08 November 2006
Jorge Frascara
A New Profile for Visual Communication Design
Jorge Frascara

This moment of change finds us facing the need to redefine the objectives of design and its working methods. It is not by chance that I use the plural when referring to both objectives and methods. We are no longer seeking universal truths, but an understanding of the plurality and complexity of the issues we have to confront. Some fundamental ideas that define today s design thinking are outlined here, exploring a contemporary notion of design.

Design is not concerned with objects, but with the impact that those objects have on people
We have to stop thinking of design as the construction of graphics, products, services, systems and environments, and think about those as means for people to act, to realize their wishes and satisfy their needs. It is the needs and the wishes of people that we have to serve: the objects of design must be seen only as means. This requires a better understanding of people, of society and of the ecosystem. This necessity to extend the area of competence of the designer, from knowledge of form, technique, and manufacturing processes, to the understanding of social, psychological, cultural, economic and ecological factors that affect life in society, shows up a need to implement an interdisciplinary approach to education, research and practice in visual communication design.

Operational impact and cultural impact
Every design project has an operational objective: it is supposed to affect the knowledge, the attitudes or the behaviour of people in a given way. But any object deployed in the public space, be it communicational or physical, has a cultural impact or side-effect. This cultural impact affects the way people operate with other people as well as with things, and creates cultural consensus. More has to be done to understand this cultural impact so that designers can operate more responsibly in society.

Not transmitter-receiver, but producer-interpreter
We must recognize that people are not electronic devices, and that Claude Shannon s terminology that comes from information science does not recognize cognitive styles, cultural differences, expectations, feelings, intentions, value systems and levels of intelligence. We must understand that the messages we broadcast are not received, but interpreted by people.

If visual communication design is concerned with affecting people, then it should do this in an ethical way, that is, seeking partnership in the process of change, instead of issuing messages in an authoritarian way. Authoritarian communications transform the receiver in an object - instead of respecting him as a subject - resulting in non-ethical communications. In ethical communications the producer of a message connects with the receiver in an interactive dialogue. Rather than communicating things to people, designers should communicate with people about things, in a context of partnership.

The process of communication should be seen as a process of negotiation where the position of the originator of the information and that of the interpreter come into contact searching for a common terrain. Unidirectional communication is unethical and inefficient, and it promotes a passivity that in the long run will weaken our culture.

Communications disturb, create agitation. Good communication is, somehow, an invitation to act, or to reconsider perceptions or opinions. Without getting as far as political agitation, war or labour conflict, every communication, when it is cognitively interesting or emotionally strong, produces agitation. If there is no agitation, then probably there is no communication.

There is a need to develop a more accountable design practice, where the judgement of quality should not depend on the coincidence of several subjectivities but where it could be based on actual measurable benefits, human, financial or other, that could be expressed as the return of the design investment. Design projects should be developed in such a way that, at least in some dimensions, their effect may be measured. Without attempting to reduce all design activity to only those dimensions that can be measured, it is time to be serious about design as investment, so that it is not seen as an unnecessary expenditure.

Design as investment
The Institute for Communication Research of Australia has found out that every error made by a form-filler, costs US$ 10 to correct. A better design was able to dramatically reduce the number of errors made by users, resulting in strong savings for the insurance company. The Department of Transport of Victoria, Australia, that invested 6 million dollars in a traffic safety campaign, saved 118 million in compensations during the first year of the campaign. It is necessary to continue studying the economic benefits of design to demonstrate the financial benefits it can bring.

Design has to be relevant so as to rise above fads and fashions and penetrate all dimensions of life with a view to improving it. There is design to make life possible, design to make life easier and design to make life better. Irrelevant design is a liability for the profession and the environment. If we are looking at strengthening the position of design among other human activities, we will have to review the relevance of design projects and foster work in those areas where design could actually make a difference for the better.

Public good
Much has been said about doing some voluntary work for public service. This is not the point. The public good must be the most important objective of design activity, and it should be sought with the best resources, being understood as an investment with high returns affecting hidden dimensions of the economy. We can think, for example, about the tax forms that are filled in by 20 million people in Canada, and the problems caused by form-filler errors, and their cost. We can think about the 300,000 dollars cost for spinal cord injury in the first year of medical attention, and about the 200,000 Canadians that sustain traffic injuries every year. There are 51 million work days lost to injuries in Canada every year. Much can be done about this in the area of communications, information improvement, public education and community programmes.

Given the state of affairs today, in both environmental and cultural terms, it is not possible to design anything without framing it within the notion of sustainability. The escalation of waste and the generally irresponsible attitude of industry and governments toward the use of toxic and damaging products and processes is as bad to the physical environment as the promotion of violence and selfishness by the entertainment industry is to the cultural environment. Cultural and physical sustainability must become part of every design project, and schools will have an important role to play in the education of the new generations of designers.

Efficiency and democracy
These are the two poles between which collective decisions take place. Where to strike the balance, is a matter of judgement. If design decisions, and other decisions that affect us all, are to be collective decisions, then more should be discussed about their nature, and about criteria for appropriate balances between open discussion and decision making. Designers at the forefront of the profession are understanding design as the design of interaction between people and objects; now we have to develop a better understanding of the interaction between people and people.

