This article is written by Steven Heller, and is part of "What is Design, Now?", a series of primers on design featuring faculty and friends of the MFA in Products of Design Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Learn more about the series and find more essays here.
Graphic design is an umbrella term for a number of interrelated disciplines that involve the application of text and image in compositions on paper and screen to communicate messages. Graphic design is also the armature for storytelling in its broadest form and for various outcomes—from advertising to editorial, from packaging to data. Through the marriage of typefaces, typography, illustration and photography, graphic design is also the aestheticization of information in all iterations.
Through the marriage of typefaces, typography, illustration and photography, graphic design is also the aestheticization of information in all iterations.
Where is Graphic Design?
“Graphic design is everywhere,” said the master logo and corporate identity designer Paul Rand. It is a package, poster, magazine, leaflet, ticket, or book. It is entertainment and instruction. It is static and motion. It is a logo and a brand. It is on land, sea, and in the air. It is a lingua franca. Without graphic design we have no language, for language is conveyed and tweaked through graphic design.
To break down graphic design to its specific component parts would take not just an essay or book but an encyclopedia of many volumes. There are so many subsections to examine, including those that have legacies and those that are brand new—technologically primitive or advanced—and those yet to exist. The field of graphic design is now and forever the same yet always changing. It is a communications, entertainment, information and conceptual medium. Johannes Guttenberg created moveable type that brought literacy to the world. Steve Jobs created kinetic computing that brought graphic design to literacy. And so the field progresses and stands still. Graphic design is fueled by existing words and images, but graphic designers compose and manipulate them, and even sometimes invent them, through novel ways and means.
The process of communication is as natural as breathing. But knowing the then, here, and now of graphic design is to control the breath we take.
How Do We Define Graphic Design?
It was once easy. Everything produced for paper was graphic in the broadest sense; it was a discipline concerned with marks and what they meant. Graphic design is the representation of codes, signs and symbols. It is the manifestation of language in all its constituent parts. It is the raw material and processing of ideas, and ideas that emerge as words, pictures, and sounds. Graphic design functions in a world of sight and sensation. It is about enabling understanding and transmitting the tools necessary for making a comprehensible yet expressive world.
To know what graphic design is and what it does is the essence of what Marshall McLuhan called “typographic man.” The process of communication is as natural as breathing. But knowing the then, here and now of graphic design is to control the breath we take. Today, especially with the computer at all fingertips, graphic design must have standards that can be followed and abridged. The old methods and new options must live together—if not in harmony, then in a dissonance that speaks to function. Graphic design is not abstract, although some of its elements may be abstractions. It is a functional tool and a representational art.
As long as we transmit ideas through textual and verbal language, graphic designers will continue to convey them in appropriate ways. Appropriate does not mean conservative. Everything must change to reflect the times in which they exist. Graphic design style is a function of time, place and technology. It is also the result of talented individuals—from April Greiman, Michael Vanderbyl, Katherine McCoy, Stephen Doyle, and Paula Scher, to Kelli Anderson, Bobby Martin and Jennifer Kinon—from all cultures and walks of life, using various alphabets that may be indecipherable from one and other, but brought to the fore through graphic design.
Graphic design is not abstract, although some of its elements may be abstractions. It is a functional tool and a representational art.
Is There A Language of Graphic Design?
Graphic design is entirely underscored by language(s). Without graphic design, language does not exist. With graphic design, language is made visible. The language of graphic design covers a long history. Graphic design is fundamental with fundamental linguistics: grid, hierarchy, scale, composition, kerning, WYSIWYG, fonts, webkit, color pallette, and more. Antiquated terms born in the early days of letterpress printing are still in use, as are new terms born in the digital age—fused together into jargon that can easily be understood.
Graphic design is democratic, anyone can do it, use it and speak it. But not everyone is capable of using and speaking the language well. Standards must be applied to graphic design. Simply using a typeface in concert with an image in a layout is just the shell. The intersection of meaning and aesthetics is where graphic design's power lies, because graphic design is about making all its component parts work better, look better, read better than if the communicative elements were just thoughtlessly applied to the page or screen. Graphic design, then, is the considered application of typographic and pictographic elements combined with stylistic care. Style is not a language but it is a dialect—an accent. What differentiates graphic design styles are the application of certain tropes that ultimately define time and place, but also look and feel. A graphic design language is well articulated. It doesn’t have to be conventionally beautiful, but it does have to be forethought. It must have a rationale for the way it is expressed.
Typeface styles evoke certain personalities, levels of speech that add to the stylistic qualities of the design. In this way it operates much like any other individual or conformist character. Personal style differentiates while mass style fits within to a stereotype or cliché.
A graphic design language is well articulated. It doesn’t have to be conventionally beautiful, but it does have to be forethought. It must have a rationale for the way it is expressed.
So, what is the future of the graphic design? Good question: It is partly obvious, partly speculative. Words will not change. Typefaces may be rendered in different ways, but letters will not transform overnight. Styles will always be in flux. Platforms will continue to evolve. Good graphic design could easily become bad depending on how it is used and who is using it. The years take its toll on some designs and enhances others. The theory of graphic design is no different than 500 years ago. The look of graphic design, and its applications, will shift with the sands of time.
The future of graphic design is intertwined with the future of technology, industry, culture and even politics. It will change as centers of world innovation, finance, and power are altered. Graphic design is the expression of all these things and more. Rand was right: “Graphic design is everywhere”—negotiating understanding between all of us.
Steven Heller is the co-founder of the MFA in Products of Design department, the co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author and Entrepreneur Department, and Special Consultant to the President of SVA for New Programs. For 33 years he was an art director at the New York Times, originally on the OpEd Page and for almost 30 of those years with the New York Times Book Review. He currently writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review.