by Michele Guimond//
ABSTRACT// The book Pleasure and Pain: 70 Years of Graphic Design, produced for a second year communication design project, intended to create a form that offered a unique and interesting way to look at the history of graphic design that was engaging for an audience of non-designers. This was achieved using categories to group design that suggested design’s various social functions; these categories had a broader context as opposed to being lodged in design paradigms. By focusing the ideation process on user needs, the framework for the book was established using the visceral and opposing human emotions of pleasure and pain to map a non-linear course through history. This framework enabled the various functions of graphic design to be viewed through a series of critical lenses. This article explores the design process for this book.
KEYWORDS// History, Design Writing, Process, Reflection, Emotion, User-centered, Communication Design
INTRODUCTION// Design is fundamentally a cultural activity and yet it is rarely discussed in these terms. More often design is presented as ‘applied art’, and as such it inherits theoretical tools that are not necessarily the ‘best fit’. Despite the fact that graphic design’s history clearly reflects its cultural and political context, design and society are discussed largely in isolation. This may result from the fact that, unlike many other disciplines, graphic design has developed without much “theoretical reflection” (Frascara, 1996). Therefore the bulk of the literature available on the subject of design, focuses largely on technical theory. On the subject of design history, the selection of literature, textbooks and scholarly surveys is relatively sparse. For the uninitiated, including students of design, the available literature seems somewhat self referential, predominately geared toward identifying the shifts and phases within design itself. With this as a starting point the book, Pleasure and Pain: 70 Years of Graphic Design was conceived as an exploration in developing an alternate set of critical lenses through which to view design history, bringing design’s cultural context to the fore and engaging the audience on a more visceral level. This article describes the development of the theoretical framework used to arrange, constrain and assess the book’s content.
RESEARCH QUESTION// Why would someone who is not studying communication design be interested in the history of design? This is a question that Michele Guimond, Kirsty Tsang and Nireesha Prakash focused on throughout the development of this book. How could a design history book engage non-practitioner and non-scholarly audiences in understanding design as a cultural activity and offer a compelling critical lens through which to view it?
Methods and Process// The following will describe the design process behind Pleasure and Pain by describing the three central factors driving its development: precedents, content and users. The effect of each of these on the final outcome of the project will be discussed individually and in chronological order.
PRECEDENTS// Initial research revealed that “compared to other areas of design, graphic design has been given short shrift by historians” (Wikins, 2001). Books on visual forms and elements, design heroes, how to’s and stylistic trends abound but the majority fail to bring design into a broader cultural or social context. Compared to the number of art history books or historic surveys for just about every other discipline there is a strikingly slim selection for those interested in the history of graphic design.¹ The books that are available on design, historic and theory based, were found to share a common limitation for the non-specialist audience in that they are largely self-referencing and entrenched in design paradigms. The fact that early research into precedents revealed that so few “good scholarly surveys are written for lay audiences” suggests that a book like Pleasure and Pain is relevant to the untrained audience (Margolin, 2000). Some critical writers on the subject of graphic design point to the fact that this model of writing stems from the fact that “graphic design history is modeled on the earliest approaches to art history” (Wilkins, 2001). Consequently many of the historic surveys that currently exist on graphic design resemble art history books in both form and analysis. Arguably this limits the scope of analysis in design as it tends to follow a linear path marked by stages of design’s own history thereby isolating it from the social and political context. As Stephen J. Eskilson says in Graphic Design: A New History: “It is my belief that graphic design history has too often been presented through a parade of styles and individual achievements devoid of social context” (Ekilson, 2007). The challenge for this project was to take the same information provided in other design books and remodel it in way that established a new path through the subject’s history and provided a context that looks outside of design itself.
Analyzing Content// As aspiring designers, it was initially difficult to look at images from all of design’s greats and see beyond the compositions, colours and typographic choices. However, reading through the text generated collectively by our classes revealed the social and political landscapes in which the pieces were produced. This also facilitated a more relational view of the images (Fig. 1). It became apparent that the images marked not just distinct points in design history but moreover that they represented a kind of visual social history. With this new found perspective, the images began to reveal both the good and bad side of design as well as the good and bad side of human history. This was to become the
catalyst for an extensive ideation process.
In this project there was not the scope for an exhaustive anthology of either human culture or design. Constraints and boundaries within the ideation process were important in deciding content and images while presenting them in a way that adequately revealed their relationship.
Relating Content to Users: An Emotional Engagement// Initial research into precedents and content analysis promoted a more critical view of design. This was to be the area of focus while relating content to users. In the search for universal paradigms on which to peg design history, an effort was made to look for concepts which would afford a critical lens. Although there was not enough time to conduct extensive primary research or user surveys, a large portion of the ideation process was focused on identifying the possible preconceptions of non-specialists. One of the key issues discussed was the fact that design is perceived by the general public as a primarily commercial and/or artistic practice. Therefore, a secondary goal became to challenge this perception by showing the variety of roles and social functions design has played.
