The Teaching of Graphic Design and Why It Should Change

This text aims to show that society has changed rapidly, but the teaching of graphic design did not follow these changes. If design colleges want to stay relevant, they will need to re-evaluate their curricula, taking into account new career paradigms. This article expands and elaborate on the ideas of the report AIGA Designer 2025.

Introduction

In the history of graphic design, some changes took centuries to happen. For example, between the invention of the Gutenberg press (1448) and of the Linotype machine (1817), 369 years have passed. Between Linotype and the photocomposition printing system (1993), passed 176 more years. However, while these two changes have taken centuries, other changes in the graphic design scene have taken little time. This is not surprising: the speed of changes in graphics technology has skyrocketed.

The rapid evolution in the number of available typographic fonts is an evidence of this growth. When the Apple Macintosh was originally released (January 24, 1984), that computer had approximately 17 fonts, created by Susan Kare, and named after large cities (Chicago, Monaco, Geneva, Cairo, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Venice). Today, it would take many more city names to identify the available fonts. In only 11 years (2003 to 2014) more than 62.000 typographic fonts were developed, not counting those that were not recorded (estimated to exceed 500.000).

It wasn’t only the typography that changed fast. Other technological changes also happened in a short time: laser printing, variable data printing, cloud printing, 3D printing, Opentype variable fonts, digital publishing on tablets and smartphones.

In addition, other technologies have appeared and influenced society as GPS, the Internet, search engines, social networks, streaming music, IoT, Youtube channels, home-office work, distance learning, online services, content curation platforms, to name a few. Given this scenario, we can see that the teaching of graphic design doesn’t seem to have accompanied these changes, running the risk of becoming irrelevant.

Besides this, the profession of graphic design has become less demanded when compared to other areas of performance. A report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be a 0 to 1% increase in design positions between 2014 and 2024 in the US. This number is much lower than the average growth in general occupations (7%) and in the number of network communication professionals (27%). The US economy expects to add 186,000 software development positions in 2024 (AIGA Designer 2025). Only Canada is going to create at least 218,000 jobs in technology by 2020, but only 29,000 per year (it should make 43,000).

Misalignment between teaching and professional reality

In addition to misalignment with market demands, design education continues to be guided by principles that have lagged behind in time:

Self-referential design

Design courses are commonly associated with departments or art colleges, emphasizing the formal characteristics of the projects and the authorial work. The emphasis on individual production leads to the kind of design that is taught as something that is done “for” and not “with” people.

This for-people perspective also manifests itself in some courses where the teacher uses the classrooms as a space for lectures, reinforcing the model in which knowledge is obtained by transference rather than collective construction.

The influence of art departments leads design to consider people as passive beings and mere receivers of visual messages. The focus of projects is usually on the message and not on the needs of the stakeholders.

This self-referential activity reinforces the stereotype of the designer as one who puts himself first, making difficult the necessary agreements when a design project needs to be implemented.

Speculative design

In addition to self-referential design, design education is also hampered by the eminently practical bias, which has created designers resistant to the development of theory, because it is thought that practice is the foundation of the area (Koskinen and Krogh, 2015). The few available theories have a highly speculative character, many of them without validity, repeated more by tradition than by relevance.

The theories of design taught in the classroom have difficulty in demonstrating their value, since it is difficult to see if design actions bring the desired effects, in the sense of epistemological accountability (to make known what has been achieved and to justify that in which failed). As Gaver, Hooker and Dunne (2001, pp. 202-203) said, “Design is aesthetically accountable. The question is whether to design ‘works,’ not whether the methods used to devise them are sound …. Design is not epistemologically accountable; designers do not have to justify their methods as scientists do … Designs can be seen the embodiments of beliefs or theories about the myriad of issues relevant to them. These beliefs need not be explained by the designer.”

Many of the theories used by designers cannot be generalized statistically, although they are taught to be valid in very different contexts. Even theories repeated to exhaustion in design faculties, such as Gestalt, do not survive the test of reality, therefore without ecological validity.

Industrial Design

The teaching of graphic design is also hampered by the industrial perspective that dominates many curricula. In many courses, the logic of industrial economics, geared toward serial reproduction, encourages the use of ready-made recipes to rework similar objects. This makes design predictable as you see more of it and each new project seems to go the same way when it comes to making just a variation of what already exists.

Formal design

Also under the influence of industrial logic and art departments, design education turns to formal research, focusing on the abstract, presuming appearance as the ultimate goal. In these cases discussions about users and meaning are usually left behind, assuming the possibility of creating a design that is generic, taking care of broader contexts.

The excessive formalization of design also leads to the preference for creating graphic artifacts as a response to the human needs of communication, which could be met without the creation of physical objects, following the logic of dematerialization. The focus should be on value creation, not artifact creation.

