BLURRED BORDERS SHARPEN THE FOCUS

13 November 2006
Russell Kennedy
Russell Kennedy

Russell Kennedy, Icograda Vice President 2005-2007

Blurred Borders Sharpen the Focus: Adjusting to the New Paradigm
Global networking, self-analysis and the renaming of graphic design are emerging as the major issues facing the practitioners and educators of our profession. A shrinking world - combined with the merging of creative discipline - encourages us to both redefine our profession and internationalise our approach to its education. The question is, how do we promote a broad international focus, and at the same time protect and encourage cultural diversity?

The borders between graphic design and its associated creative disciplines have been blurring for some time. The discipline is currently in a state of flux. This is due in part to the computer revolution and the multimedia phenomenon, but mainly to a changing attitude towards design itself. Design is now referred to holistically. Multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary practise is growing. Designers are becoming aware of their environmental and cultural responsibilities. Graphic design has an important role to play in promoting sustainability and in responding to the negative impacts of globalisation. Respecting our differences is just as important as highlighting our similarities. It is important that we focus on diversity and take care not to involuntarily promote the homogenisation of international design through the well-intended pursuit of common ground. On the other hand, the value of graphic design will only increase as the world moves closer together, because communication design is emerging as the new international language.

More and more graphic designers are working in the new media areas of web, video, animation and sound design. These changes are not however all due to the growth of multimedia. An increasing number of graphic designers is practising and exhibiting within a visual arts context. The role of the graphic designer has extended far beyond the areas of visual identity, typography and design for print. Many graphic designers are now targeting both corporate and cultural design clients. They find that the balance of both corporate and culturally themed work helps to keep them fresh and creatively stimulated. Designers are also becoming more entrepreneurial in their approach to practise by developing and marketing their own products, publishing books and producing their own exhibitions. Those graphic designers who operate outside of the traditional paradigm have the ability to control their destiny more so than at any other time in the profession s short history.

The rapid and continual evolution of "graphic design" has prompted international discussion regarding the appropriateness of the term itself. At the 2005 AGIdeas Conference in Melbourne, Vince Frost of Emery Frost Design said, "The term graphic design is far too limiting for what we do. It does not say enough." The International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda) recently opened discussion on a name change for the profession. It acknowledged that there is a definite move away from the term "graphic design." Most educational institutions around the world have already made name changes to their graphic design courses. The terms visual communication and communication design appear to be the preferred replacements. In fact, visual communication has already entered the vernacular of Icograda, with their literature stating, "Icograda is the professional world body for graphic design and visual communication." Icograda continually uses these two terms together as if undergoing a transitional phase. Perhaps this is one indication that the term graphic design is on the way out.

So what is in a name? A name is important when promoting the value of our discipline to the business world. A confused marketplace can only be negative for the profession. A sharper focus is required to effectively promote the value of our profession to business and the broader community. The structure and dynamics of the discipline has changed and continues to do so, but the primary task of graphic design remains the same... which is to say, to tell a story. In the past, the graphic design industry has managed to adjust to change, but it has always adjusted in a reactionary fashion. The speed and dynamic nature of change necessitates a far more proactive approach. The more progressive design firms have already made this adjustment to their mindsets but many others have not. Graphic design education faces similar challenges to its pedagogy. Design educators must continue to respond to the changing demands of the profession while also challenging established conventions by pushing the boundaries even wider. The changing nature of design has a much larger impact on society. It is not only the boundaries of the discipline, which are blurring, but also the borders between national identities and cultures.

Information technology will continue to have an impact on the evolution of our discipline. The Internet, along with trends in international trade and marketing, will accelerate issues relating to the shrinking world and its impact on cultural diversity. Globalisation, sustainability and cultural identity are poised to be the next defining parametres for graphic design. Design education is also in the midst of an international information revolution. The internationalisation of graphic design education is evident in many ways.

