SHARPENING ONE'S AXE: MAKING A CASE FOR A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH TO RESEARCH IN THE GRAPHIC DESIGN PROCESS

13 November 2006
Paul J. Nini
Paul J. Nini

Chart depicting the Design Research Process found in Paul J. Nini's paper


Introduction
"If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I d spend six sharpening my axe." -- Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Lincoln's advice is, of course, very good, and applicable to many pursuits. Yet many graphic design practitioners and students often routinely ignore this sentiment, and dive directly into form-making activities when presented with a design problem. In most cases we tend to rely on intuition and our 'best guess' to construct a solution, without the benefit of the various types of research that might provide a clearer insight as to how our efforts might be more effectively directed. Our profession might be characterized, if you will, as 'swinging a dull axe.'

I propose, therefore, to put forward a comprehensive model that incorporates the various types of research activities that graphic designers might employ in the process of creating effective solutions to the problems we often address. These activities will be tied to a typical model of the design process, which involves such basic steps as problem investigation, analysis and planning, and synthesis and evaluation. The types of research activities discussed will include: gathering and analyzing competitors' efforts and related approaches to similar projects; establishing criteria for evaluating design efforts; and approaches to soliciting generative, evaluative, and experiential feedback from users and audiences members.

As well, different methods of user research techniques will be demonstrated, including survey research (what people say), observational research (what people do), and participatory research (what people make). Discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of these techniques as they apply to typical projects will be discussed. Finally, examples of student work will be included, as will explanations of the kinds of research techniques used to inform these design solutions.

The goal of this paper is to present the basic information needed for other graphic design educators to consider incorporating the demonstrated research techniques in student project experiences. It is my hope that more graphic design programs will also pursue a research-based approach to the process of creating appropriate and effective communications for the various users and audience groups for which their students design.

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About this article
This Feature article was originally presented as a paper at the AIGA Future History 2004 Design Education Conference. It is republished with permission from the author.

About Paul J. Nini
Paul J. Nini is an Associate Professor in the Department of Industrial, Interior, and Visual Communication Design at The Ohio State University, where he currently serves as Coordinator of the Visual Communication Design undergraduate program. He has also recently completed several terms as Graduate Studies Chairperson, where he directed the Department's well-recognized interdisciplinary graduate program.

Professor Nini's research deals with viewer-centered design principles as applied to visual communications, specifically corporate identification, way-finding, and information design systems. His writings have appeared in such publications as Information Design Journal (UK), Eye (UK), Design Issues (USA), Voice: AIGA Journal of Design (USA), Looking Closer 4 (AIGA/Allworth Press), and The Education of a Graphic Designer (School of Visual Arts/Allworth Press). Forthcoming publications include papers in the Journal of the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA), and Design Praxis: Theoretical and Empirical Inquiry in Graphic Design (Princeton Architectural Press).

He has presented lectures at numerous national and international professional and academic conferences, including those sponsored by the International Institute of Information Design (IIID), the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the Design Management Institute (DMI), the American Center for Design (ACD), the University and College Designers Association (UCDA), and the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA). Professor Nini is a Friend of Icograda, and holds an M.S. Design from the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology (USA), and a B.F.A. from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio (USA).