Graphic Design Research Today
Graphisme en France, CNAP (2016).
Graphic design research has an identity problem. Increasing numbers of designers, historians, theorists, publishers, students and educators claim that they do it, and increasing numbers of books, journal articles, syllabi and conferences aim to explore and illuminate it. But what exactly do we mean when we use the term? “Graphic design research” signifies very different things depending on where we stand in relation to the practice of graphic design, the humanities, the sciences, academia, and publishing—whether we identify as a designer, a researcher, or as a hybrid of both. This essay seeks to characterise the particular qualities of research when conducted about, within, or through the practice of graphic design and to chart the directions in which the field is expanding.
Firstly, however, it is necessary to be more precise and self-aware than we currently are about the many different definitions, approaches to, and uses of, the term “research” that are circulating and being used interchangeably. Let’s be clear about which aspect of research we are talking about at any one time: is it market research, user research, materials research, visual research, scholarly research, research-likely-to-get-funding research, Google research, first-hand reporting research? It’s not that we have to use one mode of research exclusive of another, but rather that we should acknowledge the different inflections, values, and paradigms they each bring to the way we generate design knowledge, and the way that knowledge is engaged with by others. 
According to The Research Excellence Framework (REF), the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, research is “a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared.” This seems like a straightforward definition but it contains some important and often-overlooked aspects that bear closer examination and may be usefully carried forward into the realm of graphic design research.
To go about seeking
The first of these is the term “process.” Research is an activity, as well as an outcome; a verb as well as a noun. The very word “research” stems etymologically from the Middle French term recercher which meant “to go about seeking.” This reminds us of the mindset and disciplinary protocols necessary for engaging in a search for knowledge. A researcher employs systematic and specific methods of inquiry with recognized conventions which must be learned, usually from within a branch of academic knowledge such as the humanities or sciences. The reason I think this is worth attending to is that amongst the work labeled as graphic design research, there is a tendency on the part of graphic designers to saturate their work in the aesthetic and the atmosphere of research—to fetishize the visual signifiers of erudition such as archives, indexes, and footnotes—without full engagement with the actual process of research itself. Similarly, on the part of scholars, there is room for much more active first-hand reporting, what the urban design critic Karrie Jacobs calls “research by walking around,” and what I term “critical proximity.” For seven years I directed an MA in Design Research, Writing & Criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York, a program I founded to generate and disseminate significant research that interrogates design’s role in our society. I put a big emphasis on sending students into the field—into the streets and to contested sites. This meant training them to report, research, interview, attend town hall and community meetings, participate and immerse themselves in all aspects of the issue they are dealing with. One student ended up in South Sudan studying the role of design in the branding of the world’s newest country, while another spent two weeks in a Mars Simulation unit in the Utah desert in order to report on the politics behind attempts at human habitation on Mars. All of them learn the tools and techniques of active research such as reporting and interviewing in addition to the more customary procedures for archival and secondary-source research.
Design education theorist Tom Fisher says that, “education is about learning how to ask the right questions and how to go about seeking answers to them.” I completely agree. But I also want us to consider the implications of that. I think it is often assumed that students will pick up the key skills of research somewhere along the way, in the interstices of their education. In fact, methods of knowledge-generation such as reporting, interviewing, conducting archival research, observation, writing, citing, clear argument, and presenting in public, let alone any more experimental research methods such as mapping, are rarely taught as systematically as they need to be. For example, as my students will attest, a research question is one of the hardest things they are ever asked to write. It should be timely, provocative, open-ended yet pointed, ambitious yet feasible, innovative and yet conscious of existing discourse. Not an easy task and yet on the whole, the skill involved in asking “interesting questions” is glossed over. Design research needs its own “curricular scaffolding,” as the theorist and former editor of Visible Language Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl puts it. In a paper on the subject she writes, “Research skills need to be taught and like design skills, they need to be staged so that students grow into an understanding of what various forms of inquiry can do to provide better design performance or in a larger sense to help build a body of design knowledge.” An renewed emphasis on the term process in the definition of research, therefore, reminds us that we need to commit to actually teaching this stuff.
