08 November 2006
Michel Wlassikov
Michel Wlassikov

What, in the last decade, has changed the approach of graphic design and moved the contemporary creation so much that research on the topic grew to such a scale ?

Remarkable changes have taken place, concerning the practice of graphic design, as well as its position within the communication systems and even its recognition by the other visual disciplines and cultural institutions.

Emergence is thus a panorama meant to be representative of the trends and processes, the intervention methods and the specializations, the ways and lives of designers, even their financial and geographical positions.

A Singular Space
Many graphic designers, some of whom severely criticize advertising agency methods, don't mean to stay in an ivory tower: it is rather time to open up. Under these conditions, the field of graphic design is viewed more and more as another approach to communication. Besides, some agencies have seized the opportunity and are calling more and more for independent designers.

"Designers experiment and communication or advertising agencies recycle Research and industry in a way." Sylvia Tournerie

Authored design develops essentially in the sociocultural field, in fashion and music publishing, where links between designers and other creators are often built on authentic collaborations. Unlike their predecessors, the designers don't want to confine themselves to these fields. First, because through fashion and music publishing, they appreciate the vices and virtues of the private sector. Also, their access to optimal visibility - "today, nothing circulates more than music and its image: the disc sleeve is a very powerful media." Laurent Fetis - naturally carries them to other fields of intervention.

It is fanciful to believe that authentic creation is only possible in the sociocultural field - linked more or less to a political commitment. Even if commitment means something to certain people, the question is no longer to view it through the criteria of the seventies which had dominated the position of the practice in France until now : graphic design is not a political act in itself. The main issue is the quality of the images.

Independence is a choice, sometimes decided through a lack of other solutions. It is a way to perpetuate tradition. It implies control of a project and liberty of experimentation. Independence seems to guarantee the building of its own language, at the expense of early emancipation - right from school. It is a dynamic for creation, but not a refuge: it carries great difficulties and permanent insecurity, but what prevails is the sense of freedom.

"I chose independence because no studio, no agency would work as I desired. If I had found one, maybe I would have tried to get hired by a structure." Genevieve Gauckler

"The teachers from the Esag (College of Arts and Design) painted an enticing picture of the independent design universe. All the designers whose work we appreciated were independent." Martin Verdet

"To choose independence is to be able to develop a research work. Philippe Lakits

"I decided to become an independent designer quickly. I wanted to manage everything myself, from the beginning to the end." Muriel Paris

"An independent designer also has an independent mind. He's not expected to offer standard solutions. The most interesting works are issued by individuals, rarely by companies with two hundred employees." Laurent F tis

Very few of the designers concerned consider creating the kind of studios that existed in the eighties, that is to say structures of ten or so people centered round a dominant personality. The young designers get to know these studios through training periods or jobs and seem not to want to hear about them anymore. It also seems obvious to most of them that these design companies are economically obsolete, for they need to accumulate orders, and they can t challenge the communication agencies on this field.

Collective studios don't seem to be an ideal solution either, even if some give it a chance, like Labomatic or Trafik. A new kind of link is growing, based on free association of independent designers and collective work from time to time, comparable to the film industry. This feature tends to develop, as independent designers turn more and more to the multimedia and the audiovisual fields.

Authored design defines itself as a solitary practice depending more and more on networks and links with other jobs. In everyone's eyes, it is increasingly necessary and interesting to work with professionals of graphic production lines or the new jobs linked to the digital world.

New Medias
A minority of designers have elected multimedia as their favourite field, however practically all the others have also created websites or CD Roms. Several designers have taken part in clips, and many of them have already produced animations and credit titles. Although within the multimedia sphere practices and functions diversify and specialize, many generalists manage without major difficulties, even if they have problems integrating into a team, where they generally don't understand the technical issues. While the demand on both sides is large - graphic designers wishing to enter the multimedia, orders implying a multimedia aspect, multimedia design agencies constantly looking for creators, etc., the intermixing is intensifying.

Because of the difficulties related to the management of interface and interactivity, the growing complexity of the interventions makes the graphic designers collaborate more and more with other specialists - scriptwriters, developers, animators, etc. - whose prerogatives are at least as significant as their own. These necessary and enriching relationships are not always easy to bind, all the more so that the influence of each one is not as clearly defined as in the audiovisual field, even if it tends to get better. This is actually the reason for the creation of new collective studios such as Trafik, composed of "pure" graphic designers associated with webdesigners and developers, representing a nerve center in the creation process.

"Computers don't decipher the Internet. Technicians will always restrict my choices, in the same way as printers will do" Pif.

"It is hard to define where to place the graphic intervention, even if it obviously comes after the creation of information and/or narration systems." Yacine A. Kaci

The issue of a "new language" specific to new medias must first and foremost be considered according to the ability of the graphic designers to accommodate the singular natures of these supports. The graphic designer plans the presentation, the arborescence and the animation, and if its ergonomics are part of the prerogatives, the task division should not deprive him of the desire or the opportunity to participate in the creation of interactivity and navigation, for these two functions are the keys to the language of the multimedia.

