Crossing Frontiers of Understanding
Graphic design, or communication design as it is commonly called today, has a history grounded in two different sectors of society: business and culture. That is why it is traditionally called an applied art: communication design applies aesthetic criteria and contexts to specific cultural and economical functions.
I want to address some reasons for that apparently limited scope for communication design, and suggest a few ways to make the best of it ;-)
You can say, of course, that design should concern itself with the essence of information, not just its formal appearance. Typography, for instance, is more about balance, structural clarity, formal consistency, minute detailing, than about ‘coolness’, or ‘trendiness’. I would agree to that, of course, but I would also say: don’t make the mistake of separating for the sake of the argument, what is in fact intimately connected.
Form and function are connected in ways that become more and more intricate today. The old Modernist slogan "Form Follows Function", is still applicable, but these days, the opposite can be true to: "Function Follows Form". If a form is highly symbolic, for instance, it _can_ be used as a function. Traffic signs or brand logos are good examples of that.
I would like to go one step further, and declare that in a highly sophisticated information culture, with a heavy bias towards visual communication, in short, in the society in which we live,
In todays communication media, form and function have to a large extent become identified with each other.
In a sense, this has always been the case: every embellishment or aesthetic accentuation has always been (also) functional.
The difference is a small typographic sign that has become the ultimate icon of branded culture: the ‘registered trademark’ sign, ®.
In the culture of brands, form is everything. The formal expression of a brand _is_ its content.
Such fashion statements are an indication of the informatization of the surface. We are not looking at clothes anymore and, in a sense, we are not looking at the people who wear them either
Clothes, bodies, postures, are used to make statements, to transmit information in a way that never before was so intimately connected to the carriers of that information (or, one could say, that harks back to the ways primitive cultures identify information and its medium ).
It sometimes takes such confrontations as Beecrofts, between the worlds that visual culture and advertising try to keep separated, to become aware of the separation in the first place. There is a lot of information out there, that is actually trying very hard to keep _other information_ out of the picture. This is the first frontier, I want to address today: the barrier, usually known as 'context', between what is _inside_ a message and what is _outside_ it.
Graphic designers are in a very good position to show the links between this inside and outside
Another way of showing the tensions between inside and outside of visual messages is to bluntly confront them on the bases of visual analogies. The method here is: what may look the same, does not have to _mean_ the same.
Fashion is an interesting environment for making statements on social and cultural contexts. Because clothes are so embedded in our cultures, not just as garments, but, more importantly, as statements, as expressions of who we are, or want to be, fashion addresses our symbolic representation as much as it provides functional answers to direct physical needs. Fashion caters to our psychic, our symbolic needs as well...
If fashion is the culture of identity, then media, in todays mediated societies, represent the culture of communication.
Conviviality is an old word for the kind of cultural communication that is at the heart of why we communicate in the first place: to feel good amongst each other. To exchange information on the things we care about and hope the others will too. The media with which we traditionally did that, conversation, eating and drinking together (we still have the word "symposium", which means drinking together, to remind us of that), have gradually been expanded and enhanced.
You might say that today, we have wired the old tools for conviviality. We can make them sound at great distances, and we can reinvent the ways we use them
Technology allows us to turn things over and look at them in new ways. It also enables us to use them for their symbolic, rather then their functional characteristics. Technology has enabled us to separate the technical contents of a functional object and its formal appearance.
We sometimes forget that that was not always the case. In the analogue world, the shape of a tool represents its function it mirrors it
This is where Form Follows Function. But in a mediated environment, things work slightly different: that is the second frontier, I want to address today: that between media and what they represent.
This is a vanishing frontier, and as designers and critics of visual culture, we should be aware of this fact: that media are increasingly becoming _part_ of what they represent. They are not just mirrors, that reflect whatever is fed into them they are in the true sense interpreting what they mediate. This interpretational character of media has, at least subconsciously, been acknowledged as soon as an advertisement stated: "as seen on TV", suggesting that the product represented on TV had, by that token, acquired a higher level of reality and reliability.
Through our media, we think we are exerting control over our environment. This can only be understood, if we think control in terms of information, and not directly in terms of material reality: We feel slightly at a loss when confronted with undiluted reality, because we dont know how to interpret it. In the process of mediation, however, reality acquires contexts that enable us to interpret the information embedded in it
Without an interface that facilitates interpretation, information is chaos. So, in my view, the first task of communication design is: to provide an interface.
Design theorist Guy Bonsiepe has this to say about interfaces:
That is a very interesting remark: "the interface creates the tool". Without the interface, the tool does not exist as information. We have no way of knowing what to do with a computer, if there is not a set of tools designed to make us understand and manipulate this instrument. Again, in traditional tools, the form of the tool would tell us what we could do with it. It is quite apparent what you can do with a hammer or a scissor. Our new electronic tools lack that self evidence.
In terms of communication, it is strange to see people who stand next to each other chatting through the interface of their computers. What about old fashioned conviviality? On the other hand, what is wrong with simulated conviviality, if it provides an environment for genuine exchange of information?
