The education of a graphic designer
ed. Steve Heller
Allworth Press, New york, 1998. 
ISBN 1-880559-99-4

Design interactive education

1. The merging of contexts

Some time back I began a lecture for post-graduate students of art and graphic design by stating that they all had probably learned the wrong trade - most of them had an educational background in disciplines that today could be best described as Old Crafts...

Now it was not my intention to demoralize them, but I wanted to confront them with a problem that is at the heart of being a designer or an artist or a writer or an editor these days. Of course, as a writer, critic and editor, I was talking about my own problems too. To an ever expanding extent the work of artists and designers overlaps the work of other specialists in the field of cultural communication. And this is not only the case in complex applied multimedia environments - it holds true even for the autonomous or fine arts.

For what is the context of art and design today? How do they function in our culture and society? What is the role of artists and designers in what is called 'The Information Age'?

It is obvious that understanding the idea of 'Information' is a most important key to these questions. More than ever, the bulk of cultural production files under 'Info'. We need to be updated every second on any topic, to be able to exist as cultural beings. Information - from the hard facts of economy and the news to the seemingly trivial data transmitted by advertising and the entertainment industry - is at the core of our existence. But Information is not the stuff that evokes what the great 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant called "Interesseloses Wohlgefühlen", the kind of thing that is in itself valuable, without any connection to practical use or economical gain. That is where the great idea of autonomous art comes from: the creation of a thing of beauty as a value in itself, as a purely spiritual thing that has no use but being precisely that, a thing of the disinterested mind. These days it is hard to be disinterested. We are bombarded by information and we are compelled to do something with that information, to act on it, to deal with it.

In this cultural panorama both artists and designers today are, in a very practical sense, 'Information Agents' - that is to say: they traffic meaning, they transport ideas and concepts and opinions, they visualise structures and contexts. In short: they condensate information into cultural content. By calling both artists and designers 'Information Agents', I want to stress two aspects of visual culture today: The visual production of artists and designers functions in a framework that embraces such divers media as paintings, books, catalogues, magazines, computer terminals, television screens, films, installations, exhibitions and performances. These same media are in use by other 'Information Agents' too: writers, directors, producers, advertisers, politicians, salespersons, musicians, actors, supermodels, tv-makers - all of these and some more make use of the same media, the same formats, the same information, the same concepts as artists and designers do. Of course, each of them works differently, and from another background, another bias, a different idea of what to accomplish through these media. But they all are so to speak in the same room. In fact they work together in constructing our visual culture, a realm where visual information flows freely from one context to another, constantly shifting form, changing content, but at the same time adding up to this all embracing fabric called 'Late Twentieth Century Western Visual Culture'...

The other aspect is the viewer of all this visual productivity. The eye of the postmodern viewer has acquired a great proficiency in 'reading' information - be it verbal or visual, an artistic or a consumer product. Designers and their clients, the providers of information products, should be well aware of this growing visual literacy of their audiences when making their designs; the viewer will read them into their own context. No artwork or design is an isolated - or even 'autonomous' - object anymore.

Of course this has always been the case - any cultural production relates to culture as a whole. But there are some interesting historical differences: A century or more ago, no sane and civilised person would have thought of putting a painting next to a vacuum cleaner in a museum and say: Behold, our culture! Of course this person would be well aware that both products were in a very general sense cultural products, and as such things of their time, but they would never be put on the same level, let alone be confused... Nowadays we're quite used to seeing paintings and industrial products on the same level - as cultural products, each with its own context, but not necessarily of a fundamentally different nature and sometimes quite easy to confuse. When Jeff Koons puts a vacuum cleaner in a glass box it is art. When Sears puts a vacuum cleaner in a cardboard box, it's a product. So nowadays it's the box that makes the difference, not the product itself! And there are a lot of artists today who not only use, but personally make perfectly functional products and present them as artworks, and many designers who make perfectly viable artworks that are sold as products!

So there are strong reasons to argue that the practices of art and design are slowly but surely merging and that for both designers and artists it's more a question of context and concept than of principle that decides whether they're making art or design. They work in the same room, and they can choose the box they want to present their output in...

2. Talking About Boxes

I've avoided mentioning computers for some time, because what I am saying here is applicable to cultural production at large, not only to computer based art and design. But of course the computer environment is the best example of a context in which traditionaly different disciplines merge.

