Visible Language Special Issue on the History of Visual Communication Design

Scholarship: Published Research Award Winner

Dori Griffin, Assistant Professor, University of Florida (Editor)

The history of graphic design as expressed in survey texts is well-known for being overpopulated by white Euro-American men. I believe that escaping this disciplinary echo chamber requires active, intentional effort from scholar-practitioners within the discipline. My own position as a design scholar and educator is one I’m determined to operationalize for inclusion. Therefore I was excited when Mike Zender, editor of Visible Language, invited me to guest-edit a special issue devoted to the history of visual communication design. As the longest-running peer reviewed journal of visual communication design research in the United States, Visible Language has played a significant role in both constructing and deconstructing a canonical notion of graphic design history, a subject I examined in the journal’s fiftieth anniversary issue (Griffin 2016). In cultivating submissions for the history issue, I was determined to facilitate as global and diverse a range as possible. It was vital for the issue to contribute to the ongoing work of building a more inclusive history of graphic design. Part of this work relies on an active critique of the power structures which have led to a canonical history based on exclusions around race/ethnicity, gender/sexuality, class, professional identity, and geography. And part of the work requires intentionally and explicitly inviting as-yet unheard voices to contribute to the disciplinary dialogue. Though the term “decolonization” is often used to describe such efforts, I’m cautious about its application. In the words of Tuck and Yang (2012), “Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.” Instead, I’d describe my editorial goal as recuperative, opening up the dialogic spaces of design-historical discourse to include individuals, ideas, and practices too long excluded from that narrative.

It’s a truism that graphic design history is predicated on a shallow understanding of stylistically conceptualized movements and that the discipline lacks an evidence-based, critically-informed history (e.g. Blauvelt 1994-5; Woodham 1995; Triggs 2009, 2011). Yet as I worked on this editorial project, I became convinced that this conceptualization is invalid. As I noted in the introduction to the special issue, it is not the case that histories of visual communication design, beyond style or connoisseurship or visual data, do not exist. Rather, they inhabit spaces conceptualized as external to the core of our discipline. There are scholars and practitioners already at work conducting historical research which significantly expands familiar, survey-text style notions of graphic design history. Their work may be published in adjacent fields in the humanities and social sciences, rendering it less familiar to design educators. Or historical research might undergird a contemporary studio design practice rather than a scholarly publishing practice, and thus it escapes representation in the formal literature of design history. It is vital to make room for these voices within our field. As I shaped the history-themed issue of Visible Language, I actively cultivated participation from both kinds of researchers. Including their voices within graphic design’s established communities of dialogue greatly enriches the conversations which can take place in these spaces.

The four authors whose articles were selected for publication through the journal’s double-blind peer review process expand the narrative of graphic design history through specific case studies. Each illustrates the complexity of our discipline’s historical narratives. Collectively, the authors’ research speaks to the intersections between canonized Euro-American design conventions and the diverse ways design practice occurs and is understood in a wide range of local and global contexts. The authors’ contributions to the dialogic disciplinary narratives of graphic design history are the most important outcome of this project. In “The Implications of Media,” Islamic art historian Hala Auji undertakes a close contextual and material reading of the Nafir Suriya, a series of Arabic-language broadsides originally printed in Beirut in 1860 and re-issued in 1990. In “Ismar David’s Quest for Original Hebrew Typographic Signs,” practicing designer Shani Avni contextualizes David’s design process for the David Hebrew type family (1954), documenting David’s negotiation of the tension between tradition and innovation through a research-based design process. In “Mana Mātātuhi,” practicing designer Johnson Witehira documents Māori visual culture’s incorporation of Latin-alphabet lettering and typography into culturally specific ways of seeing, knowing, and expressing. In “Lower Case in the Flatlands,” design historian Trond Klevgaard explores the adaptation and application of Avant Garde Modernist strategies in locations traditionally defined as “peripheral.” The abstracts for all four articles are included in the “evidence of outcome” section.

Serving as guest editor for this special issue of Visible Language led to an invitation to join the editorial team as the associate editor for statements of practice at Design & Culture, the journal of the Design Studies Forum. The July 2019 issue is the journal’s first issue under the direction of its new editors in chief, who describe their “conscious formation of an editorial and advisory board of accomplished scholars who work beyond the silos of their disciplines and who hail from regions not always represented in design’s dominant canons and conversations.” They note that they “are also attentive to the politics of citations and are committed to broadening the scholarly dialog to include voices too frequently dismissed or engaged only at the margins” (Adams, Keshavarz and Traganou 2019, 154). Within this conceptual framework, the issue’s statement of practice is by Nadine Chahine, whose insightful essay discusses her work as a designer of Arabic typefaces and the complex role typography plays in a diverse range of Arabic cultural and political expressions. I’m honored to contribute to this ongoing work of diversification, in however small a way. It’s thrilling to collaborate with practitioners and scholars who prioritize a global, participatory, and inclusive notion of design history and praxis. Editorial work is not glamorous. But approaching it with a passion for cultivating diversity and inclusion holds the power to shape future histories of graphic design into narratives more representative of all peoples and practices within the domain of design. [989 words]

Bibliography

Adams, B., M. Keshavarz and J. Traganou. 2019. “Editorial.” Design and Culture 11:2, 153-6.

