|Nico Macdonald | Spy|
In with the New
Creative Review [subscribe], September 2004, pp49-52 [article as submitted, with minor corrections]. This piece ties into my chapter in the book accompanying the Barbican Art Gallery’s ‘Communicate’ exhibition (Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties, Laurence King, 2004).
Compared to their American peers, British graphic designer have been slow to engage with new media design. But their limited contribution to date should not obscure the value their talents could deliver as design for interactive and networked media matures
In September this year Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties will open at the Corporation of London’s recently upgraded and refurbished Barbican Art Gallery. The show rightly celebrates a remarkable historical phenomenon. It will also look forward at the influence of graphic design on design for new media, and particularly the Web. Although there is much evidence for the influence of British graphic design on new media, Britain’s graphic designers have had less discernable impact – and this is to its detriment.
Patience, you might say. It is new media – give them a chance to catch up. But new media belies its name. At the beginning of the Barbican exhibition’s timeframe, screen-based graphics were already being pioneered by Ivan Sutherland, with his Sketchpad project at MIT. Almost three decades back Muriel Cooper and Ron MacNeil founded the Visible Language Workshop at the same institution. Two decades ago, and on the other coast, Apple had successfully launched the Macintosh, with its graphical user interface, and was finalising its interactive HyperCard application. Within five years its CD-ROM drive and QuickTime software would make rich digital media accessible. Ten years ago Sun Microsystems created the first large scale Web site, for the 1994 World Cup, and Netscape was born. This is a long and rich history. But in designland UK we still don’t have widespread critical and practical engagement with design for interactive and networked media.
Of course, many individual British designers have engaged in the development new media design. In the late 80s celebrated graphic designer and technophile, Malcolm Garrett, was telling Emigre magazine that what intrigued him about advances in technology was “the ever increasing ability that we have to draw on visual references from many different cultural sources and combine them in a hitherto unseen manner” [i]. Some of his contemporaries, and many established designers of the next generation, shared his enthusiasm and application. But as a whole, the British graphic design world has held new media design at arms length. This is evident not least in design awards, where new media design is generally acknowledged, but no insight into how its quality is to be evaluated is ever demonstrated. Some design organisations, most notably the Design Council, have developed a good understanding of this area of design, but most have only limited language with which to discuss it.
In many ways this lack of engagement and enthusiasm is surprising. Britain is home to some of the best designers in the world, and excels in the design of advertising and editorial, corporate identity and brands, products and packaging, fashion and interiors. Its designers have been, and are, thoughtful and articulate, philosophical and humanistic, inquisitive and innovative. Many took a lead in mastering the possibilities of past developments such as offset litho printing, colour separation, and four colour reproduction. Yet only a few have recognised and taken up the challenge of developing design thinking for this new medium. In the UK, the people who lead the discipline have tended to come from everywhere but graphic design. Digit London’s Daljit Singh, for example, worked in human factors at IBM; Recollective co-founder Jane Austin trained in user interface design; Matt Jones, now at Nokia, studied architecture; and Tomato Interactive co-founder Tom Roope came from product design.
By contrast, US graphic designers were more enthusiastic about the possibilities thrown up by developments in information technology. Many turned their practice to focus almost wholly on the Web, including Clement Mok, Terry Swack, Jessica Helfand, Roger Black, Hugh Dubberly, Shelley Evenson, Nancy Greene, Nathan Shedroff, and Lauralee Alben, along with companies such as Siegel & Gale. Admittedly, a number of these practitioners later stepped out of the fray, but their current activities tend to have been deeply informed by their experience with new media.
Why then was the situation so different in the US? One reason is that the high-tech companies and global corporations that lead the development and initial exploitation of the Web were US-based and worked with American designers. By contrast, British companies tend to be focused on retail, entertainment and financial services. Their audiences didn’t, until recently, use the Web extensively. Many of these designers – including Mok, Dubberly, Evenson and Alben – had worked with high-tech companies in other areas of design, an experience which gave them advance notice of key developments. And design institutions such as the American Center for Design and the AIGA early on recognised the importance of new media, incorporating it into their literature, programming and other activities.
Another reason can be found in the character of British graphic design. Florian Schmitt, German-born co-founder of Hi-ReS!, believes that British designers “didn’t consider the Web to be as precious as print”, though, he adds, “it is getting there”. This is a result of the retail and consumer bias of British business, which has shaped a design industry that is experientially focused. It was not clear to British designers how the degree of control this required in print, packaging and interiors could be gained in new media. The lack of confidence and clarity about how to approach the design process diverted some designers into an obsession with tools – something that had not unduly preoccupied them when print moved to digital production.
If the late nineties provided fewer opportunities, after 2000, when the Internet bubble burst, the area of new media design also lost much of its glamour – along with the related financial investment – making it even less attractive to British designers. Ironically, this is when the sector really started to become interesting, as new platforms, including mobile devices and interactive television, came of age; Web technologies matured and stabilised; millions more people came online and real services – from both business and government – started to be delivered via the Internet.
As a result of its lack of enchantment (or subsequent disenchantment) with new media, the influence of British graphic designers on design for the Web has been largely indirect. This is unfortunate, as it could have helped the new discipline find its feet sooner, not least by applying the kind of abstract thinking that is characteristic of much design education and practice in the UK. Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design course director Patricia Austin is acutely aware of the importance for new media design of the “independence of thought that is bred in colleges” and the need for “problem solving and thinking beyond the aesthetic or programming issues”.
Although new media design would have benefited from earlier engagement with established design, particularly graphic design, the potential contribution of the latter to the next phases of development may be even greater, particularly as design for new media goes beyond the Web. These developments will be facilitated by technology innovation; greater adoption of the medium by business, government and other organisations; and the lowering cost of devices and access.
The insights, approaches, experience and skills of British graphic designers will be invaluable in dealing with developments in type and typography, editorial and documentary design, information design and visualisation (including information graphics), the use of imagery and photography, design around time-based media, and the tangible interfaces to the network. They could also inform the increasing need to design products and services for desire and delight, the effective management of creativity, and the building of strong client relationships. And most generally, their modes of thinking, as characterised by Patricia Austin, will be able to adapt to the twists and turns we will explore.
If we are to take advantage of all the possibilities of interactive and networked media, greater input from graphic designers will be sorely needed, as many of the challenges are in areas in which British designers excel. In forty years’ time, if the story we tell of new media design is as exciting as the story of British graphic design it will be in part because graphic designers were key actors in the drama.