Media facilitate conviviality this is, I think, a notion that should become more embedded in the profession of design: designers create interfaces for people to inform themselves, communicate with others, play with each other. Interactivity becomes a fundamental part of design, the moment we start to see it less in terms of unilateral presentation of information, but in terms of how the recipients of that information can act on it.
This is what Bonsiepe means when he says that "The design of the interface determines the scope for action by the user of products".
Designers who forget the fact that what they do facilitates others in doing things they want to do, often leads to a dramatic loss of functionality. You can of course play with your users frustrations, as does this delicate little piece by a graphic design student from Detroit, but the bottom line for communication designers in a mediated culture is to not only know what their product means from the inside (that is, on the basis of what the client wants, or what the brief is), but to orchestrate the relationship of the message with the world that surrounds it.
Without this constant flow of information, of communication, of identification through visual and verbal information, we can hardly exist anymore.
The media through which we become who we are have a message: if you are not privy to this new communication space, you simply cannot communicate in the modern world.
From my own experience, I can tell that our new communication media facilitate intense contact over long distances my girlfriend and I live 750 kilometers apart, and we value the ways media can bridge the lack of physical communication when we are not together. I rely on design to make that experience possible. How do my media enable me to communicate with my love? How do they facilitate conviviality?
Of course, it is up to me and my partners in communication to make our being together through the media available to us a rich and fulfilling one. But the design of the medium dictates the frontiers of our creativity.
In a mediated culture, we are alone, when our media fail us.
Communication design helps us to cross the frontier of immediacy: by giving us the tools to mediate.
We live in an iconic world. Icons summarize a culture of images. Every message around us, whether printed, televised, or published on the internet, every message has a meaning, not just in itself, but as part of all the other information that surrounds us.
Communication design basically shows us how to navigate this information labyrinth. Interface design and I agree with Bonsiepe that principally _all_ design is interface design delimits the gamut of action available to us.
As it is, its a nice involuntary example of a clash between verbal and visual language (and of languages in general), resulting in a 'broken' interface.
When verbal languages fail us, we can always rely on images, as long as they are used in the right way. This right way relies heavily on what we know of the iconic content of the images.
Icons are signs and signs are signals. Icons, wisely used, can provide an interface across languages, as signals that directly tap into our understanding of the world. This works on a simple symbolic level, as in the image above, that needs no explanation, but and now Im coming back to what designers are good at icons have a great potential for mixing.
Mixing metaphors is a cardinal sin in literature, but in visual languages, it can be a rich source for complicating simple icons in ways that make them small visual essays:
The power of visual rhetorics is, in short an underestimated aspect of visual communication. There is a lot of experience with telling complex stories in iconic images in comic strips and movies, but in graphic design it is rarely used for content other then the simplest of commercial messages.
This means that visual communicators can use them, not only to translate, but also to interpret the messages they communicate
Müller and Hess add to this a comment on their own national culture when they write a sentence in this 'visual Letraset' that translates as "The impossibility of neutrality", whereby this two-spread piece they made as visual essay for Eye magazine becomes a poignant criticism of their countrys neutral international status.
In Piotr Szyhalskis small piece from a series of interactive posters as he calls them, interactivity and time based process are used to visually underline the text. Again, a well known method of visual rhetorics, but hardly used outside advertisement and comics. In this kind of dynamic visual rhetorics, there lies a huge potential for serious information and communication, and for engaging the recipient of that communication in the experience and awareness of it
I am showing these examples to remind of the fact that visual communicators use visual rhetorics, visual metaphor and visual language all the time. As cultural agents, which means as professionals of visualization that help shape our culture, designers share a responsibility for the quality of that culture. That is the last frontier that I want to address: the border between meaningless and meaningful images.
What it boils down to, in my view, when we discuss frontiers in terms of graphic design and communication design, is that the designer has a responsibility in facilitating _other_ people to communicate.
The main frontier to cross in communication design, is that of the culture of sharing, the culture of exchange.
Structure is an important way to start: structure information in ways that make it accessible to others: facilitating access is like giving out a passport: if designers help their users to cross frontiers of cultural knowledge and experience, and facilitate them to exchange and share information and experiences with others, then design has answered its first and most important brief: to build interfaces.
The economical, social and political conditions of people are rarely within direct reach of design. But the cultural conditions are, and they are an important factor in preparing for and fostering change in the other areas. Indirectly, design can work as an 'agent', much as a catalyst does in chemistry. I like what Webster's says under 'catalyst':
Especially the second definition reads as what would be my definition of a designer who chooses to work as a 'cultural agent'. Besides serving outright propaganda for a cause (which might be quite necessary in some cases), visual communication can help in crossing borders by trying to bridge the gaps between social, cultural, economical and political sections of (different) societies. Crossing borders for people, in terms of visual communication, principally means enabling them to better understand the cultural and social contexts enveloping their reality, to connect their reality to other realities, to broaden their view and deepen their insight. By assisting open and honest information exchange, visual communication ultimately supports social and economic development.
Max Bruinsma, Sao Paulo, April 2004