as the result of individual genius, and since modernism could not be discussed as a style with conventions because it was alleged to be free of them and continued to be confused as a signifier for “truth,” graphic design curricula increasingly moved from the problems of truly conceptual practice to the induction into the modernist style, combined with the development of the personal ability to will one’s work into correct and persuasive shape. There was a “blip” of time in the early 1970’s in which this did not happen (and I will get to that interesting moment shortly), but otherwise the trajectory of design from a conceptual activity to a kind of compromised personal artistry in the service of commerce has been quite direct.
A major digression
The events that interrupted this trajectory, other than the “blip” that I have just mentioned, were the onset of semiotic theory, cultural criticism, postmodernism and to a certain extent, graphic design history as conciousness-raising in graphic design education. The influence of these theories (even when mistranslated or misunderstood by graphic designers) brought new life into a field that was in serious danger of terminal trivialization. Patterns in the production and consumption of public imagery began to be discussed, and the “natural” assumptions of the profession began to be understood as constructions.
Simultaneously, the number of graphic design students kept increasing. The number of designers kept increasing. Different kinds of people, such as women, gays, and minorities of all types, began to shift the profile of the profession. Students and teachers reading theory started questioning the basis for the values and hierarchy inside and outside of the profession. And around the same time that designers started reading Derrida, these pale gray machines that made awkward looking typography were multiplying in their offices.
Things to come
To return to the “blip” of the early 1970s, which prefigured all of this, in a truncated way. In the U.S., the crisis of the late 1960s – which circled around opposition to the Vietnam War, the ongoing fights for civil rights and women’s rights, the onset of assassinations and urban upheaval – had shaken the faith of so many people in the institutions around them. In graphic design, it was already evident that the attenuated rationalism of modernism was the style of the military/industrial/corporate machine. Looking for alternatives, young designers looked to the roots of early modernism, with its commitment to constant activist revolution, to reinvigorate their own efforts. An obsession with taking control of systems rather than being controlled by them became critical, and understanding systems became more important than aesthetics, momentarily. Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, the Whole Earth Catalog (with its wry subtitle, a catalog of tools) and the guerrilla TV collective Ant Farm were on many aspiring designers’ reading lists, and it was assumed that both the tool of the future and the medium of the future was…video. Those back-breaking “porta-paks” engendered dreams of a medium that would shake its audience out of complacency, restore spontaneity and democracy to the media, and turn passive spectators into active citizens. Video would provide an out to designers frustrated by the limitations and control of predetermined form.
This was the same period when a fascination with problem-solving methodologies – brainstorming and all sorts of other analytical techniques – were also being explored as a way to short-circuit the easy assumptions of formalism. The politics of the time encouraged the spontaneous, “ad-hoc” and collective natures of these explorations.
On the aesthetic side, the influences of Andy Warhol and Robert Venturi helped re-invent the way designers saw the pop culture environment that formed the context of their work. Hitting 30, the singular aesthetic of abstracted modernism was not to be trusted, and the stiff cultural hierarchy between “high” and “low” was beginning to crack. Though the modernist style was not fully abandoned at this point, graphic design teaching and practice was briefly energized by this moment of hippie modernism, where the conceptual problem was once again foregrounded because of the challenge of having to think in larger terms about a future where designers would connect utopian goals to their audiences through the peaceful use of technology.
But… the porta-paks were too heavy, no one had time for “real time video,” and the dreams of revolution attached to local access cable TV fell out of favor when truly large scale cable companies offering round-the-clock presentations of old sitcoms clarified the situation that such access, in video or cable TV, was still inexorably one-way; passive, not the gateway to revolution.
By and large, graphic designers were not to pay attention to the role of technology in their futures until the pale grey boxes were completely ubiquitous. What was initially disguised as the distress over the Macintosh as a generator of typography (or a creator of instant graphic designers) has proved to be a much larger anxiety over the effect of the “new media” on the current conception of the design profession itself, and whether the constructs that have governed practice and education up to this point are even going to survive the full implications of the technology.
Too much to learn
When designers first began to notice that the use of the computer demanded that they now had to resume responsibility for details of production, there was immediate consternation that the trade-off for increased aesthetic control, and the constantly disappointed promise of increased productivity, had been to remire the designer in a practically premodern model of work – the sweat-shop. Of course, the flipside of that model was the premodern publishing operation, where editing, designing, printing and distribution could be collapsed into a simpler, less capital-intensive operation, full of potential – but merely mastering the technology seemed to overshadow the ability to pause and notice where the work could go. Educators and practitioners were distracted by the whole new bag of necessary skills that greatly impacted “craft”: the ever-expanding number of software programs to master, added on top of all the older mandated skills and techniques.
