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Oh Grow Up


My parents’ story reflects the American story of the twentieth century: A childhood limited by the Great Depression; the sacrifices, fear, and uncertainty of World War II. Prosperity and promise in the 1950s and early 1960s. Changing values and prospects brought on by the sexual and cultural revolutions. Scaling back expectations in the 1970s, followed by an attempt to integrate old values with new realities in the 1980s and 1900s.

I come from a large family, and my birthright was high expectations for my future. At first, that dream was easy to fulfill; I had all the tools. Yet I longed to discover my own narrative. The world has changed, and the watersheds that shaped elders’ lives no longer provide answers for me. But instead of sharing in the baby-boomer fear of becoming my parents, I find myself envying their good fortune in having come of age in a time marked by consensus and shared experience.

Graphic design, too, has been scarred by the lack of a shared set of values. The profession has been behaving like a spoiled brat, flaunting its youthful brashness even at the risk of being mistrusted and misunderstood. In spite of its age, it still looks to its parents, the self-taught legends of our field, for ideas and ideals by which to judge itself, even though those legends and their times seem as remote as distant relatives in old family photographs. We’ve all heard the child whine, “Clients don’t appreciate the value of the creative process.”

While it has always been difficult to get business decision-makers to value intangibles like good design, new technologies have made that task even more difficult. Page layout and presentation software, along with templates for standard business documents, promise to give anyone the means to produce effective communications. Even though those tools inevitably fail to live up to that promise, they diminish the value of professional design services. In addition, the advocacy efforts of graphic design’s professional organizations have been, on the whole, inadequate in spite of their sincerity.

Untrained computer users – whom Gunnar Swanson has called “the great PageMaker unwashed” – are taking work away from true graphic designers. The gut-wrenching changes imposed on the prepress industry over the past ten years have also had a huge impact on the professional practice of graphic design. The number of people calling themselves “desktop publishers” has grown to untold thousands; they range from secretaries with PCs on their desks to entrepreneurs who see the opportunity to grow a small business. While it can be argued that much of the work they take on would not have gone to design firms in any event, many graphic designers, particularly those in smaller markets, are feeling the pinch.

The troubled economy has resulted in lower budgets, tighter deadlines and higher expectations. It is presumed that we can do more with less in less time. Continually decreasing budgets seem to be an inescapable fact of life.

Little research is conducted, and few vehicles for disseminating new findings exist. Unlike most professional disciplines, graphic design has produced an extremely limited amount of formal analytical, descriptive and historical research. Relevant research from other disciplines, such as media studies, communications theory, information theory, cultural anthropology and perceptual psychology, does not often come to the attention of graphic designers. There are no more than a handful of scholarly design journals, which are read by a small minority of the profession. Student research rarely if ever reaches the practitioners who might benefit from it.

Modernism failed to prepare us for the social and cultural realities of the end of the twentieth century. The search for timeless, objective, universal forms seems misguided in an age marked by multiple audiences with varying needs and interests that are often in conflict.

The formal systems for educating designers and developing and evaluating design solutions are largely based on an outdated, though not entirely irrelevant, paradigm. Other disciplines in the arts and humanities aggressively explored the implications of this change decades ago; graphic design is just now getting around to attending to this reality.

Design students are being inadequately prepared for the professional environment they will face. As Katherine McCoy has repeatedly pointed out, while there are well over a thousand schools claiming to teach graphic design, only a faction, perhaps as few as thirty, have quality programs. The massive social, cultural, and technological changes of the past twenty years have not, for the most part, been reflected in institutionalized design school curricula.

Taken as a whole, these lamentations reflect the growing pains of what is still an emerging profession. This process of growth has been faced and overcome to varying degrees by other professions, including engineering, architecture, medicine, and the law. Scholars and theorists working in the sociology of the professions have developed a variety of models for the systemization of occupations, a process they refer to as professionalization.

By and large, these models share a basic set of precepts. Professions arise when people begin to do full-time something that needs doing. Before long, it becomes apparent that more formal training is required, which eventually leads to the development of standards and a group of fulltime educators. These educators seek affiliation with practitioners, and a professional association is created, which encourages reflection. Often, the profession claims a new name for itself at this point. Over time, it becomes necessary to distinguish between the competent and the incompetent, which leads to conflicts between the formally educated younger generation and its trained-on-the-job forebears and with outsiders. Sound familiar?

Graphic design can overcome its current woes only by developing a stronger agreement within the family about its values. This, most likely, will require a reevaluation and redefinition of what we mean by graphic design to address the social, cultural and technological realities of our day; formalized research; serious attention to developments in related fields; the demystification of the design process; and the transcendence of style.

And none of this will happen without the leadership of strong and fully democratic professional organizations. While our largest organizations enrich the field through their activities, they are ruled by a small, established elite. As a result, they are unrepresentative of the field, narrow in their scope, and redundant in their programming. In order to contribute meaningfully to the continuing evolution of the graphic design profession, they must allow those outside the mainstream to have a voice through open and truly democratic processes.

The time has come for the next generation to claim its rightful place. The stories of the elders never be forgotten, but the children must create their own narrative.

Published in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, vol. 14, no. 1, 1996

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