It is no coincidence that the computer is the epitome of the Information Age. For a computer any input is information - it's all the same, artwork or design, photo or video, image or text or sound, moving or still - it's all bytes and pieces. One of the interesting things about computers is that their architecture compels their users to adjust to a certain practical routine in handling that digital information, that is technically the same for everyone, be they working on a hypertext or an architectural construction or a graphic design or an interactive artwork. Behind the computer they all go through the same moves. These moves are fundamentally different from the moves students have learned to be the traditional skills of an artist or a designer. They can't sketch on a computer the way they used to do with a pencill on paper, they don't build their designs on the screen the way they used to build them on their drawing boards. On a computer, the basic thing you do is to order information. And the next thing you do is to edit that information. Practically you do these two things, regardless of whether you are an artist, a designer, an architect or a writer. When using a computer, you order and edit...

Now imagine that in the very broad field of what I call the production of visual culture; of visual art, graphic design, television, advertising, film, journalism, photography, performance, theatre - imagine that in all these fields a growing number of professionals start using the computer as their main tool to conceptualize and design their visual statements. If this would be the case, regardless of the materialisation of a project, or the box in which it is to be presented, all these disciplines would necessarily share a way of conceptual thinking. On a conceptual level, all of these disciplines would work the same way, all would have to address the same practical questions of ordering and editing information...

And this is what is happening now. I don't say that working with computers is the only way to make art or design these days, but I do say that when the computer becomes a very important tool in the creative processes of our culture, which it already is, this will affect culture at large. In many manifestations of today's visual culture you don't have to see the computer to know it has been there. And if an artist or a designer wants to be culturally effective, if they want to reflect meaningfully on what makes the society in which they work tick, then they have to be aware of these things. A designer can make beautiful and valuable books and posters or even websites, and not be part of what these books and posters and sites are about; an artist can make beautiful and valuable paintings or sculptures or even cd-roms, and not be part of the contexts in which the work is shown.

3. Changing Education

What does all this mean for (graphic) design education, apart from the obvious fact that design education can't be isolated anymore from education in other fields of cultural production?

How do the effects of the computer, new media and the changes in our communication environment reflect on today's design education? Did these technical and cultural innovations change education, and have educators adjusted themselves appropriately?

Not completely. In sofar as graphic designers are communications generalists par exellence, they are supposed to be capable of managing any formal aspect of communication processes, regardless of the medium for which it is produced and through which it is presented. But they should become more conscious of the fact that they're not the only ones who communicate. Designers have to rethink their role in (multimedia) communication. The traditional role of a designer as a rather autonomous professional who gives form to work that other professionals have finished earlier, has become unproductive - or even counterproductive - in a lot of communication processes. In the new electronic media any formal decision has a direct effect on the contents that are being communicated. Thus the designer has in effect become co-author and co-editor of the message.

This new, extended, role of the designer has already been compared with 'collective enterprises' like television, film and theatre. In these media form and content are formulated jointly by a range of specialists in areas like scenario, direction, set design, camera, dramatology, acting etcetera. Graphic designers more and more become members of similar teams of form-and-content-givers. Their role as sole responsables for the formal end product is strongly challenged. So graphic designers have to reconsider their place in the new hierarchy of design teams in a computer based environment. Graphic designers' main contribution to the effectivity of communication products is today more a matter of 'conceptual functionalism' than of formal virtuosity. Now that we can do virtually anything we want, the main question for designers ought not to be 'what?' or 'how?', but 'why?': Why would you want to use any of these new and sophisticated technologies? Too often the answer is: 'Just because they're there'. Designers should be able to argue their choice of means on the basis of the content they want to communicate and formulate it consistently with the technical, social and cultural characteristics of the media they use. In the end designers should be trusted to say to their clients, after careful analysis of the brief: 'You don't need the fancy website you ordered - you need a few good people at the phone...'

For design education these visions of the extended role of designers point back to a functional archetype we know from architecture: the designer as homo universalis. For to encompass all the aspects that touch on the design process - to weigh all of these against their influence on form and content of the design - the designer has to have knowledge of an incredibly broad array of social, creative, communicative and technical processes. He's back again: the designer as demiurg, the quasi-omnipotent creator of worlds! The problem facing the Leonardo's of our time however, is that all these aspects are infinitely more hard to knit together than they were in the Renaissance. A Corporate Graphic Design Manager at a large industrial firm seemed to point to this problem when, during a discusion, he related an image of vast project teams in which the graphic designer is just one of the specialists. Only to be driven to near despair when confronted with the question of who should bind together all these specialist effords; who should have an overview and direct the concept? "That is a problem..." the Corporate Design Manager said.