The sharing economy of research and an expanded conception of the public
The other phrase in the REF definition that I’d like to call out for consideration is “effectively shared.” While the instrumentalist bent of the word “effective” derives from the same bureaucratic world of research evaluation that talks too much of “outputs” and “impacts” and might well be dismissed, the importance of the need to make our new insights available and connect meaningfully to our audiences still holds, as does the need to clearly indicate our sources. When any of us embarks on a research project, we become part of an extended research community that spans time and geography. This community comprises those whom we hope will encounter our research as and end in itself, but also our fellow researchers, who may use the raw material of our research in different ways by following our footnotes in new directions. Acknowledging and engaging with this community is what turns research from a monologue in the margins into a vital conversation with our peers, predecessors and subjects. “The whole point of doing research,” the British design studies professor Nigel Cross has said, “is to extract reliable knowledge from either the natural or artificial world, and to make that knowledge available to others in re-usable form.”
Considered in this light, then, far from being isolated, elitist, or selfish, as scholarship is often perceived to be, we are reminded instead of the generous, democratic, and networked qualities of the research enterprise. In fact, it was only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that national archives in Europe and the US opened reading rooms, and the public began to get access to collections of primary sources. Until then it was only wealthy scholars with private collections who could work with the kinds of primary sources so fundamental to research. So, ideally, today’s researcher engages in a dynamic, global, and democratized pursuit, that discovers, interprets, and then shares with our publics. Even more than that, today’s researcher must participate, as American cultural critic Mark Grief has urged us, in a project to reframe “the public,” not as a sphere in which to dumb down our specialist knowledge, but rather an aspirational sparring zone in which the public and the intellectuals alike could be “more brilliant, more skeptical, more disobedient, more capable of self-defense, and more dangerous again—dangerous to elites, and dangerous to stability…”
The immediate and primary advantage of a practice-led graphic design research, rather than any other type, would be in its capacity for “sharing insights.” Graphic designers are uniquely positioned to visually interpret and clarify research, frame it and make it look seductive. Indeed, it’s encouraging to see so many new, beautifully designed and conceived print and online publications, finally providing a much-needed challenge to the boring and reactionary aesthetics of academic publishing houses and university presses. Sternberg Press, for example, a small Berlin-based publishing house, is among those leading the way. Others include AA, Strelka Press, Bedford Press, Roma Publications, and Unit Editions.
Possibly even more significant than the books and websites themselves, however, are the ways in which such independent publishing ventures are positing new models for the dissemination and distribution of research, that provide viable alternatives to the slow publishing timetables and limited distribution of academic publishing. For example, Aggregate, an online public forum for research in architectural theory aims to open up the processes of research, debate and publication to broader participation by scholars and students, creating a public forum for innovative scholarship. Aggregate endorses the ideals of what it calls collaborative peer interaction and uses a process of transparent peer-review in which authors can engage in dialogue and debate as part of the process of revision of their work for publication. The Aggregate site was designed by Project Projects, who have also founded their own publishing house, Inventory Press, with an emphasis on subcultures, minor histories, and the sociopolitical aspects of material culture. Works that Work is another example of a publication where the designer-editor-publisher, Peter Bilak, has taken distribution into his own hands, and given it into the hands of his readers/couriers, in a process he terms social distribution. The publication website includes a database in which readers can post where they are traveling to and how much space they have in their luggage. “If your travel plans coincide with our delivery needs, you can help reduce the cost of shipping the magazine, making it more affordable for everyone, plus you get to meet super nice people, and you’ll get a free copy of the latest issue as a thank-you.”
