Thursday, June 08, 2006

Graphic Design Does Not Equal Software

There is a current trend. All you have to do is visit most bookstores (except Borders). Go to the graphic design section, and notice that it is nothing more than books on software programs, how-to books on creating cool visual effects, or visual tips and tricks.

What has happened? Why is design seen as a collection of software programs, an effect, or a bunch of pretty pictures? Is it the fault of graphic design education? Is it the flood of wannabe designers? Is it the fault of professional designers, failing to be professional in practice?

Yes to all. But the truth of the matter is that in every field, especially in the arts, the clash of worldviews is apparent. One side says that human existence is to be expressed. Emotion is highly valued, and art is seen as an extension of needed human expression. Additionally, art, literature, and beauty are seen as an enhancement to mere human existence.

The other worldview says that human life is utilitarian. It exists to exist. So, the chief work of man is to manage nature and humanity in order to exist by the best possible means. Human experiences like the appreciation of beauty or the expression of emotion are seen as an unnecessary nuisances and hinderances to the goal of manipulating things. The increase of knowledge, the forming of communities, and the work we do are all important to meet the goal of improving life on earth.

These worldviews are extremes, I know, and most people hold a mix of these views. But, what happens when a designer and a programmer come together to discuss the purpose of a website? What happens when an accountant and a fine artist discuss the direction of the artists work? The worldview perspectives will have a profound influence on how they see their purposes, roles, and even worth in the context of defining the objectives.

It doesn't have to be that way, but I am afraid our culture is going in that direction. We seemed to have moved from a function-and-improve model, to a question-the-worth model. What I mean is that we don't see problems the same way anymore. Instead of working together to solve the real needs of human kind, we seek to find the easiest answers to our question of self-worth. ("If I am seen as worthy, it must be good. If it doesn't make me happy, it must be bad.")

For instance, if we notice that people can't find their way around a building, we would normally consider solutions from different perspectives. We could try to understand why people really need to get around, and figure out possible improvements, from their perspective, to make that happen, including: signage, maps, kiosks, and human interaction. In so doing, we are concerning ourselves with solving a problem outside of ourselves.

However, today, many designers often come to the solution thinking, "I need to come up with something to get the most amount of accolades, and the least amount of objections." Coming to a problem with this concern is not always a bad thing, but it is woefully inadequate. Solutions must be the result of problem-understanding, not of an ego boost.

This issue is more prevalent today because of software. In other words, the problem with software is that it has made it easier to indulge the ego mindset. With it, designers can do vanity design faster, and more accurately. They are no longer looking for solutions to real problems, but do-it-yourself-instant-gratification. It is the clash of utilitarian and aesthetic ideals. And these ideals stand in opposition to each other, instead of as necessary partners in a goal. Further, the rush of designers into the marketplace, who know nothing other than software techniques, have made this situation worse.


  1. Nice post, I've written on similar themes myself. I've been annoyed both by people who assume software is the key, and also by designers who never bother to know the software they use.

    Keep writing about design, and I'll keep reading.

  2. People often forget that software is like a pencil. It is designed to do specific tasks, and idea generation is not one of them.

    I hope you continue to stop by.


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