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General description of the discipline

Graphic Design Department - Presentation during Graduation Festival 2014

Image: Graphic Design Department - Presentation during Graduation Festival 2014

Graphic designers are investigative researchers. They look critically at their profession and the world, and they reflect on change. By continuously asking questions, they discover where information is hidden, determine the form in which it should be presented and decide how it can be made accessible. In doing so, the profession of the graphic designer is strongly related to visual arts, science, journalism and other creative disciplines.

Graphic designers work on commission, in addition to initiating their own projects. They work with provided information, but also acquire it themselves. In the latter case, they are no longer simply designers, but take on the roles of initiator, editor, project manager and publisher as well. The profession places strong emphasis on the research and development of concepts that form the foundation of information transfer.

Designing is a combination of imagining, engineering and inventing. For example, the design of a website is more than the actual website; it is the process of envisioning what the website will potentially look like and implementing how it will finally work. The increasing availability of technological means of production (e.g. user-friendly software and affordable high quality printers) has allowed designers to control the production process, thus reducing the gap between design and product.

In everyday work, the designers have virtually infinite ways of expressing ideas at their disposal: sketching with a pencil, composing text with a design programme, drawing patterns in sand, experimenting with different materials, coding on a computer, visualising data, organising photographs and many more. The products they create are equally diverse: websites, apps, games, books, magazines, newspapers, spatial experiences, stationery, flyers, publicity campaigns, signage, typefaces, logos, flags, fashion items, packaging, money, and so much more. When images prove insufficient to tackle the addressed design problem, graphic designers will go beyond visual communication and involve sound, texture, and even smell and taste. As with many other domains, the power of graphic design grows when combined with of other disciplines, for example fine arts, architecture, film or theatre, but also mathematics, biology or social sciences. Their vocabulary, imagery and signatures transcend the media in which they work.

What, then, is the discipline of graphic design exactly? To keep it simple, we define graphic design as the process of developing and giving form to communication concepts by arranging, adapting and visualising the available information.

The connotation with printed matter, as explicitly reflected in the name of the discipline, is a relic of the pre-digital era: the label no longer fully represents the content. For this reason, some now refer to the discipline as ‘visual communication’ or ‘visual design’.

Graphic designers practise their profession in numerous ways. Some work alone, while others work for small studios and bureaus. Some of these initiatives have been established as cooperative efforts or collaborative ventures of independent designers, while others began as small businesses with staff and a leading designer. At the other end of the spectrum are large firms with many employees. These firms focus primarily on strategic communication and the development of identities and campaigns. Whereas individuals and small bureaus often specialise, large firms cover almost the entire field. In addition, many companies (e.g. marketing firms, media corporations and multinationals) have in-house graphic designers. The commissioning parties vary just as greatly, ranging from individuals to large-scale corporations, from cultural institutions to ministries, from shop owners to broadcasting houses. In summary, the discipline of graphic design includes everything that takes place with regard to graphic design and everyone who plays a part in it.

Current state of the discipline

What takes place within the discipline? Many of the current developments in graphic design are connected to three comprehensive themes: information, technology and the globalisation of society.

It is impossible to escape from information in our contemporary information society. Over the last few decades, the amount of information and the speed with which it is disseminated has increased enormously. This has had major consequences for graphic designers. The abundance of information is often not recognised as a problem, and designers are increasingly becoming responsible for finding solutions to communication problems. Contrary to the promises of the contemporary template culture (in which everything is pre-designed by software) the need to structure information is growing rapidly together with the increasing amount of content that is created. In fact, contemporary designers do not simply apply the design tools anymore, but rather develop them. The world needs to realise that computers never create value on their own; only humans can do that. Any piece of software is a result of a thought process that happened at the time of its implementation, in the brain of its maker.

If one conclusion can be drawn from this, it is that graphic designers cannot avoid reflecting on their role in the contemporary information society. One of the main questions they ask themselves is of a moral character: Do I wish to contribute to the dissemination of information, or are there limits to what I will send out into the world?

Graphic design is founded on technique and technology. The message is inextricably linked to the medium, as reflected in the history of graphic design. For a long time, the profession was connected to the art of printing, which gradually reinvented itself over time. The digital revolution led the profession into the fast-paced world of bits and chips. It is difficult to imagine that only 25 years ago, designers did not use computers, and hardly any designer designed for the computer. Although paper will not disappear completely, almost all information will eventually reach us through digital systems. Graphic designers must therefore be knowledgeable about technological possibilities, and they should ideally be able to work with the technology. In addition, they must understand how technology transforms relationships and practices. Technology enables interaction, thus encouraging meaningful input from the public.

These new developments provoke exciting reactions. Young designers seek hidden treasures from the analogue era and take on the challenges of the digital age. They research the concept of manual labour in contemporary society, as well as the ways in which automated processes influence design results. They give new life to vintage design traditions, while inventing new applications for existing technologies.

Social ideals were once a driving force behind the emergence of graphic design. Designers desired better living conditions for all. Particularly in the period between the two World Wars, this social commitment was strong. At that time, the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague was a bastion of progressive modernists. Today’s designers resemble their colleagues from the past, in that they are fully engaged with the world, although the conditions are different. Whereas the socialists in the 1930s advocated the international, internationalisation is currently very much underway, and it is no longer the concern of pioneering designers. In today’s global society, everyone is in touch with everyone. This has far-reaching consequences for graphic designers. A design does not simply remain in the Netherlands; it travels into the world, especially through internet. Designers must know the codes of the new international visual culture that has emerged. At the same time, we want them to use their own codes.

Being an investigative researcher means looking critically at the world and becoming an active participant in it. This can take many forms. For example, when designers distance themselves from the deceptive rhetoric of the commercial field. Or when they become advocates for a humane information society, in which people are not crushed by a torrent of superficial images. Ultimately, graphic design at the KABK could be called ‘involved design’ since it proposes new models of social intervention.

In the daily work of the department, this social engagement is being practised through close cooperation with many distinguished entities, including not only cultural organisations such as Stroom (Centre for Visual Arts and Architecture), Open (Platform for Art, Culture & the Public Domain), De Affiche Galerij, but also governmental institutions like the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, the Ministry of Finance and the Court of Audit.

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Last updated: 2016-04-20

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