Intentionally or not (in fact, despite the best of intentions), the problems of mastering digital technology for print production tended to crowd out what little time was given over to the conceptual development of design in most curricula. Of course, talented teachers have always managed to insert conceptual development into the process of “skill” acquisition, and in fact that is what has prevented the teaching of design from being completely subsumed into this technological shift.
But basically, for the last few years design educators have been faced with the conundrum best expressed by the classic Texan phrase, “trying to stuff twenty pounds of manure in a ten-pound bag.” Or as Meredith Davis and Andrew Blauvelt stated more elegantly: “The synthesizing potential of the digital realm rejoins many previously discrete tasks, suggesting not only the problem of increased knowledge and skill, but also the potential for designers to entertain notions of authorship and entrepreneurial independence. Such demands for greater skill and knowledge will not be thought of as the burden and sole responsibility of the designer…instead, experience and knowledge will be gained through work and communication with others outside our discipline while activities such as ‘creation,’ ‘production,’ and ‘distribution’ become more fully integrated.”(8)
How are graphic designers, at least as we currently prepare them, going to be able to go beyond the entertaining of “notions” of authorship and entrepreneurial independence into substantative participation in the production of this new media? Where will they gain the skills to collaborate with those who know what they don’t? These questions tug at me as I see CalArts graduates go out into the world with the intention and ability to work in new media. Though there are tons of job opportunities for those students, it is not self-evident to the world out there that the skills of a graphic designer are critical to the success of new media projects. I also see the way that opportunities to work in multimedia come to practicing designers. Often, designers are approached with projects that have already been strategized, which may need a visual “retooling” after the fact. This doesn’t contradict the already established model of the print designer providing the visual interface between the client and their intended audience. But it obviously frustrates the entire promise of the new media to break down the barriers between form and content (not to mention the old conceptualism that insisted on an idea behind the image); what use is it if graphic design is segregated to the application of form?
The new media has begun to reverse the processes that have led to the specialization of graphic design out of a field of general design practice, and threatens to tip our professional definition upside down. The contemporary identity of the graphic designer was only constructed after printing and typesetting technologies isolated the activity of planning and form-giving from both the development of content, and the actual production of printed matter. Modernist practice evolved from that industrial separation and the intensified “personalization” of conventional design activity in recent years can be seen as a continuation of those processes in the extreme. The identity of graphic design is constantly reified by its own pedagogies, practices, professional awards, journalism, and even history, which until now, focused on the visual presentation of printed matter. Whereas the problems and projects that constituted graphic design seemed so stable, multimedia brings additional dimensions of difficulty and complexity that are only peripherally related to graphic design practice as it is commonly understood. Suddenly interactivity and the design of interfaces, the connection between information and users, demands thought in terms that range from the industrial understanding of human factors to the theatrical culture of entertainment. A visual sensibility is a valuable thing to have, but it is only one sensibility; a good sense of timing and sound are now really important as well.
And ideas of what might be done with the new media are the most important of all. While designers worry about their own qualifications or competency to make this work, anyone can get their hands on the technology; one project, and you, too, can be a “multimedia developer.” Hovering over all of this is the problem that there actually are different levels of skills (in understanding principles of programming, for instance), that affect the quality of work in ways that many designers just beginning to experiment with Director can barely understand.
In her essay “The Pleasure of Text(ure),” Jessica Helfand, an American graphic designer who works in multimedia, asked the question: “…so who designs these products?…game designers, software designers, interface designers, production designers, programming designers, and occasionally, even graphic designers. In most multimedia settings, the “designer” is the person with the vision, not necessarily the person who is ‘visual.’ The designer can be the author, publisher, producer, or even the programmer…because multimedia production is driven by forces that, though creative in intent, are not primarily visual in nature, the role of designers in the medium still remains to be invented…”(9) Helfand cautions that “…though its production is by necessity team-driven, multimedia is best served when the underlying vision is a singular one. It is in authorship, not the authoring tools, that such work becomes possible.”(10)
That several producers or publishers of CD-Rom projects or interactive programs don’t acknowledge the need for graphic design as a distinct part of their development is often lamented by graphic designers as proof of yet more design “philistinism”; but a more likely reason for this resistance might be that in new media, the connection between content and its presentation is so tight that there is barely any conceptual space in which to see a separate need for development of the visual independent from the verbal. When that is combined with our general Western rationalistic distrust of the surface and a certain resistance to truly acknowledging the power of visual presentation – or style – (by both the philistines and the design purists), you get what we have now: a lot of stuff being designed without designers!
