What is a Graphic Design Thesis?

Problem Solving

A graphic design project begins with a client’s brief: a summary of parameters that describe the task at hand. These restrictions will not be found in our class, for you are the author of your brief, occupying the roles of both commissioner and designer. You are a problem solver, but not in the way that phrase is commonly understood since the problems you are negotiating in a Thesis class are often personal or societal. In this lecture I will argue that it is your task to — if you will forgive the Post-Modern jargon — problematize graphic design itself, and in doing so perhaps rehabilitate it. Clarifying the scope of the study would be a helpful place to start.

W. A. Dwiggins.

Graphic design, from Wikipedia.


The term ‘graphic design’, coined in 1922 by W.A. Dwiggins, was originally used to describe his practice, which included book design, lettering, typography, and calligraphy. The contemporary Wikipedia definition is more expansive, covering identity systems, websites, signage among other things. It is synonymous with the more general ‘communication design’, a term so broad it absorbs the adjacent crafts of illustration and photography. Branding is a kind of design that can mean almost every type of communication. Is an advertisement jingle you hear ‘design’? Most attempts to ground what we are doing crumble beneath our feet, regressing into an infinite abyss of caveats and disclaimers. It is, as they say … turtles all the way down.

Let me start by declaring that graphic design can be defined; a statement not as uncontroversial as it appears. 

William of Ockham.

Chair.


The question of whether anything can be packed into a non-reducible category is centuries old. In Medieval Europe, the two opposing philosophical positions were argued between Realists and Nominalists. William of Ockham (Nominalist) believed there was no metaphysical presence in any category.1 He argued that no object, such as a chair, has any inherent characteristics. What is the difference between a wooden stool and a tree stump in a forest? Is a bean bag a chair? How about a hammock or a miniature dollhouse chair or a stack of milk crates? 

Chair.

Chair.


The nominalist worldview holds that everything in the universe, including the universe, is a chair. All matter exists in an amorphous continuum of stuff without boundaries. Whether or not this is true, we do need some semblance of defined things if we are to communicate with each other. Language is a symbolic system of mutually agreed meanings. It is our most fundamental tool for understanding the world we find ourselves in. 

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Frank Gehry.

Installation by Richard Serra.


I could describe Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Museum as an enormous sculpture, and the Richard Serra piece contained within it as a modestly sized building, but to grasp this sentence, my audience must share a common understanding of what architecture or sculpture is understood to be, a priori. Graphic design is a particularly hard field to define because as I mentioned, it bleeds into so many other activities, and is always expanding. The multi-disciplinary Bauhaus figure Lazlo Moholy Nagy said —somewhat ambiguously — that ‘design is thinking’, which begs the question, what sorts of things are designers thinking about?

Number one: a banal answer, but I would argue that graphic designers explore the potential of typography, or to put it in broader terms, the systems and technologies of communication. Number two: graphic designers try to sell things — a theme I will return to later. 

What is a Thesis?

At Parsons, you are required to write an explanatory text and compose a presentation of research, though these are only supplemental to the central project — a work (or works) of graphic design, made by the student. Your mission is to make a thesis about graphic design which is itself a piece of graphic design.

Dog.

Dogs.


To illustrate this self-reflexivity let us imagine a student who wants to make a project about dogs. I am choosing an intentionally dumb topic, but indulge me for the sake of a thought experiment. Our fictional student decides to make a book about dogs and begins by compiling various bits of research: taxonomies of breeds, ancestral timelines of dogs working alongside humans, essays on dog fashion etc. The diversity of that material lends itself to a certain kind of treatment. Bruce Mau’s design for S,M,L, XL might be a good reference. It deals with an overpoweringly large amount of content, reveling in the collision of disparate elements. 

S, M, L, XL, designed by Bruce Mau.

S, M, L, XL (detail).


If the student instead wanted to make a motion graphic animation about dogs — a meme-worthy PSA cartoon about the suitability of pets for various owner lifestyles — the student might research the graphic reduction of animals by Lance Wyman’s Zoo identity. In another scenario, the student makes an abstract poster series. This time the points of reference are lost dog posters. The student riffs on tear-away phone number tabs, and attention-grabbing fluorescent paper, repurposing the quotidian conventions of a letter-sized print-out vernacular.

Lost dog.

Lance Wyman’s identity for the National Zoological Park, Washington, DC, 1973.


No matter how the project evolves, the focus of study shifts away from dogs... and towards ‘design’. Standing on the shoulders of design giants reveals to us the horizon of possibilities. Every project synthesizes, continues, subverts, or complicates a ‘design tradition’. The phrase ‘design tradition’ might seem like an oxymoron if you are working in a contemporary medium, like interactive design, but I contend that old-fashioned principles still apply.

Typographic serif.

Classical page grid.


