The Graphic Designer pursues much of his or her work in a mostly solitary manner, manipulating and arranging word and image on a computer, or in the past, by hand on a drafting table. The very nature of the profession is somewhat isolationist, as designers tend to tuck themselves away from the world, working in offices far removed from the maddening crowd.
While there are, of course, meetings with clients, co-workers, suppliers, and others who assist in the completion of our work, the man on the street often does not enter into the daily concerns of the typical graphic designer. We often speak vaguely about “target audiences” or “users,” but in reality have very little to do with them. Certainly we don’t typically engage them to participate in creating communications that are meant for their ultimate use.
This unspoken code of exclusivity has its roots in the acknowledged masters of our profession and their writings. Paul Rand, in his book Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art, states on page 233, in the section titled “Politics of Design:”
“The smooth functioning of the design process may be thwarted in other ways: …by the insecure client who depends on informal office surveys and pseudo-scientific research to deal with questions that are unanswerable, and answers that are questionable.”
Many of us would immediately agree with this statement. None of us appreciates our work being ripped away from us and shown to the so-called “uninitiated and uneducated,” who are then asked to pass judgement on its worthiness. But this situation may also leave us with a somewhat uneasy feeling. It is, after all, the so-called “uninitiated and uneducated” who do end up experiencing the fruits of our labors, whether we like it or not. Shouldn’t we consider ways to allow input from those on the receiving end of our work, so that everyone (the client, the user, and the designer) might benefit from the process?
Much current graphic design seems to be “client-centered,” where those paying the bills call the shots — or “designer-centered,” where the strong personality of the designer holds sway. A “user-centered” approach has the potential to benefit all stakeholders, however. If users receive information that meets their needs and expectations, then our clients have provided added-value to their products and services, and one very important benefit of our expertise as graphic designers becomes obvious.
While it’s clear to us that the potential value graphic designers bring to communication can be great, shouldn’t we perhaps agree that what we deem to be a “successful” project must at least meet the basic needs of those for which it was created? We routinely celebrate work in our profession’s publications based mainly on how it looks. What if these competitions also required designers to demonstrate how they interacted with users or audience members, and how input from those groups helped shape communications that successfully met their needs? The results of such a collection of work might not necessarily look much different from what we see today, but one could argue that such criteria for inclusion might move us away from an emphasis solely on the aesthetic, and at least acknowledge some sense of the functional.
Slightly further in the earlier-cited passage, Paul Rand also writes:
“Unless the design function in a business bureaucracy is so structured that direct access to the ultimate decision-maker is possible, trying to produce good work is often an exercise in futility.”
Obviously this statement is true. No doubt we’ve all experienced the frustration of working with organizations that haven’t enjoyed support for design efforts from top management, and have seen the wastefulness that results in such situations. But the remarkable thing about the above statement is its “designer-centeredness,” if you will. It’s assumed that if designers are just given the proper client support, then good design will naturally result.
But if the ultimate receivers or users of designed communications are ignored, are we truly creating “good” design? The results may be pleasant enough to view, but if the needs of those who will experience the information are not met, then what we’re left with is simply aesthetically-pleasing ephemera. Don’t our clients, the users of our work, and our profession all deserve a higher standard?
Graphic designers must recognize that they shoulder the responsibility to open the lines of communications with users and audience members. Paul Rand is correct when he, in the first quote cited, refers to the unsuitability of market research to design. Most market research is about discovering what conditions are necessary to convince potential customers to purchase existing products and services, and in the end, tells us very little that we can put to use in our efforts.
Good design research should be about listening to what people have to say, so that we can attempt to meet the needs and expectations that they voice. We must also recognize that what people say and what they do may be different things, and that they may not recognize the contradictions in their words and actions. We must develop the ability to observe users when necessary, so that their behavior can speak to us as well. We must also allow users to participate in the organization and structuring of messages and communications, so that the patterns apparent in what they make can be applied in our design efforts. In short, we must create a user-centered design process that is our own, and that meets the research needs specific to the practice of graphic design.
Many of us have started creating interactive communications in recent years, and are familiar with the concept of “usability testing” in this context. While it’s obviously very important to make sure that users can navigate such information spaces, this type of research represents only one limited opportunity for user input. Users can participate in helping to generate content at the beginning of the design process. They can also help evaluate communication prototypes throughout the development process, and experience finished solutions to help refine future generations of the project. We should strive to establish a sustained “dialogue” with users and audience members as an integral part of our design process.
I would like to assert, finally, that truly “good” design most likely can not happen without input from the ultimate end-users of our work. We ignore them at our own peril, and should take steps to allow their voices to be heard, and to address their needs in more significant ways. We must attempt to move beyond our at times contemptuous view of users, and instead see them as “collaborators” or “partners” in the process of creating useful communications. The age of exclusiveness must come to an end. For our profession to fully contribute to a democratic society, it must become as inclusive as possible. We must not be afraid to come down to the level of the common-man — who, if we’re listening carefully, will always have important things to tell us.
In closing, I would like to offer this insight from Elizabeth B.-N. Sanders, President of SonicRim, a firm specializing in participatory design research. This passage appears in her paper entitled “Postdesign and Participatory Culture,” which was presented at the Useful and Critical: The Position of Research in Design conference, and which is included in the proceedings. The conference was held in September of 1999 in Tuusula, Finland, and was hosted by the University of Art and Design, Helsinki.
“End-users can and should be the most important players in the design process. In fact, other stakeholders in the process such as producers, distributors, sellers and buyers should also participate directly in the process. The inclusion of all the relevant stake-holders changes the nature of design activity from one of individual creativity to one of collective generativity. It is this domain of collective generativity that, when practiced as an ongoing activity, I will call Postdesign.”
Originally published in Looking Closer Four: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, published by Allworth Press and AIGA, New York, 2002, pp. 196–199. Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, and Steven Heller, editors.