We began this term discussing the distinctions between art and design. How do we differentiate these two creative fields? Can something be both art and design at once? We read Rick Poynor’s article, “Art’s Little Brother” from Icon Magazine Online.

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Design is functional. Art is expressive. We accept these qualities as truths about the related and interdependent disciplines of art and design. The converse is also true: design can be highly expressive, and art serves a necessary function in our society.

Design is communication. Design is a vehicle for conveying meaning. Design has the power to evoke emotion on a massive scale. The covers of popular magazines have forever been a site for designers to air experiments and trends. Widely distributed media has the ability to shock, please, horrify, or deeply move the public. Graphic designers are trained visual communicators with an arsenal of semiotic tools and tricks at their disposal: conveying messages with word and image become challenging exercises whose solutions have the power to express distinct emotion. Such widespread expression of ideas and emotions can facilitate a collective consciousness that would not be possible without the scale and accessibility of design.

Design is visual culture. As seeing beings we observe and respond to pieces of design daily, often in the same manner in which we observe and respond to pieces of art. Poyner writes this about pieces of design: “The sensory, intellectual and emotional satisfactions they offer as pieces to look at, think about and react to—as well as to use—are akin to the experience of sculpture.” (Poyner 3) A piece of design can ask questions and a piece of design can evoke emotion.

Art functions as an intellectual and emotional playground in our fast-moving, highly pragmatic world. It serves an intangible function that is contested, and perhaps to some, unnecessary. The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project of the 1930’s and 1940’s revealed a moment in our county’s history when art was considered necessary. Artists were given employment opportunities and unprecedented (and unrepeated) equality in the eyes of the government. The work of a poster artist was just as important as the work of a crane operator.

Art can be an accessible lens into inaccessible issues. Artists have long exposed public sentiment on controversial matters through their work. Art can tell a story, can expose valuable truths, and ask questions. These are all necessary parts of the human condition.

Art can be decoration. This idea isn’t derogatory, but instead reveals our desire as a society for the presence of compelling visual elements within everyday life.

Art can create community and art can create change. Contemporary and historical movements and genres within the art framework have united neighborhoods, nations and cultures.

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.

Reading Response #12

December 7, 2009

Bruce Mau knows a thing or two about running a studio.

How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul
Chapter 5
Running a studio

Dear Mr. Shaughnessy,

Again, THANK YOU for wading through all the boring details. I appreciate it. I won’t waste time restating the good tips you gave about project managers, receptionists, and hiring people. I will instead talk about developing a design philosophy.

You state that a design firm must establish and work according to an ethical and creative philosophy. I’m interested in this assertion in light of how much we design students worry we’ll be working for soulless firms doing jobs for heartless clients. You give me faith that no one really WANTS to do these things. Sometimes it just happens.

Your studio’s philosophy is to do high-quality work for all clients, regardless of the budget.

Your logic is that low-budget work often offers more freedom. Doing good work with a small budget leads to bigger, better jobs.

You employ creative individuals to whom you then grant freedom to work towards their own creative visions.

You claim that people work harder and produce better work when allowed to experiment and create independently.

I’ll buy that!

Nice philosophy.

I’ll let you know when I develop one. Here’s what I have for starters:

Enjoy going to work everyday.
Make things that you want to show your friends.
Don’t work with assholes.
Don’t promote products that kill people.
Don’t cause more harm than good on this here good planet.

I’ll have to narrow it down at some point, but that’s what I’m thinking so far.

Thanks for making me think.

Sincerely yours,

Nicole Lavelle

The philosophy of Bruce Mau Design: “We create massive change. We invent cultural possibility. We design positive innovation, we ignite audacious action.” You should probably read this book:


PERSONAS

October 29, 2009

3101856879_249e7d9a06_bUser research. Flickr.

This is a reading response to Personas: Practice and Theory by John Pruitt and Jonathan Grudin from the book Design Studies.

“Personas are a medium for communication; a conduit for information about users and work settings derived from ethnographies, market research, usability studies, interviews, observations and so on.”

Call it what you will: user archetypes, market segmentation, user role definition, user profiling, fictional charaters: this article hails the importance of all designers and developers having a detailed understanding of human behavior. Designers often have a vague or contradictory sense of intended users, and may base scenarios on themselves. I do this all the time. I often find myself making work that I’d use and like, but this only goes so far. Developing personas can “amplify the effectiveness of other research methods.” As designers, the act of creating personas can help us make our assumptions about our target audience more explicit.

550438755_29c4e3d16aLittle stand-up personas. Flickr.

Though there’s nothing more boring than reading about the development of MSN Explorer, this article was valuable to me. It encouraged me to think more critically about my audience. I must be more willing to take myself out of the picture from time to time and realize that not all consumers of my design are white, 20-something middle-class hipsters from Portland, Oregon.

SAGMEISTER AND EMOTION

October 29, 2009

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Picture 71Art Grandeur Nature, 2004, Stefan Sagmeister

This is a reading response to Stefan Sagmeister’s essay on emotion in graphic design.

I really liked this reading. I feel that designers, or at least design students, are always after Sagmeister’s secret–how does he make the amazing work he makes? It must be his sabbaticals. It must be his apt sculptural typography skills. It must be that he’s European. Wrong. This article smashes all of that. Like any other artist or designer, he is a living, breathing human being, and his strength comes in embracing that.

The secret to success? Make yourself feel your design. Really, really feel it. Inside, not with your fingers. If you don’t feel anything, maybe rethink the project.

This of course is only a certain kind of success, but a kind that I’m hoping to find.

I tried to choose a favorite part of this essay to focus on, but I couldn’t. Each section offered something new and refreshing. I appreciated the whole thing. The best part for me was that even though he listed a number of graphic design projects that touched him, a lot of them weren’t simply design. They were hybrid projects: art, graffiti, comics. I hold fast that what makes an interesting designer is a well-rounded interest in many things. As designers, we’re the mirrors of the world, in some sense. If we’re not actively watching, listening, feeling, our work will lack meaningful content.

“So ever since I got that black canvas bag at that conference in New Orleans, this touching thing has been on my mind, and  I’ve looked for design pieces that cut through to my heart.”

Picture 68I feel more when I look at this than when I look at most other things. Matokie Slaughter.

2852318316_4a0103619e_oThis moves me. More.

3017710596_569104d1d5_bSo does this. A global warming rug.

3023493753_5fef5e4d80And this: a homemade state seal for a rural secessionist movement. Two x’s=double crossed.

4029928066_23a21a1ab9_bAnd this. Elizabeth Jaeger took this in Berlin. Two bicycles at the same angle, two shopping carts at the same angle, two people wearing the exact same thing, two posters, there’s probably more.

“I suspect that in ten years time this touching kind of design is going to be the only kind of design that’s going to be done by actual designers.”

3926398482_9f822265fb_oThen there’s this kind of stuff. Hyper-meaningful graphic design. I try to love every piece of this I see, and for a long time I did. But it almost raises the bar on itself; now when I see this hyper-positivity I look at it way more critically, trying to decide if it does anything new, anything different, anything that elicits an emotional response.3671381510_2f5c913b21_o

4031333215_2d9f69edfa_oOlimpia Zagnoli

Picture 69Espo does it right. This makes me feel.  A Love Letter For You.

“I think it was Katherine McCoy who said that graphic design can never rise above its content. If I have nothing to say, the best design won’t help me.”