21 May 2008
Jorge Frascara, Amrik Kalsi and Peter Kneebone
Jorge Frascara, Amrik Kalsi and Peter Kneebone

This week's Feature article is the first of two parts of a working paper on the July 1987 seminar in Nairobi, Kenya, organised by Icograda, on behalf of UNESCO. Many issues presented in this paper are still relevant today.

After reading the Feature, share your opinion: have any of the changes in the past twenty years made any difference?

The adaptation of graphic design to the daily needs of people living in different socio-cultural contexts


Icograda, the International Council of Graphic Design Associations, founded in 1963, is the international representative body for graphic design. The Council has had consultative status with UNESCO since 1972 and has organised the first Regional conferences on graphic design to be held in Latin America (Mexico 1980) and in Africa (Nigeria 1982).

At a time when lack of access to information is closely related to lack of privilege, and when increasingly complex social structures create increasingly complex communication situations, the role of graphic (or visual communication) design and its intelligent use are more important than ever before.

The memory of our culture has a strong visual content, and so has most of the information that we process daily - information that provides us with cues for integration, performance, progress, enjoyment, and even survival.

The graphic designer's task is to meet communication needs of every kind in every sector of society, from the smallest items of print to complex information systems. His relationship to these needs is like that of the architect to needs for building. He is concerned with explanation, identification, instruction, persuasion, orientation, information, clarification, and so on. The solutions manifest themselves in scores of ways. For example books, posters, forms and documents, maps, newspapers and magazines, timetables, signs and sign systems, TV programmes, visual identities, instruction manuals, educational aids, museums, postage stamps...

When we talk about design we are, inevitably, talking about the quality of our environment, our everyday life and culture, and of the material, educational and creative functioning of our different societies. Graphic design is not simply concerned with the production of images. It is an intellectual, technical and creative activity concerned with the analysis, organisation and methods of presentation of both verbal and visual solutions to communication problems. It gives visual form to messages in order that they should achieve their goals.

The form that messages take determines how they are understood and accepted, and indeed whether they function at all. This is of daily critical importance in every social context. It is of even greater importance in societies where there are problems of literacy, or multi-lingual or multi-cultural problems. Especially so when development is directly linked to effective communication.

This is not a matter of visual cosmetics but of a clear understanding, by the decision-makers in government and industry as well as by the designer, of all the human factors at play in a communication process, and of all the parameters of a communication problem. The designer is of course concerned with the cultural and aesthetic appropriateness of the forms he creates, but he must also be highly conscious of the consequences entailed by the difference between good and poor design, and understand the meaning of these terms. The decision-maker, the manager, must be equally conscious of the consequences of neglecting design factors.

For example, according to a government agency report published in the USA, over 5 and a half million workers were injured in their work place in the USA in 1978. Over 4,000 of them died. Graphic design cannot, of course solve the whole problem, but it is certain that better visual communication of hazards would have significantly contributed to greater safety in the work place.

A case in point is the proven advantage of graphic symbols over words in traffic signage - when they are well learnt and applied. The 46% increase in road accidents in Kenya in the past ten years underlines the urgency of the problem. However, while symbols are by definition the most concise way of communicating visually, our brief inventory of graphic applications [in paragraph 4 above] gives an indication of the great number of ways of using imagery and other types of visual systems.

For instance graphic design frequently involves the visual presentation of written information, and here we are immediately made aware of the collaborative dimension of the design disciplines. Indeed it cannot be too strongly stressed. While the typographic factors contribute greatly to comprehensibility, the way in which the text is written is crucial, and it is the task of the designer and of the writer to cooperate closely in order to make the information easily accessible.

It can be argued that food, shelter, work and health are man's most important needs. But how will people have access to knowing where and how to meet them without efficient communication tools? Information must be available, appropriate and accessible to those who need it.

While there is a great imbalance in the distribution of wealth between the Third World and other countries, the gap is being reduced. According to Erskine Childers [1], citing UN statistics, exports from Third World countries grew from 5% in 1950 to 20% in 1980. In the same period, their gross national product grew by 400%, their capital goods by 1100%, and their number of professionals by 1500%. One outstanding difference between Third World countries and the industrialised nations is the number of communication media. Among the examples quoted were that for every 1000 people  in Sweden there were 572 copies of newspapers, while 28 countries did not even have a single newspaper. And that, while there were two radios per person in the USA, there was one for every forty-five in India.

It is indispensable for graphic designers and governments to work together in order to make the best use of the media available. Countries with abundance of media can more easily afford not to plan. Countries short of media must make them as efficient as possible.

These introductory questions are only signposts in a very wide field. The 1987 Regional seminar in Nairobi will be developed to compliment them with many others. It will focus on trying to define societal needs and the points of interaction between graphic design and the needs of the community. We expect it to establish directions for the future.

Icograda/UNESCO Regional research seminar
Nairobi/July 1987
Seminar objectives

  1. To create an awareness of the contributions graphic design can make to the improvement of the quality of life through better management and communication of information, and consequently, through better use of natural, economic and human resources.
  2. To contribute to a better understanding of the field of graphic design, its methods and the tools of its professional practice.
  3. To bring together graphic designers and decision-makers from several countries to exchange information on the application of graphic design to basic needs in their own countries, and on the education of designers to meet this task.
  4. To establish a communication network between Africans and non-Africans, whose combined experience could contribute to an on-going profitable exchange of information.
  5. To initiate the development of a methodological model of the contribution of graphic design to development problems and to implement basic recommendations.

Seminar subject areas

The subject content is planned to include the application of graphic design in general education, public health, agriculture, the working environment, administrative efficiency, and information for readers and non-readers, the education of graphic designers and their social responsibility, and graphic design management by the public and private sectors.

It will also refer to visual communication in low technology contexts, communication in countries containing numerous different cultures, and other socio-economic factors (for example tourism which is Kenya's third highest foreign exchange earner, and of great importance in many African countries). The structure will allow for discussion on other subjects related to the theme.

The application of graphic design to general education

The increasing awareness of the importance of spatial thinking as a valuable tool for the development of intellectual processes, and its indispensability in some areas, has prompted several groups to emphasise the contribution that all aspects of design can make to general education. From the act of planning in the abstract to the concrete activity of technical drawing, design offers and demands the development of a wide range of skills.

UNESCO's graphic communication course, the reports "Design and Primary Education" and "Design Education at Secondary Level" published by the Design Council of Great Britain, and the address given to the Royal Society of Arts by the Under-Secretary of State for the British Department of Education and Science [2] are examples of a growing awareness of the need for discussion of the subject and for the development of courses.

Apart from matters of visual literacy we must also consider the training and understanding essential for those who will deal with design and designers in the future, the key role of graphic designers in the production of appropriate educational tools for general education and the contribution of graphic design in the field of special education, particularly in relation to learning disabilities (for example in the initial reading alphabet that bypasses the problems of visual information processing).

[To be continued in part two.]


Works cited

(1) The global Picture, paper presented to the Icograda 1983 Dublin Congress by Erskine Childers, Director of Information, UNDP.

(2) Designing our future: the response of the education system to the challenge of design, George Walden CMG MP, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, April 1986.