28 May 2008
Jorge Frascara, Amrik Kalsi and Peter Kneebone
This week's Feature article is the second of two parts of a working paper on the July 1987 seminar in Nairobi, Kenya, organised by Icograda, on behalf of UNESCO. The article discusses many issues that are still relevant today.

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

[Continued from part one]

The application of graphic design to public health

The efficient and imaginative development of this area of communication can make a marked difference not only to the quality of life but also to the chance of survival. The conservation, labeling and administration of medical drugs, the observance of safe habits for drinking and eating, the general education of the public on matters of health and hygiene, must all rely to a great extent on graphic communication, particularly in countries where lack of technology, low density of population in some areas, high rates of illiteracy, multi-lingual situations and cultural barriers to habit-changing demand clear, appropriate and timely communication.

Family planning is, within this area, a matter for serious concern and attention, and for the study of effective communication policies. To take the example of Kenya, the population growth rate is 4.2%, the highest in the world. The rate of population growth is much higher than the agricultural growth. At the time of independence in 1960 Kenya's population was about 8 million and it exported agricultural produce. Now, with a population of about 20 million, Kenya has to import agricultural produce.

The application of graphic design to agriculture

Just as the first subject area requires the intervention of educators and the second that of doctors, so this area needs the contribution of specialists in agriculture and of government officials.

The main objective is the development of communication systems between producers and policy makers that would improve both the position of the farmers and that of the general population through a better communication flow and better use of resources. The importance of this is underlined by the fact that agriculture contributes 30% of the gross national produce in Kenya and employs 26% of the labour force. The experience of several countries in the implementation of agricultural programmes could provide substantial comparative material for discussion.

In this general context the design of explanatory, instructional and educational material concerning the use of agricultural materials, equipment and methods is a question of very practical importance.

The application of graphic design to the working environment

The quality of the working environment is directly related to the quality of work, whether in heavy or light industry or in the office. Safely has already been referred to in the introduction. A specific and alarming illustration of this is the result of a recent test carried out at the University of Alberta. It was shown that 10 out of 16 hazard-related symbols in current use do not meet the recognition level required by ISO (International Organization for Standardization ). Radiation, poison and flammable were among the symbols that less than 70% of subjects tested in four countries recognised. It is evident that more work is needed in this area if an acceptable level of safety is to be achieved.

Apart from safety, key questions of fatigue, comfort, efficiency and productivity are directly related to design intervention. For instance the design of control panels, general signage, equipment dials, instructions and colour in the workplace, for psychological and ergonomic reasons as well as for coding and identification.

Industrialists and graphic designers have a large terrain to explore together.

The application of graphic design to administrative efficiency

"The Department of Health and Social Security (Great Britain) is estimated to have saved £13,000,000 per annum on the processing of forms for an outlay of £350,000 in redesign costs." [3]

This impressive statement concerns two major aspects of this subject area: the economics of administration and the mechanics of information processing. It could be thought that this, in fact, is essentially what is mean by the "administrative efficiency". However critical these aspects are, they must be viewed in relation to a third, and very fundamental aspect. Administrations must function as economically and efficiently as possible, but they exist to manage and to serve not only themselves, or "government". They exist to serve the public (eg the expressions "public service" and "civil servant"). Nowhere are the problems raised by the administration/public interface more clearly visible than in the flood of printed matter that goes from administration to public and, very frequently, back again (as well as the flood that circulates within the administration itself).

Forms, instructions, receipts, invoices, public information, tickets, tables and statistics are part of a long series of complex administration-related pieces of print that often exists for years without being critically examined or that are produced with insufficient thought as isolated items. The key problems are legibility, comprehensibility and manageability. These are magnified in relation to capability - education, age, reading ability, etc. Difficulty in understanding and responding easily and accurately leads to irritation, confusion and waste.

The problems are very much graphic design problems. Serious research and development has, in recent years, been under way in a number of countries (eg Patricia Wright on forms in Great Britain). It is an indication of the considerable amount that still needs to be done to improve both government and business communication, and an indication of the ned for graphic design education in general education so that public servants might be better equipped to deal with design problems (cf the general education subject area).

The application of graphic design to informing readers and non-readers

From primitive drawings to cathedrals in the middle Ages to picture books fro children to urban signage to assembly instructions for objects distributed world wide, the information of non-readers as well as readers has a very long tradition. Trial and error have long pervaded this area. The break of the communication flow in our society can cause severe social handicap to the sufferer.

A topic in itself, it will inevitably be present in other areas such as health education and the working environment. Communication through symbols, cartoons, animated film, visual codes and so on will be discussed with a view to addressing specific problems of the Region.

The education of graphic designers, and their social responsibility

This subject area, and the one that follows (management), are the most important ones covered by the seminar. The others, insofar as the needs that they express are or will be met, are the consequences of success in these two. That is to say the problems of how to develop an appropriate design force, and how to use it.

Despite important work in typography, illustration and poster design, until the thirties the graphic designer was, in the Wester World, largely considered to be either a graphic artist or a commercial artist, adding an aesthetic dimension to visual images. Today graphic designers, like other kinds of designers, have a much more clearly defined socio-professional profile and they have developed greater awareness of their role and responsibility in society, not only as regards to the look of a message but also its aims and content.

In developing countries there were, until much more recently, strong visual traditions but neither applied graphic design nor the education needed to make it possible. Given the necessary decisions and resources it is relatively easy to create schools and curricula, based on Western experience, to meet, more or less effectively, needs of an "international" type. What is less easy, but also more crucial, is to create educational structures from which, on the basis of experience in basic design disciplines, graphic designers will emerge with the appropriate skill and motivation needed to make a contribution to development projects.

It will be indispensable to address the problem of creating a generation of socially responsible designers concerned with responding to social needs, and equipped to do so. The seminar will aim at establishing a general framework for this development.

Graphic design management

Although the questions of decision-making and of the management of design will be present throughout the seminar, the main aim of this subject is to summarise the other areas developed, since the underlying purpose of the seminar is to learn how to best manage the potential of graphic design as a tool for development. The conclusions and recommendations of the seminar will constitute the basic material for this topic.

Seminar structure

The seminar will last five days. These will include major lectures, case study reports, discussion sessions, working groups and informal gatherings.

Designers, government officials, educationalist, health officials, journalists and other specialists will be invited to meet in interdisciplinary groups with a focus on Africa, its structure, its needs and the role of graphic designers in the communication of visual information.

Speakers will be invited from Kenya, other African countries, other developing regions and the industrialised world.

The mornings will be used for lectures illustrated by case studies, and afternoons for discussion meetings, workshops and working groups.

Day 1 will include an introductory lecture providing a general frame of reference for the seminar. Day 2, 3 and 4 will include lectures and case study reports in the mornings. The lectures will discuss both social needs and communication problems and will be delivered by different specialists. The afternoon workshops will be thematic and will focus on specific subjects or problems. They will be charged with reporting to the general meeting on Day 5. The reports will be aimed either at identifying and defining areas where action is needed, or at making recommendations regarding specific action to be taken. They will form the basis for both the seminar report and for future action.

Icograda will develop a pilot project after the seminar on the basis of one of its recommendations, with a view to creating a methodological model for the adaptation of graphic design and to the needs of daily life in a developing context.


Works cited

[3] Informing information designers, David Sless, Icographic Vol 11, No 6, August 1985.