Designing Across Cultures

Joshua Korenblat
Assistant Professor of Graphic Design
Art Department
State University of New York at New Paltz

Designers can leverage the mind’s visual processing centers, transcending boundaries of written language. At the same time, some aspects of graphic design function more like written language, a cultural construct. Words have evolved from pragmatic concerns, and a pictorial tradition began to communicate with increasing levels of abstraction from intuitive source imagery. Some designers, such as Otto Neurath, an early twentieth-century Austrian utopian, attempted to bridge the universal aspects of graphic communication with writing. His collaborators created a language called “Isotype,” a visual esperanto that informs contemporary explanation design to this day. Designers who work in the isotype tradition often work in the field of explanation design.

How can graphic design communicate across cultures to further understanding between communities? These designers must align with the human mind’s active need to create stories from visual experiences, while also being mindful of a practice that resembles written language, with its attendant miscommunications. This presentation will detail case studies of graphic design applied toward information-rich educational experiences, across cultures and academic disciplines. The case studies will be drawn from first-person experience in the Art Department of National Geographic Magazine, in Washington, DC, a community that encourages international design projects and collaborations between artists and scientists.

National Geographic Magazine Art combines the isotope tradition of communication with a process more akin to written storytelling, with its attendant problems of miscommunication between cultures. This case study will also yield a more subtle form of intercultural communication, between designer, artist, and scientist, and how designers can provide context and clarity for specialized topics, making them accessible to wider, non-specialist audiences.