Another disjuncture between graphic design as we know it and new media is that the process of large group or team projects in multimedia has less to do with the division of labor in print production, and is much more akin to collaborative enterprises, such as theatrical production, TV production, or movie-making in the entertainment industry. And in those enterprises, the identity and independence of individuals responsible for the visual presentation, such as cinematographers, film and video editors, production designers, art directors, property masters and costume and set designers, are secondary in both the hierarchy of the production and in the point of view of the audience to the vision or “authorship” of the director (and perhaps the screenwriters). While the accomplishments of the visual collaborators may be highly celebrated and compensated, the ability to launch current and future projects rests with the “authors” – the directors and screenwriters. A current “danger” to the independence and fragile claim on authorship currently enjoyed by graphic designers is the inability to understand how to translate their own value or power into the team production of most new media, since authorship in terms of production is not granted to those who only give the project its visual form.
Expanding the field
While specialization in graphic design accelerated during the last decade, many design educators have been pointing out the need for students of design to have strong general educations (like the ones I had observed undergraduates receiving at Yale) to enable them to be culturally and socially literate in the context in which they will be working. At the same time, we have also wanted to produce students who had enough specialized training to enable them, if not to “master” their crafts, to at least be employable once they graduated. The balance between generalization and specialization was thrown out of whack by the overwhelming problems of digital competence, and the (largely unstated) conviction that to master the new tools was the most critical thing a student could do. This was reinforced by a profession that immediately began to hire graduates based on their knowledge of programs, mostly to lift the burden of technical competency from the busy professionals running their offices. The short-term focus seemed to be entirely on production.
In the U.S., this same generation of younger designers who could not afford to dismiss new technology as mere aberration were also the designers who were struggling, because of their exposure to and interest in critical theory, to make work that in one way or another tried to deal with issues of meaning and communication brought on by the new technology. For this they were rewarded with an attitude of complete disdain from the older, authoritarian “stars,” who could only read their work as the result of mindless fooling around with computers, and an affront to the modernist tradition (which in this case was not tradition at all, but really a demand for obedience and deference to the past).
And while a great deal of time was spent “specializing,” mastering the programs, an aesthetic evolved that was a hybrid between the theoretical and critical analyzes of design that the students were being exposed to, and an embrace of certain visual signifiers of the technology that was enabling the production of print itself. A good example of this is the explosion of interest in font design that started in the late 80s – the exploration of digital capability opened up this once arcane craft to the experimentation of many. At the same time, a certain destabilized, postmodern interpretation of function also allowed for a reconsideration of “appropriateness” as a design value for letter design, which completely re-energized font design and made it an interesting design problem once again. Oddly enough, this has become the subject that enabled a great deal of “generalist” discussion and debate on the future uses of design.
But this is all still within the construct of the craft we know, not within the expanded field that looms ahead of us. It appears that we have to completely rethink the problem of design curricula, and the balance between the conceptual work and form-giving. If we look closely at what computers can do now, we see that they have distinct qualities that differentiate them from the characteristics of the printed media. In his article “Computers, Networks and Education,” Alan Kay (of Apple and MIT) lists their salient qualities as: “interactivity, transmutability (ability to deliver information in a variety of formats), the ability to show information in many perspectives (verbal and visual, still and moving, solid and transparent, etc.); the ability of computers to build models or simulations that allow one to ‘test’ conflicting theories or ideas; the ability to tailor the digital media to the interest or proclivity of the user, and finally, the ability of the user to create enlarged archives, libraries, data bases.”(11)
Kay goes on to describe these qualities as essential to the process of teaching and informing the public. “To make contexts visible, make them objects of discourse and make them explicitly reshapable and inventable are strong aspirations very much in harmony with the pressing needs and on-rushing changes of our own time. It is the duty of a well-conceived environment for learning to be contentious and disturbing…”(12)
This is very reminiscent of the old call for the educational initiative in design education to return to conceptual models, grounded in strong generalist backgrounds that foster inquiry, creating engines to propel work into the future, attached to a utopian dream in direct engagement with the future.
One could continue to teach graphic design as a viable sub-specialty of design practice (even one that was entirely dedicated to print!) and still get an education that would prepare one to work in an expanded field of media. But to do so, the conceptual aspects of communicating in an environment where the nature of information and the way it is received and understood by it audience must be assumed to be in a state of constant flux. This would more accurately identify graphic design as a specialty within a wider definition of design as a conceptual operation. It would also necessitate an understanding of the capabilities (and weaknesses) of specific formats, and an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of various conceptual approaches to various media. But the inherent weakness of graphic design as a discipline for understanding the wider operations of new media is its insistence on isolating the visual translation as the final product of the designer, and a concentration on the final product as the ultimate gauge of the expertise of the designer. (But of course this is not a simple duality; to suggest that there is more to it than the visual is not to deny the critical presence of the visual.)
