The more I see, the less I know.

Image: University of Brighton

Taking a physical trip around some current off-line Visual Communication degree shows, and searching through the numerous online equivalents, an emerging phenomena is slowly forming in my mind. The problem with this phenomena is that in itself it makes me question my own (fairly limited) frame of reference, and highlights some broader issues within the visual communication community, whilst at the same time making me feel like I might just be getting old/reactionary. As they say, you decide…

To describe this phenomena, which can go under the working title ‘feedback fuzz’, we can start with the visual aesthetic. By this I mean an exponential growth of grafik-style graphics (i.e. stuff which has the surface appearance of work you may see in grafik magazine) in student shows. With this comes a disorientation about what substance there is in the work (what it is about) and the relationship between form and content. Coupled to this is a dearth of genuine experimentation and risk, or playfulness with the language of visual communication. I know I’d be nieve to think that Visual Communication has only recently become concerned with surface aesthetic alone, disconnecting the ‘style’ from the ‘substance’, but it does seem to be reproducing on an unprecedented scale. There must be several reasons for this, but at the core would seem to be the ever shortening visual distribution cycle, enabled by the internet and the recent rise of design-magpie blogs, where speed/quantity is king and critique/comment is, (in the absence of anything that rhymes with ‘king’), non-existent. First and foremost, this, rather than the more detailed critique of blogs like Design Observer, seems to be forming the sole source of secondary research for many students – not a problem as one of many sources, but when unchecked or unbalanced by anything else, creates a distorted view of what graphic design is, and can be.

Faced with this ever expanding number of distribution channels with low/no cost thresholds in terms of either accessing information or starting your own distribution channel, we strangely (and perhaps conversely to what you might expect) seem to be creating an increasingly homogenised idea of what graphic communication is, a giant leap from the pre-internet days when design magazines were prohibitively expensive for students, and graduates (speaking from a personal perspective here) graduated with only a vague idea of what was happening in industry, (and most of that was probably 10 years out of date due to poorly stocked libraries). Of course neither of these situations is better than the other, but with the rapid expansion of design/creative-industries as a desirable area of academic study, and a seductive pathway, (via its broadly vocational ethos), to a creative and exciting job, it might be interesting to think about what kind of world view graphic designers are graduating with, and whether what we’re seeing is a vicious navel-gazing circle of graphic design about graphic design.

As mentioned earlier, there are probably other forces at work: Globalization, increasing student numbers, the low-cost entry threshold to becoming a fully kitted-out graphic-designer, our in-built love/hate relationship with ‘same-ness’, the transient rapidity of anything to do with fashion or popular culture, but it also may be interesting for visual communication to look to other design disciplines to see if similar forces are at work. From a reasonably secure market sector and an already well defined customer base for what might be termed Graphic Design, it is easy to rest on laurels and not be forced, as is perhaps happening across product/interaction/service design, to look out to the world and test/stretch/redefine what a discipline is.

To return to the original point, this is only a half formed thought, and in many ways, the more you try to think about it, the more impenetrable it becomes. As the internet and all its wonderful enabling qualities are there, and aren’t going to go backwards, it may be for us as designers and tutors to promote a critical analysis of the visuals that saturate our world, rather than their direct appropriation, and to consciously place less emphasis on design graduates being the ‘finished (ready-for-industry) article’. Or maybe I am just seeing more (through the better, further reaching distribution of student work) of something that was happening anyway. Either way, I would love more students to be more confident in saying ‘this is graphic design’, being disruptive in the best possible sense, and setting the agenda, rather than conforming to what the industry perpetuates. That, and many in industry agree, is surprisingly beneficial for everyone.

* This article contains many generalisations, as it is intended as a broad overview. I realise that non of the assertions are absolutes, and there are, as ever, many exceptions to the rules.

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