A typographic serif, which was originally used to neaten the stroke of a chiseled terminal serves no utility anymore, yet these marks on stone tablets were replicated in ink on the printed page, and are now projected on to our pixel screens. A sans-serif typeface a contemporary designer could select to convey Modernity might be over fifty years old. These forms have a very long shelf-life. But leaving aside the meaning of typefaces, even our sense of compositional harmony is informed by aesthetic criteria evolved over centuries. 

Peter Mendelsund’s beautiful cover of Ulysees by James Joyce.

The Canon

A.S. Byatt wrote that the Western canon in literature consists of those writers all other writers have to know and by whom they measure themselves. The Western Canon (According to Harold Bloom): William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes, Michel de Montaigne, Molière, John Milton, Samuel Johnson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Fernando Pessoa, and Samuel Beckett. Bloom, the staunchest defender of this exalted group, went as far as claiming Shakespeare invented the modern human psyche. We also refer to a canon of graphic design, but designers, unlike writers, rarely produce anything quite so monumental. There is no work of design as epic as Don Quixote. Apart from a few zealots, a designer’s soul is not stirred by a typeface, even if it is an immortal classic. A book cover of Ulysses, no matter how stylish or clever, will ever be as good as Ulysses.

Scrapbook cover.

Scrapbook page.


This is a scrapbook a former colleague of mine found in a Hungarian junk shop. It looks like it was cobbled together with the eye of an amateur enthusiast instead of a professional, which gives it a very unique appeal. I do not scrapbook, but I do look for design beyond the canon, curating my own inspirational references.

Scrapbook page.


For example, this was a typewriter manual I found on a pile of trash in the street. I think it is one of the most beautiful things I own, though I have no idea who designed it.

Century 21 Typewriting, 1982.

Century 21 Typewriting, detail. 


Century 21 Typewriting, detail. 

Century 21 Typewriting, detail. 


Century 21 Typewriting, detail. 

Cologuard logo.


Here is a logo for a colon cancer screening test, called Cologuard. I believe it is a classic, but I doubt I will never convince anyone else of its worth. That is okay. In the museum of the greats, everyone can build their own wing. 

Questioning the Canon

I learned about Graphic Design History from reading Philip Meggs’ seminal textbook A History of Graphic Design. Take note of the precise wording of the title; ‘A’ History instead of ‘The’ History of Graphic Design. This crucial ‘A’ implies the contingency of any timeline, suggesting to the reader that the text should be viewed as one history among many. A project questioning the prevailing historical narrative of my education is Decentering Whiteness in Graphic Design History. Much of this bibliography is devoted to shifting attention towards marginalized voices. It also exposes problematic canonical figures like the racist kook Johannes Itten, author of The Elements of Color. This is a book assigned to almost every foundation level color theory art student. 

Phillip Meggs’ A History of Graphic Design.

Decentering Whiteness in Graphic Design History.


Perhaps the most significant point of the Decentering Whiteness agenda is its challenge to the idea of ‘heroes’ of the canon. A linked essay by Juliette Cezzar argues for a design history of ideas to replace design hagiography, while a forceful polemic by Aggie Toppins demands that design history make visible the complex social worlds in which designers practice. Why do historians typically describe the events of the past like novels featuring important, dynamic characters? Perhaps because literary form makes history intelligible. Decentering Whiteness is a project which seeks to undermine that kind of presentation, de-emphasizing the singular hero, and elevating the mass of individuals shaping society. It is a Marxist prism through which to view the world.

Emigre

Raygun.


Decentering Whiteness is not the first attempt to dismantle graphic design hegemonies. In the nineties, there was a movement to break apart the constraints of Modernist design orthodoxies. The discourse, which began in design graduate programs was popularized by Emigre magazine, and subsequently crossed into mainstream visual culture. This uninhibited, wild aesthetic was put to good use by David Carson in the magazines like Beach Culture and Raygun. It was also harnessed by the forces of capitalism. Every design style, no matter how radical, will eventually be used as Nike advertising.

Nike.

Selling

Trademarks, wood-type display fonts, and eye-catching graphic novelties all emerged in the Victorian Age to service the needs of a burgeoning economic system. The visual cacophony mirrored the bustle of an expanding marketplace.

wood type.

Victorian London.


It was not until the 20th Century that the design industry developed a unified style, sometimes known as the ‘International Style of Corporate Modernism.’ This universal visual code encapsulated the Fordist era of standardized mass production and consumption. Today, if you asked the average person in the street what ‘Modern’ graphic design looks like, this would be the image conjured in their head. This universal visual code encapsulated the Fordist era of standardized mass production and consumption. Today, if you asked the average person in the street what ‘Modern’ graphic design looks like, this would be the image conjured in their head. The most well-known film about graphic design ever made, Helvetica, is largely a debate on whether a typeface of multinational corporations can ever be untethered symbolically from insidious systems of power and domination it came to represent.

