NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 3 , December 15, 1999
by Jennifer Smith, TTT Editor
Graphic design, like many other professions, is being transformed by new technologies. Not only are computers a powerful tool for creating design, designers now work on websites, software interfaces, and other new tasks. As technology has come to play a bigger role in design and, thus, design education, some have questioned where this leaves the profession. Are the identity and role of the graphic designer changing substantially? Are new technologies allowing those users with no design background to take away from the work traditionally performed by graphic designers? How should educational programs balance the need to teach conceptual principles with teaching software packages? To answer some of these questions, I spoke with Jeffrey Morin of UW-Stevens Point’s Department of Art and Design, Hillary Warren of Steven Point’s Division of Communication, and John R. Rieben of the art department at UW-Madison.
While all three instructors feel that new technologies have changed the tasks performed by graphic designers, they also agree that the most fundamental work of the designer remains the same — presenting information in a manner both understandable and visually captivating to viewers. However, the word “graphic” has traditionally connoted an ink-on-paper format, so some, including Rieben, have offered “information designer” or “communication designer” as a more accurate, up-to-date job title, since designers now deal with electronic and other formats.
Some of the changes brought about by advances in computer technology include the individual designer’s need to execute a range of tasks previously performed by a number of people. Thus, students need broader abilities in design, since they will have broader responsibilities in the workplace. For example, trained typographers are essentially gone; today’s graphic designer must be both an art director and a typographer.
Designing for the Web also alters the work of the graphic designer, since the designer winds up with less control over the finished product for a variety of reasons. Although a designer will have specific ideas about what his or her end product should look like, different Web browsers will display the same Web page in a variety of ways, and the user’s computer settings may further affect what appears on the screen. As Morin puts it succintly, “Designing for the Web right now is a barbaric experience.” He explained that although a designer may make certain choices regarding colors, type styles, and other graphic elements, these choices may or may not be displayed accurately. Rieben commented in a similar vein that the resolution on the Web is crude, making a lack of attention to detail less noticable. While designers used to meticulously check printed matter for minor breaks in letterforms, similar mistakes may not even be legible on the Web.
Yet another factor influencing design on the Web is the fact that the great majority of Web pages are designed by people with little or no aesthetic training. This leaves the visual experience of the Web — not to mention the ease of accessing information — very uneven in quality. Morin commented that he has sat on grant-review committees and seen many a proposal in which faculty request the time and money to produce Web sites, but leave the services of a designer out of the process. He feels that many are losing sight of the design issues involved in getting information on the Web. However, he predicts that in the next few years, designers will be pulled back into the process.
Morin stressed that although graphic design is rapidly changing, this is “an exciting time, not a fearful time” for the profession. Rieben seems to concur with this assessment. Both stressed that graphic design still revolves around communicating information and meeting a client’s needs. Computers offer new tools to this end, but the goal remains the same, and a sound education in graphic design recognizes this. Rieben stated that a good education now should essentially be 90% theory and conceptual work, and only 10% technological training. Software programs will continue to change, and a well-trained designer who can research projects, communicate well with clients, and think creatively will be best prepared to succeed professionally in the long run. As Rieben put it, computers speed up production, but they are not aids for creativity; the best designers form their ideas before they go to the computer. In the end, as he says, virtually all students learn the same software; when it comes to getting a job, “you’re being hired for your ideas.” Morin commented similarly, “To make it, you need more than prepackaged tricks from software.” “We teach students that inspiration doesn’t come from a computer screen,” added Warren.
Morin offered tips on how to integrate technological training into a four-year, university design program. He and other Stevens Point design faculty met as a group to review the curriculum and look at it as a whole. They blocked out courses and assignments and decided upon when and how to introduce software programs. Their approach has been to introduce technology in a measured, paced way, so that technology does not become the main focus of the program, but rather a well-integrated tool. As new programs become important to professional graphic designers, they will make their way into Stevens Point’s course content, but none of the fundamental graphic design theory will be lost. The campus has also stayed abreast of technological developments in the field by updating computer labs and adding a new requirement that students produce a “Web portfolio” of their work.
Problems faced by instructors include students who desire only to learn software programs and not design theory, commented Warren. Both she and Morin noted that, as computers have made producing a slick, “finished-looking” solution quicker and easier, some students have become lax in working until the right solution has been found.
In the end, then, although technology may offer wonderful tools for graphic design students and professionals, in the view of professors Jeffrey Morin, John Rieben, and Hillary Warren, sound aesthetic and conceptual training still remain paramount.