Among other designers experimenting with an expanded conception of publishing, with the relationship between the way that knowledge is produced and the way that it is communicated, is Rebecca Ross, who runs the MA in Communication Design at Central St. Martins. Ross, who has a PhD in Architectural and Urban History from Harvard as well as an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale, is particularly interested in the interactions between images, media and urban change, but also in open-source methods of research. Her publication the Urban Pamphleteer, for example, available for no charge in print and online, draws on the history of radical pamphleteering to stimulate debate and instigate change and makes direct accessible language a priority. Her “London is Changing” project, conducted during 2015 aimed to facilitate discussion about the impact of economic and policy changes on the culture and diversity of London. Via a web form, she reached out to anyone who recently moved or was planning a move to, from, or around Greater London. Data was collected on this site throughout the 2015 calendar year. The results of the research were fed via an RSS feed onto digital billboards around Central London (Ross received access to these by exchanging consulting time for air time). The project not only presents the voices of Londoners, but also questions who is generating and controlling data, an issue that will become ever more pressing and important to anyone engaging in research. Furthermore, the entire data set is available online for use by community and campaign groups, researchers and designers on a CCO “No Rights Reserved” basis, and as such provides a model for ways to usefully share our research.
One of the main philosophical underpinnings of the SVA MA in Design Research relates to this notion of the importance of finding ways to connect to our audiences, ways to urge on our publics toward a more sophisticated engagement with design, and ways to create agoras in which those publics can respond. In considering the contexts and consequences of design, we look at the ways in which design in all its manifestations is produced, mediated, consumed, and disposed of, and what that means. Through all this, we hope to improve the quality of discourse around design. Once we’ve asked our questions and gleaned our data from its many disparate sources, we begin the work of forming connections between, and interpreting our research findings in order to develop a new reading or understanding of the material, a narrative, and, most importantly a legible argument. When it comes to dissemination, researchers need to be fluent in multiple media, beyond writing, whether it’s through online fora, via radio and podcasting, video essays, exhibition curation, event curation and organization, or more imaginative applications. So our next step is to select who our intended audiences are, and the best vehicles for reaching them. Sometimes it’s literally a vehicle, in the case of an ice cream van for disseminating an educationally beneficial selection of digital toys. Other examples of students’ applied research include: a house tour of an Anthropologie store to highlight fake nostalgia rife in home merchandizing; an augmented-reality app that brings guns into the MoMA design narrative by linking them to displayed objects; a Spotify list and audio tour of New York’s public housing projects mentioned in hip hop songs; a supermarket bingo game for spotting overused misleading pastoral imagery in food packaging; and a graphic design exhibition that keeps its exhibits in situ in the city rather than gathering them in the museum.
So far so good. We’ve looked at the two pieces of bread in the sandwich—the idea of the “process” of research and the importance of sharing our findings, but what of the meat, the actual insights themselves? What are the distinct qualities of research conducted into, about, and through the medium, the products, and the worldview of graphic design, and why is it so important?
What is the nature of graphic design research?
Borrowing categories developed in the more established field known as “design research,” which emerged in the UK in the 1960s, there are three main ways to understand and categorize the work that goes on under this amorphous label. The first is research about graphic design as a practice, a profession, its works, culture, ideologies, practitioners and so on. This is the most graspable, and fully developed of the three, and includes both historical studies, explorations of contemporary issues in which graphic design figures prominently, and speculation about the future. Among the critics and historians whose research has focused specifically on graphic design, there are: Jeremy Aynsley, Martha Scotford, Steven Heller, Rick Poynor, Emily King, Andrew Blauvelt, Teal Triggs, Ellen Lupton, and Jessica Helfand, to mention a few. Some of these authors are graphic designers themselves but this aspect of their work is put on hold when they operate as historians, theorists, biographers, curators, or critics—or at least when they engage with the paradigm of scholarly research. The goal of this kind of work is to document, interpret, evaluate, and elucidate knowledge relating to graphic design, writ large. In addition to the more traditional monographic and historical or theme-based instances of graphic design research, there are increasing numbers of more experimental approaches to the documentation and interpretation of design. Interestingly these tend to result from a process in which a graphic designer controls all aspects of production, including research, writing, design, publishing, and distribution. Among them is a fascinating book about the photographer and political activist Miklós Klaus Rózsa, created by the Swiss designers Christof Nüssli and Christoph Oeschger through their imprint C-Press in 2014. The book presents photographs taken by Rózsa of the Swiss youth movement between 1971 and 1989, each of which are paired with state security files on Rózsa, as reported by the Federal Police, the Cantonal Police, and the Zurich Police Department, making montages that reveal the contrasts between differing reports of the same event, between observation and counter-observation. Another recent book that synthesizes original source material through the medium and sensibility of graphic design is In Loving Memory of Work, a visual record of the UK miners’ strike between 1984 and 1985, made by the British designer, and a miner’s son Craig Oldman. Explicitly politicized, pro-union, and subjective, the book, printed with coal dust from the site of Barnsley Main Collery collects graphic ephemera and anecdotes from the era and contributes new graphic interventions based on a visual vocabulary Oldham has gleaned from his archival research.