Planning and self-organization
Every design problem involves planning and self-organization: it is not possible to continue believing that planning can solve it all, or that self-organization can solve it all either. Understanding the capacity of things and people to organize themselves when thrown into a given situation puts planning in an interesting perspective. The sport team model or the Panzer Division are not sufficient, and the Calcutta model is not desirable or sustainable. In design we should look more at the way in which things interact with each other, and at the dynamics of large complex systems, such as cities, ecologies or the stock market, and search for better conceptual models to replace old linear planning strategies.

The complex and the complicated
A computer network is complicated, it consists of a great number of parts but it is possible to account for them all. Social relations, instead, are complex: aspects interact with aspects and constantly change, preventing us from developing a perfect description, definition or explanation. Our relations with the complex are always in a state of flux. For a designer, it is important to distinguish complicated problems from complex problems; while the first kind can be confronted one part at a time, the second calls for a holistic intervention. Working on a complex problem it could be dangerous to deal with just one part: the consequences might create unexpected negative results. A signage project is complicated: it centers to a great extent on perception and cognition. A traffic safety campaign is complex: it centers on emotions and value systems.

Design is a problem oriented, interdisciplinary activity
There is a need to identify important problems and develop interdisciplinary strategies to deal with them. It is not possible to continue just reacting to clients requests for design interventions. It is necessary to consider the discovery and definition of physical and cultural problems as an essential part of design. The nature of each problem might suggest the spectrum of disciplines required to understand it. This multidisciplinary work should become interdisciplinary, somehow dissolving the frontiers between disciplines. It should be clear, however, that interdisciplinary work requires disciplinary competence.

Problem solving vs. problem reducing
We are used to hearing that designers are problem-solvers. To speak with precision, we do not necessarily solve problems, we reduce them. If a chair is uncomfortable, we design one that is more comfortable. If there are too many traffic collisions, we design communication campaigns directed at reducing the number of injuries. The types of problems we normally deal with cannot be solved, they can only be reduced. Some professionals will keep on using the problem-solver slogan, but it is important to be clear about the real ambition of our actions.

Reducing problems vs. identifying problems
The most important problem in design is to decide which is the problem. If designers exclusively base their work on clients requests, they limit themselves to the clients parameters. This will normally exclude potentially interesting areas for design action. Above and beyond preparing students to react well to clients requests, design education needs to develop their ability to identify problems that can be addressed by design action. The students should be assisted in the development of an inquisitive ability to observe and analyse reality. They should be able to discover opportunities for design action that offer room for positive contributions to society.

Form, materials and self-expression vs. content and context
The major preoccupations of the avant-garde/fine-arts based design education of the 1920s were form, materials and self-expression. Materials exploration was added by design education to the self-expression/form exploration approach of the avant-garde fine artists. We now realize that graphic design education today, eighty years later, is very frequently concerned with the same issues, to the detriment of a formalized education in content and context, and the way in which these should condition design action. We have now enough collective experience on form and materials; we need to transform self-expression into resourcefulness and inventiveness regarding the visual language in order to be able to speak the language of the public being addressed. We need as well to concentrate on formalizing and codifying the problems of content and context, learning and teaching how to transform them into conscious elements of the design process.

Objects of thought and value scales
People's opinions are formed on the basis of these two dimensions, that are useful to distinguish when working on persuasive communications. Objects of thought can be concrete, such as the Eiffel Tower or my mother, or they can be more abstract, like the notion of pleasure or a mathematical equation. Value scales normally refer to polarities, such as good-bad, beautiful-ugly, useful-useless, attractive-repulsive, etc. The position of an object of thought on a value scale creates the basis for people's attitudes, and defines the terrain and the purpose for persuasive communications. Persuasive communications are based on the generation of changes in the position that certain objects of thought have in a given value scale.

Design as product vs. design as process (iterative design)
As stated earlier, design solutions are always partial solutions. Every design solution can be surpassed by another when the problem addressed is better known or the designer in charge is more intelligent. For the design of administrative forms it is usual to speak of iterative design, that is, a design that is developed, produced, used, evaluated and corrected - as many times as necessary - until the point where it is decided that more testing and corrections will not significantly improve the performance of the instrument so as to justify the effort.

Markets, consumers and people
It is important to avoid terminologies that hide the complexity of problems, such as using the term consumers when referring to people. In a market economy it is common to use the term consumer, but one has to remember that people overflow that definition, and that the word consumer is ethically inappropriate and strategically inadequate to represent people in the context of the conception of communication campaigns. By the same token it is not the market but markets, and even a market segment is formed by a variety of profiles, and not by a unique type.

