Summer 2005

Yo Wittgenstein!

Visual Research: An Introduction to Research Methodologies in Graphic Design

By Ian Noble and Russell Bestley. AVA, £24.95

One of my MA students at Central Saint Martins recently cornered me after a seminar and asked which book he ‘should read’ by Wittgenstein. When I asked why, he told me that he thought he should quote Wittgenstein because his favourite designers, Tomato, often quote him. A while before that, another MA student asked me to recommend a book by Marshall McLuhan explaining that he had been told that ‘all good graphic design dissertations should mention McLuhan at least once’. Both anecdotes reveal a current problem within design, namely that there seems to be an aspiration for intellectual references (and the cultural kudos that goes with them) without any real motivation to understand or even read the original sources. Why is it that designers and design students seem increasingly aware of the need to place their work in a broader, intellectual context, yet are reluctant (or unwilling) to actually put in the hard work?

Visual Research, the latest book from Ian Noble and Russell Bestley, encapsulates this conundrum, in that it it actively encourages designers to operate on an elevated intellectual platform, yet paradoxically dilutes and simplifies a whole gamut of intellectual traditions into a ‘nice’ looking book full of sound bytes, buzz words and colourful, meaningless visuals. For designers and students on a quest to namedrop Wittgenstein or McLuhan, without actually having to go to the effort of reading them, here’s the book they’ve been waiting for. In filling this niche, Visual Research, could slot in with all those get-smart-quick books that plague the market.

From the outset, Visual Research purports to ‘provide an introduction into the area of research methodologies for graphic designers’, showcase ‘primary theoretical models of design analysis’ such as ‘semiotics, communication theory, systematic approaches, semantics and discourse theory’ and ‘assess their relevance to the wider graphic design profession.’ The problem with this kind of grand mission statement is that Noble and Bestley never qualify exactly why they consider these schools of thought to be the ‘primary’ models for design analysis. What about feminism, political philosophy, psychoanalytic thought, existentialism, ethics, epistemology and so on? Why don’t they make the Noble-Bestley canon? And surely those that do are well established disciplines with deep philosophical and intellectual traditions, subjects that have spawned vast academic attention, and therefore deserving of far more than being strained through a ruthlessly reductivist filter.

Instead, these ‘primary models’ are cut down into stamp-sized definitions (sample: ‘applied research is the investigation of a practical problem’ or ‘method: a way of proceeding or doing something, especially in a systematic or regular manner’), either achieving remarkable feats of truncation (‘semantics’ is defined in one paragraph, ‘Saussure’ two, ‘Modernism’ one) or defining the obvious (‘grammar’, ‘vowels’, ‘syllable’, ‘audience’, ‘research’, ‘theory’). In spoon-feeding readers with this idiosyncratic, hand-picked selection of possible ‘research methodologies’ (‘rubbish theory’ but no ‘chaos theory’, ‘avant garde’ but no ‘Dada’), the book assumes an air of intellectual hauteur that is never reflected in its content. At no point in Visual Research do Noble and Bestley advise readers to treat the book as a springboard to further investigations of the original texts, an omission that might have been softened by the inclusion of an extensive list of further recommended reading.

I assume that Noble and Bestley set out with well meaning ambitions to inform design and the study of design with an intellectual stance but Visual Research ends up as an exercise in dumbing down. The danger that this will lead designers and students to feel intellectually qualified to infuse discourse (and practice) with terms like ‘semiotics’ and ‘semantics’, based on definitions so slight and simplistic they carry the throwaway weight of trivia printed on the backs of cereal boxes.

Reading Visual Research, I’m reminded of Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel’s talk about the tendency in graphic design to dumb down at the 2003 AIGA conference, especially the remark, ‘Behind the best design there is not only an intelligent process and visual solution but an intellectual foundation based on history and ideas,’ a truism that very much applies here. There’s no question that this book stems from a frustrated wish for design to smarten up and stop dumbing down, but good intentions have been lost in the rush to tell it all, to absolutely everybody, in less than 200 pages. Information seems convoluted, as chapters (each with the same structure: introduction, ‘key concepts’, ‘definitions’, ‘abbreviated theory’, ‘case study’) pass by in a haze of ‘user-friendly’ visuals, pop illustrations, all of which is tarred by an educator’s tendency to make learning ‘fun’. At times, it is as if each chapter is trying to hold the attention of hyperactive ten-year-olds.

There is a strong sense that the authors don’t expect the book to be read cover to cover, a fact reflected in the repetition of information. Behind the diluted ideas and endless descriptions of methodologies they seem intent on breaking the design process down into strategies and methods, a prescriptive focus also critiqued by Helfand and Drenttel for ‘restricting the pluralistic character of design by adopting a fixed vocabulary for process.’

At a time when design needs to feel comfortable with giving both the creative and the intellectual equal commitment, Visual Research, by giving designers a whistle-stop tour of highbrow ideas, merely furthers the anti-intellectual assumption that most graphic designers couldn’t make it through a page of Derrida. And in doing so, it ends up reading like another of those superficial learn-fast books such as Introducing Barthes or Meditation for Dummies.

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