Evolving Graphic Design from Serving Industry to Fulfilling Fundamental Human Needs

Gareth Fry
Assistant Professor
Utah Valley University

In the same way that discussions about critical issues in our society’s past were once buried and eventually found a foothold in public discourse, graphic design must be shaken from its hypnotic focus on serving industry and refocused on the fulfillment of fundamental human needs. This presentation seeks to initiate a dialog through which designers and educators examine the physical, emotional, and mental impact our work has on others; develop a greater focus on human needs; and share ideas about evolving graphic design education and professional practice.

Graphic design has the potential to achieve highly-positive outcomes, but our field is still largely unaware of the negative effects caused by the tsunami of visual ephemera we create. Research of design psychology and anthropology reveals that the heart of the problem is our natural propensity to view the world in terms of “us” and “them,” and to divide our loyalties accordingly. This characteristic develops from birth and undoubtedly occurs in order to help infants ensure that their basic needs for safety and love are being met. It remains with us into adulthood, and throughout life we reflexively divide people into myriad groups. For designers, our clients are our primary “us,” whereas our audiences are a distant, passive, and easy-to-forget “them.” This is the system we have inherited, and most of us accept and perpetuate it without a second thought.

Previous scholarship that expounds ways to lift graphic design to a higher plane has tended to focus on superficial and transient factors such as industry issues, political agendas, and cultural trends. A far more powerful approach to finding a solution, however, is to re-code our “us” and “them” thinking, build a framework for graphic design that rests on the bedrock of our humanity, and make enlightened changes to our practices and output.