Summer 1997

The end of the line

By favouring drawing over communication in the selection of students, graphic design education is missing the point

Educators in visual communication and graphic design courses are having to reconsider the skills and talents of their future students. The majority of recruits to the discipline (especially in Britain and Europe) come from foundation courses with a strong artistic bias, yet they rarely satisfy the deeper requirements of graphic design courses.

Those of us working in design education know the drift: each year we go through a plethora of applications to the visual communication and design courses. And each year the majority of the portfolio work that we scrutinise consists of copious quantities of objectives, figurative, abstract or expressive mark-making, often devoid of meaning but placing great emphasis on form. These portfolios are assumed to reflect the conceptual capacity of their owners, but the success, or otherwise, of the work is more often than not based upon its conformity to a specific aesthetic or style, with self-expression being the main criterion. We are tempted to assume that the applicant has the capacity to be a designer because of his or her stunning skill in drawing a green pepper.

Given this emphasis, it is hardly surprising that so many visual communication students have a perception of themselves as “artists”. As such, they have only one responsibility, which is to a transient style and aesthetic that emphasises self-expression, intuition and inspiration to the detriment of analysis, objectivity and reason.

Fundamental to the pre-design-course experience of most applicants is life drawing, which still seems to exert an influence on our judgment when determining a student’s potential design capabilities. The object of the exercise has been lost, but when asked to elucidate, students will invariably state there are two functions: to aid understating of the human form, and to improve observational skills. Both are laudable. Yet I question the need for visual communicators to have such a thorough understanding of the human body, when a greater awareness of the human mind might be more advantageous.

The “observational” skills supposedly employed in the life room are rarely employed outside it. Graphic designers should possess skills that enable them to make analytical, intellectual and conceptual judgements. Observations should be a prelude and an aid to deduction. (Maybe students would be better advised to read a few Sherlock Holmes stories).

We sometimes fail to place drawing in an appropriate context. We fail to explain its function or purpose as it relates to the visual communication discipline. For example, the impressive exhibition “Drawing the Line”, which toured Britain recently, included Henry Beck’s first small drawing for his famous London Underground diagram, sandwiched between (as I recall) a Goya and a Léger. Although at first this appeared to be evidence that visual communication had acquired cultural acceptability, I soon realised that its inclusion in the exhibition was based purely upon its aesthetic content. Had the exhibition been concerned with anything other than the superficial quality of mark-making, it would have included some of the thousands of drawings that led to Beck’s famous diagram, whose changes and adaptations over time reflect the design process and the evolving thoughts about its effectiveness. It was, and remains, a continuing narrative.

Sadly, to many students, it is the aesthetic or stylistic considerations related to the artefact that dominate their thinking, and by which evaluations as to the success, or otherwise, of their efforts are made. We do not need reminding of the number of times that historical movements return to haunt us minus their essential and guiding philosophy.

Many of those who visited the “New Designers” Exhibition last summer (which comprised work from design students throughout Britain) remarked that there seemed to be an over-emphasis on production values at the expense of content, and that design students concentrated on technical ability rather than conceptualisation and innovation. The majority seemed to be reactive rather than proactive. In an era where visual communication has assumed such important, it is depressing to realise that many of our graduates will remain mere functionaries, wedded to a technology that is saddled with its own aesthetic.

Yet visual communication is under the spotlight, and we are being forced to question our preconceptions and values and redefine our subject. Design theorist Gui Bonsiepe suggests that the role of graphic designers shifts from the “translation of information from a non-visual states into a visual state, to the authorial organisation of information”.

If we are changing emphasis from artefact to information architecture, maybe we should question the necessity for our students to come from traditional craft background with traditional skills – skills that sometimes get in the way of problem-solving. I recall many occasions where students attempted to use their (considerable) drawing ability in order to “draw their way out of a problem”, rather than solve it.

One of the skills often attributed to design students is that of creativity, yet current thinking cites creativity as a generic skill shared by a multitude of other, supposedly unrelated, disciplines and specialisms. By using drawings as our sole benchmark of creativity (as we have for centuries) we are denying access to our courses for a large number of perfectly capable problem-solvers and visual information communicators.

So we must be aware that the emphasis placed in the selection process on the portfolio – at the expense of formal academic qualifications – may turn out to be our greatest weakness as design educators. This is an important issue. For example, we are seeing more and more institutions offering courses with design components previously considered to be the province of the visual communication departments. The students who join such courses directly from school – and without the benefit of artistic tuition – have prove to be every bit as able and “creative” as their artistically trained peers. The difference was that the end product of an assignment was as likely to be a report as an artefact. At the other end of the spectrum, it was noticeable at the 1996 Royal College of Art graduation exhibition that a significant number of exhibitors were calling themselves “graphic artists”.

If there appears to be a polarity in education, consider the visual communication industry, which seems even more schizophrenic. The Chartered Society of Designers declared there should be a return to traditional standards and craft skill, including drawing. This contrasts with a recent Independent article in which the design agency Newell and Sorrell commented that the company considers “attitude to be more important than drawing ability”. A cartoon by Steve Appleby (in Eye no. 12 vol. 3) encapsulated the dichotomy beautifully – the “client” is a drowning person, the “designer” cries “help” in a speech bubble rendered in unreadable script to which the “user”, a life guard, merely replies: “Pardon?” A perfect illustration of designers’ failure to effect communication between the client and user. When designers concern themselves solely with stylistics, aesthetics or production values, they alienate clients and users.

Visual communication has come of age, so we must have the courage of our convictions. The field is not a purely art-based activity, but now related more to communication and information and associated industries.

At the “New Era, New Language” conference in Manchester last year, Katherine McCoy said: “Designers need a pluralistic agile tool kit of strategies to apply to the universe of communications, messages and audiences. Appropriateness is the criterion. “I feel that we must broaden our programmes to encompass a wider range of activities. Both written and verbal communication and presentation are of paramount importance. Should we not add to our programmes aspects of (or at least introductions to) geography, socio-political studies, as well as physics, archaeology, anthropology, psychology, mathematics, law, “change management” –maybe even futurology? Why does linguistics not feature in more design programmes? Linguistic studies are essential to visual communicators, manipulators of the visible manifestation of language. Michael Twyman once noted W. H. Auden’s comments that the ideal training course for a poet should include at least one dead language, several living ones, a natural science, a physical science and mathematics – nothing about literature or poetry.

If we are reconsidering the curriculum, where does this leave drawing? Once more, the emphasis should be on appropriateness. As a student in the days when the means of production (for print-based design_ were in the hands of printers, I was expected to use drawing to communicate directly with them, and spent many an hour rendering a variety of typefaces at 6pt in order to avoid confusion on the part of compositors as to my intentions. This practice was entirely appropriate for the time, but there is no need for students to do the same today.

Educators need to create a drawing tool kit pertinent to – and reflecting – the changing nature of visual communication. We must consider visualising skills that will provide “non-drawers” with means by which they can give dimension to their concepts through simplification and visual shorthand. Graphic designers do not have a monopoly on drawing, and should consider the methodologies of engineers, scientists and cartographers, who use analytical drawing for reasoned deduction. In addition, we can learn from film-makers and others in the kinetic industries, who work with narrative and sequential images.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the drawing methods of electricians, builders, carpenters, plumbers and musicians – all of whom exhibit advanced skills of visual notation. As designers, we need to remember that our subject, to paraphrase Professor Richard Buchanan, of Carnegie Mellon University, is not the art of expression, but of forethought. Design educators need to exercise forethought and foresight in considering the future of our subject now, before time, funding and quality councils do it for us.

First published in Eye no. 25 vol. 7, 1997

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