This is a reading response to Andrew Blauvelt’s article “Towards Relational Design” that was posted to Design Observer in 2008. Our class had some trouble wrapping our heads around it. This response is a bit fragmented and super expository but works through my developing understanding of the concept of relational design.

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“We are in the midst of a much larger paradigm shift across all design disciplines, one that is…potentially more transformative than previous isms, or micro-historic trends, would indicate.”

Andrew Blauvelt posits that we are currently undergoing a slow, massive shift in all fields of design toward solutions that are relational and contextually based. He claims that this is modern design’s third major phase, following phases of formal innovation (the first) and the creative development of meaning (the second). I appreciate his ability to see patterns so large in fields so often disparate.

How might graphic design play a role here?

I have thought a lot about the connections between Graphic Design and relation or engagement since I began taking classes in Art and Social Practice with Harrell Fletcher. Taken on a whim, my first term in the class proved so transformative that I repeated the class twice after that. I was unfamiliar with the concept of Social Practice as defined by Fletcher, and even with the framework of contemporary art. To me, art was paintings. In a museum. Maybe art could be photography. In a gallery. But the insights, theories and approaches I learned through Social Practice began to permeate my thinking and encroach into my evolving concept of Graphic Design.

Social Practice is essentially about engagement.

It brings relational and contextual aspects into its formulation and execution. A Social Practice art piece could be a performance, a repeated action, an interaction, an exchange, an investigation or an immersive experience. Social Practice art requires people, and it requires experience. Social Practice artists may adapt or mimic practices or structures found in everyday life, and it is in this seemingly non-art context that interesting truths, stories and experiences emerge.

Graphic Design is essentially about communication. And communication is engagement. Graphic Design relies on an audience. It relies on people and everyday life, though Graphic Design need not attempt to mimic “real life” because it simply is real life.

I early on began to sense the connections between Graphic Design and Social Practice, but could never seem to articulate them. One relied heavily on objects, physical formats, and end-products. The other shunned the art object and instead advocated intangible ends–or perhaps no ends at all, and instead just the process.

But both hold the capacity for–and in fact require–engagement.

Why this round-about comparison of Social Practice Art and Relational Design? Because the development of a new wave of Design is supported and mirrored by a shift in experimental art practice. They reinforce one another.

That Blauvelt uses Daniel Eatock’s work as an example of relational (in this case, participatory) design thrills me. I find Daniel Eatock to an apt example of an effective marriage of form, meaning and engagement. Call me a fan if you will, but I consistently appreciate the work that Eatock makes: whether he requests user input for “Picture of the Week,” creates form layouts that beg for participation, or develops a web template that encourages the indexing of projects and the sharing of process, Daniel Eatock considers the experience and engagement of his audience and empowers would-be designers through an open-ended process.

I see Blauvelt’s example of the shift of architecture toward the relational to be equally applicable to graphic design:

“In architecture, the discourse has shifted from the purity and organizational control of space to the inhabitation of real places–the messy realities of actual lives, living patterns over time…and social, not simply physical, sites.”

This statement, when paired with Blauvelt’s discussion of new contexts for user-input within design, offers a glimpse into the state of graphic design today. Web 2.0 and the social networks fueled by developments in technology facilitate user-input and interactive design on a whole new level.

Models like Threadless or the print-on-demand realm that Blauvelt mentions offer graphic design new contexts. These formats require participation. They include non-designers in design practice, therefore democratizing design and forming it into a populace process. (I could write forever about Threadless.) These formats reflect a type of “social logic” that is indicative of the new wave of design and far different from formal logic or the logic of meaning we see in design history.

I recently read an article called “Better than Free.” The author, Kevin Kelly, proposes that modern consumers, in a world of frequent reproduction, want things that cannot be copied. Consumers will open their wallets for: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment, Patronage and Findability. It isn’t a perfect article, and some of these things need to be explained, but what I took away from this is: consumerism is changing, and by default graphic design must change. The Threadless model is so distinctly a “21st-century brand” because it offers immediacy, personalization, accessibility, (etc., etc.) and ENGAGEMENT.

I saw Jelly Helm speak in September on the topic of “What’s next?” He blew my mind with the concept of “21st-century brands,” also known as “people-powered brands” or “emergent brands.” He must have read Blauvelt’s article as research for that lecture. Emergent brands enable the user to create content and meaning by using that brand. They allow themselves to be adopted into the identity of their users. Apple. Wikipedia. Google. These are emergent brands. They’re not rigid. They allow for individuality within the brand, for consumers to participate and tout the brand as their own. These brands become adopted by users and integrated into personal identities. “I’m an Apple person.” “I googled it.” Graphic design is by some accounts the business of branding, and this idea of emergent brands offers a glimpse of what graphic design might look like in the next century as we continue down our path of relational design.

Back to Blauvelt. He nabbed my undying attention with his opening question and kept me fascinated until the end of the article. He is simultaneously objective and optimistic. How does he do it? My favorite tidbit is in the second-to-last paragraph:

“…the third phase presents a multitude of contingent or conditional solutions: open-ended rather than closed systems; real world constraints and contexts over idealized utopias…in lieu of the forlorn designer, the possibility of many designers…the ascendency of enabling or generative systems; the end of discrete objects, hermetic meanings, and the beginning of connected ecologies.”

This is exciting.