Such publications fall in an interesting hybrid zone between this first categorization of research into graphic design and a second categorization we can use, which is that of research for graphic design. This is the kind of research a graphic designer undertakes as part of the making process, in order to complete a project in which the end result is a designed entity. It could be research into the subject the design is framing or dealing with, whether it’s mobile banking or migrancy. It could be research into visual qualities, such as online type legibility or nineteenth century posters, that will contribute to the way the design appears. Research for graphic design could also include user research, in the sense of attempting to find out what people do with and think about design, in an effort to improve the efficacy of the design among its constituents.
There is another mode of working, however, in which the medium, sensibility, and methods of graphic design itself are what are used to generate questions, gather data, and interpret them, with the aim of contributing to knowledge. This latter conception of graphic design research is the most amorphous and yet, ever since the late 1970s when champions of design research including Bruce Archer, Ken Baynes, and Nigel Cross, proclaimed that design has its own distinct intellectual culture, its own designerly “things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them,” and then in 1993 Christopher Frayling, a professor of Cultural History at the Royal College of Art in London, coined the term “research by design,” by which he meant a kind of research where design practice itself has a central methodological role to play, this is the area that has been the most dynamic and the most debated.
Among those central to this debate is the designer and education theorist Lisa Grocott, who has asked why the speculative-driven nature of performative, or practice-based, research shouldn’t have as much agency within the academy as the evidence-driven culture of quantitative research? Through her doctoral research and teaching practice, Grocott has sought to develop a practice model based on drawing and exploratory diagramming or figuring as she terms it—a type of sketching that is equal parts speculation and reflection, as a communication strategy for generating discussion.
Grocott has noted that, “Graphic design is not a practice recognized for generating artefacts that ask questions. Even when a piece of visual communication appears at first glance to be ambiguous it is often foremost a provocative strategy designed to promote, sell or inform others about a service, product or event.” Her work in developing new methods for graphic design research is intended to help design create distance from this emphasis on the utility of the communication artefact in a commercial context. Even though graphic design’s embrace of research might be seen as an attempt to create an intellectual separation from its perceived enmeshment with capitalism, the issue of remuneration and funding for this kind of work continues continues to be raised, especially in the realm of professional practice. The Australian type designer Stephen Banham has asked “Why can’t a critical reflection on practice (practice-led research) be seen as offering favourable economic outcomes as well as research outcomes?” And some students and professionals still question the relevance and monetary value of their research interests. For example, a graphic designer recently asked her peers on the online forum ResearchGate, “Is academic design research relevant in the commercial graphic design process? And if so, how?” By way of explanation, in the ensuing comments thread, she continued, “I have yet to ever work in a design studio where anyone has presented me with academic graphic design research or a scholarly article to defend a position or propose an argument to a client or a colleague so I am curious about whether the research I am referring to is an insular type of research that is not part of the real world for designers who are living in a world of daily and hourly deadlines, quick thinking and acting.”
In spite of such continuing instrumentalist concerns, however, there seems much more acceptance and understanding of the ways in which self-initiated research and client commissioned projects might inform one another in the day-to-day life of a design studio, and much more evidence that a research-active design studio can be a financially viable one.
Following in the footsteps of pioneering studios who seamlessly combined self-directed research and client work, such as Design Writing Research, extant 1985-1999, and 2×4, founded in 1994, many of today’s most interesting design practices identify as research-driven. Among them are Dexter Sinister, Project Projects, Zak Kyes, Catherine Guiral, Lucienne Roberts, and many more.
