It was good for me but how about you?

New media will allow audiences greater control than ever over the reception of messages. Designers neglect users’ needs at their peril.

Illustration by Steven Appleby.

The last few years have brought unprecedented change to graphic design. Recent developments in technology have radically affected the creation, transmission, and reception of visual messages. Graphic designers shifted to computers as their main source of message production, and some have embarked upon the creation of “interactive” computer-based presentations of information. These presentations allow for limited control of message sequence, enabling users to wander through an information structure, and personalize their experience.

As these technologies develop, so too will expectations about how messages are received. Preliminary efforts in this area — such as options within interactive presentations to allow various levels of content to be accessed as the user desires — have already been made, and presentations that can be adapted to desired learning styles have been created. Not surprisingly, technology has also fueled changes outside of graphic design. Developers and observers of technology predict that the entertainment, print/publishing, and computer industries will undergo a joint metamorphosis in the 21st century, with media conglomerate Time/Warner being just one obvious example of this direction.

So how should graphic design practice, education, and literature proceed into this brave new world? Will currently accepted paradigms prove satisfactory, or will we be forced to redefine ourselves in the face of continuing change?

Graphic design is a relatively young profession. We recognize it as an invention of this century, though its roots go back to the desire of prehistoric cave dwellers to communicate visually. In its current state, the profession exhibits significant signs of immaturity. Most graphic designers are content to accept the role of final form-maker for communications. Development of message content and determination of how messages might best be tailored for users are left to others. This limited definition of our profession has manifested itself in all aspects of how we practice, teach, and write about ourselves.

Graphic design education is based mostly around a series of fictitious situations where students produce prescribed outcomes (as an educator I must admit to using this teaching model myself ). Seldom are students encouraged to investigate the wants and needs of communication users and to allow a final communication to grow out of the context in which it will be used. It comes as no surprise to find that professional graphic designers also seldom engage in these activities. Most literature representing our field emphasizes the form that a communication takes and disregards the context of its use. The result is often pages of stylish artifacts that we are encouraged to emulate, with some publications being more than willing to show us how.

But there are some hopeful signs of a new maturity. Graphic design criticism seems to be developing. Some graphic designers are beginning to take greater responsibility for message content, as computers provide a smooth platform for integrating both writing and design. A clear direction for future development of the field is lacking, however.

Most definitions of the function of graphic design revolve around the commonly accepted concept of readability. We tend to believe that if a communication is readable, then it will communicate. Such rudimentary logic doesn’t adequately take into account the user’s expectations surrounding reception of the message or the context of how the information is actually used.

Simple observation of users interacting with information can yield significant insights. How many of us have been shocked and dismayed on those rare occasions of viewing how our work is really used? Experts have long theorized that communication can’t take place without a shared field of reference or experience between the sender and receiver of a message. We have little chance of understanding the concerns of those for whom we design if we insulate our- selves behind computers and drawing boards. Without efforts to understand the user’s experience we continue to provide information that is readable, but may not communicate effectively. A new definition of functionality is required. Responsibility for providing effective and appropriate communications should fall on the graphic designer.

As technology enables audiences to control how and when they receive messages, an under- standing of the user’s experience becomes even more critical. Perhaps a new paradigm of the graphic designer as a user-advocate can be developed, in which the designer is involved in truly significant mediation between the sender (the client) and the receiver (the user). The potential benefits for all involved are great: clients could provide customers and audiences with useful information; graphic designers could increase the perceived value of their services; users would receive information tailored to needs and experience.

The move towards a user-based approach requires substantial changes in graphic design education programs, practice, and literature. Education must provide more than aesthetic and technical competence. Young designers can be trained to investigate and analyze clients, competitors, and audiences, and to identify important issues of communication. The next generation of designers must possess these skills to expand the current form-orientation of the profession.

We must also demand more from our literature than chronicles of the latest stylistic developments. How can successful graphic design efforts be critically assessed without first recognizing basic information? What was the intent of the communication? To whom was it directed? Perhaps a future model for graphic design literature might include discussions of techniques used by designers to arrive at a rationale for their efforts, emphasizing the roles of various players (clients, customers, etc.) in shaping the final communications.

Specific activities of user-oriented graphic design might include strategic analysis of client and competitor past design efforts in order to help identify new design opportunities. User opinion could be sought at various stages of design development. User input at the concept development stage can prove critical to determining the appropriateness of the initial direction, while evaluation during prototype development allows for substantial refinement prior to implementation of final designs. Lastly, post-mortem evaluation can provide guidelines for future efforts.

Graphic designers might wish to consult experts in various fields (market researchers, cognitive human factors specialists, etc.) in order to adapt their methods. Not all clients will be able to afford a great number of hours spent on these activities, but even a minimum amount of time is better than none at all.

Incorporating user-centered activities could help provide a more ambitious direction and enable graphic designers to view themselves as more than mere form-makers. Instead, we might see ourselves as essential participants in the communication process, as producers of messages that are acted upon and used by our audiences. Graphic design is much more than two-dimensional form on a surface — our efforts are central to a society that thrives on information. It is completely appropriate that as graphic designers we bear the responsibility of creating messages that are effective for our audiences.

Technology has already placed a significant portion of graphic design practice into the hands of novices, calling into question the value of our services. If we refuse to adapt to this new environment we will be relegated into a position of insignificance, directed by others who will be happy to prescribe our limited role. We must expand the definition of our profession. We must focus our attentions on the users of our work, and on creating truly effective communications. If we choose not to act, we’ll have accepted the fate that awaits us. The opportunity to redefine ourselves for the next century is upon us. We can no longer hold on to the past.

Originally published in the “Agenda” section of
Eye, no. 12, vol. 3, 1994, pp. 4–5. Rick Poynor, editor.

Design educator + Professor @ The Ohio State University

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