Writing L O R E T T A . S T A P L E S



Visual Research

U dot I, Inc.



The New Design Basics

Educators and students aren't really in agreement about what matters anymore in design. Teachers struggle to synthesize "principles" and "tools," while the tools continue morphing into something else, deconstructing the principles along the way. Students struggle to stay current, motivated by market opportunities ("how can I get a job?") and seduced by the powerful allure of the tools themselves. The digital has exploded our expectations, blurred our boundaries, and rendered obsolete what we thought we cared dearly about. What are "the basics" in teaching and learning design anymore?

Technology (and technique) have moved to the forefront of design education in the past 10 years. Before then, "the principles" were upheld by stripping as much technology as possible out of the picture. As a matter of course, foundation classes in graphic design delved into the basics of form and structure through black and white, manipulated through the direct techniques of the hand. Even "color" impinged upon this simplicity by introducing more complexity than your average freshman was thought able to bear.

The widespread adoption of digital technology in the early 1990s didn't just streamline the processes of production, though a number of schools chose to treat it that way initially. By relegating digital tools to the "layout and pre-press" arena, many educators were able to stave off the "basics" issues, at least for a while. But rapid developments in software and hardware, along with pressure from (paying) students for digital empowerment, demanded that the technical issues of design be addressed earlier and earlier in the education process. To some extent, this worked (and still does). All those black and white basics--line and shape, form and composition--seem almost tailor-made for computational manipulation. Copying, pasting, and duplicating--all the standard editing operations--make it easy to cover the basics of form and pattern quickly, collapsing multiple iterations into abbreviated time frames. The computer even enables additional learning to be leveraged in the design education process through simple scripting, programming, and markup languages like HyperTalk, DBN, and HTML.

All this is good and exciting. The mesmerizing power and sophistication of software tools invites the kind of exploration that students relish. But there's a down side, too. Increasingly, teachers are relegated to the status of software "trainers," walking semesters' worth of students through the latest version of soon-to-be-upgraded software. On the faculty front, curricular debates devolve into arguments over which software package would provide the best instructional platform for teaching X, while students--who can only appreciate the brand names they see in the job ads--balk at not having the latest, greatest, and most expensive options at their fingertips. The infrastructure demands of computer instruction are immense: costly, unsustainable, and very difficult to scale and support. But of course, this is never a student's problem (nor should it be).

And that's not the only problem. The sheer time it takes to learn the software cuts into the time that would have been spent on the "other stuff." In days of yore, there were reasons why the details of offset printing weren't covered in Graphic Design II. It simply wasn't the priority. It wasn't what the class was about. But these are different times. Design and production are one in the same in the digital realm. It's good in that it re-couples concept and form, revitalizing a sense of craft in the practice of designing. It's bad in that it demands an awful lot (of time) from teacher and student both--more than can fit conveniently into semester and trimester time slots.

With so much time given over to the technical side of things, less and less time is available for focusing on "the other stuff" that surrounds and permeates design: history, audience, social context, cultural critique. Some programs bring these neglected topics to the forefront in belabored theoretical programs that students scarcely understand but are somehow able to mimic ("is it syntactic, semantic or indexical?" ugh.) The best efforts strike a balance between the technical, the cultural, and the critical. (The computer is a cultural appliance after all.)

It's more crucial than ever for designers to critique through design. Design seems to have emerged as the new linqua franca, flowing through commoditized daily life as never before. Conspicuous design is everywhere: on every kitchen shelf, atop every desktop, enveloping every body. Design increasingly reaches into the intimacy of nature, through bioengineering and cosmetic surgery alike. Yet the vastness of design's influence scarcely creeps into your average design curriculum. How can it when we have so much software to keep up with?

So where does that leave us?

In comparing the past and the present, it's easy to feel sentimental about the good old days of design basics, yet those times (and the pedagogies that went with them) were fraught with their own glaring omissions. Formal beauty accompanied a supposedly neutral visual rhetoric ("information design") in design pedagogy, which tended to ignore the larger cultural and symbolic contexts of design and the corporate imperatives underlying them. The "communications" component of graphic design education tended to consist of some mix of marketing messages and "information," with an occasional semiotics lesson thrown in. That part of things hasn't gotten any better in general, though deconstruction has replaced semiotics as the philosophical underpinning of the moment, and vague references to "interactivity" abound.