Negative design

Another design problem is the focus on… problems. Other alternatives based on positive psychology do not find space in design teaching. Focus on problems makes designers a specialist in …. problems, not in solutions, as might be expected. By pointing out the errors in systems, spaces, processes, designers are seen less as leaders and more as witch hunters.

Disintegrated Design

Finally, the model of education based on fragmented curriculum presents students with mere clippings of reality. For example, typography teaching is dissociated from image study, though decisions made in a project are often simultaneous. The teaching of new media is also offered by external teachers, who teach in a disintegrated way in relation to other subjects. Interface designs for electronic devices look alien when compared to other project types, demonstrating a view that does not match the reality that students will encounter in the job market. In real contexts, experiences integrate different points of contact, being difficult to determine where one begins and the other ends.

New perspectives for design education

Faced with the changes that society is going through and the complex nature of current problems, it is important to redefine how graphic design is taught. Existing challenges require new skills that allow designers to deal with this constantly moving complexity, made up of different variations in the interactions between people and the surrounding environment.

Mastering the process of constructing fixed layouts aimed at fixed messages with fixed audiences seems no longer to meet the liquid and fluid character of human relations and the messages that people exchange with each other. The Aristotelian communication model (Sender> Message> Receiver) has now been replaced by the access model, where people deposit messages in shelves (feeds) and people consume this information asynchronously (Waller, 1988, 176). In this model, people are no longer passive recipients of information, but active agents that redefine the concept of what it is to “communicate.”

The design process itself also underwent changes, where research ceased to be a stage of information gathering at the beginning of the process, through a briefing, and became a continuous feedback tool on the effects that the design is generating . The design process ceased to be predictable based on ready-made recipes and became iterative, non-linear and continually informed by the surrounding environment.

Meredith Davis stated: “Under an object-centered, mechanical definition of design practice, the designer is seen as an expert who decides 
on the attributes of a finished product which is delivered 
to management to solve a problem. Under an organic, 
systems-oriented definition of practice, opportunities and insights emerge from anywhere within the organization or system. The designer steps into this context as a facilitator 
who builds consensus around ideas that evolve under 
changing conditions.” (2012)

Unlike a few years ago, where the power to communicate was relegated to a few agents, the Internet now allows people to communicate by creating their video channels, blogs, feeds, and shared boards. Content that was previously centralized is now developed in a continuous, organic and unpredictable way. Faced with this scenario, it makes no sense to teach a design that is limited to designing page layouts or interface screens.

According to the AIGA Designer 2025 (2017) report, if communication design courses continue to use a message-centric approach, we will have to strive to keep design relevant, and the area runs the risk of losing influence to other disciplines if faculties and universities do not change their expectations about the design curriculum.

New paradigms for teaching graphic design

Faced with the need to rethink graphic design curricula in order to keep courses relevant to new trends, the AIGA Designer 2025* (2017) trend report suggests seven main concepts that should guide a new pedagogical project:

  • Complexity
  • Aggregation and Curatorship
  • Physical and digital experiences
  • Focus on agreements
  • Privilege the essence
  • New Directions
  • Accountability

1. Complexity

The type of problems that designers must solve is no longer limited to the creation of graphic messages in the form of pages, posters, logos or interface layouts. Problems have complex characteristics, such as wicked problems, with interdependent relationships between elements or activities. When one factor changes, it affects others, and that requires design projects to take that into account. It also generates the need to collaborate with professionals from other areas.

This requires designers to:

  • Learn to deal with problems on different scales (from components to entire communities);
  • Identify and map relationships among people, places, things and processes within a system;
  • Find areas of conflict where small changes or external factors can have great effects in a complex system;
  • Structure projects to enhance the entire system’s effectiveness, not just isolated parts;
  • Take into account physical, social, cultural, technological, economic and environmental effects. (AIGA Report)

2. Aggregation and Curatorship

People no longer access messages within the “sender > receiver” communication model. Now they aggregate content based on their needs and interests, in the form of playlists, feeds, boards etc. The content overdose has created the need for curators, which modify the way content is planned and delivered. And brands lose control over the contexts in which messages are seen and heard.

In this context, designers must learn to:

  • Identify the role that symbols and words play in the perception of brands, even when separated from their original contexts and rules of application;
  • Describe the experiences of regrouped content, in meeting people’s goals;
  • Propose ways in which curatorial behavior in digital environments can serve as a starting point for conversational approaches to interaction design and community building. (AIGA Report)

3. Seamless analogical and digital experiences

People move between different devices, environments and activities while enjoying experiences. Users expect the technology to offer unified experiences, even when transiting between messages and services from different sources.

