Saturday, 17 September 2011

Moving Across Boundaries - Dwiggins, Frascara and Cement

This post is a draft of an introduction for a new academic paper aimed at a graphic design journal. A rewritten version of this draft is featured in the next post.

Before I begin this (see previous post) I first need to establish a context to the problem and solution I propose that Visual Communication can address. To do this I first wish to unpack what I mean as ‘aesthetics of surface’ and to establish what I mean by the ‘aesthetics of use’. This will be crucial for the main thrust of this paper’s thesis. Firstly I want to explain my use of the disciplinary term of Visual Communication. The term ‘Graphic Design’ was coined in 1922 by American typographer and printer William A. Dwiggins “to confer a loftier professional standing” (Heller, 2006). In doing so graphic designers were raised to a profession predominantly servicing the commercial world, but it had also 'cemented’ them into a fixed view of their contribution that was unfairly denigrated as "decorationists/dictators of style" (Laurel, 2003).

In 1999 design critic Rick Poynor made a statement in an essay in the book Made in Britain. At the close of the 20th century he commented that if the term Graphic Design had become a too rigid term it was “partly because it sounds like a largely technical procedure, but particularly because it fails to suggest the expanded possibilities of contemporary visual culture” (Poynor, 1999, p28). He expands on this further in another essay in 2004, giving some indication that the discipline of Visual Communication was more than mere creative facilitators of the ‘aesthetics of surface’ merely creating pretty business stationary or adverts. Poynor reminds us that the Modernist progenitors of the discipline such as Rodchenko, Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy had naturally “moved freely across the boundaries” in the twenties and thirties “that later, more professionally-minded generations attempted to cement in place” (Poynor, 2004). I argue that the term of graphic designer or graphic design is too narrow to describe the discipline.

Therefore I follow Jorge Frascara’s use of the term Visual Communication as the purer definition of the creative design discipline that produces graphic forms of communication through the manipulation of the relationship between text | image. Visual Communication places the emphasis upon the method [design], the objective [communication] and the medium [visual], rather than just the creation of graphic forms [outcomes] (Frascara, 2004, p4). The outcomes of Visual Communication have been more than graphic design, as it also encompasses illustration and now design for motion and interaction. Since the end of the 20th century the pure discipline of Visual Communication has been undergoing true re-evaluation, and positively can be viewed as a re-strengthening of its disciplinary roots in communication.

This is in part attributed to Visual Communication’s roots of ‘moving across boundaries’, knowing no bounds when adapting to the design within other forms of media beyond print. Some momentum and professional ground had been lost in the 1990s due to reticence of ‘cemented’ on trying to control the design process and the visual outcomes of new media that called for dynamic rather than static design solutions (Bruinsma and Van Der Meulen, 2003; Burgoyne, 2002; MacDonald, 2004). A different ‘mind-set’ that knew no bounds when it came to working with other forms of media was needed, that reflects the true “open”, “diverse”, “inclusive” and “inventive” heart of the discipline (Poynor, 2004) that constantly challenged its own established ‘rules’. These new designers chose to design for interactivity accepting a new mind-set that the user is king. They learnt to collaborate within multi-disciplinary teams of experts with different skill-sets to achieve solutions that contributed to the ‘aesthetics of use’.


BRUINSMA, M. and VAN DER MEULEN, S. (2003) Deep Sites: Intelligent Innovation in Contemporary Web Design. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

BURGOYNE, P. (2002) GB: Graphic Britain. London: Laurence King Publishing.

FRASCARA, J. (2004) Communication Design: Principles, Methods and Practice. New York: Allworth Press.

HELLER, S. (2006) Better Skills Through Better Research. In: A. BENNETT, ed. Design Studies: Theory and Research in Graphic Design - A Reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, p10-13

LAUREL, B. ed (2003) Design Research: Methods and Perspectives. London: MIT Press.

MACDONALD, N. (2004) British Web Design: A Brief History. In: R. POYNOR, ed. Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., pp200-215.

POYNOR, R. (1999) Made in Britain: The Ambiguous Image. In N. BARLEY et al. Lost and Found: Critical Voices in New British Design. London: Birkhauser Verlag AG/The British Council. Pp 28-31

POYNOR, R. (2004) Spirit of Independence. In: R. POYNOR, ed. Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., pp.12-47