Design publications, by designers, for designers and everyone.
This is an essay written for the Communication Design Criticism class, Masters of Comm Design RMIT, arguing the case for accurate portrayal of design in publishing, with Robyn Gower’s ‘A Question of Substance’ chosen as the required key article.
A regular customer enters his usual bookstore, and this time is attention is drawn towards a peculiar magazine with a pretty cover in the Design section. He picks it up to examine—it looks polished, and up-to-date with current visual trends. Flipping through through the pages, he is intrigued by the very pretty images inside, the seemingly carefully selected paper stock, though the lack of text or any form of information appeared unusual. Going from cover to cover within two minutes, he places the magazine back on the bookcase. Soon he is going on about perusing books in other aisles, having no memory of the pages he just browsed. There was nothing memorable to be consciously registered, nothing new learned. No knowledge nor meaning were gained.
Such is the case of ‘design’ publications that are edited or curated, by non-designers. One might wonder whether they had any purpose to enlighten in mind to begin with. Readers aren’t given any new insight nor challenged to think, let alone be more informed about design as a discipline. As Robyn Gower describes in her essay ‘A Question of Substance’ for the first issue of Open Manifesto, using magazines such as EMPTY and Refill as examples—while these magazines offer young designers the opportunity to display their work, they do not explore design’s role in communication; quite the opposite.¹
It’s possible to assume that publications of this nature are driven by sales and finding as much content as possible in order to push out the next scheduled issue, and with the way design has been portrayed, it’s no surprise that the majority of the average public still don’t see the role design plays even though it’s all around them. As explained by Garry Emery, “Most people understand graphic design as logos and packaging. It is easier for the public and media to relate to the physicality and familiarity of products, buildings and clothing than to dynamic information, communication design and brand imaging.”¹ Even among my own peers and people I meet for the first time, most of them have a better idea of the term ‘graphic design’ as opposed to ‘communication design’.
This lopsided view of design among the public, and even among certain practicing designers without full understanding of design as a discipline and it’s purpose, suggests that design is a closed bubble, and responsible in and only to itself, that it is void of any other context. Without knowledge of the process behind each design work, its function and purpose, we start to assume that design ‘just happens’.² This presentation of graphic design reinforces the perception that the things we make are nothing more than disposable ephemera, and anyone with access to a computer and the required software can ‘design’.
What caused this perception of design? Even Saul Bass has had something to say about this as far back as 1989, in an interview republished in Essays on Design 1: AGI’s Designers of Influence, saying that: “One of the difficulties that students and young designers have to deal with is a perceptual issue. They look at the exceptional work that’s being done. What they see is the end product. They are not privy to process. They may have the illusion that these things really spring full-blown out of the head of some designer.”³ This was said even way before the Internet became widely used. Now, in the so-called ‘post-internet’ era, the full adoption of social media has culminated in an endless well of design project images and numerous ‘daily design inspiration’ blog posts. This has led to the culture of students and designers gorging on innumerable websites and blogs devoted to—in Adrian Shaughnessy’s words—“the visual archeology of graphic design”², otherwise known as ‘Design Porn’. Sadly, back in college, I saw both classmates and lecturers leaning towards this mindset of aesthetics before communication in our approach to assignment briefs. We frantically flipped through copies of Computer Arts, and lecturers encouraged Grain Edit and The Dieline as sources of inspiration. Our design rationales were usually written to fit the end product after it was completed.
Since the advent of social media platforms such as Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and the like, this phenomenon of collecting and perusing images as one would in a gallery has increased exponentially, far greater than what Gower could have ever predicted when she first wrote her essay in 2004—given the fact that she was commenting only about printed publications, just years before the Internet and social media started gaining momentum. Unfortunately this has influenced how some designers choose to publish their work online, leaning towards bidding for attention with visual glamour in place of information and education. Say for example, on Behance and other online portfolios, most designers’ works are published just as images in a gallery format, highlighting how good a work looks. This isn’t to say their work lacks process and thought, but this aspect is perpetually pushed behind the scenes as something only the designer and their clients are aware of.