Blauvelt, A. 1994-5. “New Perspectives: Critical Histories of Graphic Design.” Visible Language volumes 28.3, 28.4, 29.1.

Griffin, D. 2015. “The Role of Visible Language in Building and Critiquing a Canon of Graphic Design History.” Visible Language 50:3, 6-27.

Triggs, T. 2009. “Designing Graphic Design History.” Journal of Design History 22 (4): 325–40. https://doi.org/10.1093/jdh/epp041.

———. 2011. “Graphic Design History: Past, Present, and Future.” Design Issues 27 (1): 3–6. https://doi.org/10.1162/DESI_a_00051.

Tuck, E., and K. Yang. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1:1, 1-¬40.

Woodham, J. 1995. “Resisting Colonization: Design History Has Its Own Identity.” Design Issues 11 (1): 22–37. https://doi.org/10.2307/1511613.

Dori Griffin is an assistant professor of graphic design in the University of Florida’s School of Art + Art History. Her research centers around two interrelated areas of inquiry. Her historical research expands the narrative of graphic design as it has been practiced and consumed in the past, with particular focus on how popular visual artifacts and print media shape national and international dialogues about culture, politics, and identity. Her pedagogical research explores how to develop globalized curriculum and diverse, learner-centered practices for design history pedagogy, particularly in the context of studio education. She is a frequent contributor to the peer-reviewed scholarly dialogues of the discipline, with publications in Dialectic, Visible Language, Design & Culture, the Journal of Communication Design, and the Journal of Design History, among others. Currently, she serves as the associate editor for statements of practice at Design & Culture.

Understanding Potential Benefits and Consequences of Art Therapy in Arts Education

Many artists use personal experiences naturally, which often include traumatic memories.

David Graves
Adjunct Professor
Bristol Community College

Art and design educators often encourage students to use personal experience in their creative practice, and many artists use these experiences naturally, which often include traumatic memories. Through this process, art education implicitly utilizes techniques developed and used by art therapists, almost always without the formal training and education of an art therapist. How are these practices beneficial, and what are the potential risks of this kind of teaching/learning, specifically when the educator is not using these approaches intentionally? Is this mode of teaching exclusive to art and design, or can it be found ingrained in pedagogy throughout the Humanities, and beyond?

By understanding how memory works, and which parts of the brain are activated when recalling and talking about traumatic experiences versus creating work about those same traumatic experiences, we know that different biological responses are triggered. This includes the fight/flight/freeze response. Avoiding that trigger is the basis of many art therapy approaches, and is part of the appeal of creating art about trauma rather than talking about it. If we as art and design educators are utilizing this and other therapeutic approaches in our classrooms and studios, perhaps we would benefit from some formal training by professionals in the art therapy field.

This research was initiated by self-exploration into my art and design practice during my graduate studies, before ultimately exploring the experiences of others, in and outside of the creative fields. My research includes an exploration of the making process to cope with trauma, art therapy techniques in children and adults, as well as candid interviews with others about traumatic memory.

Introducing MUGEN — A Javascript Library for Teaching Code Through Game Design

This tool allows students to rapidly develop a small game-like interactive experience with a minimal amount of coding.

Brian James
Assistant Professor
St John’s University

Teaching computer coding to students of design presents a unique context, with its own set of challenges. Design students may lack deep intrinsic motivation toward the subject, perceiving code-related classes as unwelcome, stress-inducing requirements in the curriculum. Additionally, they may be intimidated not only by the task of coding in general, but also by the complexity of the software development kits used by more experienced coders. Finally, the time and cognitive load required to code even a small interactive project can be daunting even to the most motivated learner.

Design students do, however, bring unique strengths to the table. Designers are often highly motivated to learn tools that help them make tangible creative pieces. They typically bring skills such as illustration, photography, and project management to their work. And design students who have internalized the lessons of working with grids, character styles, and similar visual systems are primed to work with analogous systems in a coding context.

The Mini UnGame ENgine (MUGEN) is an attempt to bridge these challenges and opportunities by presenting design students with a simple, pedagogically oriented JavaScript library, developed by the author, that allows them to rapidly develop a small game-like interactive experience with a minimal amount of code. MUGEN offers teachers a flexible tool that can support an instructional approach focused on visual design, or an approach focused more on coding, or on an approach that balances the two.