So given the current mix of opportunism and technological enablement, what still serves us in the long haul? I offer a partial list of study topics:

Structure is the organization of form in space. It is the means through which design lends order to the built environment. Because structure is at work in nature and in culture, it serves as common ground, linking human intention to order in the natural world. Structure is a fundamental organizing principle.

The objects we design are situated in the world. They are nestled within the boundaries of social and formal order. Their location therein--be it historical or cultural--attaches particular value to the act of designing and the objects of design. Our awareness of design's location empowers us. Through that knowledge we can literally reshape underlying "value propositions" by proposing new things and places where design happens. Design is a potentially disruptive opportunity that lets us interrogate culture (if we choose to use it that way).

Spatial Systems
Extending the ideas of location and situation, the objects of design live in space, and our understandings of space are systematized and culturally informed. Cartesian space, and the XYZ coordinate system, "coincide" with an understanding of perspective. This particular system continues to mold our spatial understanding as an embedded default of today's computer modeling programs. In recognizing spatial conventions, we can identify new opportunities for situating the objects of design in space, resystematizing order in radical ways.

If the objects of design are indeed situated in space, their relative stillness or motion becomes an attribute for the designer to exploit or not.

Design happens in time as well as space. Knowing what happened in the past helps us project into the future. Envisioning particular futures by necessity engages our knowledge of the past.

Technologies augment the designer's hand (and intentions) through new tools and materials. They afford new design opportunities by expanding the scope of what it is possible to make. For example, the "virtuality" of digital space has afforded radical new inventions (like web sites!) that have transformed the world of commerce by affording new distribution channels for goods and services.

We design things made out of other things. The material quality of design is sensuous and symbolic. Tools interface with materials in the act of designing.

Design happens in a certain order. The sequence of steps taken to give form to material constitutes design process. Design processes are wide ranging, allied with particular professional practices, cognitive predispositions, and resource considerations.

"the Hand"
"The digital" raises serious questions about where the hand begins and ends. The intersection of hand and material describes the craft of design. Critical examination of the extension, replacement, and augmentation of the hand lets us consider the intersection of design and nature within the context of our own bodies. The hand is a compelling metaphor for the humanity of design.

Design conveys meaning to particular audiences familiar with its codes. Mass production supports the widespread distribution of specific messages and underlying values. Design influences.

"Notation" describes the linguistic dimensions of design--the mark-making, coding, and sign-making that designers conventionally engage to craft design's messages. If design communicates, it must be because it is indeed "read." In this linguistic sense, designers are "writers." The objects of design convey a wide range of meanings--status and utility among them. The encoding of these meanings through sign systems constitutes notation.

Design occupies a cultural space that embodies the values of particular audiences and practitioners. In this sense, design is a cultural practice, a means by which designers and audiences engage in critical "conversations" about value in the society at large.

Design "marks" space and time through styles that map to specific moments. Those markings and the space between them describe a trajectory uniting space, time, and culture.

The History of Design
Many histories exist, not just one. By studying any given history of design and observing what was left out, we can expand the cultural space of that history to be more inclusive and whole. In doing this, we simultaneously critique the history of design and the design of history.

Style expresses a particular confluence of social forces that gives rise to a set of attributes, collectively named. Styles mark the trajectory of space and time, and form a basis for the examination of economic forces, encompassing production and distribution. Style and fashion intersect.

Much design conspicuously engages the visual--the way things look. The optical channel is the focus of design education. But a lot of design happens behind the scenes too. The complexity of problems designers engage in this digital age requires a broader understanding of scope and possibility, beyond that which is seen.

We don't design just for ourselves. Audiences engage our work. And audiences are implicit in what we choose to design.

The complexity and magnitude of many design problems requires specialized expertise residing in many individuals. The task of designing an eBusiness, for example, engages skills in business strategy, visual communications, finance, branding, culture, and software engineering. In complex collaborations, design is a robust social activity that demands new kinds of relationships and organizational structures.

The business of design is the infrastructure that moves the objects of design through the world, deploying it to various audiences through sales and distribution channels. We need to understand this infrastructure pragmatically to circulate our work. Knowledge about the ways of business can also critically inform how we choose to act as designers.

Designers act on behalf of many: ourselves, clients, audiences and end users. We're advocates and champions. We do our best to make life more useful, beautiful, and purposeful, by design.


©2001 Loretta Staples