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Graphic design’s status envy

2014 October 24

Apparently the College of Design signed up a successor to Professor Baer this summer; I managed to miss this until recently, somehow, but last week Mr. Canniffe introduced himself to alumni in a mass e-mail. Having now found a press release about his hiring, I see that it notes similar enthusiasms to those in his e-mail. The presser quotes the dean ascribing to Canniffe “a profound belief in the power of design to make the world a better place.” This belief presumably informed his role in founding “a social design studio that partners with community organizations, activists, researchers, scientists, institutions, politicians and artists to define solutions to societal problems and create change.” Visiting the spartan site of said studio, you’ll find more such lofty statements.

At the risk of being Debbie Downer, I’m skeptical.

I’ve written a bit about this before. For all that, personally, I regard solving societal problems and making the world a better place as both good things, and more important than polishing corporate brands, I remain skeptical that graphic design is really a great tool for the former purposes. My earlier post can probably be summarized by this suggestion: “If you really want to solve hunger or poverty or child abuse, you probably ought to go into biogenetics or politics or social work.”

In revisiting these issues, I’ve had a further thought, however. In addition to the the desire of leftish academics to pursue societal good over corporate ROI—to which I’m sympathetic, certainly—I think this attempt to conjure a “power of design” that solves social problems may be driven by disciplinary insecurity and envy.

The sharp-end reality of graphic design practice is, as best I can tell, largely about arranging things to be well organized and/or pretty. I think this is entirely valid. But imagining myself in the place of design academics, particularly at large universities, I suspect this reality might feel a bit uncomfortable, and not only to liberals who desire social reform. Imagine yourself in the graphic design department at dear auld ISU. Think about the other colleges and departments around you. Engineering, science, all of the STEM fields that are today’s new gods. Plus agriculture, which both feeds people and feels particularly significant in Iowa (even if only a sliver of the population has any direct role in it these days).

Graphic design is not any of these things. It isn’t part of the deified STEM; it doesn’t feed people; it doesn’t cure the sick. It doesn’t “create jobs” in large numbers; there are no Fortune 500 graphic design firms.

Even today, I think, most people have only a vague idea of what graphic design is. It probably draws fewer blank looks than 20-30 years ago, but graphic design as a distinct profession is still a relatively new idea, and I suspect that this also makes its theorists and teachers uncomfortable. Most of the traditional professions or classic Humanities also look a bit out-of-vogue compared with the new hotness of STEM, but they probably still have a degree of self-confidence that graphic design lacks, thanks to millennia of tradition. (Tradition!!) The fine arts, law, philosophy, literature, even journalism to some extent, have seen trends come and go and they’re still here; they can feel relatively confident that they have a culturally important place.

Graphic design does not have this tradition, yet. Much of my history of graphic design textbook is concerned with calligraphy, printing, and typesetting; two of these are now basically archaic hobbyist fields and the third is solidly past its prime.

Small wonder that theorists want graphic design to be more than most daily practice seems to involve. This concern, I’ve realized, probably transcends politics; even the rare right-leaning designer is probably susceptible to anxieties and envy about importance. They may not worry about whether graphic design “solves problems” as defined by anyone besides the C-suite, but they probably still prefer that their chosen profession be a peer to science and engineering rather than, say, cosmetology.

Which strikes me as being the other elephant in the room for graphic design theory, alongside corporate capitalism. Admittedly I don’t know a ton about cosmetology, but I suppose I know something about what the average person (at least the average male) thinks about it. It is not, so far as I can determine, an “academic” discipline or a “profession,” but a “trade.” It’s taught at “beauty school” rather than a university. Its practitioners are more skilled technicians than “creative class knowledge workers.” It’s basically a decorative art—as opposed to a “higher” fine art—that makes pretty. It’s a luxury rather than a contributor to progress against major social ills.

Quite frankly, I feel like this is a more accurate description of graphic design as I’ve practiced it and seen it practiced, for 14 years and counting, than is “a special breed of thinkers [who] define solutions to the problems faced by society.”

Neither is exact, but then the preceding description probably does not fully describe cosmetology either. To the extent that it does describe either the local beauty salon or design practice, I think this is okay and that graphic design should quit being ashamed of it.

Art is good. Even decorative arts; there is not a tidy boundary between “creative” fine artists and decorative art technicians. Graphic design has lots of potential as an art, at least a little of which I like to think I have been exploring, particularly in recent years; if I ever do produce a show of my work, the opportunity to advance this argument will probably be a significant reason.

I understand—I think—the reasons why design academics try so hard to make graphic design into a social science. But in addition to my doubts about the real-world validity of that ambition, I think that in pursuing it they are short-changing the element of art in our work, and short-changing students who would probably be at least as well served by more exploration of this as they’re going to be by dubious suggestions that a future “defining solutions for society” awaits them.

But, y’know, no one asked me.

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