What is communication design?

In the beginning of 2002 the Graphic Design Program at RMIT changed its name to Communication Design. What’s in a name? Quite a lot it seems, if you wish to appear and stay relevant. In many ways you and I might know (or assume) that we are really just talking about the same thing and yet the change is being made (I assume) for a good reason. The reason has mainly to do with changing technologies of expression and communication that are shifting the foundations for graphic design. Personally, I think graphic design is sufficiently flexible and open a term for continued usage, but graphic design was an invention of the twentieth century and strongly related to print-based technologies and, although these have all been effectively revolutionized by computer production, there is still a smelly association with print that makes the term sound like an anachronism rather than an ongoing useful field of activity. So communication design has become the new buzz, even though I think it is too incorporating of processes (like sound and interactivity) beyond the visual. Communication design more readily incorporates processes that involve interaction and new forms of expression. It also implies that, more than ever, working in the new media is increasingly a team effort, where we must liaise with specialists in the non-visual realms in order to make the total communication an effective one.

So, you can see, names are important. For institutions, but also for each of us as design professionals. When I commenced working as a graphic designer in the 1970s, graphic design was really in transition from being commercial art. Commercial art is an interesting and contradictory term. Commercial implies a blatantly economic and industrial role for the graphic designer, an aspect of the design function that has tended to be suppressed in the more neutral ‘graphic design’. Art, on the other hand, implies the opposite of the commercial and describes a truly more creative exercise than what most of us would use in the description of design today. Often graphic design was known as doing layout or producing artwork. These terms are more purely descriptive of only a narrow application of the graphic designer’s role, and almost deny the conceptual aspects of it. But in the seventies, graphic design became the dominant term and it is not until the new century that communication design appears to be usurping its old authority. The change from 'commercial art' to 'graphic design' appeared to happen in response to commercialization of a more sophisticated print media. The change from 'graphic design' to 'communication design' seems to be more in response to a rapidly changing, digitizing computer based media, changing so rapidly that the description of the field keeps needing redefinition.

Learning Activity 1.1


Go to the conference area of the WebBoard and place your first entry by making a statement about graphic design based on the activity that you have come to understand it to be as a practitioner. Make this your naïve, but genuine, summary/definition and we will use your collective descriptions as our starting point for a discussion of what graphic design is.

Don’t worry if you think your definition is rubbish at the end of the discussion – it is not going to be assessed, but it is important that it be a genuine expression of opinion. If I were asking this question within an RMIT course environment, I would expect a certain uniformity of answer but since we are a diverse, international group, it will be interesting to see what variety of definition emerges.

Words are important. I start one of my undergraduate courses with a short reading from Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society (Williams, R. 1961, pp13-19) when he describes five of what he calls keywords – industry, democracy, class, art and culture. Williams describes these words as forming a map of the significant changes that (in his case British) society had undergone in the last 250 years. Each of the keywords transforms itself over that period into a greatly different entity and yet miraculously none of the definitions from different periods of the words’ development lose their meaning or become incomprehensible. Williams went on to analyze a number of key cultural words in this way in a book called Keywords (Williams, R. 1988)

Learning Activity 1.2

Graphic design keywords

I want you to start your analysis of graphic and communication design by going to a copy of The Greater Oxford Dictionary (the big multi-volume one at your nearest public or university library) and exploring in a similar manner to Raymond Williams the definitions of the terms graphic design and communication design. Add these definitions to your discussions on the conference area of the WebBoard and see if they alter your personal definitions of design as an activity. Do Raymond Williams’ five keywords mentioned in Culture and Society seem significant here?

One of my favourite texts that analyzes design is Tony Fry’s Design History Australia (1988). This book is out of print at the moment but still available through libraries’, (I will also include the reading in the course notes issued on commencement.) Design History Australia is not significant so much because of its Australian content, but because of its general critique of design as a concept and an activity. Fry insists that a more proper understanding of design can only come about through theoretical insight. On pp 55-71 Fry provides a summary of analyses through a number of headings. Read these and see how much they expand your definition of graphic design. Note especially:

Learning Activity 1.3

Meaning and the design process

After reading Fry’s chapter you should be much better able to critique your original ‘naïve’ statement (and those of your fellow students!). Start by doing this on the conference area of the WebBoard.

After this, start to address each of the above points in relation to the concept of graphic design that is developing within the group.

Note especially Fry’s discussion of Jean Baudrillard’s political economy of the sign and try to apply this to some specific graphic design examples. Through discussion on the conference area of the WebBoard we will decide whether you submit some found examples or whether I supply them for discussion.

So what is graphic design exactly? In answering this question we need to make sure we are addressing many sides of the definition:

The graphic designer as author

Authorship is one of those concepts made important by Roland Barthes in his early writings, and has I think much relevance to the understanding of being a graphic designer. Barthes of course is only addressing authorship from the point of view of the writer and the text, but it is only the narrowness of his vision that restricts the application of this concept to the idea of graphic design production and its contribution to the very same meaning being created by the literary author.

Now that you have started to develop a more sophisticated concept of what graphic design might be, let’s try and apply these analyses to the idea of authorship. The Oxford Dictionary describes an author as the originator of a text, a writer of a book or manuscript. Such a definition acknowledges none of the subtleties, types, exceptions and qualifications that we might now want to make to such a simple description, yet it does describe a basic quality of invention that is in each of the creative communicative professions in which we must place both the writer and graphic designer. Given our, by now, more sophisticated analysis of graphic design, make yourself two parallel lists of qualities describing the writer and the graphic designer as special sorts of authors.

The designer and the reader

Roland Barthes’ most famous angle on authorship is his/her death. This was triggered by his famous article ‘The Death of the Author’ (1977), where he posits that the primary arbiter of meaning in the interpretation of the text lies with the reader, NOT the writer; so authorship (understood semiotically) occurs at the moment in which the creation of meaning occurs and Barthes claims that this production occurs later in the transference of the message rather than earlier. This notion raises the bristles at the back of a designer’s neck. The act of creation is integral to the pleasure of our job – one of the most positive aspects of our designing activity.

The ‘killing off’ of the author is countered by two major theorists. One is Umberto Eco who gives to the idea of sign production far greater emphasis than Barthes. The other is Foucault, who, in his article ‘What is an author?’ (1991), acknowledges that authorship is real but that it carries many different functions and, that unless we recognize these differences, we will not come to understand it more properly as a concept.

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