Graphic Design Defined

Courtesy of Lem One.

Courtesy of Lem One.


Ramblings about Awareness, Research & Methodology


Three themes resurface during my experience in graduate school, and rightly so: awareness, research and methodology (in no particular order). Two of the three themes have already been stated in my original definition of graphic design. The third theme, methodology, is my focus for the sake of redefining graphic design.

Jessica Helfand’s definition of graphic design is “…the art of visualizing ideas” (Helfand). It is the act of how to convey ideas that is at the very core of graphic design and design thinking. Perhaps another question to ask is “What do you think it takes for a graphic designer to find a solution?”

Allow me to expand on what I mean through an everyday situation. I’ll begin with those that are unfamiliar with the graphic design field…

I’m on an airplane, seated in coach next to a man whom is far better dressed than myself. He’s flying for business, I’m flying to visit family. He’s 50-ish, slightly off-putting and very focused on his laptop. I break the ice, “How’s it going?” A conversation ensues until he asks, “So, whaddya do?” Naturally, I pause and reply, “I’m a designer… mainly, in marketing.” Somehow, he now thinks that I’m in public relations. No! Heaven forbid. Why did I choose to be so vague?

When I ask others, “What does a graphic designer do?,” I receive an answer that’s weighted in terms of its initial descriptor, “graphic.” The associations with “graphic” and “design” present an answer that’s formulated around tangible solutions, such as: web sites, t-shirts, logos, etc. A general response may also include related fields like advertising, marketing, computer programming or illustration. In other words, perhaps the question is part of the problem inasmuch as my own response to the question of “What do you do?”

Let’s be fair, we can’t expect people unrelated to the graphic design field to know about the process of design. “Design” could mean anything: furniture, fashion, architecture, etc. “Graphic design” has also become increasingly vague due to the nature of technological progression and innovation. Remember the term “desktop publishing?” Ask someone, age 18-22, and they’ll likely have no idea what it means (or meant). However, if I’m in a field centered on communication, why do I constantly struggle to explain what it is that I do?

What is not often pursued in response to the question, is our methodology or process behind the work. The same grit and grind crosses over to other disciplines, yet is overlooked or avoided in conversation altogether (without seeming like a human quaalude). We’re tasked with finding solutions, to create a tangible item, to produce a feeling, to improve or create a service or to build an entire system (internally or externally). Without seeing my methodology in front of me for myself, I’m likely overlooking how to accurately address what “graphic design” is to those outside of our field.

A graphic designer makes and designs things. True, but not completely. It would be the equivalent of defining that a teacher only teaches. Teachers and designers are students. As students, we learn how to convey concepts, be empathetic, manage, evaluate, converse, engage, compare, relate, test, reflect, refine, be aware of human behavior and social issues, and become more efficient and specialized through doing–this is design thinking. The process of design thinking is our methodology. In order to visually convey an idea, or better yet–a solution, I need to analyze and understand what my methodology is as a flexible process toward the solution. Redefining and expanding my methodology through research has helped to gain awareness about the “current” definition of graphic design, while realizing my own personal growth… which is never-ending, such as a student willing to learn.

Works Cited:

Helfand, Jessica. What is Graphic Design? AIGA. Accessed: 8 Oct. 2012. http://www.aiga.org/what-is-design/