The following questions are based upon the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, Clive Thompson, and Rick Poyner about the relationship between technology and design.
1. How is social media altering the ways in which humans share information, and how can graphic designers use this to their advantage?
I know people who seem to spend all of their waking hours on Facebook. My sister is one of them (Sorry, Sis!). Heck, even my Mom has taken to checking her Facebook almost daily. Me? I only check it once per month – maybe even once every two months. I don’t keep track. Consequently, I miss out on a great deal of cyber-conversations that happen nearly every five minutes among my circle of friends. While most of those interactions are probably superficial or trivial, the fact that we are sharing information faster than ever cannot be ignored.
Facebook has utilized the capabilities of the Internet to effectively “shrink” the world, thus creating a centralized online community that can share information at the click of a button. No longer do we have to fly across the country, drive across town, or even wait for a response to an email. It’s so immediate that news seems to travel faster and to more people through Facebook than through any other news outlet. In short, many of us now get our news via word-of-mouth.
So, getting back to the core of the original question, how can graphic designers take advantage of Facebook and other social media? First of all, the design would have to be something worth sharing – Something funny, beautiful, or thought-provoking. Also, the media needn’t be limited to posters. Design can take the form of motion graphics, film, photography, illustration, or even just sound. If it’s good enough, someone will share it. This is the beginning of a viral campaign.
2. What is the role of graphic design relative to that of fine art in today’s day and age?
Academically speaking, fine art and graphic design serve two distinct purposes. The fine arts are the epitome of self-expression, whereas the aim of graphic design is to visually communicate a specific message for a client. Where the two fields overlap is on the picture plane. Fine art can be the medium for conveying a client’s message, and graphic design can likewise stand alone as an artist’s self-expression. Therefore, they are closely related.
Clive Thompson believes that graphic design has drifted too far from fine art. He contends that corporations have turned designers into the switchboard operators of our society. In other words, corporate graphic design has become sterile, mechanical, and void of a human voice.
Ever since the globalization of Western companies in the 50’s, designers have adopted Swiss design techniques to reach the widest possible audience. The use of a grid, photography, and rigid sans serif typography has proven to be good for broad, cross-cultural communication. The New International Style, as it was called, became a standard for most corporate design. Companies also developed strict visual style guides for their designers to follow, thus limiting the creative expression of the designer. Thompson sees this as a negative thing – a hindrance to the true potential of graphic design. He seems to make little distinction between graphic design and the fine arts. Corporate designers, in his view, should be given the same creative freedom as the renowned Polish poster designers.
Yet, as much as I want to agree with Thompson, corporate style guides are an integral component of a capitalist society. With so many different corporations battling for attention, a strictly defined visual identity is absolutely necessary to be recognized. On the other hand, the Polish posters Thompson referenced were mostly made during Communist rule. Corporate identity systems were not as critical because there was no competition. Furthermore, Polish designers employed more expressive imagery to sneak hidden messages past the censors to the public.So, ironically, Thompson’s ideal for graphic design is more suited to a Communist society than to Western capitalism.
That being said, I do believe that a synthesis of graphic design and fine art can be a powerful and effective tool – especially when it comes to social media. Few people are going to tweet about a blatant company advertisement. But, as soon as a company gets expressive by utilizing fine art, it engages people and gets them talking. Fine art can be a powerful design tool for generating a buzz.
3. McLuhan pointed out that, since the advent of the written alphabet, Western civilization has been a predominantly visual society. How can we – in this present age – transcend “graphic” design and start utilizing the other senses?
Communication is the core of any designer’s job. Graphic designers just happen to work with visual communication in particular. However, that doesn’t mean that we cannot simultaneously attempt to engage the senses of smell, touch, taste, or hearing.
For instance, scratch-and-sniff paper can activate the sense of smell to compliment and enhance the mood of visuals. Placement of design near a bakery, a coffeehouse, a farm, or a barbecue joint can also integrate the sense of smell.
Apple has already started utilizing the sense of touch with its iPods and the iPad. Users can interact with media by touching, pinching, flicking, and sliding with their fingers. For print media, textured paper invites viewers to feel the design.
Taste is harder to pull off with printed media, but there is no rule against using actual food in a design. Suppose a Allan Bros. set up an installation made entirely out of chocolate covered coffee beans. People could eat them, thus interacting with the design and engaging their taste buds.
Lastly, sound can be used to set a certain mood or bring to mind certain people, animals, or objects. A classic example of effective interplay between sound and visuals can be found in the old Hitchcock film, The Birds. There’s a scene in which a flock of birds are gathering on a playground while the sound of schoolchildren singing a lyrical nursery rhyme plays in the background. This generates a mood of tension and fear. Thus, sound can enhance the mood of graphic design.
Even by incorporating more of the senses into the work, graphic design is still a visual profession by definition. Yet, the engagement of touch, taste, hearing, and smell can open the door to fresh ways of communicating tired messages. Our society takes visuals for granted these days. We’re primed for new experiences.