Unlike the recent skirmishes around issues
of aesthetics and legibility in contemporary graphic design practice, the adverse
reaction to theory crosses the generational divide, drawing dismissal and
condemnation from likely and not-so-likely suspects. This condition is not surprising.
First and foremost, graphic design is a practice, and as such, it seems destined to
oppose theory. This schism is rooted in the division of human labor that separates
thinking from doing, head from hand, the means of reflection from the means of
production. Second, in the prevailing anti-intellectual social climate affecting all
claims to knowledge these days, we should not be surprised at the level of skepticism
directed toward anyone proclaiming a theory of anything.
BEYOND THE GREAT DIVIDE: PRACTICE VERSUS THEORY
The arguments made against theory in graphic design can be sorted out in two basic
reactions. On the one hand, there is a fear of overintellectualizing the practice of a
profession whose relative “simplicity” is often expressed with disclaimers such as,
“Well, it’s not brain surgery.” Perhaps graphic design isn’t a physically invasive
procedure, but certainly there’s the same potential danger of mind-numbing results.
Even J. Abbott Miller, a designer who writes about the history and theory of graphic
design, recently asked, “One always hears complaints about the ‘dumbing-down’ of
design in journalism, but shouldn’t we be equally critical of the ‘smarting-up’ of
design for academic audiences?”1 This comment represents something of a
milestone insofar as it even acknowledges that theory is being used, if only to claim
its use has gone too far. Another variant of the anti-intellectual reaction to theory is
harbored in the deepest depths of design mythology. Theory, precisely because it is
characterized as external to the design process, is seen as disruptive to a designer’s
“intuition,” dousing the flames of the designer’s proverbial creative imagination.
On the other hand, there is a concern that theory is simply too vague and
abstract to be useful for graphic designers. In this line of reasoning, theory (always
described monolithically and without specificity or definition) does not and cannot
respond to the particularities of graphic design practice, rooted as it is in the
Remaking Theory, Rethinking Practice
materiality of the so-called real world. Apparently, the theory is ever only about abstractions
on the ephemeral and immaterial. Conversely, graphic design is seen as irreducibly
complex, grounded in the messy realities of ink and paper, too constrained
by industrialization and capitalism to ever rise to the lofty heights of theory.