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TOWARD A THEORY OF PRACTICE
This impasse between theory and practice in graphic design must be bridged, not for
the sake of theory, but for the sake of practice. However, the challenge is to both
theory and practice. For theory, it means engaging in the making of graphic design,
not simply as a means for critical reflection about work, but a critical intervention
in work. For practice, it means rethinking the very definitions and limitations of
graphic design, not simply to add a little intellectual glamor to an everyday
practice nor as a rallying cry to colonize other areas of creative endeavor, but to
finally understand graphic design as a form of social practice.
Thus, the title of this essay is “Remaking Theory, Rethinking Practice,” not
“Rethinking Theory, Remaking Practice.” As such, it is my attempt to question why
“thinking” automatically aligns itself with theory and how “making” positions
itself almost exclusively in terms of practice. Rarely do we consider that theory is
something that is made—let alone something that is creatively fashioned. The theory is
seen as something “out there,” like storm clouds on the horizon or, perhaps more
fittingly, a fog bank, slowly and completely enveloping our minds. In this scenario,
theory is preexistent, waiting to be discovered, waiting to happen. By understanding
that theory is fashioned, refashioned, and self-fashioned—not merely fashionable,
preordained, or predestined—we can begin the process of putting theory to work.
It is also important to recognize that graphic design, no matter how it is
practiced, fashions its own theories about making that help give it meaning,
significance, and legitimacy. Just as it is impossible to honestly entertain the notion
of being outside of politics, it is equally impossible to imagine any practice of design
that is somehow independent of, or beyond, a theory of practice. Just as sociologists
are able to formulate theories about social practices, it is possible to construct a
theory—or theories—about the practice of graphic design. However, unlike social
scientists who are often left on the sidelines to describe, graphic designers can
actively redefine their practice from within.
THE TURN TOWARD THEORY
The very fact that we can have a design conference in 1997 with the word “theory”
in the title—well, the subtitle at least—demonstrates that something is afoot. As the
literary critic Terry Eagleton relates:
Theory on a dramatic scale happens when it is both possible and necessary for
it to do so—when the traditional rationales which have silently underpinned
our daily practices stand in danger of being discredited, and need either to be
revised or discarded. This may come about for reasons internal to those
practices, or because of certain external pressures, or more typically because of
a combination of both. Theory is just a practice forced into a new form of selfreflectiveness
on account of certain grievous problems it has encountered. Like
small lumps on the neck, it is a symptom that all is not well.2
Indeed, all has not been well for graphic design recently. And both internal
and external forces have acted in concert to disrupt the practice of graphic design,
forcing it to a new level of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity. The most obvious factors have been the technological challenges and opportunities imposed by the introduction of the personal computer, which transformed the way graphic design is produced and distributed. With the threat of every personal computer owner becoming a desktop publisher, graphic design was in danger of demystifying its professional practice and abdicating its perceived role as a “gatekeeper” to mass communications. Simultaneously, the personal computer expanded the range of media and skills needed by graphic designers in the areas of motion, sound, and interactivity, for example, which threatened the very definition of graphic design rooted in the world of print. Unfortunately, both conditions only serve to emphasize the dependency of a definition of graphic design predicated on a set of (everexpanding) technical skills. Faced with the prospect of massive mechanical deskilling and pervasive digital re-skilling, it is no wonder that graphic designers seek their social legitimacy less in terms of what skills separate “amateurs” from “professionals,” but in the “value-added” notion of design as a potent social and cultural force