This presentation will describe MUGEN’s aims and current state of development, share tentative results of its first deployment in a design classroom, and consider possibilities for future development and applications of this pedagogical work-in-progress.

Teaching the History of Graphic Design to Visual Learners

Solution: add a significant drawing component to the curriculum

Ingrid Hess 
Assistant Professor 
University of Massachusetts Lowell

I teach the History of Graphic Design to art and design students. Most of them are visual learners. I find it an exciting challenge to teach in a way that inspires learning among these students. Below are excerpts from an article I wrote for the international journal Visual Inquiry in 2013 entitled, “How Drawing Helps Keep History Present”.

When I was an art student, one of my favorite classes was art history. I remember my professor’s lectures to be fascinating yet I remember almost nothing about art history itself. The information she shared with the class didn’t stick with me. Two decades later I was asked to teach a History of Graphic Design class. I was thrilled and terrified. How could I teach a class as interesting as the one I took years before yet help my students retain the information they were learning? My solution was simple: add a significant drawing component to the curriculum. By having students create work based on the lectures I presented they put their knowledge into immediate use. The results were astounding. On tests throughout the semester, questions relating to the drawing assignments were much more likely to be answered correctly than other questions.

A pleasant surprise—regardless of a student’s inherent drawing skill, using drawing was an effective tool. My class consisted of both art majors and non-art majors. I graded not on the expertise of the rendering, but rather on how each student integrated new knowledge of graphic design history into the drawing assignments.

The most rewarding part of the course was seeing how much the students loved the drawing assignments. At the end of the class when I asked the students what they thought they would remember from the semester, all of them stated a lesson that went along with a drawing assignment.

Tactics & Strategies

This presentation will discuss tactics and strategies for critique within the design school classroom that go beyond the archetypal “group crit,” and into innovative and unexpected ways of engaging students in critical dialog.

Mitch Goldstein
Assistant Professor
School of Design
Rochester Institute of Technology

Educating designers is a complex and layered process — a chaotic mixture of facts and opinions disseminated primarily through critical discourse. This presentation will discuss tactics and strategies for critique within the design school classroom that go beyond the archetypal “group crit,” and into innovative and unexpected ways of engaging students in critical dialog.

The AIGA “Designer of 2025” suggests that students need to learn a number of emerging competencies while attending design school, including working with complexity, understanding accountability for their design decisions, and embracing new forms of sense-making and dialog within their work. In addition to teaching the formal and methodological elements of design, educators need to make sure students have a clear understanding of why and how their design decisions resulted in work that accomplished its goal or missed the mark. This understanding primarily comes from critique.

Educators place a high value on critique, for many of us, it is how we spend the majority of our class time. Traditionally, critique has happened in a large group setting, with all members of the class and the instructor discussing each project one by one and offering feedback as a group. This method has value but is too often about social baggage and performance art, with the same handful of outgoing students doing most of the talking, drowning out students who are quieter or more anxious in large groups. This presentation asks a simple question: what are the most useful, most effective ways to give and receive feedback in the classroom? We have all had students we know are excellent thinkers but never speak in a large group critique — it may be time to move past the traditional models of feedback into other ways of helping students better understand what is happening within their work.

Leveraging the Smartphone as a Teaching Tool

Heather Snyder-Quinn
Professional Lecturer
DePaul University
College of Computing and Digital Media
School of Design

Heather Snyder-Quinn 
Professional Lecturer
DePaul University 
College of Computing and Digital Media 
School of Design

Educators are often frustrated with students’ constant attachment to their smartphones. But why do we assume the smartphone isn’t a creative tool akin to a pencil or brush—a simple way of seeing and interpreting the world around us?

As the world of design vacillates forever between the digital and analog, it’s imperative that students (and educators) understand an ever-expanding array of principles. In the words of Seymour Papert: “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” And as classroom content grows, the best thing we can teach students is how to be adaptive and curious thinkers.

Students can best embrace uncertainty and find comfort in a process of discovery by exploring and pushing the boundaries of the familiar. This is where the phone excels as a teaching tool. Analogous to the way a drawing teacher encourages mark-making with a branch or one’s foot, we can use a smartphone’s features in unintended ways that harness its power as a creative tool by altering our own expectations.

The smartphone is a device that most students have as an extension of their hand (though we must be vigilant of our own assumptions from privilege). Once students learn to use the smartphone in unintended and perceptively novel ways, they can extend this method to both past technologies and those yet to be imagined. By having students hack, make, and create in this manner, we are teaching them to think beyond the hand and machine, to the tool that has not yet been discovered.

Lastly, by exploring/investigating the capabilities of, and ever-present reliance upon our smartphones, we can raise awareness and open the classroom conversation to discuss ethical implications in design, including privilege, accessibility, inclusion, privacy and addiction.

