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Contemporary professional practice: the professional profile

Graphic Design Department - Presentation during Graduation Festival 2014

Image: Graphic Design Department - Presentation during Graduation Festival 2014

Current situation of the discipline

What happens in the discipline? If we take a look from a distance, it becomes apparent that 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 huge consequences for graphic designers. The abundance of information is often not recognised as a problem, and designers are increasingly given the responsibility of finding solutions to communication problems. Designers are all of a sudden expected to work on this extra task, in addition to finishing the actual design. Contrary to the promises of the contemporary template culture, the need to structure information has clearly become more and more important. It is becoming increasingly difficult to stand out in the overwhelming flow of images and texts. This is perhaps why graphic designers have become concept developers, and have taken charge of communication processes. In the commercial field, there is a desire for bigger and crazier designs, as long as they get the message across in a clear manner. At the same time, it is expected that users have a pleasurable experience when coming in contact with a design. It is a complex task. Independent spirits refrain from responding to trends and hypes, and attempt to create visual silence in the whirlwind of screaming images. Some try to approach the tradition in its purest form, while others experiment with unconventional alternatives.

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 a moral one: do I contribute to this dissemination of information, or are there limits to what I send out into the world?

Graphic design is founded on technique and technology. The message is inextricably linked to the medium, and this is reflected in the history of graphic design. For a long time, the profession was connected to the art of printing, which slowly but surely 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 25 years ago, designers did not use computers, and that there were hardly any designers who designed for the computer. Paper will not disappear completely, but eventually almost all information will reach us through digital systems. Consequently, graphic designers have to be knowledgeable about technological possibilities, and preferably are able to work with the technology. Additionally, they have to understand how technology transforms relations and practices. Technology enables interaction, and thus encourages substantive input from the public.

These new developments provoke exciting reactions. Young designers seek out hidden treasures of the analogue era and tackle the challenges of the digital age. They research the concept of manual labour in contemporary society, and how automated processes influence design results. They give new life to vintage design traditions and invent new applications for existing technologies. This distinguishes them from designers who solely employ the possibilities of design programmes, and from those that only work with pencil. They also distinguish themselves from the capable amateur with their conceptual abilities and knowledge of the field. In addition to the capable amateur there is also the incapable one, who, for some designers, is a true source of inspiration. This amateur represents open-mindedness, authentic style and uncontrived simplicity in presentation.

What becomes clear, in short, is that the digital revolution leads the graphic designer in different directions. In all these directions he can set the tone. Technologically, he does so by constantly being aware of the latest developments and by participating in the development of applications. Conceptually, he can achieve this by doing research and by delving into his subjects and the development of the profession in its current social context. Formally, he has to either experiment with the non-existent or become highly skilled in traditional techniques.

Social ideals were once a driving force behind the emergence of graphic design. Designers desired better living conditions for all. Especially in the period between the two world wars this social commitment was strong. The KABK was at that time a bastion of progressive modernists.

Today’s designers resemble their colleagues from the past. They are fully engaged with the world. The conditions are different, however. Where the socialists in the 1930’s advocated the international, internationalisation is already very much underway these days and is no longer the concern of pioneering designers. In our global society everyone is in touch with everyone. For graphic designers this has far-reaching consequences. A design does not just stay in the Netherlands, but travels into the world, especially when it comes to Internet applications. Designers must know the codes of the new international visual culture that has emerged. Simultaneously we want them to use their own codes. We are also more aware of the situation in other countries and of back room politics. Maybe because graphic designers are so involved with information, they have a strong sense of responsibility for the world. This can take many forms. For example, there are designers who distance themselves from the deceptive rhetoric of the commercial field. In media circles there are advocates for a humane information society in which people are not crushed by a torrent of superficial images. Slightly more practical are the designers who are committed to social projects. Agencies sometimes offer affordable services for charitable campaigns, or dedicate means to their immediate environment. Graphic design is a committed discipline.

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