What is the scope, and what are the boundaries of graphic design today? Current and future?

On this continent, the sensory levels have changed drastically since television. The visual component in our lives has been dropped dramatically and the visceral, the kinetic, the auditory modes of response have shot up to compensate for the drop in the visual component of our culture. This sensory shift has changed the taste in design, in packaging, in every form of entertainment, as well as in every form of vehicle, food, and in clothing.[1]

Is The Martian a comedy or musical?
The categories of a competition, in this case, the D&AD are an interesting starting point to see where contemporary design sees itself, but where there is competition, fame, or profit to be had, politics and positioning may have just as much power over decisions as educated thought.

Is Shepherd Fairey a graphic designer, is this graphic design? Is Barbara Kruger? Was Hogarth? Was Johannes Gutenberg a typographer, an inventor, a bookmaker or something else completely?

Is Picasso’s Guernica Art or protest graphic design, are David’s Oath of the Horatii or Goya’s The Third of May 1808 propaganda and a call to action? Is the Bayeux Tapestry not more informative than beautiful? (Also, not a tapestry) If Emory Douglas is a graphic designer, what is his work doing at the Museum of Contemporary Art? Or are they/we all agitators and communicators first, and artists or designers second? But all of this is mostly a form of name dropping, it just serves to pose more questions, which is the probably the point, but not helpful at this stage. Context plays a part, looking at a painting in a museum usually answers that question.

Maybe, stating that you are a graphic designer is the same as saying you think in English. The expression of your thoughts are in English (or your native tongue) but I can express these in a different language. My thoughts, beliefs and values do not change when I speak German. But this is a naïve analogy, perhaps.

The underlying question surely is what impact this definition(s) has on the practice. Are we, by calling ourselves graphic designers, and deciding what belongs under the graphic design umbrella already limiting and handicapping ourselves in our many ways?

We all develop specialties, and then specialties within these specialties, and at times styles, or e.g. a love of superbold typefaces. Surely, a designer should be interested in an outcome, then decide the best way to achieve that. And the afore allude to non-format do exactly that with illustrators and photographers. But perhaps I am thinking incorrectly here, perhaps we are all born with some tweak in our DNA that makes us good at drawing, painting, illustrating, &c and what I am talking about is a strategist. Perhaps that is why global design agencies have a staff of hundreds because they have to have all the skills under one roof and then a strategist – or whatever their title might be – can call upon the various crafts to best disseminate the message. Does the term design with whichever prefix refer solely to the craft and not the conceptulisation?

In Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, Micael Bierut talks about graphic design education, which I think is germane to both the question of what graphic design is and globalisation.

Modern design education is value free. Every problem has a purely visual solution that exists outside any cultural context…In a vacuum that excludes popular as well as high culture, the meaning of the mark in its culture is disregarded. Nowadays, the passion of the art educator seems to be technology; they fear that computer illiteracy will handicap their graduates. But it is the broader kind of illiteracy that’s more profoundly troubling.  [2]

In many ways, outside of education, (graphic) design does this too, it functions as a hopper, into which new technologies, applications, media, and processes flow, some of which are adapted and incorporated, others spun off into their own specialisms. others still pushed into art. And graphic design is itself a product of this process, developing out of (commercial) art.

Graphic design is a large discipline that absorbs new technologies, media, and adaptations and then some times spins them off into their own neological discipline. Graphic designers were some of the first designers of webpages, but now there are specialised web designers. Saul Bass is famous for his work in film credits, but I am not sure we would call him a practitioner of motion graphics? Or should we?

To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart; ‘I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“graphic design”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it’.[3] … And others will then disagree with me. And that is ok, that is the way it should be, it should be a fluid state, more so than ever with the era e live in, we adapt to new contexts and technologies, sometime absorbing, sometimes passing it on

This is an important discussion to be had, or question to ask oneself, internally or otherwise, and the results – if that is the word – can be illuminating about the future of design, commerce, and culture, but it should also be somewhat encouraging; we cannot define what it is we all do, or we cannot agree on a single definition for all of the practices, but it is a big tent, rich with craft, processes and culture, and diversity, all of which influence and keep them in motion. This is a good thing. We should not want a strict single definition

And isn’t it the liminal space that is in fact frequently the trigger of creativity? Moving between disciplines, or falling in-between, forcing the new and the unknown is what both helps creativity in practitioners but also helps us define – not who we are, but what it is we strive to achieve. And ultimately, it is for each of us to decide how we express ourselves or solve problems. Dogma has no place in this exchange. You can build games out of letters and call yourself a game designer, or a type designer that incorporates games, you can build an alphabet that functions as furniture and call yourself whatever you want, it is the process that matters to us, but it is the outcome that matters to the user. If you are enriching culture, solving problems, helping others in any way, you are in the art and design tent, and it is a good place to be.

Perhaps, and hopefully finally, it should be mentioned that designers are always growing and learning. Static terms are counterproductive to that, to move from or between – what we currently consider – disciplines requires learning, growth, and new knowledge. Surely, the beauty of this realm is that it doesn’t matter where we each started but where we go and create along the way. And we each get to define – or not, Patrick Thomas – what or who we are. We create things, what those things are called is only interesting if they are not desirable. I don’t foresee a time when someone shouts: “Oi, you, upstart typographer. Step away from that belt sander and get back to your depth scale.”

It isn’t so much the answers or definitions that matter but the questions we ask ourselves.

If you enjoyed or were entertained – or were bored and annoyed – for the 144 minutes of The Martian, do you really care what category it was in? Will the writers, producers, director change anything about their following movie because of it? I hope not.

‘To repeat, and to make toward a conclusion, every new technology creates a new environment just as a motor car does, as the railway did, or as radio and airplanes do – any new technology changes the whole human environment and envelops and includes the old environments. It turns these old environments into “art forms”‘[1]


1. Mccluhan, M. (1967). The Invisible Environment: The Future of an Erosion. Perspecta, 11, 162-166.
2. Bierut, M. (2012). Seventy-nine short essays on design. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.
3. Jacobellis, 378 U.S. at 197 (Stewart, J., concurring).
4. Postman, N. (1999). A Bridge to the 18th Century. In Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (first, p. 13). New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf.

Leave a Reply