Until recently, Australian design students had missed opportunities to interact with other countries in the area of design because of our geographical isolation. This situation has improved dramatically over the past ten years. We now have access to programmes and events that provide opportunities for students to participate in regular international design discourse. Melbourne's AGIdeas Conference has been a leader in this area, as have the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) and the Design Institute of Australia (DIA), both of which offer regular international seminars and visiting designer lectures. Monash, RMIT and Swinburne Universities all have international visiting lecture programmes.
All Australian universities attract international student enrolments. They offer global exchanges, study abroad and visiting artist programmes. International research and collaborative projects are encouraged. Postgraduate students and staff engage with the international design community by writing articles for research journals and presenting academic papers at design conferences around the world.

In June 2002, I was invited by Icograda to speak at their Educational Network Symposium in Brno, Czech Republic. The main purpose of the symposium was to discuss the formation of an international educational initiative entitled "The Icograda Educational Network (IEN)." This two-day symposium featured a series of speakers, discussion forums and workshops, which were designed to help formulate the initiative s structure and content.

The symposium concluded that the IEN would have two platforms. Its primary function would be to provide design students and educators with the opportunity to interact with like-minded people around the world. This would be achieved through face-to-face contact at regular international conferences and seminars. The second platform would be a supporting Internet website that could act a conduit for the exchange of information, and to provide worldwide exposure for design institutions and their students. It would also provide a vehicle for dialogue between academics and students internationally, facilitate the exchange and development of curricula, foster international design research projects and encourage the expression of new ideas and thinking. It is an exciting initiative with the potential to be a major factor in shaping the future of design education worldwide.

Three years on, the Icograda Education Network has proven to be of enormous value to both students and educators, especially for geographically and culturally isolated countries. So far, the IEN has hosted regional educational meetings and student workshops in Nagoya (Japan), Istanbul (Turkey) and Sao Paulo (Brazil). Promoting cultural diversity is high on the agenda. In 2005, the IEN also initiated a major collaborative project involving students from over twenty countries. Creative Waves took place over a 6-week period during March and April and linked approximately eighty design students and their teachers. Using an online studio interface, developed by Rick Bennett, a design lecturer from the University of New South Wales, participants were able to interact in small design teams (where no team member was from the same geographic location) to challenge and respond to an unravelling design brief. This is the first collaborative online project of this kind and its success suggests that it may be a sign of things to come. The Creative Waves project explored the potential of online and collaborative visual communication through graphic design and photomedia studies. Participants formed strong creative and social bonds with partners in distant parts of the world, receiving regular feedback and support from established creative professionals and educators, all while using the Internet as their sole communication tool. The visiting professionals and academics included such luminaries as Steven Heller, Katherine McCoy, Ed Fella, Stefan Sagmiester and William Harald-Wong, among others.

The IEN and its Creative Waves project provide us with an insight into a future where universities and their students will have seamless access to a hands-on international educational experience, as well as the invaluable opportunity to learn through the exchange of ideas, design theories and philosophies. It is an exciting time, but as custodians we must all approach this new era responsibly, especially with regard to the issue of cultural diversity.

The impact of globalisation on the Australian graphic design industry has been a double-edged sword. Both the positive and negative impacts have been influential in shaping the future of design in this country. The changing international landscape has provided opportunities for many Australian design practitioners and students. Interaction with the global community has been beneficial in many ways. The more we are exposed to international design, the more open and connected we become. Australian designers are now more likely to have an international focus in their practise, and are more confident about participating on the world stage. The marketing phrase of the 1980s "think global, act local" has never been more relevant, although this philosophy can also be blamed for the proliferation of an internationalised design aesthetic as we strive to search for broad acceptance. This international style is commonly referred to as the "European international aesthetic." The threats to cultural diversity combined with the corporate and economic impact on the design profession are side effects that have yet to be properly addressed.

In recent years many of Australia's leading design firms have been taken over by larger international players. Design studios have reinvented themselves to become "Brand Consultancies" with a greater focus on international clients and global brand strategies. The result has been a more unilateral approach to corporate identity design. The broader audience limits opportunities for designers to respond to the rich and varied nuances of individual cultures. You only have to consider how similar the streetscapes have become in the world's major cities to see the impact of global branding - particularly in the high streets and business areas.

