Killeen Hanson

June 2012

Graphic Design as a Liberal Art

The Curious

“The teaching of art is the teaching of all things.” —John Ruskin

The graphic design field is awash with contradictions. It sits in the awkward cross-section between service and craft. It's at once a service given to others and a craft we hone for ourselves. It can be both invisible and influential, sometimes showing a point of view and other times remaining apathetic to its content.

But graphic design is rarely about itself; it's a language, a vessel in which we can fill whatever we'd like. Sometimes it's filled by clients and sometimes we fill it with ourselves, but it's always a vehicle for communication. In his 1994 essay, Graphic Design Education as a Liberal Art, Gunnar Swanson writes:

[D]esign does not have a subject matter of its own—it exists in practice only in relation to the requirements of given projects. The path of progress for the field is not defined by the next great unsolved design problem. Design is “integrative” in that, by its lack of specific subject matter, it has the potential to connect many disciplines."

And perhaps that's what makes graphic design such an inspiring and exciting field. As a designer, one is consistently introduced to new subject matters — new worlds — that one must then turn around and share that knowledge in a simple, smart, and aesthetically pleasing manner. I've often compared graphic design to journalism — digging deep into a particular topic, becoming invested in it, and then returning to share what's been learned. Graphic design provides a catalyst for connecting ideas. An integral part of being a designer is learning a lot about a lot of different fields.

Swanson posits that studying graphic design offers something to those outside the field:

Can studying design be of general, not just professional, interest? Can the study of design inform other areas of study? We assume that a design student would benefit from studying anthropology; we need to consider whether an anthropology student would benefit from the study of graphic design. Do we really have anything to offer outside of the sometimes questionable promise of a job?

Anthropology benefits graphic designers. So does philosophy. And science. And politics. Central to graphic design education is the idea that knowledge in a variety of fields and topics makes one a better designer and through making connections, synthesizing information, we can present a message in a clear and concise manner and these are skills that should not be reserved for the few. These are skills that can benefit any person.

What would happen if we opened up graphic design to everyone? Could teaching design as a liberal art benefit society?

The Tools

“The liberal arts have always been changing just as much as we have.” —The New Liberal Arts

The liberal arts are those subjects that were considered essential for students to study. They provide the student with the tools they need to learn and a framework in which to navigate through the world. Somewhere along the way, we decided writing was something every student should learn. Public Speaking is a required course in most university programs. Could graphic design sit along side these liberal arts?

In 2009, the folks behind Snarkmarket published a short book called The New Liberal Arts in which they called on people to contribute to essays on subjects they felt were important for students to learn in the twenty-first century:

A generation of digital natives is careening towards college. The economy is rebooting itself weekly. We have new responsibilities now — as employees, citizens, and friends — and we have new capabilities, too. The new liberal arts equip us for a world like this. But… what are they? The time is ripe to expand and invigorate our notion of the liberal arts.

If we believe graphic design to be problem solving and visual communication, why wouldn't this be something we want the future generation to weld and master? "If design is visual communication, it should be treated as such," wrote Frank Chimero, "as a means for people to transmit what they think, what they feel, and as a way to amplify their message, whatever that may be."

The more people understand the design's intent, the more they will understand the patterns and processes behind it, and be provided with the tools needed to frame problems, communicate clearly, and explore new subjects. Graphic design, by its nature, spurs curiosity and can provide a lens through which we look at the world, whether it's done for a living or not.

So what of those of us who do in fact do this for a living? What will happen to the "professional" designers if we arm the masses with our toolkit? In a rousing lecture, Chris Bangle, former design director for BMW, said:

We see ourselves as the elite. About 2000 years ago, only the elite could read and write. Now we think everybody's got to spend twelve years learning to read and write. Why? You're going to be Gute? Are you going to be a Shakespeare? No. Because we say reading and writing is fundamental to be empowered contributors in your society. To be players in the game you have to read and write. But design? No, no, no. You stay out of that, that's our business. But just because everyone can read and write — or at least a lot of us — doesn't mean we got rid of professional writers. So what are we worried about? Are we, like, afraid that we'll be out of a job?

In his new book, The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero writes that the designer's toolkit includes "improvising, creating frameworks, storytelling, and delighting audiences." Do we believe design can be (is?) fundamental to be an empowered contributor to society? Are these tools that can benefit everyone? We ask for a seat at the table, bolding proclaiming design can solve our problems, yet we are afraid to open it up to the masses.

The Future

Are we really afraid? Are we afraid that we'll be out of jobs or are we afraid the design can't solve all the problems we think it can? Do we think opening up our toolkit — improvising, frameworks, storytelling, and delight — will ruin our field? Or is it possible that these are skills that can help push the world forward, shining light into the darkness?

Swanson continues:

We must begin to believe our own rhetoric and see design as an integrative field that bridges many subjects that deal with communication, expression, interaction, and cognition. Design should be about meaning and how meaning can be created. Design should be about the relationship of form and communication. It is one of the fields where science and literature meet. It can shine a light on hidden corners of sociology and history. Design's position as conduit for and shaper of popular values can be a path between anthropology and political science. Art and education can both benefit through the perspective of a field that is about expression and the mass dissemination of information. Designers, design educators, and design students are in a more important and interesting field than we seem to recognize.

I have this hobby where I count the devices people are using on the subways on my commute to and from work.

  • Six iPhones.
  • Three iPads
  • Four Kindles
  • Two Android Phones

We're all looking down at our screens — we're always looking at our screens. The screen, like the interstate highway did in the 1950s, has become a platform to connect us. The central source of information. The bridge that connects us to one another and makes the world feel smaller.

Designers have an important place in society. We have the responsibility — the privilege — to design the interfaces on those screens, the experiences the user has with the device in front of them. We've been given that seat at the table we've always wanted. Design is more important now than ever before in history. We are shaping the future.

Like writing and speaking has done for generations, design has the power to connect in the twenty-first century, but only if we liberate it and open it to all. By giving it the attention it needs in education, we can equip a generation with the tools it needs to develop a point of view, craft messages, and then project those ideas into the world.

We've been given the tools to imagine a new tomorrow, to build a better world and it's time to open up our toolkit to those around us. We can shape the world together. ✖