Specialism versus generalism is the implicit problem beneath the debate on the concequences of working with new media for design education. Of course one needs specialists; operators, programmers, HTML-editors, illustrators, image manipulators, as one needs photographers, typographers and printers. But maybe there's even more need for designers who are capable of seeing the whole picture, before it's made. People who know enough of each specialism to direct the totality of the ever more complex design process. These are not necessarily the same people who execute the visual end product. In multimedia communication the role of the designer is shifting from visualising to conceptualising.

This implies in effect a division into two aspects of graphic designers' activities: on the one hand there are the specialists, the conceivers and (technical) realizers of presentations, the 'imagers'; on the other hand there are the generalists, the conceivers and managers of conceptual consistancy. Of course these two extremes are not divided in the absolute sense and it will be up to personal interests and individual talents of designers to decide which direction they will want to explore. It's a difference of scale, and of content. Both generalist and specialist are creative 'conceptualizers', in the sense that they have to think up something that isn't exactly there, be it image or concept. Traditionally graphic designers have always had a strong conceptual side to their work and they have always worked in an argumentative way. Actually they've always tended towards generalism more than to specialism. And you can be a specialized generalist, as long as your trade is consistent and not too complex. Now it is exactly here that things have changed a lot in recent years. The 'trade' has subdivided into very divers and technologically very complex specialisms, and what is probably even more important: the divisions between design and other fields of cultural production have, as I have pointed out, been blurred to a rather dramatic extent.

4. Teaching to Communicate

So, in a world of desk-toppers and savant typographers, what is the role of the professional graphic designer? And how can they be best educated? It is here that the 'division' takes place: alongside the people who can deal with technologically complex 'details' - the digital artisans, as they are beginning to be called -, we need designers who can deal with organizing highly complex 'clusters' of communication tools. They're the ones who can bind together in meaningful and enticing ways the different contextual and technological levels of the product. They have to be able to judge content in terms of the organization of very divers forms and means and media. So they have to have a thourough basic knowledge of all the means and media and forms. Their main asset is the argumented vision, not so much the actual visualisation. They formulate the concepts and map the contexts.

When such is the state of the profession, it becomes clear where lies the problem, or better, the challenge of current design education. The way it is organized, certainly in Europe, design education delivers neither specialists nor generalists. Design academy alumni know the basics of their trade, but they are not seasoned typographers, book- or exhibition designers nor WEB-wizzkids. On the other hand the art and design schools are too much geared towards the mediation of more or less specialistic knowledge to deliver real generalists, designers who have developed the broad general knowledge and the trained academic thinking that will enable them to cope with complex conceptual problems.

In this diffuse situation, an 'interactive' supply of knowledge seems to be the best that design education can offer. In order to cater to the realities of the workfield that asks for very diverse professionals, we need to diversify design education - not by installing ever more specialised but autonomous schools and courses, but by structurally uniting the contexts within which young people learn whatever they want - and have - to learn about communication. 'Customization' would be in my opinion the best way to link the disparate demands of the 'market' to the diversity of interests among students. They should be able to make their own course - an argumented choice from a broad range of specialistic and general subjects on different levels - obviously within predetermined criteria. This not only means that the 'walls' between the design disciplines and the ways in which they are teached should be opened, it also - and primarily - implies a much easier 'communication' between art- design- and scientific education.

The term 'communication' is used here in the sense of 'communicating vessels'; students of either institution - university, art- and design schools - who qualify and are interested should be stimulated to follow courses in the other institutions. Theory, criticism and practice should be linked in a more meaningful way than they are now. For a certain type of designer-generalist we need a strengthening of an academic level of thought, to which an 'overlap' between artschools and universities would be helpfull. For others there should be more ways to aquire practical experience in the fields that they cover as theoreticians and/or organisers. The educational institutions should think about what they can mean for each other in terms of preparing their students for a world in which anything has to do with everything else. And most of all: they should learn their students, be they academics, designers or artists, to work together, to understand the complexities and challenges of each other's projects and to realise that these projects are different faces of the same dice.

So don't just teach interactive design; design an interactive education!

max bruinsma