no.25 vol.7 summer 1997


Learning to read and write images

Ours is a strange time - we yearn for continuity and simultaneously we're keen on the newness that lies ahead. We are constantly checking our enthusiasm for new media and new ways of expression against our knowledge of the time honoured principles of the trade. But how permanent are they?

The young discipline of graphic design seems to be exploding, at a time when its theoretical characteristics and foundations have barely been formulated.
This is a situation that poses a complicated, but interesting and stimulating problem to a magazine like Eye, and to any critical writer about design.

Visual communication has become a complex territory of design disciplines that are intricately linked through a great diversity of media: different  publication formats in print, television, film, advertising, on-line media, cd-roms, exhibitions, performances... In this expansive field boundaries between disciplines are rapidly blurring to the extent of extinction, and contexts of production and communication are fading into each other.

Within the broad province of the arts, design and visual communication, graphic design will remain recognizable as a discipline for still some time. But it will more and more merge with the other disciplines.
This context requires a rethinking of existing ideas of 'multidisciplinary' in terms of (for want of a better word) 'meta-disciplinarity'. Within complex design contexts, the input of 'graphic design' can still be discerned, as can the inputs of for instance 'product design' (the design of the hardware carriers of information that become more and more differentiated and customized) or 'text design' (yes, copy and text writers who provide very precise wordings for very precise contexts are to be considered designers), or 'editorial design' (the content structure that defines the overall format of the information product is its 'root' design). But it may become rather hard to distinguish the individual input of the graphic designer from that of the product designer, the text or copy writer and the editor. More and more they work alongside each other, affecting the work of the others with every move they make in their own part of the design.

And this is not only the case in new screen based media. Although the screen, as Jessica Helfand writes in this issue, has become "not merely an instrument of information delivery, but also a kind of stage set", on which a fragmented reality unrolls before our fragmented personalities, I think this applies to any medium graphic designers work with. In today's graphic design, paper pages are often used in ways that clearly betray their kinship to the screens that they originated on.

It is crucial to understand that the analysis of the changes within graphic design is not confined to the so-called 'new media'. The one sure thing about the future of graphic design, is that it will deal with media mixes to an extent that the discipline has not seen before.

As the formal design of products of visual communication is diverging into ever more specialized media linked sub disciplines peopled by an expanding 'class of operators', the core business - and quality - of leading graphic designers will shift to their editorial capacities. To quote Lorraine Wild: "...designers as the persons with a vision, not necessarily the visualizers."

Graphic design, as a discipline that operates with and within a complex mix of 'time based' media, will become more and more content oriented. Graphic designers are not just making pages anymore, they have become directors of information.

So graphic design is not an isolated or even subservient discipline anymore. In the information age it is (or should be) at the core of this field of cultural production called Visual Communication. Traditionally graphic designers have always been trained to analyse and work on the whole trajectory of a communication product, from its initial conceptual formulation, through the editorial analysis and refinement, to the actual design and realization of the product. Even though public attention for graphic design is often limited to its formal qualities, an interesting and influential graphic design product, be it a poster, a book or a web site, is rarely just an aesthetic thing - it is a precise shape for a precise content.

Analysing and criticizing form in respect to content (as a function of content) becomes all the more urgent in a time when forms and contents and media seem to be floating around in a primordial soup of possible contexts and meanings.

For the responsible designer, the 'anything-goes'-idea can turn out to be as paralysing as it may have seemed liberating at first sight. A reaction to this aesthetic 'free-for-all' may be the return to the established knowledge of the trade, to the artistic and craftsmanly skills of drawing or letter cutting. On the other hand, as Jamie Hobson argues in this issue, concentration on artistic skills like drawing can hamper designers in the development of the "observation skills which enable them to make analytical, intellectual and conceptual judgements".

To be able to follow the shifts in the trade, we will have to balance the old and established with the new and unsteady. We will have to develop new critical and theoretical tools, based on a (new) combination of (graphic) design history and the history and theory of contemporary popular visual culture. For Eye this means not just to follow what is going on within the traditional boundaries of graphic design, but to see the design aspects in any form of visual communication in any medium.

Of course this is what Eye has been trying to do the past seven years, and the magazine will remain true to its name: we are about seeing, about the ways in which information is translated into visual form. But when the status of visuality is changing in our world and our culture, the character of Eye will change with it.

We will see a further blurring of boundaries between text and image, between the traditional fields of typography and visual design. We will need thoughts and criticism on how the two interact, to develop a new idea of what is an 'image'.

As images seem to aspire to the same status of meaningful communication that has been until very recently the sole prerogative of text, we will have to reconsider the notions that are summarized in the phrase 'visual communication'.

How do we write and read images?

This is in many ways a new problem. But at the same time it is maybe the oldest question in the history of art and design. As an art historian, like my predecessor, I tend to check the new against the old. We look for continuity when everything seems to be in turmoil - and for the germs of renewal when all seems at a stalemate.

Working in this highly international field of design criticism implies to communicate with one's colleagues and opponents; to invite, stimulate and provoke each other to write critically about the state of the arts in graphic design, and about the changing contexts that we see in this field.

max bruinsma