Garry Emery made the following statement during his "Culture in Design" lecture at RMIT University of Technology in 2000: "Contemporary design is international: you find the same skyscrapers, movies, fashion, magazines and fast food in any modern city around the world. Since designers speak an international language, why is it then important to understand different cultures? There are plenty of good reasons. Designers ought to be conscious of how culturally embedded they are. Regional identity is a contemporary, anti-global undercurrent in all design disciplines, so designers need to be aware of other cultures. Designing for a foreign culture adds an extra dimension of research and analysis to the usual rational and creative processes of design, and designers benefit from understanding how to operate beyond their own cultural matrix."

Globalisation is not a new phenomenon: we have been grappling with the impact of internationalism since the early part of the last century. The current concern is the rate at which it is moving. Even Marshall McLuhan could not have predicted this phenomenon. His prophetic book The Global Village (1988) was written well before the launch of the Internet. The acceleration of the shrinking of the world is due to a number of factors, including the Internet, media, ease of international travel and globally integrated branding strategies. For me, the Oneworld logo, designed by Interbrand and implemented by Futurebrand, encapsulates the current state of branding and globalisation, both by its name and its design. The international ingredients of this brand are significant, as both Interbrand and Futurebrand are regarded as two of the world's premier brand consultancies. Oneworld is an alliance of international airlines from predominantly non-English speaking countries. Interestingly, if not surprisingly, they opt to use English words in the logo. The logo works in the context of what it is trying to achieve; after all, it is justifiably a global brand. It is a well-designed, culturally non-offensive logo, which uses the world's most powerful international language. On the other hand, the logo lacks personality and is creatively safe. Designing for a global market can encourage banal solutions. This is evident with many designs aimed at an international audience. The problem is that while attempting to please everyone, we can often fail to excite anyone.

The 2005 AGIdeas Conference in Melbourne also provoked a memorable quote on this subject by South African graphic designer Garth Walker. "If I call myself African, why then do I want look as though I come from New York?" This issue is just as relevant to Australia and highlights another challenge for our designers and educators, that is, the exploration and redefinition of our own national visual identity. I suggest that the starting point be the Australian Flag, a national design project that is long overdue. To feature the flag of another country on our flag is perceived by the rest of the world as illogical and by Australians as not 'fair dinkum' (genuine). It is not a unique design and it is not a national flag - it is a colonial flag, and to claim that the Union Jack on the Australian flag symbolises the historical origin of our people is insulting, especially to Indigenous Australians.

As Milton Glaser said, "The logo is a point of entry to a brand." It could be argued that a national flag is the entry point to a country's cultural identity. The term brand has been maligned in recent times due to a paradigm shift in the way brands are used. The concept of brand has moved from a manufacturer's mark of quality to a point where the brand or trademark has become the product itself. Naomi Klein, author of No Logo acknowledges that the corruption of the brand ideal is a relatively recent phenomenon. "The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations over the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid-1980s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products."

The term brand comes from the practise of stamping or marking property such as livestock with a hot iron. Branding is the process of associating a name with a reputation. A trademark or logo is the primary element of a brand, but a brand is much more than a logo. It is a vehicle to help distinguish one product from another. It projects an overall image of a product, organisation or even country. Designing a new Australian flag certainly qualifies as a branding project.

The task of designing a visual identity program for a country is an alluring proposition for any visual communicator. Richard Henderson of R-Co. and former principal of Futurebrand (FHA) said, "To design the Australian National Flag is to design the Big Brand." FHA Design, now Futurebrand, has dealt with comparable briefs in the past with identities for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Identity and the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. Both identities involved designing for an international audience while at the same time reflecting unique cultural elements. What might be regarded as typically Australian for a global audience may appear kitsch and cliché for Australians. Conversely, what communicates domestically might be too obscure to those outside of Australia.

The Australian identity remains a major challenge for designers. The visual representation of our nation extends far beyond flags and logos. It is an area of design research that needs further exploration. Many Australian designers have already done so in the past. The design collective, "All Australian Graffiti," explored the irreverent aspect of the Australian character from a migrant perspective in the 1970s. More recently, Mambo Design has also established a commitment to perpetuate the theme of Australian irreverence.