3M.

Helvetica.


Trademarks

As Paula Scher argues in the film, Helvetica is the typeface of the Vietnam and Iraq war. It implies a conformist way of thinking about design, negating nuance, dissent or free-thinking. Does style contain ideology? This was a key question to Theodor Adorno who, along with other members of the Frankfurt School, wondered why socialism was failing to take root in Western societies. He concluded that the political imaginations of the citizenry were stunted due to the mediocrity of the ‘culture industry.’ 

According to Adorno, the masses were brainwashed by the cheap syrupy flourishes of pop tunes. If instead, they listened to the atonal works of a composer like Schoenburg, perhaps they could develop a sense of the whole; the delicate balance of abstract elements in a collective. This, he believed could provide a basis for a new political awakening. 

Paula Scher.

Theodor W. Adorno.


Dua Lipa performing pop music.

Arnold Schoenberg.


A more recent incarnation of Critical Theory would be Ramon Tejada’s idea of ‘Design Puncture’, which aims to pierce the austerity of design visual language with ‘othered voices’. In his work, there is vibrancy and fun, but also a kind of disharmony. Tejada wants designers to stop trying to make minimal, pretty layouts swimming in white space. The surfaces of the printed page and the screen are contested territories where the politically underrepresented can assert themselves.

Ramon Tejada’s idea of ‘Design Puncture’

Graphic Design as a Liberal Art

I began this lecture by placing design within the context of a client relationship, but perhaps that framework is the wrong starting point. My day-to-day life is so dominated by the selling imperative that I find it difficult to describe the practice in any other terms. Also, I am (as are you) a blinkered product of a design education that packages graphic design as commercial trade. Feel free to reject that paradigm, at least for a little while. In almost all design programs, students follow the same journey. After a ‘pure’ foundation year of Bauhaus-inspired visual explorations, the focus narrows to more specialized disciplines within the industry, and classes are provided on branding, motion graphics, editorial design, web design, or any number of established career paths; but what if there was a different way to study Graphic Design, preserving experimentation — an open-ended interrogation of materials and processes rather than the pursuit of a skill to be harnessed solely for gainful employment?

Bauhaus color mixing study.

New School BFA

New Program


That is the premise of David Reinfurt’s educational program at Princeton, which was recently compiled into a book of his collected lectures. In this pedagogy, the subjects of study are schematized into Typography, Gestalt and Interface. The heroes of Reinfurt’s history are polymaths who plumb the underlying structures of communication. That description sounds highfalutin, but none of the work featured is pretentious or insincere. Bruno Munari, a central figure in Reinfurt’s canon, believed in a designers’ duty to ‘re-establish the long lost contact between art and the public.’ His work repurposed things such as hobo symbols, photocopiers, and clock machinery for fun, and sometimes poetic experiments.

Bruno Munari.

Hobo Symbols


Photocopiers.

Munari Clock.


Elsewhere in the book, we learn about Donald Knuth, a programming virtuoso who tackled the technical problems of typesetting his own books. Over the course of ten years, Knuth developed TeX, a digital typesetting software, because he was unsatisfied with the fuzziness of 1970’s phototype. His innovations, such as the algorithm for justified type, are still used today in consumer software like inDesign.  

One of Knuth’s less well-known projects was Metafont, a typeface that defined letters through parametric equations. David Reinfurt resuscitates this skeletal font for a range of his own projects. Here we see the philosophy of Reinfurt’s program manifested as a contemporary design praxis which, like art, is an end in of itself. Metafont jumps from one host project to the next as signage, a mutable brand, and finally, as a 4-D animated typeface inscribed on 35mm film. 

Knuth.

Signage


Metafont.

Marshall McLuhan.


Marshall McLuhan proclaimed that when a medium of recording is rendered obsolete through technology, it can become art; so the portrait painted on a canvas after the advent of photography acquires a significance it did not possess before. The same is true of vinyl records in the age of music streaming. In both instances, the medium becomes a feature of the message, providing the viewer with the critical distance required for a transcendent experience.2 Unlike the histories which have preceded it, A New Program for Graphic Design gives the medium and the message equal billing. While this approach grounds the work culturally and technologically, it also has the paradoxical effect of making the objects of its study more aesthetic, and thus estranged from us. There is nothing wrong with dislocating the viewer from the familiar. I would argue that approaching design with this agenda is essential to creating an innovative thesis project, and meaningful work in general. 

Jetset Lost Formats.

