Two daily planner page designs, one for a fourth grader and the other for a college freshman.

Last semester was all about the graphic designer’s role in culture. I can’t speak for the whole class, but it would be safe to say that sometimes it would concur, even if for a moment —you can imagine how hard is to get 12 people to agree on an idea—, that owning up to the title of graphic designer not only relates to the things one can make, but also to the understanding and acceptance of one’s role as a gatekeeper of culture. You may or may not agree with this, (maybe it’s a bit too much for you to fathom… A designer is more than just pretty things?), but the following text knows that a (good) graphic designer is not dictated by what it makes, but by a combination of the artifacts with what he or she thinks. Since such is the case, shouldn’t it, then, be part of our social responsibility to design according to how we should, and not according to how we know?

In theory class we have been discussing User Error: Resisting Computer Culture written by Ellen Rose. Her approach, that of an ex-software developer, brings about interesting reflections on this idea of the user. It is interesting to see —and think— of formal design work through this perspective. If your current thought is… Well duh? Trust me, I thought the same until I was forced to work in these terms. More and more I realize that what I can do as a designer is slightly less powerful that what I can achieve by applying design thinking. Isn’t this the same? Not really.

As a designer I was trained to make, make, make a little bit more, and make just a tad more in case the previous was not enough. In a way, this urge to produce work turned into a viral epidemic, one project fueling the energy to construct the next. There was (may some will argue that there still is) no stopping. There was no need to either. The making was carried out in response to lessons learned or problems in need of solutions, and what better contribution than to apply what I had learned to help others?

My approach to work in those early iterations of my design thinking was consciously crafted around conceptual frameworks and contextual belonging. Where will the piece be used? Who will use it? How will it be handled? All were (and still are) valid questions in my mind, but as I look back I am forced to admit that all of these were devoid of thinking in terms of people. How can this be?

Meredith Davis’s last fall’s teaching seminar class, her keynote speech at the Massaging Media 2 education conference, pedagogical experiences at NC State as a teaching assistant and co-instructor to Santiago Piedrafita, the communitas analytical exercise with Dori Tunstall, the empathy approach of Danny Stillion, and most recently, reading Ellen Rose have made me aware of many assumptions that come with poorly crafted graphic design training and education. I was taught from simple to complex, and subsequently, I applied and encouraged similar ideas into the execution of much of work. I was taught that I am the expert, so as expert I applied my skills and knowledge because I knew what was best for others. As designers, we are taught the intricacies of typography, space, alignment and visual hierarchy, so who better to decide for others the correct implementation of all of these than us? Or so I thought. I was so wrong.

For a short time I had the misfortune of working with a not so good book publisher with whom I had the opportunity to design a daily planner for 4th graders (my first book project ever). I remember making it as simple as possible, and illustrating it to make it “attractive” to the targeted age group. A year I was commissioned the design of a daily planner for incoming freshmen at Syracuse University, and as you can expect, I made it fairly complex. You know? It’s for college kids. Sounds logical right? Thinking in terms of those who will use our work provides us with a framework to challenge our preconceptions. Did I ever question why would 4th graders need it simple? Did I consider that a current fourth grader’s media input is probably 4 times more than mine was at that age? I applied my thinking in similar ways to which I was taught.

This semester’s studio’s projects have worked around online communities, their members and their exchanges of information. It has indeed been frustrating (it’s like clearing the slate from years of working one way and suddenly being told to work in another), but refreshing as well. Projects have risen out of these human relationship studies that would have never existed due to our previous way of working.

Building conceptual maps from the perspective of people relationships (instead of the usual system based diagrams) proved a helpful tool in dissecting behaviors and tendencies while exposing misconceptions and missed connections. Working on scenarios allowed the class to understand the power of graphic design in the context of identity building or recognition. Prototyping interactive exchanges and tasks further aided in the understanding of what the user needs, and not what a designer thinks that they need. The framing of my work has changed. My design thinking expanded.

What does this all mean? Designers, just like any other, are cultural beings which participate, frame and contribute to daily life activities. As such, we have a social responsibility to create meaningful work which combines our skill and knowledge as designers and thinkers with the needs, uses and understanding of those to whom we are directing our work. One way is for me to apply what I know and make something for the other… but by simply asking… who I am doing this for? I am already on a particular path where content, interaction, meaning and representation all come together in the creation of an experience.

Share →

Leave a Reply