The hidden dimensions of the economy
Beyond the usual activity in the field of product design and supporting communications, it is important to explore possibilities for using our knowledge and experience to reduce problems that affect our economy in almost invisible ways. Traffic injuries are a clear case. In North America, medical attention to traffic injuries costs around 150 billion dollars a year to the health care system. Considering the two million people that suffer traffic injuries every year and the five hundred million work-days lost due to injuries in general, one can have an idea of the financial impact of looking after the injured. Leaving tragedies aside, and as mentioned earlier, even in the innocent field of forms design there is quite some money to be saved: the Communication Research Institute of Australia estimates that every error that a tax form-filler makes costs US$10 to fix in administrative time. Better forms could reduce the number of errors.
Much can be done about a wide range of products and communications to render them safer and more efficient. One of the clearest examples of high return to investment in design, is the experience in the state of Victoria, Australia. Their 6 million dollars expenditure in media for a traffic safety campaign, resulted in savings of 118 million in insurance compensations compared to the previous year. Roughly a twenty to one return. It is estimated that the community saved an additional 361 million in police, health, justice and other fields connected to traffic injuries.

Political ability
Alan Fletcher once said: It is not difficult to have good ideas, it is difficult to be able to realize them. The paradigm of the designer as problem identifier requires the development of a political ability that will allow the designer to convince those with power to finance projects. Traditional education in design does not include the development of this ability, which has so far been the territory of Business Management. If we want to extend the task of the designer from that of a professional who reacts to clients requests to that of a professional who initiates projects, it will be necessary to extend the sets of problems confronted in design schools. This extension should include the development of the ability to articulate and defend ideas, and to argue in favour of action in fronts other than those initiated at a client s request.

Debate vs. conversation
Debate and conversation are two modes of communication. The first is characterized by opposition, and the hiding of differences within each position. It is centred on winning or losing. The second is centred on understanding, it admits plurality of views and it ends without winners or losers. In all processes of teamwork, it is far more efficient to use the conversation model to organize the process of working together.

Living history
These preoccupations are the result of conversations with colleagues, personal reflections and information collected from readings. This series of questions makes us wonder about the possible preoccupations that William Morris, M ller-Brockmann or Peter Behrens could have had in their times. Thinking this way, these historical people stop being the simple image we have of them, due to the reduction to which they have been subjected through historical writings; they become more real and intriguing.
In the study of history it is important once in a while to take a look at the present. In part, to notice how difficult it is to understand the past, and in part to see how its knowledge can help us see our time.

From the design of objects to the design of situations and activities: the dematerialization of design
Designers have moved from a concern with objects to a concern with people. The design of an object is only a means to meet a need that affects people. We have to understand people s needs and wishes, and create the objects that meet them, while considering that every object placed in the public space has an operational and a cultural impact that the designer must evaluate.
In the field of education, we have changed from designing teaching aids to designing teaching situations. The success of a learning experience cannot be trusted to the design of a teaching aid. The whole activity has to be planned so that the teaching aid contributes its best to the experience. Many details enter this terrain, but certainly the teacher s actions, the student's actions and the environment in which the intervention occurs, all contribute to the learning event and must be seen as part of the design problem. This contribution is not only intellectual, but also emotional. We know that people learn better when they want to learn. We should think not only in cognitive terms when designing teaching aids, but also in motivational terms. The material should both motivate the teacher to teach and the student to learn.
Something similar affects the working environment. We have moved from the design of workstations to the design of work. Despite all we know today about ergonomics, there is no possibility of inventing and designing the perfect chair on which a person could sit for eight hours a day, five days a week, without becoming physically fatigued in one way or another. It would be wiser to design a work pattern which, including the design of furniture and tools, would be centred on the design of the activities to be performed.
All this of course, defines design problems as interdisciplinary problems.

The implications of the above are many. The graphic design field has been extended partly because of changes in the specifics of the field that result from the new technologies, and partly due to changes in our understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of our discipline.
The recognition of the interdisciplinary character of design leads us to conceive educational programmes with multiple options. In addition to the traditional disciplinary programme in design, at the University of Alberta students can select different pathways, that include 40 to 45% of their content in other fields. These are Computing Science, Business & Marketing, and Social Sciences (students in Industrial Design can also combine engineering in their programme).
In the graduate programme, the nature of the student s thesis project defines the supervisory team.
The twentieth century, which began showing the designer as master of applied arts, ended showing the profession as covering a field that includes art and science, as well as technology, administration and human sciences. We cannot expect less from people that constantly conceive and build the information, the objects and the spaces that surround us, contributing so strongly to the quality of our lives.

This is an excerpt from the book Design and the Social Sciences People-centered design: complexities and uncertainties, Taylor & Francis Publishing House, London 2001.

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About this article
The above article is reprinted from TipoGrafica magazine, with permission.

About the Author
Jorge Frascara is a Professor of Visual Communication Design at the University of Alberta, Canada, and former president of Icograda (1985/87). At present he is a Member of the Board of Directors of the American Association for Graphic Design Education and. He is the author of the books Graphic Design and Communication and Graphic Design for People.

About tipoGrafica magazine
Fontanadiseno has been editing tipoGrafica since 1987. It is the only independent publication focused on typography and design entirely produced in Argentina. Part of the thinking behind the magazine is the dissemination of knowledge and ideas to all those connected with the disciplines of communication. tpG is now an international forum of design debate and its advisory comitee gathers the most remarkable specialists around the world.