"Multimedia may quickly become meaningless when void of interactivity. We try to build projects drawing their originality from new "interactive principles" without it being a mix of different medias." Trafik

When they made their first interventions in the multimedia field, many graphic designers simply transposed the markers of printed graphics - a way to steady themselves before trying to move into the medium. Besides, lots of websites, particularly the catalog-directory sites, simply complete and decline a perfectly well structured printed system.There isn't much difference between saying and thinking that the issues and the competences are no different, simply adapted to other medias, and some do think so. Others are persuaded that multimedia graphics is a true discipline and not just the printed result, that it is a field where everything has still to be invented.

"We try to develop a specific screen language, still embryonic. It is a new field, even if it is still influenced by the several grafts which gave birth to it." Labomatic

The situation is still full of contradictions, and opinions about the durability of the approaches and the quality of the productions still differ. Several graphic designers think that as far as graphics and the manageability are concerned, video games keep teaching a thing or two to cultural CD Roms. As for the Internet, its creative possibilities are not unanimously approved. The only thing we can apparently be sure of, is that the expansion of the Internet will benefit even more the professional graphic designers, who will be better recognized this way, being in the heart of the creation systems.

"Entertainment, research and experimentation possibilities are numerous on the internet. There ar already many innovative sites in all fields." Trafik

"I'm not impressed by websites: they often shoot a line, and are rarely innovating or interesting." Jeanne Verdoux

Vices and Virtues of the New Technologies
Nobody denies the fact that technologies have made the graphic designer's work easier, especially concerning typography, that they have freed his hand, allowing him to better master his work, and that the diversification and improvement of the tools and possibilities are really attractive. As a matter of fact, criticism bursts forth about the development of tools and functions. Graphic designers know by experience that new tools are not always reliable. Time saving is often deceptive, but on the other hand, the speeding-up of everything can become infernal. Enthusiasm is really counterbalanced by scepticism.
"I am rather the one who tries to convince the most reluctant ones that new technologies represent a fantastic adventure." Yacine A. Kaci

"New technologies tend to affect me as much as the Eurovision Song Contest results." Laurent Seroussi
"I am interested in new technologies because they allow me to make progress, but I find them depressing because their progress is too quick." Jeffrey Blunden

As for the aesthetics particular to new technologies, the fantastic possibilities offered to the letter drawing and the layout don t mesmerize people anymore. On the other hand, there is a general acknowledgement that technology can produce ugly things when used too excessively.

Most of the young graphic designers introduced here have many calls upon them and have lots of work. They all avoid money-spinners - which are not signed and not shown - for to them money-spinners represent a depreciation of their status. They are earning their livings pretty well, but although hard to measure, differences are important. Indeed, only a few of them use set fees; what is more, orders are very different and budgets often include all or most of the fabrication - not to mention the investments in equipment which vary from one graphic designer to another.

The fact that certain graphic designers sometimes or often work on important projects for the account of renowned patrons, while others only accept orders in the sociocultural field, which traditionally pays less, obviously explains the differences in income.

Many of them tend to think that pushing the budgeting scopes of an order is part of the job. But it does happen that to keep a patron, some graphic designers run through the money they get only in making of aids for a selective operation. It is also true that sometimes novice graphic designers almost work for free for a patron with whom they think they may advance. Finally, interventions for associations such as Act Up are always free, the satisfaction to create widely broadcast "emergency images" representing the best reward.

Graphic design is one of the rare creative jobs where public recognition and production efficiency can not be measured in terms of money or economic effects. As such, it means a lot - especially to the young graphic designers - to be paid well: it is a way to pledge the patron's trust, to be recognized for the value of the job, and gain better consideration than a service provider would

The money issue gives complete expression to many evolutions. Until now, the graphic designer was more or less considered as a craftsman or a technician. Many young graphic designers now aim at being considered in the same way as an architect or an interior decorator, all the more so that wages in the multimedia field tend to pull the whole profession. This "raising" of the status goes together with the raising of the function and the acknowledgment.

Most of the young graphic designers introduced here know how to defend their interests, they are convinced that their intervention plays an important part, and that it can allow their patron to earn money. But this self-confidence is counterbalanced by the acknowledgment that bad habits are continued within the profession: too many young graphic designers don't know how to defend their interests and in particular don t know a thing about copy rights, and don t even imagine they can claim them. It is also necessary to ackowledge that patrons, playing with the fact that there isn't much money in the cultural field, that the graphic designers can express themselves on exciting topics and meet authentic creators, are playing an easy game with graphic designers who besides don't always think it natural to be well-paid.

"I'm getting copy rights on certain works. It isn't very frequent, but it is part of the law and it wouldn't be surprising if it was applied regularly." Philippe Millot.

About this article
The above article by Michel Wlassikov originally appeared in Emergence published by Etapes Graphiques and appears here with permission.

Emergence is published by Etapes graphiques which is a french professional publication intented for professionals in the field of visual communication.

Emergence-Young graphic design in France is the first special issue of Etapes graphiques.