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Theory of Graphic Design Theory

If you know something about writing music, you know how useful musical theories can be. If you are an intuitive type who never studied theories, you are likely to keep on writing the same kind of music forever. And, eventually you will feel like a one-trick pony.

What is useful about any type of theory is that it allows you to draw deductive conclusions. Say for instance, you are writing a song, and you have a nice chord progression going, but somehow you can’t figure out how to resolve it or transition it to the next section. If you know your theory, you can analyze the progression you have so far, and figure out what chords would theoretically allow you to resolve or transition it nicely. It is like Newtonian physics, how it can predict the location of a moving object in time.

Graphic design and music alike, if you rely solely on the emotional side of yourself, and never listen to your rational side, or vice versa, sooner or later your creative life will stagnate. You need both sides challenging one another in order for you to grow as a human being.

The reason why use of theories is not common in graphic design is because not many people quantify the results of graphic design. In industrial design, for instance, people understand that the design alone could make or break the product. Much of Apple’s success has been attributed to their design. The same can be said of Aeron chairs. The value of an industrial designer is more quantifiable than that of a print designer.

The value of an architect is more quantifiable as well, because people interact with their products every day, and we can observe and measure their behaviors. In time, you will see if something worked as expected. I’ve seen new buildings in New York where no one wanted to occupy, even though their designs were quite slick. It doesn’t matter how talented you think you are; when you face this kind of problem, you have nowhere to hide as an architect.

Within graphic design, Web design is more quantifiable than print design for the same reason; a website is a tool that people use every day. By observing and quantifying the behaviors of the users, you can learn what aspects of your design were effective and ineffective. In print, this type of analysis or quantification is rarely done, because there is no practical way to gather data. If you don’t have the data, it’s difficult to formulate a theory.

Because of the quantification, architects, product designers, and web designers are usually more aware of how their products are marketed than print designers are. They often work closely with marketers, because their work has some degree of marketing already built into it. The design of iPod, for instance, is a marketing strategy. When you have to be directly accountable for the financial results, you can’t help but care about marketing.

A similar analogy can be drawn between branding commercials and direct response commercials on TV. The former is not quantifiable, whereas the latter is, because the viewers have ways of responding to the commercials (usually an 800 number or a website address). With the former, theories aren’t really theories, but opinions, because there is no tangible way to back up or prove your claims. With direct response commercials, you can quantify the results and come up with theories that could predict certain behaviors of the audience in the future.

Many art directors and writers abuse the fact that we cannot quantify the results of branding commercials. They try to satisfy their own creative urge or egos by using someone else’s money. And, they get away with it, at least to a degree. Many Superbowl commercials are fun, entertaining, or beautiful, but we often don’t even remember who the commercials were for. The last thing these art directors want is anyone trying to quantify their results. Now, many advertisers are shifting their money to the Internet where the results are far more quantifiable.

I believe many print designers too take advantage of the fact that the results of their products are not quantifiable. In this sense, theories can be threatening to them. It can be seen as a way to make them be accountable for the results. It would reduce the amount of their freedom of self-expression. I would therefore argue that theories are good for clients, but bad for designers who are looking to satisfy their own creative urge with someone else’s money.

But there are also theories that serve no purpose for the clients. Many artists, architects, and designers use names of prestigious critical theorists and philosophers to substantiate their own work. This is a strategy that works well especially in fine arts. The idea here is to associate names like Derrida, Baudrillard, and Wittgenstein to your work so that it would appear deeper and more substantial than it actually is. You drop these names but you never explain why you think they are relevant to your work. You just hide behind the mystique of their ideas and your art. This is quite unfortunate since it reflects badly on these theorists. Derrida probably suffered the most from this phenomenon, where many people began dismissing his ideas based on the commercialized interpretations of his ideas.

I feel that if you are going to use their names, you should explain in logical terms (just as they do) why you are making the association. As long as you explain this, it is perfectly fine to misunderstand them, since your misunderstanding would be clear to the readers. But instead, many artists and designers drop these names, never explain anything, hide behind the mystique, benefit from the association, and spread disinformation and misunderstanding. This is certainly a bad use of theories.

There is also a reason why these types of social, political, and philosophical theories are not particularly useful in graphic design. In architecture, it is relatively easy to see why they can play significant roles. “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs is a clearly illustrates this point. As an architect or an urban planner, you are designing a space where people interact with one another. In other words, you are designing a community. You can influence the way people interact with one another by encouraging or discouraging certain behaviors. For instance, putting executive offices on the first floor, as opposed to the top floor, would have certain political, social, and philosophical implications. This is true of web design as well. The type of behaviors and contents each web-based community encourages or discourages is not coincidental; the design of it greatly influence them. In the near future, I would expect more significant theories to come out in web design and information architecture.

Print design, on the other hand, is not interactive. It is one-way communication. The extent to which social theories can help you improve your design is limited. Some people disagree by pointing to designers like Tibor Kalman, but the activist aspect of Kalman is not graphic design. He simply exploited activism to sell more products and promote brands. That falls in the realm of advertising. Graphic designers are in charge of how specific messages are delivered, but it is not our job to come up with those messages. You can apply social theories to the means of delivering messages, but there isn’t much to play with, mainly because print design isn’t interactive. This is not to say that theories in graphic design are useless; it is just that they won’t be as social, political, and philosophical as those of architecture and web design.