One of the best-known and most fully committed graphic design research practices is the Dutch collaborative Metahaven, whose research projects such as Sealand, Facestate: Social Media and the State, and its 2010 book-length exploration of the relationship between design and power, titled Uncorporate Identity, have contributed significantly to a fundamental reconsideration of a design practice as a research laboratory or think tank. The Metahaven studio is equally devoted to design and research, and uses visual and design tactics themselves as the form of interrogation of political and social issues such as surveillance, geopolitics, and networked information but, unlike some others, is resolute that its end products will be not only books, essays, lectures, and exhibitions, but also what they refer to as “graphic design objects.” As a review of the Uncorporate Identity book in Design Issues put it, “the visual forms that emerge in this speculation are fairly astounding: passports printed with cuneiform, bar codes that extrude into architectural space, postage stamps of mirrors and satellites, a national flag composed only of a field of gray, a monopoly board game that imagines the Parisian banlieues.”
Back in 2006, the studio’s co-founder, Daniel van der Velden, wrote a short essay titled “Research and Destroy,” a manifesto of sorts, in which he argued that since the tools and techniques of graphic design were available to anybody with a computer, and since within corporations, design managers had taken over the role of designers, it was necessary for graphic designers to evolve their own discipline into one that conducts its own research. He pressed graphic designers to start asking “interesting questions,” to generate knowledge that would make it “possible to seriously participate in discussions that are not about design.” Van der Velden’s ideas echoed those set forth a decade earlier by American design theorist Gunnar Swanson who, against the flow of an increasingly vocational trend in design education, urged a reconsideration of graphic design education as a “liberal arts subject.” The Liberal Arts, in Swanson’s conception, via Aristotle, have intrinsic value rather than utilitarian purpose and are non-specialized, and thus provide a viable alternative for a field such as graphic design which is both “synthetic” in the sense that it doesn’t have its own subject matter and “integrative” in its potential to connect many disciplines.
Who do we wish to address?
Despite this exhortation to use research as a conduit to meaningful exchange with other fields, and a continuing interest in the potential for graphic design to operate as a liberal art, for the most part those designers self identifying as “practitioner-researchers” tend to be concerned with understanding the shifting nature of their own profession and with the building of a meta-level discourse about design as “a discipline in transition” as the design researcher and educator Ramia Mazé refers to it.
American designer and curator Andrew Blauvelt identifies graphic design’s multiplying modes of practice—its integrative nature, in fact—as the cause of its weak sense of self as a coherent discipline. Waging a war on too many fronts, design has no strict focus, and no foundation for critical discourse—no methods of designing that better define or strengthen the discipline, Blauvelt argued in a lecture at the SVA MA Design Research conference in 2013. He recommends instead a kind of design that self-initiates its own projects, self-propels its own research and content, and self-reflects inward (exploring design through designing, or writing about design). In Blauvelt’s opinion graphic design “should be capable of generating its own meaning from its own resources.”
Such as an approach is typified by many of the proponents of the burgeoning field of critical graphic design, with the influential “Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design,” exhibition, which was held at London’s Architectural Association in 2007, being one of its foundational statements. Curated by Zak Kyes, art director at the AA, nineteen graphic designers each submitted a representative example of their work along with a new piece—an “inquiry” into an aspect of architecture. While the explicit aim of the exhibition was to explore the intellectual and formal crosscurrents between graphic design and architecture, the exhibition’s subtext was the notion that the practice of graphic design itself can be “a specifically critical activity.” In the catalog essay Kyes and his co-author, the designer Mark Owens, described critical graphic design as “work that is motivated by a shared impulse to reframe the circumstances surrounding contemporary graphic practice…”
Kyes and Owens chose the word “inquiry” in connection with this exploratory work, rather than the word “research.” “Research,” they said, is associated with the “paradigm of scientific data-gathering.” “Inquiry” fit their purposes much better since it “suggests an almost anti-methodological methodology—posing questions and pursuing paths without necessarily knowing where they will lead.”
While I am interested in much of the work and thinking generated by that exhibition and the many others that have followed it, I still believe in the methods and practices of the scholarly paradigm of research—things such as data-gathering, analysis and interpretation. Rather than dodging the essential work of research, I think we need to square up even closer to the label, and the process, and continue to ask the question “What is the nature of graphic design research?”