If you return to the issue of authorship in multimedia, it is clear that priorities in education have to shift away from the focus on perfection of craft. Beyond training the eye to see, technique is an unstable thing. Actually, one of the peculiarities of design education at this moment is the fact that many students possess greater technique on the computer than their teachers, anyway. What teachers can lead students to is a greater understanding of methods of research, of questioning, of “learning how to learn” that we all need to internalize, more than ever. And there are other things that must be added to the education of designers to enable them to participate as something other than visual packagers as well:
– writing as a means of conceptual and expressive development;
– techniques of verbal expression, rhetoric, narrative and story-telling (the engineering underneath verbal communication);
– the grammar of film, particularly the syntax of editing, cross-cutting and sequencing in time to create narrative;
– sound;
– the grammar and psychology of games, which function as narrative structures as surely as story-telling or film;
– techniques of visual rhetoric, syntax and semantics, using examples from the high art to popular culture, including advertising;
– the awareness and critique of communicative systems as artificial constructs;
– understanding the social, cultural and functional possibilities within the realms of real and simulated space, the public and the private;
– collaboration; “knowing what you don’t know,” looking at models of other team-produced design (advertising, film making, architecture) that involve negotiation and accommodation, complex technical processes, and the negotiation of consensus.(13) This, needless to say, flies in the face of the designers’ fantasy of artistic autonomy. Also needed in the new design education are:
– a history that expands to include a social and cultural development of media;
– and perhaps in contradiction to the last few points, a more serious consideration of fantasy, surrealism, game playing, pranks, simulation, bricolage and other forms of marginal subversion to map out the spaces in between, the entrepreneurial possibilities as a source of stimulation and creativity in approaching new media with a free hand.
Design redefined?
In Cyberidaho: the Reality of What’s Not Peter Anders speculates that we will soon see “…a new breed of professional, a cyberspace architect who designs…scenarios. The talents of the cyberspace architect will be akin to those of traditional architects, film directors, novelists, generals, coaches, playwrights, video game engineers. The job of the cyberspace designer will be to make the experience seem real.”(14) A somewhat more abstract description appears in Richard Coyne and Adrian Snodgrass’s article “Problem Setting Within Prevalent Metaphors of Design”: “…by changing the dominant metaphors it is possible to redefine problems in more readily addressed terms. So in switching from the metaphor of design as information processing we may, for example, characterize design as a process of enablement within a community of expertise…the required solution may not be a technological one…What are the means of collaboration? …The practitioner does not come to a situation with fixed, predefined problem statements, but undertakes investigation and engages in dialogue through which appropriate metaphors emerge.”(15)
There is not much in either of these descriptions that fits in with the conventional job description for “graphic designer.” I have no doubt that graphic design will continue to be produced, but whether or not “graphic designers” as we now know them will continue to propagate is really what’s in question. (Is the historical definition of the graphic designer too tied to a specific technology and ideology to expand beyond it?) And as speculative as both the future job descriptions that I’ve just cited sound, I think they represent conditions or ways of working that already exist, but which still confuse because they co-exist with the older models – which is what I think Drenttel and Greene were trying to describe last fall in Seattle.
I recently watched a friend apply, and get in, to film school. She had to supply an essay describing her intentions, samples of writing and scripts; samples of photographs, sketchbooks and videotapes. As I watched her going through this process, I found myself wondering: now how is this different from design?
I only want to add a point about the aesthetics, actually, because I have gone on now for some time with this generalist’s reverie, an idea of radically broadening what might make up the training of a designer, and I don’t want to leave you with the mistaken impression that there is nothing interesting left to do in visual design, or that there aren’t real things to be made in the world. There are so many interesting problems: What combinations of word, image and form will communicate in the not exclusively linear environment of new media? The improvisation of comedy, the intuitiveness of jazz, the branching narratives of hypertext, the cross-cutting of TV, the density of advertising, the sampling of pop music, the endless windows within windows of software itself?(16) These are all stylistic elements of a new syntax that we’ve already seen but have only begun to take seriously now that we actually have a technology that can utilize them.