With that in mind, the courses should teach to:

  • Analyze people’s needs, desires, values ​​and patterns of behavior, using research methods;
  • Identify information, product, and service related ecologies that support people in achieving their goals.
  • Map people’s journeys in their interaction with other individuals, places, things, and processes;
  • Identify and design for important touchpoints or friction points, where people change or lose support for continuous experiences. (AIGA Report)

4. Focus on agreements

Work in organizations is built more on agreements than on decisions, stewardship rather than ownership of ideas. Stewardship is the art of aligning decisions when many minds are involved in planning something and many hands are involved in executing the plan (http://www.helsinkidesignlab.org/legiblepractices).

With this in mind, designers need to learn to:

  • Describe basic business operations, stakeholders, and relationships between them by bringing messages, products and/or services to the public;
  • Research to determine which features and experiences are relevant to the development of these messages, products, environments, and services;
  • Analyze the components of a marketing plan to understand the organization, its values, positioning, audiences, objectives and strategies, budgets and indicators to measure results;
  • Identify the value generated by design and research in the face of traditional marketing strategies, especially in terms of quality of experience;
  • Build a workflow that identifies tasks, deadlines, and resources to complete a project;
  • Collaborate in teams using specific techniques of leadership, communication and negotiation. (AIGA Report)

5. Privilege the essence

The essential purpose of design is one: to privilege essence and value. Audiences evaluate organizations taking into account the consistency and values ​​expressed in their products, services and social behavior. People connect emotionally with stories that faithfully reflect the ethos of the organization and show loyalty to them when ethical and humanistic values ​​permeate all aspects of operations.

With that in mind, the resume should teach designers to:

  • Identify the social and ethical responsibilities of designers and customers in meeting design challenges, even in cases where the organization’s original purpose is not social innovation;
  • Differentiate and resolve conflicting priorities between stakeholders and between stakeholders and society;
  • Evaluate design solutions in terms of their social, cultural, technological, economic and environmental impact. (AIGA Report)

6. New senses

People look for meaning and clarity in an environment saturated with data and images. They need help to understand this flood of stimuli. There is a shift from the asymmetric, unidirectional relationship between users and information to a model of communication strategies built on the basis of conversation, participation and community.

This requires designers to:

  • Use various strategies to represent data, identify the patterns they reveal or hide;
  • Describe and design for an environment rich in information and conversation;
  • Discuss differences between systems controlled by designers or based on stewardship, in support of relationships between people, activities, and information; (AIGA Report)

7. Accountability

Design research has been required to conform to rigorous standards and is measured by the same metrics used in other business activities. Designers need to justify their research in terms of continuing value. They need to adapt borrowed methods from other disciplines to use in design projects.

Design courses need to teach students to:

  • Interpret, summarize and apply the most important research findings in design investigations;
  • Recognize different theoretical perspectives in published research texts;
  • Apply various research methods at the various stages of the design process, including problem identification, constraint and opportunity analysis, opportunity evaluation, and interpretation of effects. (AIGA Report)

Conclusion

The society has been rapidly changing, but the teaching of graphic design is not aligned with these changes. If design undergraduate courses want to keep themselves relevant, it is a matter of survival to re-evalute their curricula, taking into account new principles of design. With an ever smaller demand for traditional graphic design skills, we need to realign the career with more actual needs.

*According to Meredith Davis, in an email sent to the Ph.D. Design List,
AIGA Design 2025 report “is an early draft of trends compiled in October 2017 through the study of trend analyses in various fields and consultation with leaders in professional practice. Seven briefing papers (one on each trend) will be published this spring on the AIGA website (www.aiga.org <http://www.aiga.org/&gt;). Each paper includes examples of the trend in professional practice; core concepts and principles related to the trend; challenges the trend represents for the profession; college-level student competencies; potential content for professional continuing education; and resources on the topic. Issues such as service design, software product development, and research in professional practice are addressed in the expanded discussions and greater detail on student competencies. Drafts of these briefing papers are currently under review by leaders in design practice and education.”

References

AIGA Designer 2025. (2017) Why Design Education Should Pay Attention to Trends. Available at: https://educators.aiga.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/DESIGNER-2025-SUMMARY.pdf. Accessed on February 10, 2018.

Davis, M. (2012) Graphic Design Theory (Graphic Design in Context).

Koskinen, I. And Krogh, P. (2015). Design Accountability: When Design Research Entangles Theory and Practice. International Journal of Design Vol. 9 No. 1.

Gaver, W., Hooker, B., & Dunne, A. (2001). The presence project. London, UK: RCA CRD Research Publications.

Waller, R. (1988) The typographic contribution to language. Towards a model of typographic genres and their underlying structures. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. University of Reading, UK.

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