In November 2015 a symposium was convened at Falmouth University in the UK to address precisely this question as well as other pertinent ones besides, such as “How can we integrate graphic design research with teaching?” “Who do we wish to address?” “What forms can graphic design research take in the new publishing landscape?” The perspectives presented by the invited representatives from design education, publishing and practice spanned the spectrum of approaches to, and varying definitions of graphic design research.
The convener of the “Graphic Designers Research” symposium, design and historian Jessica Jenkins, told us that as she was looking to advertise her event on academic list serves, she found none devoted to graphic design. “My posting on the art history server was rejected by the editors as misplaced, even though conferences on urban design, photography and the Swiss poster have subsequently been accepted.” Creating an online presence would seem to be an important step for the field of graphic design research, but it should only be the first of many. We also need more gatherings of research-identifying designers and design-sensitive scholars, from academia and practice alike, and from publishing, in its broadest sense. Graphic design research is reaching its audiences through the work done in university settings, such as research hubs and units, of course, but it’s also manifesting in less prescriptive environments such as online forums, readers, catalogue essays, interviews, and independent press publications.
Today, in a diversified graphic design landscape in which authorship and critical reflection are increasingly acknowledged and practiced, and the focus on design as things is being replaced by a focus on design as systems, services, and scenarios, the conception of graphic design research as an activity that gives equal value to the established practices of research and to the experimental modes of dissemination is gaining traction. Grocott reflects that it is “the contested nature of design research that has productively driven the breadth of multi-modal methods and strategies that we now see emerging. In a world that increasingly calls for research collaborations that transcend any conventional notion of discipline it is imperative that we have an informed respect for other disciplinary approaches, just as it is important that we have our own way of understanding what design practice has to offer the context of research.”
As graphic design research becomes more visible and yet more complex, the time is ripe for deeper consideration of its shifting strategies, locations, and motivations. And at a time when the character of research conducted in the design academy is under scrutiny, this hybrid branch of research may well be the one that has the richest potential to inform developing standards and contribute to critical debate on the issues surrounding graphic design as research.
- American Institute of Graphic Arts Design Educators Conference, 2016 ↑
- Research Excellence Framework Assessment Framework and Guidance on Submissions, Annex C, p. 48. ↑
- Tom Fisher, paper presented at “The Future of Design Education” Symposium, North Dakota State University, ↑
- Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl, “Communities of Practice in Design Research,” She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, Volume 1, Issue 1, Autumn 2015, pp. 44–57. ↑
- Nigel Cross, Designerly Ways of Knowing, Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media, 2007, p.126. ↑
- Mark Greif, “What’s Wrong with Public Intellectuals?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 13, 2015. ↑
- Nigel Cross, Designerly Ways of Knowing, Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media, 2007, p.22. ↑
- Christopher Frayling, “Research in Art and Design,” RCA Research Papers, 1: 1, London: Royal College of Art, 1993. ↑
- Lisa Grocott, “The Discursive Practice of Figuring Diagrams,” Tracey, Drawing and Visualization Research, Loughborough University, May 2012. ↑
- Stephen Banham, “The Space Inbetween,” Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) Design Research Journal, 2008. ↑
- Nathaniel Boyd and Jack Henrie Fisher, Uncorporate Identity book review, Design Issues, Autumn 2011, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp.101-102. ↑
- Daniel van der Velden, “Research and Destroy: Graphic Design as Investigation,” Metropolis M, April/May 2006. ↑
- Gunnar Swanson, “Graphic Design Education as a Liberal Art: Design and Knowledge in the University and the ‘Real World,’” Design Issues, Vol. 10. No. 1, Spring 1994, pp.53-63. ↑
- Ramia Maze, Iaspis Forum on Design and Critical Practice, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2009, p.5. ↑
- Andrew Blauvelt, “Graphic Design: Discipline, Medium, Practice, Tool, or Other?,” paper presented at “Counterpoint: The D-Crit Conference 2013,” May 11, 2013. ↑
- Zak Kyes and Mark Owens, Introduction, Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Design, London: Architectural Association, 2007. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Lisa Grocott, “Designerly Ways Of Researching” Studies in Material Thinking, Vol. 6, 2012. ↑