no.26 vol.7 autmn 1997

The oldness of new

Do we have to reinvent graphic design? The question stands, now that most of what designers know from their experience with books and magazines and posters and road signs is put in a different perspective when applied to the new screen based media. To say the least. Is a screen in any way comparable to a page? Is a set of links something like a section of pages? Does a JPEG or a GIF resemble a printed halftone when it comes to balancing them with type? And what about typography itself?

As Nico MacDonald argues in this issue, seeing the web in terms of familiar media, especially print, can be quite misleading. The criteria by which we judge design on the web or in other new media cannot simply be extrapolated from what we know about traditional media.

True. But on the other hand there is a hughe reservoir of knowledge and experience in good old graphic design that is not yet exploited to the full in design for new media. And although the computer screen is in many ways a carrier that is fundamentally different from a paper page, it still remains a flat surface to which age-old criteria of composition, structure and balance, of line, colour and plane, are perfectly applicable.

Looking at the history of graphic design - however short it may still be - one has to acknowledge that the discipline has always had strong links with other visual arts, applied or autonomous. Graphic design has learned from painting and architecture, literature, photography, comic books, advertising, cinema, and television - all these media have learned and copied from each other. In her 'Screen' column, Jessica Helfand argues that many of the new formats claimed to have come out of new media, are not so new after all. And Steven Heller shows that graphic designers and photographers for picture magazine in the early decades of this century have jointly invented a format - the visual essay, or picture story - that has had great impact on newspaper, television and web design, while drawing itself heavily on the narrative and visual codes of early cinema and earlier illustrated journals.

So there are good reasons to consider older media, even if one accepts the essential differences between those and the newer ones.

To recognise where we can learn of what has been done in "familiar media", we should look less at the new means and more at the constant goals: to foster communication in a way that is both visually exiting and intellectually rewarding.  In a statement delivered at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, designer and educator Gui Bonsieppe said that to him all design, be it graphic or industrial design, is principly interface design.

That being granted, there still remains the question of how to visualise these structures. Interface design as it is developing now tends to concentrate on structural matters more than on translating these in an accurate and aesthetically interesting visual form, as can be seen on several websites devoted to GUI (Graphic Interface Design): they may carry interesting information, but from a graphic design point of view they are often poorly executed.

Interface design and graphic design for electronic media are tools for structuring, clarifying and enhancing narrative. But they can do more: they can function as part of the story told, like the tone of voice of a narrator flavours his tale. More than telling the viewer when 'to turn the page', or which button to click, the graphic designer of interfaces can be the user's partner in making choices. In stead of prescribing the action ('turn the page'), the interface can prepare the viewer in making their choices (or offer a choice of enticing ways to continue, each addressing them in a different tone...), and more: it can be poetic, if designers set their minds to it.

Graphic design for the World Wide Web still has to find ways to bind together the different elements that make up the visual appearance of the screens. In print design these elements are seamlessly merged by tradition and experience, both of designers and readers. But on the web the balance between texts and images, navigational and content information, content and embellishment can not yet be judged on the basis of a similar theoretical and empirical history. But while exploring the new possibilities and studying the new problems of structure and navigation, we should not forget that we know a lot already. There is a very rich reservoir of visual languages in older art and design disciplines including graphic design, waiting to be carefully adapted to a new context.

max bruinsma