First published in AIGA Voice, Sept 2010

Graphic design has often looked to architecture as an intellectual model. We long to infuse our work with the same kind of dense theoretical knowledge and the same kind of broad-ranging, legendary critiques. But we’re not architects. We’re graphic designers. Our role is less defined. We cross between print and web, 2-D and 3-D. Our work is easier to produce and more ephemeral. This fluidity, coupled with a discipline-wide pragmatic streak, makes it difficult to establish a defined body of graphic design theory.

Or does it?

Graphic designers have written about the ideas behind their work since the inception of the profession. Consider F. T. Marinetti, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Josef Müller-Brockman, Karl Gerstner, Katherine McCoy, Jan van Toorn and, more recently, Jessica Helfand, Dmitri Siegel and Kenya Hara. This body of work is small compared to architecture and fine arts, but it is passionate and smart.

Texts about graphic design fall under different categories of “theory.” Some analyze the process of making. Think Bauhaus experiments, methodologies that fall under the umbrella of International Typographic Style, and contemporary explorations labeled “design research.” Some texts examine the ideas behind the visual work. Authors “read” designs or design texts and put them into a wider historical/cultural context. And some apply outside theoretical discourses to the field of graphic design—deconstruction, semiotics, gender studies. Many seminal texts, of course, blur such categorizations.

Through my research I work to emphasize the value of our own theoretical base and inspire others to read and write more. Working on a recent book project got me thinking about a range of issues that face the profession today. Theory can help us address them.

Design increasingly lives in the actions of its users

Think Flickr, Facebook, Etsy, Lulu, Threadless and the multitude of blogs. Users approach software and the web with the expectation of filling in their own content and shaping their own visual identities—often with guidance from prepackaged forms. Dmitri Siegel calls this phenomenon “the templated mind.” Designers are grappling with their own place in this DIY phenomenon. Creativity is no longer the sole territory of a separate “creative class.” Designers can lead this new participatory culture by developing frameworks that enable others to create; doing so, however, means allowing our once-specialized skills to become more widespread and accessible. That transfer of knowledge is threatening to some, liberating to others.

Technology alters our aesthetics even as we struggle against it

Designers everywhere strive to create unique visual voices despite the prevalence of stock photography and the monolithic hold of Adobe Creative Suite. Simultaneously, as noted by design and media critic Lev Manovich, specific techniques, artistic languages, and vocabularies previously isolated within individual professions are being imported and exported across software applications and professions. This new common language of hybridity and “remixability,” through which most visual artists now work, is unlike anything seen before. Technology has irreversibly changed our sense of aesthetics, giving us both more power and less.

We should encourage collaboration and communal experience

What’s the good of multi-touch technology if we don’t want to sit down together? Collaboration and community fuel world-changing design solutions. Despite our connections online, many people are experiencing a growing sense of personal isolation. How can we, as designers, combat that isolation with projects that foster community? Media activist Kalle Lasn has warned designers: “We have lost our plot. Our story line. We have lost our soul.” Producing work that fosters real connections may be one way of getting that soul back.

We all write more today than we did 15 years ago

Blogs, emails, Twitter—we communicate with many more people through text than through speech. If grammar imparts order and structure to our thoughts, then this increase in writing brings value to our society and our discipline. Design authorship, an issue debated by influential figures like Michael Rock, Ellen Lupton and Jessica Helfand over the course of the last decade, foregrounded the active relationship between text and image and between a discipline and its discourse. The expansion of written communication makes possible thoughtful contributions to the larger discourse of design by a wider slice of the graphic design population.

The central metaphor of our current society is the network

Even if we don’t all understand the computer codes that run the back end of our digital age, we can comprehend the networked structure of our day and design to meet it. Avant-garde artists at the beginning of the last century, including F. T. Marinetti, László Moholy-Nagy and Aleksandr Rodchenko, were adept at activating their own networks: newspapers, magazines, lectures and written correspondence. Recently, I heard lectures by Emily Pilloton of Project H and Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, two young designers who are creating opportunities, locally and around the world, for designers to improve basic human living conditions. The connectivity of the web is critical to their success. Efficient networks for spreading change and prosperity are already in place. We just have to grasp them.

Designers in the early 20th century rose to the challenges of their societies. We too can take on the complexities of our time, the rising millennium. Delving into our theoretical base equips us to address critical material problems in the world and our discipline.