In the last few years, a way that young graphic designers resisted the Juggernaut of professionalization and the expansion of social control through the mass media was to subject the public language of design to a deconstructed, critical reading, which led so many to deny the ability to use that public language at all. But a frustration with that impasse has finally led some of those same critics to understand that the representation (or “selling”) of style, and the way that people use style are actually two different things. As designers, we are beginning to understand the multiple strategies that open up if we “embrace style as a functional language.”(17) The logjam over the preoccupation with specific form may yield a more interesting dialogue on the subject of the variety of visual languages made possible in this moment of expansion.
The train has left the station
While the challenges to graphic design and design education posed by new media carry such great potential for the renewal of design, we cannot pretend that this technological phenomena has been designed, or is waiting, just for us. New media will go ahead without our participation, which for many designers may be ok. The price of participation may actually be the end of graphic design as we know it, and the price of separation will probably be the maintenance of the “low profile” of graphic design in the public consciousness. The risk carried by the generalization of design education dedicated to new media may be the exaggeration of a split between academia looking to the future, and practitioners still preoccupied with skill and techniques and the very real short-term pressures of running their businesses. Will the practitioners be able to connect the problems that they are obviously experiencing – articulated in so many ways in Seattle – with a new definition of who they are looking for to join them in creating their work? Will the educators be able to develop these generalists who somehow must manage to specialize too? Can it possibly be done in four-plus two years of graphic design training? Can we stand this almost generational split that the ascendancy of the new media is forcing upon both sides of the profession?
Who this new media will serve, who will have access and control – these are even bigger questions that transcend our individual efforts. That is why you find media news coverage on page one, or the front of the business page of the newspaper, not in the cultural reportage. But while these questions go unanswered, a culture is in the process of being created. The American literary critic Larry McCaffery predicts that “Cultural renewal will result when we have not only met the challenge of co-existing with the beast of technologically driven change, but have also learned how to dance with it.”(18) The dance has no rules: some of the music seems awfully familiar, but design educators and practitioners must be willing to stumble all over themselves in this murky but most entertaining moment.
1. “Multimedia is a new L.A -S.F. Grudge Match: Will the Recently Hatched Industry Nest in Northern or Southern California?” by Amy Harmon. L.A.Times, 10/1/94, page A-1 and “Hollywood  and Technology; Welcome to Siliwood; Will the Convergence of the Creative and Technical Lead to a Jobs Revolution?” by Amy Harmon, L.A.Times, 9/12/95, Page J-4.
2. Stewart Brand, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. Penguin, New York, 1987. Page 5.
3. Ad in the AIGA Journal, Volume 13, 1995.
4. High Anxiety, presentation at the Seatle AIGA conference by Luanne Seymour Cohen of Adobe Systems.
5. Michael Rock, “Introduction,” AIGA Journal, Volume 13, No.1, page 12.
6. “More than a Few Questions About Graphic Design Education.” The Design Journal, Volume 1, Number 2, pages 8-10.
7. For a more complete rendition of this story, see my essay “Europeans in America” in Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History edited by Mildred Friedman. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1989. Pages 152-169.
8. Meredith Davis and Andrew Blauvelt, “Building Bridges: A Research Agenda for Education and Practice” AIGA Journal, Volume 13, Number 1.
9.Jessica Helfand, “The Pleasure of Text(ure)” in Six Essays on Design and New Media, William Drenttel, New York 1995, pages 26-27.
10. Ibid., page 33.
11. Alan Kay, “Computers, Networks and Education,” Scientific American Special Issue on Computers, 1994.
12. Ibid.
13. “…in architecture, there are not only creative and technical processes, but a social one as well. You have to negotiate conflicts, you have to identify where the areas of consensus are, and so on. So, educationally, you have to provide people with the skills to operate in the social arena, whether its is big software projects, architecture, certainly film and media.” William Mitchell interviewed in “The ID Multimedia Forum” I.D. magazine, Volume 41, Number 2, March-April 1994, page 42.
14. Peter Anders, “Cyberidaho: the reality of what’s not,” Design Book Review, Winter 1993, page 20.
15. Richard Coyne and Adrian Snodgrass, “Problem Solving Within Prevalent Metaphors of Design,” Design Issues, Summer 1995, Volume 11, no.2, p.33.
16. This list is paraphrased from Larry McCaffery in “Avant-Pop: Still Life After Yesterday’s Crash” from After Yesterday’s Crash: The Avant-Pop Anthology, Penguin, New York, 1995, pages xxii – xxiii.
17. Andrew Blauvelt, “Under the Surface of Style” Eye, Volume 5, Number 18, Autumn 1995, pages 64-71.
18. Larry McCaffery,  “Avant-Pop: Still Life After Yesterday’s Crash” from After Yesterday’s Crash: The Avant-Pop Anthology, Penguin, New York, 1995, page xvii.

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