Off key and out of context

Graphic Design School
August 26, 2005

Rather than redefining itself in the past 20 years, graphic design seems to have spread blob-like over the best bits of related subjects. If something sounds sexy, it's a part of the graphic design curriculum. Consequently, the designer as jack-of-all-trades appears to be the central concept of David Dabner's book, with editorial design and branding sitting next to related but separate specialisms such as photography and animation.

Covering the whole of photography in a few spreads might be seen as oversimplifying things to colleagues in that area, and there is confusion between taking photographs and using them; better to focus on the latter and spend more time discussing commissioning and art-directing professionals.

Such simplification leads to problems: the section on advertising glosses over basics such as a client's aims, the target audience, market research, choice of media and even budget. Anyone who works in advertising will roll their eyes at more evidence that designers do not understand how advertising works. The claim that "few people" get jobs in advertising without art-school training will be news to most.

This inability of designers to understand the context in which they work is a major criticism aimed at design courses by employers. There is nothing here about current issues in the industry: the fracturing of traditional audiences, globalisation, visual literacy or even ecology. Graphic designers, who are among the biggest contributors to pollution through their choice of inks, could if better educated save enough water to keep Britain in baths for a year. Yet none of this is covered. Similarly, to discuss web design while ignoring legal obligations to ensure websites can be used by the visually impaired is worrying.

It is in the lack of discussion of visual and communication theory that the book really fails. Not only does it forget to mention semiotics (and advises against "visual clichés" while presenting several as good examples and ignoring the fact that clichés are how communication works), it manages to make basic errors. To suggest that green means "spring, youth and the environment" is just wrong: green, like any other colour, means nothing - it is context that fixes meaning. Similarly, the claim that "green causes less eye strain and nerve strain than any other colour, which may explain in part why looking at scenery is so relaxing" will have biologists and psychologists rolling on the floor (and anyone who used to work on migraine-inducing green computer monitors). It would be bad enough if a first-year student wrote that in an essay, but in a textbook it is unforgivable.

The author is undoubtedly knowledgeable, but his book attempts too much and misses far more. It might be a useful primer for a school pupil making career choices, but for undergraduates or, as the publishers claim, "advanced designers in search of solutions", it is too basic. Graphic design cannot be understood out of context; it is a form of visual communication that makes an enormous contribution to our culture. The message in this book is that none of this appears to matter: graphic design is just something you do, and something that is entirely visual.

We need books on this subject that explain the way design is made and the role it plays in society. There is no reason why theory and practice should be as divided as they are now. By failing to make the case for design as an intellectual activity or to draw on the wealth of research carried out in the discipline, this book sends the wrong signals about the profession.

Jonathan Baldwin is a former designer and advertiser who teaches visual and communication theory at Brighton University.

Graphic Design School: The Principles and Practices of Graphic Design

Author - David Dabner
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 192
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 0 500 28526 8

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