Everything and Nothing

“To design is to create images which communicate specific ideas in purely visual terms and utter statements whose form graphically embodies or enhances the essential nature of the notions to be communicated.” This definition of graphic design comes from John Commander, the first chairman of D&AD and a noted art director. I first heard it from the design critic Rick Poynor at a CR-organised debate (see CR Aug 04). At the time, Poynor called it about the best description he’d heard for what a graphic designer does. Some would argue that it is no longer adequate.

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“To design is to create images which communicate specific ideas in purely visual terms and utter statements whose form graphically embodies or enhances the essential nature of the notions to be communicated.” This definition of graphic design comes from John Commander, the first chairman of D&AD and a noted art director. I first heard it from the design critic Rick Poynor at a CR-organised debate (see CR Aug 04). At the time, Poynor called it about the best description he’d heard for what a graphic designer does. Some would argue that it is no longer adequate.

Commander’s words came to mind recently because of the debate that CR has been leading over the relationship between graphic designers and D&AD (see here). In her response to the debate the LCC’s Sarah Temple quotes Sir Michael Bichard, the Design Council’s new chairman, stating confidently that “design is at the epicentre of our economy and our society”. To believe that you are graduating into such a profession must be tremen­dously inspiring but what does Bichard actually mean when he refers to ‘design’?

The current issue of the Design Council magazine from which the quote was taken illustrates the elastic use of the term ‘design’ taking hold on both sides of the Atlantic. Led in part by the Design Council in the UK and the Design Thinking movement in the US, there is an intellectual landgrab in motion that seeks to elbow aside other professions in order to claim every aspect of innovation and problem-solving for ‘design’. Speaking at the RCA last year, Business Week’s Bruce Nussbaum declared that “I believe the field of design is best served by viewing it in the broadest of terms.” He went on to claim, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that “I think managers have to become designers, not just hire them.” Back to the Design Council magazine and Professor Gloria Laycock of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science stating that “We are trying to get everybody to think about design, not just of products but of environments, services and legislation.” Design of legislation? I suppose legislation can be designed, although it is more often ‘drafted’, but it is surely misleading to conclude that it could it be the concern of designers as a professional body? Anyone can have a policy idea but I think I would prefer the laws of my country to be drafted (or ‘designed’) by someone with a thorough knowledge of our legal system and its application.

Design has become a prime weapon in the campaign to establish the ‘know­­ledge economy’. Increasingly and erro­neously con­flated with innovation, it has become a catch-all term that government ministers latch onto with gusto because it seems modern and cool and rep­re­sentative of everything we must aspire to if we are to compete in the global economy. In doing so, it is in danger of becoming just another piece of New Labour jargon, bringing the whole profession into disrepute. Here’s what financial journalists Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson have to say about design and the creative industries in Fantasy Island, their coruscating critique of what they term the UK’s ‘Bullshit Economy’: “Some of the claims made for the new knowledge economy are nothing more than hype, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of the creative industries … Bullshit Britain reaches its apotheosis in the lionization of the cultural industries.”

I’m sure I speak for you all when I say that the field of visual communications is certainly not ‘bullshit’. But if we allow ‘design’ the profession to be conflated with ‘design’ the nebulous buzzword, can we be surprised if serious comment­ators fail to see its worth? What Commander was describing was a unique profession requiring specialised skills: I would no more expect a lawyer to be able to practice it than I would expect an art director to defend me in court. If we allow design to mean everything, eventually it means nothing.

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