Australia has a long history of designers, illustrators and photographers who have focused on our unique qualities as opposed to following an international code such as Gordon Andrews, Gert Selheim, Eileen Mayo, Douglas Annard, May Gibbs, Thea Proctor and Max Dupain.

One Australian graphic designer who consistently demonstrates an understanding of the Australian visual identity is David Lancashire. David, like many immigrants to this country, arguably has a better understanding of the Australian vernacular than those of us who were born here. His work is honest and without prejudice. Newcomers often see their adopted country with fresh eyes and adventurous enthusiasm. David Lancashire appreciates the sensibilities of Aboriginal art. He references indigenous visual culture in a sensitive and respectful way. Although he is heavily influenced, he could never be accused of appropriation. Having immigrated to Australia as a boy, David acknowledges the importance of Aboriginal art to our national identity. He seems to understand the precarious relationship it has with contemporary Australian design. Designing in this area requires a considered methodology and knowledge and respect for the culture. David Lancashire is without peer in regard to interfacing indigenous with non-indigenous vernaculars.

Graphic Designers aka Visual Communicators have the ability to contribute to the social agenda rather than respond to it. Like writers, novelists, filmmakers and fine artists, it is now common to see graphic designers contributing to social commentary. Some visual communicators already make a cultural contribution, which sits outside conventional practise. Garry Emery and 3Deep Design are designers who operate outside of the traditional business model, Garry Emery with his critically acclaimed exhibitions and 3Deep with their award winning publication Bird and Somethingbetween, their recent foray into design seminars and workshops. Ken Cato has made an enormous contribution to the design community for many years with the AGIdeas Conference. Cornwell Design's Issues and Images exhibition in 2001 was also an inspiring example to all graphic designers of the potential to explore new areas of cultural expression.

Designers are more multi-skilled than they have ever been. Once a designer understands the language of design they can cross over into other design disciplines. The blurring of the borders makes it easier to seamlessly move between the associated areas of visual communication. Design education finds that it needs to continually respond to the changing state of the profession. The design industry has always needed intelligent designers with strong conceptual ability and graduates to have proficient technical and production knowledge. Universities are now placing increased emphasis on design history, theory, research methods and design management. The demand for postgraduate study is increasing and cross-disciplinary activity is encouraged. The future of graphic design is fluid, and it is moving into areas outside the traditional vocational paths. The challenge for education is not only to support the requirements of the profession, but also to encourage the evolutionary growth and redefinition of this dynamic discipline. We must continue to design for the human condition, to respect cultural diversity and to challenge the preconceived notion of graphic design. As the borders between disciplines continue to blur, we must sharpen our focus on where we sit, who we are and what we want to say.

International design associations have been formulating their responses to this issue for some time. Icograda has recently formed an alliance with the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) called the International Design Alliance (IDA). The alliance is expected to embrace other associated disciplines over the coming years. The head office for the IDA was officially opened in Montréal, Canada on 27 May 2005. The alliance was formed in an effort to give "design" a more powerful voice.

The IDA will become the world's primary multidisciplinary design body. It will represent the global, regional, national and domestic interests of design and its associated disciplines, and act as an umbrella entity for design associations around the world. The IDA's mandate will be to elevate the profile of design by advocating its value and importance to government, industry and society as a whole. It will respect the individual sensibilities of each design discipline while at the same time identifying their collective common ground. It will initiate collaborative projects between partner associations, champion the interests of design in a holistic sense and promote design as a professional and cultural activity.

One thing is clear: that whatever we call it, graphic design will only grow in importance as the world moves closer together, because visual communication is the only truly international language.

"Graphic design is an intellectual, technical and creative activity concerned not simply with the production of images but with the analysis, organization and methods of presentation of visual solutions to communication problems. Information and communication are the basis of worldwide interdependent living, whether in trade, cultural or social spheres. The graphic designer's task is to provide the right answer to visual communication problems of every kind in every sector of society."
(Icograda 2005)




About this article
Please note that the content of this feature is an edited version of the text
Blurred Borders Sharpen the Focus: Adjusting to the new paradigm, which will appear in a soon to be released book by Cornwell Design entitled Possibility. The publisher is Images Publishing and the release date is set for mid 2006.