Australian graphic design: Making its diversity visible
16th October, 2009
By Yoko Akama and Carolyn Barnes
Recent criticism of the cost of designing the City of Melbourne’s new visual identity indicates a significant gap in the public’s understanding of the value of graphic design. At a recent AGDA event, prominent graphic design critic Rick Poynor added fuel to the fire in arguing that graphic design risks a total surrender to commercial objectives. Poynor called for designers to create more public awareness of graphic design's social and cultural contribution, rather than continuing to emphasise its business role. As design educators and practitioners we have a long-standing interest in what happens in Australian graphic design. We question its lack of public recognition by comparison to other design fields and the visual arts. When graphic design works have short life spans and their creators are mostly unacknowledged, how can the diversity of Australian graphic design and designers become more visible to the public?
What can be done?
These issues sparked debate at a workshop attended by a mix of graphic designers, educators, post-graduate students and researchers in Melbourne in September 2009. The discussion highlighted the paradox of graphic design, that its ubiquity in the public space may be the reason for its neglect as a significant field of cultural and economic activity. The workshop participants were enthusiastic about revealing graphic design’s diversity to both the public and the design community. Some, however, questioned whether Australian graphic designers were interested in making their practice ‘public’, preferring to develop their client base and putting their efforts into educating them about the nature and value of graphic design. Others were concerned the study not have reductive definitions of graphic design as its goal.
What were some of the ideas?
Participants offered suggestions on how to capture designers' creativity, individuality and thinking processes and the diverse contexts in which design is practiced. Instead of using traditional methods of interview and questionnaire, the group brainstormed the lateral, creative, tactile and visual methods found in the use of cultural probes. A cultural probe is an increasingly common tool in ethnography for undertaking open-ended design research. It is a package sent to a target market, containing various items along with instructions, questions and provocations to trigger unconstrained responses to reveal insights about the target market.
The brainstorming session resulted in an abundance of ideas. These included disposable cameras to document inspirations; questions such as ‘What would you tell a child about graphic design?’ or ‘What does your mother say you do?’ or ‘How does it feel like to be a graphic designer?’; chart your moods over the course of a day; flash-mob SMS to capture precise activity at 10:53:44; a collection of 'design blunder' stories, etc. There was strong interest in prompting playful, conceptual responses that avoided the usual promotion of individual designers or design businesses. Participants also felt the probe should be aesthetically pleasurable and help designers tell their own personal story.
The next steps?
We are inviting more designers to become collaborators in this initiative. In 2010, we will run several more workshops to design a cultural probe to send to graphic designers around Australia, harnessing designers' networks to facilitate their distribution. The results will hopefully surprise and delight, revealing the vibrancy, distinctiveness and breadth of Australian graphic design and the community that generates it.
This project is in partnership with AGDA and is supported by the Design Research Institute, RMIT University, and the Faculty of Design, Swinburne University of Technology. We would like to thank the participants in the September workshop: Stephen Banham, Greg Blakey, Miek Dunbar, Marius Foley, Elise Hassett, Tania Ivanka, Bec Nally, Dion Tuckwell, Peter West and Jeremy Yuille.
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