The sheer amount of content available on the Internet also brings about this ironic idea of ‘I can find this online later’—myself being guilty of this. At one point I had the tendency of taking note of the designer’s name or websites while browsing the aforementioned magazines, thinking I’ll look them up later instead of purchasing the physical book. I used to observe among my fellow students this same decrease in reliance and appreciation of design in it’s published, printed form. While we may be able to find everything online, what are the chances of finding it again? With browser bookmark folders filling up with nearly thousands of saved links, it’s hard to remember which are the more significant bodies of design work. On the other hand, the book as an object is far more memorable. Any avid reader or collector of books will know exactly where a particular book sits among their various bookshelves. The printed book has a certain value that may not be replicated by any other means, no matter how much technology and information accessibility advances. The printed book can document what may, in some cases, never be found on the Internet—and this endures the test of time amidst a constant flurry of online content.
While the demystifying of the design process to the public and new students can lead us into a whole other discussion altogether (have a read of ‘Understanding Design’, an interview with Vince Frost by Kevin Finn also in the first issue of Open Manifesto), the question is, what of design’s place in the publication cycle? Design trade journals and publications play a significant role in encouraging dialogue between stakeholders, so, as Gower puts it, the aim should be to ‘put theory into practice’ and continue building a true, honest and straightforward representation of a misunderstood and under-represented industry. Designers—speak up, be open! Design isn’t a process to be kept secret in the hopes of astonishing people at the end of it with merely a dressed-up result.⁴ Architects or product designers will never let their work be published without thoroughly explaining their decisions and process, so why should graphic and communication designers let this slip by?
There were no doubt a vast number of iconic and profound design publications throughout history (think Neue Grafik by Lars Müller Publishers, Eye magazine etc.), but it’s safe to assume that only practicing designers understand their value. Thankfully, when we look at the past decade, we see a great change in this realm, with more and more designers stepping up to be at the helm of contemporary design publications, creating and writing content that not only truly represents the industry, but which seeks to inform readers and to encourage thinking and conversation outside the design industry bubble. Going against ‘Vanity Publishing’ and ‘Eye Candy’ as described by Gower, we have publishers like Occasional Papers, Hyphen Press and Fuel Publishing. At the forefront of this is the prime example of Unit Editions—the brainchild of Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy and their frustration with publishers without empathy for, or understanding of, design.
On their website, Unit Editions describes themselves as “combining high design and production standards with insightful texts and informative commentaries on a wide range of subjects”, with “the book as a highly designed artefact with rich visual and textual content”.⁵ Besides breaking away from a traditional distribution and retail system, we here see designers as publishers bent on creating beautiful books with brilliant, informative writing. Only five years since it’s founding, Unit has already published nineteen books, of which six are now permanently sold out, with two more editions of a Lance Wyman monograph currently on pre-order. Their most prominent, and ambitious publication would have to be Herb Lubalin: American Graphic Designer (1918–81), a monograph of the legendary Herb Lubalin. I am fortunate enough to be a lucky owner of one copy—for which I have my old colleague Gordon to thank as he helped me to purchase one of the last seven copies, and eventually refusing reimbursement, insisting that it be a gift—a very generous one at that. I still can’t fully describe this book other than it being absolutely gorgeous, and the form it takes certainly does justice to, and is reflective of the work of Lubalin himself, as one of the design greats. It is very clear that the content has been meticulously curated, and detailed research is present in Shaughnessy’s biographical essay of Lubalin. Anyone who owns a copy of this, or existing admirers of Lubalin, can certainly agree with Rick Poynor that it “does everything in its power to win over the unconverted to Lubalin’s cause”.⁶
So what now of design publication that presents design as having context—not just about logos or pretty printed pages, but about clever thinking? We see designers taking charge once again in the realm of printed matter, but there remains a huge majority of people without knowledge of such publications, and the fight against mindless visual gluttony still remains on the Internet. It takes the collective effort of designers, students, and educators to seek and provide insight over appearing impressive—and ironically, I would like to see a day when the term ‘communication design’ might not need as lengthy an explanation as it does now.
- Gower, R. (2004). A Question of Substance. Open Manifesto, (1), pp.74–79.
- Shaughnessy, A. (2010). Publishing in the Age of the Internet. Design Observer. [link]
- Marsack, R. (1997). Essays on design 1. London: Booth-Clibborn.
- Finn, K. (2004). Understanding Design: An interview with Vince Frost. Open Manifesto, (1), pp.30–49.
- Uniteditions.com, (2010). Unit Editions — About. [link]
- Poynor, R. (2012). Rick Poynor’s Notable Books of 2012. Designers & Books. [link]