Some things change, some things stay the same


Some things change….

In the past several decades we have witnessed a series of amazing changes in the way we think about the profession of graphic design. Here is my short list:


2D / 4D 

Once graphic design meant flat, static, two-dimensional.

Now it encompasses multiple, hybrid media. It is not just visual, but involves a variety of the senses, more like life itself, which plays out in a four dimensional world.


object / experience

Once what you were making was an object;

Now  it is more often an experience.


composition / choreography

Once the designer’s art was composition;

Now  it is choreography. In a fluid, 4D world, the problem is not so much to get the fixed thing right, as to find an elegant sequence of evolving relationships. This involves understanding how the conventions of typography and the dynamics between words and images change with the introduction of time motion and sound.


fixed / fluid

Once you made it stayed put. Great care was taken to get everything in just right spot, just the right relationship.

Now , increasingly, the output is a variable, not a constant. Think of the way your design decisions look on somebody else’s screen or device. The new problem is to design the rules for the relationship of things, not a single predictable outcome.


craft based / technology based

Once the profession was genetically linked to the ancient crafts of hand typesetting, book binding, drawing and cutting.

Now it no longer so physical, mediated now by technology that can make it feel almost virtual. The basic tools are suddenly so different that, as McLuhan predicted, the things we can make, or even dream up, will be different.


cheap / expensive

Once for a few hundred dollars and some dumb tools you could open up a shop.

Now the cost of entry (for computers and software) is much higher and the overhead never stops.


piecework / strategic thinking

Once most of us did piece work, making a new thing to fit within a small universe of other things. 

Now, while piecework won’t disappear, the new focus is on strategy: design as strategic planning, design as a business resource. This implies a different level of thinking and participation, even a different vocabulary.

isolated, solo / collaborative, team

Once you could do just about everything yourself. Paul Rand ran a one and a half person shop for most of his professional life.

Now the paradox is that while the personal computer and plunging software costs have revitalized the tradition of the one man band (a publishing house or a post-production studio on your desk top), the trend is towards collaborative, multi-disciplinary teams of people pushing towards a common goal. It’s not just your opinion any more. Collaborating calls for a different set of genes, a different kind of ego, a tolerance for complexity and consensus.


neutral / personal

Once the designer’s role was thought to be a neutral mediator between the message and the recipient. This was the modernist way: to stay out of the way, to be clear, to be unobtrusive, to facilitate.

Now there is a tolerance, even an appetite for interpretation. Theoreticians point out that since it is next to impossible to not bring your baggage to the transaction, one might as well to recognize, or even celebrate, one’s intrusion on the message.


one voice / many voices

Once it was possible to assume that there was one language (yours), one culture, one set of meanings.

Now “mass communication,” which was based on that notion, has given way to targeted communications; broadcast shifts to narrowcast; one-to-many becomes many-to-one. And the visual and verbal language of the end user is almost certainly different from your own.


top-down / bottom-up

Once “mass communications” (one to many) were top-down, created and distributed from a limited number of big players (tv, radio, publishing, government).

Now, with internet-enabled “social media,” that flow can be reversed or shared, with “content” flowing from the bottom-up. The cost of entry for content creation has plummeted and the means of distribution for “makers” or “authors” or “protesters” has been democratized. The skills and tools that once defined the designer as a specialist or a professional, are now so widely available that quality (of thinking and making) and usefulness (of communication, object or idea) have now become the hallmarks of professionalism. And “like” is not synonymous with “value”.


naive / self-aware

Once design didn’t have much conscious history. You just did it.

Now that we have a history and people are actually writing about it, ironically few young people know anything about it.



 …and some things stay the same.

These shifts have vastly expanded the expressive options for visual communications and fundamentally altered the way graphic designers practice. But while much has changed, many of the essential qualities of being a designer have stayed the same. For example:


Design is different from Art

I have always felt that being a designer and being an artist are quite distinct activities, attracting people with different goals and preferences. Where a person ends up on this continuum is more a matter of chromosomes than anything else. Someone who becomes a successful painter or sculptor or performance artist is likely to be a person who derives their energy and intellectual satisfaction from solving problems which come from inside themselves. In contrast, someone who ends up as a successful designer is probably a person whose energy and intellectual satisfaction comes from solving someone else’s problem. Each of us inevitably brings to the task of designing a unique load of experience and bias which can and should express itself in our work. But the current attention paid to the importance of “authorship” in design shouldn’t mask the underlying distinction between personal expression and the puzzle of figuring out a problem posed by others.


Graphic design has its roots in language

Graphic design is unique among all design disciplines because of its deep roots in language. Graphic communications rely on the interaction of words and images to convey a message which is almost always dependent on language and its cultural context. As a consequence, the heart of our practice is typography, a set of conventions which allow us to represent, however crudely, the rich inflections and rhythms of spoken language.


The visual power of design derives from the idea of contrast

If you ask why something works and you push back far enough, eventually everything seems to be based on contrast: the ability to distinguish one thing from another. Composition, sequencing, even legibility all rely on devices which affect the contrast between things. Contrast seems to control many of the phenomenon essential to visual communication: grouping things into families, creating theme and variation, establishing hierarchies, and providing interest.


Nothing happens out of context

Few things we make have no precedent. It is important to understand how one thing fits into the larger family of things it belongs to. You can’t enjoy the variation if you don’t know the theme.


Design is content-independent

One of the great satisfactions of being a designer is that the underlying skills of problem solving and storytelling are not linked to any one range of content. One day a cookbook; the next day an animated map of map of money laundering. What are you interested in? How wide is your life experience? The thing most likely to constrict one’s range of options within the profession of design is a limited personal repertoire of formal or stylistic expression, or more seriously, a lack of curiosity.


Design isn’t necessarily a pro-social profession

In the early days of the Modernist movement, design was seen as an agent of positive social change. But then, as now, the seeming pro-social acts of facilitating communication, providing access to ideas and promoting understanding don’t necessarily assure a positive outcome. It depends on what the message is. Throughout one’s professional life, the key decision is: which problems will you use your skill to help solve?


The goal of design education is resourcefulness

A good education is one which gives you the resourcefulness to solve the problem you haven’t anticipated. It should provide experiences which give you the ability to express yourself in a variety of media. And with the inevitability of change in both the tools and the scope of design it should probably keep focusing back on the fundamental mechanisms that control what makes an experience authentic, accessible and understandable.


An earlier version of this article was published in:

The Education of a Graphic Designer, Edited by Steven Heller, 1998/2005

Allworth Press, New York