Quipu


My one concern about this program is the place it will occupy in the world. The purity and rigor of the curated examples inspire us, but the program also makes clear the paucity of the conventional design education which it rejects. Going forward, I wonder how far ‘high design’ culture will continue to extricate itself from the wider design industry, and from centers of conventional design training. How can undergraduates outside the hallowed halls of Princeton integrate these ideals into their careers? There is nihilism in the idea of elite institutions cloistering graphic design within the liberal arts, while everyone else is exiled to humble trade schools. It is a dichotomy that ought to be resisted, though I have no idea how.

Rand.

Identity

Lurking below every design is a subterranean network of power relations. Before the designer opens up the laptop, a situation must have already been designed in which an opportunity exists in the first place. Interpersonal maneuvering (or pre-design) it could be argued, is the most important aspect of the designer’s practice, even if it only operates at a subconscious level. A designer with the financial or reputational clout to tell a client to fuck off is at an advantage to one fighting for the crumbs. Likewise, the designer applying for a job at a prominent design studio is more likely to win the position if the ‘cultural fit’ is right. 

Forest Young, a Principal at the Wolff Olins design agency, describes the Graphic Design world as a hermetically sealed social club. Writing about his own experience as a black designer, he describes elite art schools as hubs of white affluence where the well-connected perpetuate their dominance through word-of-mouth networks. To those in power, everything seems hunky-dory because their professional circle is so insular. Voices of discord do not tend to emerge from a homogeneous group pre-sorted to look and think similarly. Forest Young’s catalyst to becoming a design student was a portrait of Paul Rand he saw randomly on a book cover. He knew this monumental figure was commonly thought of as a ‘figurehead of Design’, but due to the graininess of the image, he mistook the white Rand as a black man. The trajectory of Forest Young’s life was changed due to a misreading of racial identity. He thought at the time, somewhat optimistically, that the design industry was filled with people of color. 

The New School Communication Design Anti-Racism pledge.

Statement from students to the Yale graphic design department.


At the beginning of this semester I, like every other teacher at Parsons, cut and pasted an anti-racism pledge from a shared file into our syllabi. This pledge goes further than the usual platitudes about tolerance, asking teachers to ‘explore new ideas to implement systemic change’. It is a list of revolutionary objectives written in the format of a human resources memo. I used to worry about accusations of spreading radical propaganda, but now it is a part of my mandate. An even more bombastic declaration can be found at Yale, an institution with a history of politics intersecting design.

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.

In the seventies Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, a champion of Feminism, became the head of the program amid a considerable backlash. Paul Rand, who was teaching there at the time, resigned in protest, railing against the violation of Modernism by screaming hordes of historicists, Deconstructivists, activists, and other heretics.3 

Marx’s theory of history.

Conclusion

Working on projects, it is impossible for any designer to suppress the desire for self-expression, to carve out a creative space beyond the limits of the client’s brief. In this self-actualizing gesture, we imagine a world where we are worth more than the exchange value of our labor, where we make design for the sheer love of it. That sounds cloyingly mushy, but I believe it is a political act. Karl Marx wrote that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its contradictions, but he also heaped praise on the amazing advances it had made over the feudalist system which preceded it. Capitalism could improve the material conditions of life as much as it could innovate new methods of subjugation. It offers us the possibility of a society emancipated through technology but instead dehumanizes us through automation. Designers are a crucial part of this system. We make our clients happy by giving them what they want — by trying to increase their market share, improve their image, sell a message, make them look professional, or credible or friendly or edgy or sometimes even un-designed. Many of the students who have taken this course ask how I can reconcile the work I make with the aspirations of this lecture. What use is this ivory tower diatribe in the real world?

Graphic Design, diagrammed. 

Instead of responding directly, I will offer a Slavoj Zizek anecdote from 2005, when impoverished suburbs of Paris were gripped with rioting youths burning cars and buildings. A government official told Zizek that France requires academia more than ever to solve the problems of society ... experts are needed in child psychology, and urban planning, and so forth. Zizek replied that the purpose of a university is more fundamental than solving those problems.4 Academia should also be examining what sorts of questions are being asked, and how the problems are framed. I agree. In a classroom, graphic design should not be limited to answering the brief.

1 See Terry Eagleton, The Event of Literature (Yale University Press, 2012) Ch. 1.

2 Graham Harman, The Revenge of the Surface: Heidegger, McLuhan, GreenbergAll obsolescent things enter initially into a Hell that does not lie in the center of the earth, but rather directly atop the earth’s crust. The newly deceased medium is condemned to life as a dead clichй. And it remains a clichй until, one day, it is reborn thanks to the ingenious labors of art. No longer a surface, the former clichй now stands in productive tension with its concealed background medium.

3 Ellen Lupton, Reputations: Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Eye Magazine, Autumn 1993.

4 Bradley G. Bolman And Tara Raghuveer, A Conversation with Slavoj Zizek, The Harvard Crimson, February 12, 2012.