The framework chosen to explore the history of graphic design was something personal but universal: human emotion. In order to show the “design in humanity” and the “humanity in design” it seemed pertinent to show both its good and bad sides (Gerber, 2007). As an example, propaganda can be employed as a weapon for a despotic regime or to promote cultural values for the common good. This concept developed into grouping images into two typically polar opposites of human emotion: pleasure and pain.
REFINING THE CONCEPT// The main headlines of pleasure and pain were divided into sections that facilitated the organization of content along cultural reference points. For instance, pain was divided into war, discrimination and social control while pleasure was divided into inspiration, lifestyle and culture. Although contextual content was generated as a class, considerable editorial material added another layer of interest to engage the user in the human aspects of design.
Editorial offered analogies that related design to subjects outside of the discipline. The emphasis was to move away from relying on the informed eye of those with “practical experience of spatial forms” towards those with more tacit knowledge of “conventional literate forms” (Swann, 2002).
PRECEDENTS, USERS AND CONTENT AS DICTATORS OF FORM// From the outset the class was discouraged from assuming the product’s final form. As such, the concept of Pleasure and Pain was chosen before the idea of a book was determined. As part of the brief, the final form needed to support the concept and respond to the way the user was intended to interact with the content.The final product was not confined to being a static piece of design; it could have taken the form of a website, motion graphic, poster, pamphlet, etc.
The decision to use the form of a book was primarily based on users. A static form of design enabled a certain amount of control in terms of how the user navigated through the images and saw them in relation to the text and categories. Further to this, it was considered that a book could more fully support oppositional sides and the broad categories of pleasure and pain. Various formats and prototypes of the book were circulated to a small survey group of non-designers to gauge reactions. In the end, the popular choice was a square format (Fig. 2). This format again supported the concept of expressing sides or poles whilst also removing it further from resembling a ‘textbook’. Debarking further from the art history model, dates and artists receded as secondary pieces of information through typographic choices and layouts. Exploring how a static piece of design could support a non-linear flow of information whilst imparting extensive historic information was a compelling challenge.
REFLECTION// This journal article is not a defense of a second year level design project’s ability to rival some of its undoubtedly more comprehensive precedents. As an excerpt from the introduction of the book sets out: “For someone interested in design […] there are a plethora of relevant books out there. […] This book will not serve those who are interested in gaining practical skills in graphic design or those seeking to learn details about its broad history. This book offers those interested in design a novel way to consider […] the function of design over time” (Guimond, 2008).
Like any other undergraduate design project, there are elements that could be improved given more time and research. Upon reflection the main failure of the book is that, despite best efforts and intent, it continued to appropriate an art history approach to design by over emphasizing the emotional impact of the design pieces instead of focusing on their performative role. This could perhaps have been improved with more extensive user-group surveys and comparative literature research.
CONCLUSION// In Basic Concepts of Human-Centered Design, Krippendorff discusses a discrepancy in the perception of design between “outsiders who see design as an applied art having to do with aesthetics” and “insiders to design [considering themselves] advocates for users, and trying to balance social, political, cultural and ecological considerations” (Krippendorff, 2006). This disparity was one of the key learning outcomes of this project. Increasingly in design discourse and teaching there is an emphasis on user-centered design and the importance of involving non-designers in the design process. However, the majority of literature on design, particularly that relating to its history, reinforces the outsiders’ perspective making it largely unapproachable to the uninitiated. The intention for the book was to challenge the popular view of design as applied art and in doing so encourage a relational understanding of design as a primarily cultural activity.
1. Eskilson, S.J. (2007). Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 10.
2. Frascara. J. (1996). Graphic Design: Fine Art or Social Science. In Victor Margolin & Richard Buchanan (Eds.), The Idea of Design: a Design Issues Reader. London & Cambridge: MIT Press, 44-55.
3. Gerber, A. and Triggs, T. (2007). Comment. Retrieved November 27, 2009, from http://lcc.arts.ac.uk/ docs/080_BLUEPRINT_OCTOBER.pdf
4. Krippendorff, K. (2006). Basic Concepts of Human- Centered Design. The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis Group, 39-75.
5. Margolin. V. (2000). Toward a History of Graphic Design (Interview). Retrieved December 5, 2009, from http://tigger.uic.edu/~victor/articles/
6. Guimond, M., Prakash, N., and Tsang, K. (2008). Pleasure and Pain: 70 Years of Graphic Design. Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
7. Swann, C. (2002). Action Research and the Practice of Design. Design Issues, 18(2), 49-61.
8. Wilkins. B. (2001). Design History’s Obsession with Appearance: No More Heroes. Retrieved November 20, 2009 from http://eyemagazine.com/opinion.php?id=35&oid=175
Fig. 1. Guimond, M. (2008).
Fig 2. Guimond, M. (2008).
Fig 3. Guimond, M. (2008).
Fig 4. Guimond, M. (2008).