Empathic Typography

Michele Damato McCaffrey
Assistant Professor
Department of Design
Syracuse University

Michele Damato McCaffrey
Assistant Professor
Department of Design
Syracuse University

How are students going to become empathic designers when they live and learn in a guarded design institution for four years? Can we develop courses/projects that encourage them to interact with communities outside of their own?

My work with students has shown they want to feel invested in their learning. Millennials are the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in the U.S. and are highly committed to social change. As design educators, we can use this information to tailor classes that will challenge them socially as citizens and designers so that they may have a deeper emotional connection to their work.

In my Experimental Typography Class, students are required to photograph the typographic signage/markings of an unknown neighborhood. For many, this may have been the first time visiting a neighborhood/culture significantly different from their own. Through typography only, the students designed a double-sided poster that communicates the culture and experience of that place. They come to understand how typography alone can reflect the ethnicity, culture, and socio-economic structure of a neighborhood. Though challenging and uncomfortable to some, students enjoy this project because they have the freedom to choose communities; take their own photography; spend time outside the boundaries and solitude of the classroom; and are in a new environment.

As a result, students often felt an investment and commitment to the neighborhood they chose to present. Not only did they fall in love with this new approach of discovering typography but also how they visually represented their story. Having students move outside of the classroom and interacting in new communities allowed them to (a) utilize their own strengths to develop their voice as designers and (b) raise their awareness of other communities as a first step toward becoming empathic and socially engaged citizens.

 

Agents of Change:Inspiring the Next Generation of Art Directors

James Wojtowicz 
Associate Director of Art Direction and Industry Development
School of Advertising
Academy of Art University
San Francisco, California

Many, if not most Art Directors did not plan on being Art Directors as a kid. There are lots of reasons why. Chances are they were tacitly, if not actively discouraged by parents and guidance counselors, from pointing towards anything with the word art in the job title. This and media profiling, that in general, rank a career in advertising somewhere between becoming a politician and a used car salesperson.

That needs to change. More than ever, Art Directors today can be the driving force behind positive social impact and not just a client’s bottom line. College bound students need to know this. They need to be more exposed to the fact that creativity is a learnable and applicable skill – one that can be used on demand, to develop smart, compelling messaging that inspires meaningful change in the world.

Insights from experienced professionals have tremendous impact on young minds in search of a career path. This presentation provides a set of tools for influencers to encourage the next generation of Art Directors/Agents of Change. Perhaps actor Kevin Spacey said it best “If you’re lucky enough to have done well, then it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.”

Reconstructing a BA Graphic Design Program: Scalpel or Sledgehammer?

Nancy Wynn
Associate Professor
Merrimack College

In the fall of 2015, as the new faculty member at Merrimack College, I was thrust into this position. A cold dose of reality hit—my senior students’ work was, sadly, a mess. It was clear the design program needed to be rebuilt and renamed. Acting fast became necessary, because moving slowly would continue the problem. Both scalpel and sledgehammer were required (along with lots of coffee) delivering a newly redesigned BA Graphic Design program for approval and implementation by fall 2016. The program bridged both design thinking and making with the skill set of a Liberal Arts education.

The analysis started with the NASAD/AIGA analytical and consultative briefing papers. They were a good starting point, but they did not answer the question of how to build an expanded BA model responsibly? How elastic is the BA model? What beneficial Liberal Arts skills could be integrated into a graphic design student’s education? How could avenues be created for various types of students to be successful? And, where and how should professional engagement enter into the program?

This story begins by sharing methods for responsibly creating a “hybrid” BA model, keeping students’ best interests in mind, and honoring the industry’s professional standards. Topics to be shared include evaluating existing majors and minors; partnering with other majors and departments; which courses to keep vs. which should be thrown out; setting sizable goals for a 4-year BA graphic design program; ideas on future learning spaces and technology; and, understanding what is valuable in a 21st century graphic design education as the industry continues to evolve.

Unforeseen Structures: Chaos, Materials, and Emergent Process

Mitch Goldstein
Assistant Professor
School of Design

Rochester Institute of Technology 

My research focuses on the examination of form and methodology using darkroom photography techniques, specifically the photogram. Photograms use no cameras or lenses — instead, objects are placed on or near unexposed photographic paper and briefly exposed to light. This process results in abstract black and white compositions, which emerge unpredictably from the physical materials used in their creation. Control is relinquished, and instead intuition and chance allow form and structure to develop from the process.

This work closely parallels my visual design practice working in publication design, as well as my applied pedagogy teaching art and design students. My talk focuses on three concepts that this research explores: how to work with chaos and unpredictability, the usage and synthesis of materials and methods, and the exploitation of emergent process. My photogram work, my publication design work, and some of my classroom projects will be shown as examples of these ideas and how they manifest across different contexts.