Business  •  February 9, 2006

Does graphic design really make a difference?

It’s nice to think our work can change the world, but is that really the case?

In my view, there is a fundamental misunderstanding in our society about what graphic design is. Here is an interesting observation by Ludwig Wittgenstein to illustrate this point: “Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted it myself.” This is the most common pitfall of graphic designers. Since our work is often viewed by thousands or even millions of people, we become proud of our work as if the message was our own.

Fooling ourselves to believe that we are greater than what we actually are, cheapens the value of graphic design. We would have a better chance of making a real contribution to the world if we did not have a delusion of grandeur about it. The real value of graphic design cannot be realized if we misunderstand what it is.

Here is a personal story to illustrate this point: Years ago, I was at a small take-out restaurant in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. Though there was no fancy logo, sign, or window display, the place was quite busy. I ordered fish and chips, and when it was done, the man behind the counter, whose face was covered with grease and sweat, offered me a special sauce. The way he so proudly presented his sauce deeply touched my heart and I’ve never forgotten it since. As I thanked him for the sauce, I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t last a day behind this counter.” I could not imagine how this man was able to work there every day, and still find joy in offering his sauce. He seemed to possess an infinite capacity to be happy. In comparison, I felt like a spoiled brat. This man clearly had no expectation of changing the world. He had no delusion of grandeur about his job. Yet, he was able to touch my heart with his love for food and people, and became a source of inspiration for me.

In comparing our profession to others, it might be tempting, for instance, to compare graphic designers to architects, but the latter have a higher degree of fusion between form and content. There are of course many exceptions, but most great architects are responsible for the content of their own work. For example, the socio-political philosophies of Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas are a significant part of what they sell and what their clients expect from them. In contrast, most graphic designers work hand-in-hand with others who create the content, such as advertisers, writers (books), musicians (album covers), and business owners (branding). If you are a graphic designer working for Greenpeace, the message behind your work is not yours. You may have a philosophy about how a certain type of message can be delivered more effectively, but that is independent of the message itself. The message does not originate in the designer. Architects on the other hand, deal with both types of philosophy.

A better comparison would be architectural engineers to graphic designers. However, most graphic designers would find this insulting. We want to believe that we are not just craftsmen or technicians, and that we have important things of our own to say. The field of graphic design attracts people with big egos because it is a business with high exposure. In fact, it is a business of high exposure, period. Because of that, it also attracts people who like to believe that they can change the world. Or, perhaps the process is the other way around. People who are interested in changing the world are naturally interested in communication, and so if they keep at it, they eventually become very good at it, which in turn leads them to apply their skills professionally.

Don’t get me wrong; I like graphic design, and I enjoy my work, but I don’t want to be confused about what it is. As a baker, you cannot expect to change the world, but that does not mean that baker is an irrelevant occupation. Bakers do make a difference in the world, but that cannot be the expectation of a baker. In fact, having no such expectation would work better towards making a real difference.

Graphic design is a noble occupation with a real purpose, but for that purpose to be realized, we need to see graphic design for what it actually is, and have certain humility about it. Graphic design is a supporting role, not a leading role. Musicians understand and appreciate better the value of being in supporting roles. If every player in a band tried to be a star, it would create a musical disaster. Not everyone is destined to be a star, and for someone to be a star, there must be others who are willing to play the supporting roles.

Graphic design is misleading in that it looks like a leading role, when in fact it is a supporting role. If one wants to play a leading role, one should learn to play violin instead of playing viola very loudly in order to be noticed. Otherwise, one will end up giving the viola a bad name.