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iGAF V: Why design?

In a recent blog post (German), Eric Spiekermann reflects on whether the world needs graphic designers. According to him, in spite of the world's current advertising and design hiatus, it has not stopped revolving. Nor can graphic artists change the world with a few cutesey slogans. All this may be true. All this brings on a new installment in the Is Goodness a Fashion Series.

Graphic designers, advertisers, architects and product designers have a tendency to pursue their style above the content they are meant to create. While having a style and pursuing it is a very valid aim, content does matter. This shows in many buildings we see erected, in our daily dose of 100 000 advertising impulses a day, in many of the products we use— how many of these really enrich our lives? And of those that do, how many will last beyond their warranty? How many buildings are built taking maintenance and humans actually doing inside them into consideration? Rather, most of this input makes a statement that cannot be questioned and that, should it be, would probably collapse rather quickly.

That, however is a very negative view of how the industry affects our lives. One might break down the answer to the question of whether we need design into two categories: Yes, we do need design, as it makes the world a better place. And: No, we don't need it, it just makes things prettier, not more useful. Both are valid answers. But how do graphics make the world a better place? And how does design just pretty things up?

To answer those questions, let us look at process:

A client, say a city, will put out a brief for the design of a new set of street signs. The design teams applying to the pitch will very probably look at the current signs, the way they are organised around the city, how effective, how legible they are across the city. They will then hopefully examine the cities' character, discovering in the process that the city has some unique historic connection to this or that. For a moment, let's assume a famous Blackletter typographer, Franz Drobo, resided in the city from 1709—1741, and designed five new blackletter typefaces during his time there, dying of influenza in 1741.

Thinking that blackletters are gorgeous and that a city covered in non-DIN street signs would be a great thing, one team comes up with this set of street signs based entirely on the typographers cuts, which, even though very nice to look at, are not very legible, as they are composed entirley out of the Drobo Fraktur Fett. They compose a few mood boards, showing the famous locations in the city resplendent in their new blackletter signs. It all looks very nice and has a unique style to it. They enter the contest with that.

Another team also thinks the Drobo Fraktur in various cuts is beautiful. And yet, it also recognizes that drivers need to be able to grasp the street signs within a few seconds. They design a font around the blackletter, using some of the same characteristics in a legible sans serif and use elements of the blackletter to highlight the cities attractions. They comp this up and it also looks nice and unique. They enter the contest with that.

Both are valid approaches. But while one approach will only add some style, the other will have a function in real life. One will make the city pretty. So will the other. The difference is that one may enrich the current system, while the other is purely æsthetic in its approach.

Or let us compare:

A graphic designer can be compared to a speechwriter: If you don't have the eloquence to bring your point across clearly and succinctly, you hire someone to write you a speech that will hopefully inflame the hearts of millions, which will differentiate you from your competitors and peers.

Likewise, if you don't have the graphical eloquence to convey your brand clearly and succinctly, you hire someone to design your logo, your stationary and take care of your advertising for you. This will improve how people see you, bring attention to your brand and communicate your values more professionally and eloquently than an advertising concept that took you a lot of time to come up with, distracting you from what you (the client, that is) are supposed to be doing: Running your Company.

One designer will come up with populistic rhetoric, in understandable terms aimed at making the masses cheer at the moment the words are uttered, yet with very little content behind it. Another will come up with an impassioned, yet coherent speech, putting forth the points you wish to address clearly and giving insights into your thinking, in understandable terms.

Again, both speechwriters have a valid approach. But while one will only deliver a good speech that may be discussed for a few days to come, I believe that history may see the value in not creating too much hot air with a speech. The final delivery is up to the client, of course.

The process of designing is a also mental one, in addition to the visual result. A good graphic designer, in my belief, is one that engages with subjects, researching them and thinking them through before putting the slogan to paper, or art to the page. This thought process, the cogitation behind the design, may be applied to many other fields: consumer research, government, the development of a new product or street planning.

In my experience, design offers a client a welcome opportunity to examine their brand, their company or their business, to have it explained to them how they are perceived by the public at large. It offers impulses for optimising, in some cases even narrowing down your focus, to the things that matter. It brings the companies shortcomings to your attention and makes you realise the strengths an enterprise has. It makes you aware of new social and manufacturing developments you were not aware of hitherto. It may help you build a better, more efficient company. And of course, looking good while you do it doesn't hurt.

Not every designer is willing to go to these lengths all the time, of course. Sometimes, you just want to be lazy and paid for your creative effort. Sometimes, all you want to do is produce an effective and great-looking graphic. But this effort is what makes graphic design not only pretty, but an improvement on the current state of the art.

The world will not stop revolving if all design were to be deleted from the planet in one day. But I do submit that it would turn more slowly, maybe a bit more gratingly. Our sofas would certainly be less comfortable, our books less well laid out, websites would dissolve into html code, which everyone would have to learn. We would have to navigate our way around cities by memory. We would not have good-looking cars or thought-out kitchen appliances to make our lives easier.

On the other hand, there would be so much less bullshit.

Do we really need design? Beyond making our lives prettier and more usable, maybe even easier to navigate and certainly easier to read, what has design ever done for us except grab our attention and make us see the world a different light?

So, do we need design? Or should the question be: What kind of design may be useful to us?

Also well worth a listen: Peter Day's programme on Design Thinking

PS: From a long history of impassioned rants.

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