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Theory provides the basis with which to ask questions not only about work, but
also through work. And if nothing else, what design lacks in terms of interesting
work these days is not necessarily more visual variety, but rather more provocative
questions and polemical answers.
But it would be misleading to suggest that theory is something that is only
added to the design process or curriculum when, in actuality, it is something that is
already there and is made visible, and once discovered, makes visible certain
assumptions and problems. We can and do import theories and ideas from other
disciplines in order to understand our work, but it is only through the integration
and synthesis of these ideas into the very materiality and particularity of graphic
design that we can begin to determine the relevance of such an operation.
Not surprisingly, I see the role of theory in design not as a set of outside
influences, assorted bibliographies, academic electives, or ex post facto critiques, but
rather as integral to the process of making graphic design. In this way, I concur with
Jan van Toorn when he describes the role of the contemporary graphic designer as
a “practical intellectual,” someone who is actively engaged in critical reflection
about the designer’s process of making.4 By recognizing that the theoretical is not
simply something that is done either before or after work has been made, but rather
is crucial to the very process of making, graphic designers can actively contribute to
the (re)definition of their roles in the communicative process.
It has become a cliché to say that the role of the graphic designer is
undergoing significant change. The danger of repeating this truism too many times
is that it will be considered inevitable. An expanded role for the designer in the
communicative process is by no means guaranteed. Rather than submitting
passively to the vicissitudes of change, graphic designers must actively reconstruct
their roles. This is, of course, happening on a small scale, as designers entertain
broader notions of graphic design, engage in entrepreneurial actions that challenge
the ideology of the marketplace, or broaden their own creative roles in the
formulation of projects and problems.
That is why I believe the role of graduate education today must be research
oriented if any constructive redefinition of design practice is to be entertained. While
professional practice increasingly accommodates the kind of “visual variety”
Lorraine Wild referred to previously, it has not had to confront, in any large,
systematic way, the challenge of not simply having to solve communication
problems, but to pose them. A truly radical design practice, in my book, will be one
that actively disrupts the conventions of the design process and transgresses the
professional boundaries and limitations of graphic design, and not one that merely
bears the visual signs of radicalism as a kind of calling card.
But what is research in the context of graphic design? Typically, research is
understood as “getting to know your problem or subject.” While this is not
necessarily problematic—in fact, we might say that it is essential—we should not let
this be the only function of research. Research in graphic design, much like theory
and criticism, asks some much larger questions than can be asked by any one design
problem or solution. These questions, while specific, are also open-ended in the
sense that they can be made manifest in any number of ways. So, while there is a
tendency in both research and theory toward the abstract and general, there is also
the necessity of grounding any answers or solutions in a particular context, in a
specific material reality, and a concrete historical moment. And it is this balance of
the general and the specific, the abstract and the particular, which will help keep the
answers asked by research and theory from becoming universal claims to Truth.
Modernist design theory and research tended to ask questions removed from any
particular cultural context and any specific historical moment. By doing so, their
answers were often presented as universal and ahistorical—placeless and timeless. A
critical, theoretical disposition helps frame and limit the answers found in research
by making them contingent—specific to the historical moment and the particular
context from which they emerge; in effect, situated knowledge and timeliness
replace objectivity and timelessness.