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Evolution of the graphic designer: Part 1

In a three-part blog series, designer Simon Mannering looks at the evolution of the graphic designer.

As we move towards a new decade and get swept along at ever-increasing speed by the digital revolution, I felt it would be a good time to look at what defines us as graphic designers, and then look forward to what will make us successful over the next 10 years.

Today’s graphic designers can be found hard at work in a plethora of different situations. From the most strategic of brand designers to the most expressive experimentalists. Broadly speaking, graphic designers can be found working in one or several of these categories:

  1. Visual identity/branding
  2. Marketing/advertising
  3. Publication design
  4. Packaging
  5. Environmental
  6. Wayfinding
  7. Direct communications
  8. Motion graphics

What goes into a design solution (or a failure) in any one of these eight categories can be a vast combination of things that the graphic designer has at their disposal. A designer may be a VR virgin, or a dedicated expert. A designer may have a deep and thorough understanding of user experience, or they may be applying its principles unwittingly by instinct. A designer may present ideas to their peers via effervescing hand-drawn scamps or they may just illustrate their intentions verbally. The tools of a graphic designer’s trade are never-ending – often overlapping and always changing.

The evolution of graphic design

The evolution of the graphic designer has been a result, or reflection of cultural and technological evolution. Although the term ‘Graphic Design’ was originally coined in the 1920s, it is obvious that the discipline of using two-dimensional arrangements to solve problems has been around much longer. Think Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mesopotamian carvings or even just good old Paleolithic cave paintings. Not really art for art’s sake, more communication design, a kind of codification or visual shorthand. The Egyptians discovered that by placing two different ‘pictograms’ next to each other they could create ‘meaning’.

Graphic designers have always responded to their environments and advancements in technology by changing the way they work and how they presented the services they had to offer. Advancements in Chinese printing, the need to record religious doctrine in the Middle Ages (particularly in the Islamic cultures), Heraldry, the invention of the Gutenberg Press (1439), printed adverts (1620s) and eventually chromolithography in 1837 have all shaped what a graphic designer is.

The diversity in this discipline is astounding. Graphic designers may not get a stack of TV shows like interior designers, but they sure have made an impact. The superstars of graphic design are undoubtedly those that have created the iconic posters, the memorable logos and the classic typefaces. But it may be in the more low-key areas that graphic designers have made a real difference. Wayfinding, accessibility, and incredible user experience continue to play an important role in all our lives.

Graphic designers are in the business of persuasion

As a ‘graphic designer’, I have an obvious vested interest in all the possibilities, the multitude of opportunities and divergent paths that the future may lay out before us. I also feel a great sense of responsibility, in fact it feels more like a duty. It would be negligent for designers to think otherwise. How we respond to the ethical challenges of our age is crucial in shaping the kind of world we, and our children, will live in tomorrow. This for me was most memorably summed up by the American graphic artist Milton Glaser who set out his twelve steps to hell for designers, updated in 2016:

  1. Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
  2. Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a light-hearted comedy.
  3. Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
  4. Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
  5. Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
  6. Designing a package aimed at designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
  7. Designing a package aimed at children for a cereal whose contents you know are low in nutritional value and high in sugar.
  8. Designing a line of t-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
  9. Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
  10. Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
  11. Designing a brochure for an SUV that flips over frequently in emergency conditions and is known to have killed 150 people.
  12. Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.

My interpretation of what Milton is getting at in his twelve steps, is that as graphic designers we are to some degree or other in the business of persuasion. There is no getting away from it, even if a designer chooses not to acknowledge any of that responsibility, they are certainly still culpable.

Graphic designers are so much more than just ‘doers’

Graphic designers are so much more than just ‘doers’. They are shapers, influencers, instigators and provocateurs. Graphic designers have the power to create regime change or turn established behaviours on their head. Look at Shepard Fairey’s ‘hope’ and ‘change’ posters for Obama in 2008. Or the infamous ‘Labour isn’t working’ poster by Saatchi and Saatchi from 1978 in anticipation that the then Labour Prime Minister would call a general election, (it was eventually used in the 1979 election campaign). Fast-forward to today and graphic designers are really waking up to their potential as change agents.

And creating compelling communications is only part of the story. As communicators we get to push our audiences on diversity and inclusion. Designers today are also championing accessibility and universal design principles, changing the conversation around who design is for and what we should expect as a basic.

The modern designer

The modern designer is becoming both politically and ethically aware, and they are prepared to use that awareness in their output, be it in an independent capacity or for an employer. Even when a designer sits within a team of client contacts, project managers, creative directors, motion specialists and strategic consultants, there is still an interpretation that is all the designers own.

So, although a graphic designer is clearly someone who assembles visual elements in a range of different media, achieving a diverse range of criteria, they are also so much more than that. Today graphic designers are evolving once again.

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