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GRAPHIC DESIGN IN A MULTICULTURAL WORLD

McCoy, Katherine, 'Graphic Design in a Multicultural World', How Magazine, Cincinnati, April 1995, pp.146-151.

At a conference in London in this past year, a leading British designer lamented the pronounced decrease of corporate design projects coming into design offices. He blamed the computer, which has enabled lower level para-professionals to do the work of professional designers.

Certainly corporate design systems, with their templates for identity programs and collateral materials enables much corporate design work to be automated, with the designer replaced by computer. There is rewarding and lucrative work for the designers of corporate design systems, but not for individual pieces. Corporate design systems typically stress consistency, and wherever consistency is a prime value, design can be computer-standardized. This may signal the end of mainstream corporate communications as the staple of design offices and studios. Graphic designers tend to think of corporate communications as the core of the field-- a view substantiated by design competition entries, the majority of which are mainstream corporate materials.

This raises the question: If corporate design projects are disappearing, does this mean the end of graphic design?

I would say no, although there is no doubt that the nature of graphic design practice is changing. New media offer great opportunities, including multimedia, CD-ROM publishing, software interface design and product interaction design. Print communications soon may represent a lesser proportion of visual communications projects, although, given the current communications explosion, the actual volume may not lessen but even increase.

It is clear that print communications design will change, and is already changing. One pronounced trend is toward specialized audiences, focused messages, and eccentric design languages tailored to each audience's unique characteristics and culture. The homogenized corporate audiences that have been the destination of so much of graphic design may be diminishing.

We seem to be witnessing the end of an era of mass communications: narrow-casting instead of broad-casting, subcultures instead of mass culture, and tailored products instead of mass production. Professor Patrick Whitney of Illinois Institute of Technology calls this demassification and predicts that this is a dominant cross-category global trend.

For the past 150 years design has answered the needs of the industrial revolution's age of mass. Communications and manufacturing have been based on the economies of scale. Mass production is based on standardization-- one product to solve all people's needs. The Model T was available in any color you wanted as long as it was black. The economies of mass production reduced diversity and individuality, but produced lots of affordable goodies. Similarly, the golden age of mass communications gave us three TV networks, with the entire U.S. watching the same TV show every Sunday night.

This economic and technological scheme produced the mass society in the twentieth century. Marxists and early Modernists envisioned a broad socialist proletariat, which actually developed in the Eastern Block countries. In the United States and Western Europe, vast middle classes shared values, aspirations, and lifestyles, with remarkably little variation in income, housing, possessions, and clothing styles.

Our modern design professions were born of the industrial revolution. Modernism, especially at the Bauhaus, was a response to the economies of scale and standardization in the new mass societies. This functionalist design philosophy of "form follows function" is based on the standardized processes, modular systems, industrial materials, and a machine aesthetic of minimalist form. Universal design solutions were sought to solve universal needs across cultures. Reducing design elements down to their basic forms-- geometric shapes and primary colors, for instance-- was seen as a method to make one design solution appropriate for all users. Herbert Bayer's Universal typeface reflected this ideal in both form and name; more recently Frutiger's Univers strove to give us a universal system of typefonts that would fulfill all our typographic needs. The systematic grids of the Swiss School follow the same universalist idealism.

But now two new forces are breaking up the mass society and the mass production economy.

High technology is bringing us computer-aided/ computer-controlled design and manufacturing, and robotics in highly automated factories able to tailor products very specifically to individual preferences. Powerful new electronic communications technologies enable complex channeling in cable television and magazines with an explosion of special-interest programming and publishing. Advertising and marketing are ever more precisely targeted to specific consumers. On-line home shopping will magnify this trend immensely.

Highly channeled communications and tailored products answer the needs of the explosion of subcultures born of the values revolution of the late '60s. Ethnic awareness and pride now counters the American tradition of assimilation. This is a global trend, with news of separatists movements and splinter groups breaking up the former Eastern block countries, Europe, Africa, and Mexico bombarding us daily. These newly developed values of multiculturalism and ethnic diversity create a world of subcultures-- groups focused on specialized interests and values.

Thousands of transgeographic communities are linked through global communications: clusters of individuals otherwise unconnected focus around religious, moral and social issues, business concerns, spectator sports, recreation, and hobbies ranging from stamp collectors, fly fishermen, and survivalists to parents of children killed by drunk drivers, gray panthers, anti-abortion agitators, and rain forest defenders.

Even corporations are decentralizing into entrepreneurial units and subcultures in the new leaner/meaner downsized corporation.

The economics of production and communication, and the character of culture and society, now lead to diversification, decentralization, downsizing, dispersion and even disunity. The economy of scale in mass production and mass communications gave us a producer-centered system. Now the economy of choice in tailored production and communications gives us a user-centered system with tailored products, tailored communications, and targeted channels.

This is nothing less than a revolution, with far reaching implications for designers. We must understand each of our audiences. We must understand their values. We must speak and read their language, even in the literal sense, such as Spanish or Braille. Specialized audiences often communicate in vernacular languages or specialized jargon. Rhetorical styles vary radically from low key to in your face, from colloquial to formal. This is true for visual style languages and symbolic visual codes as well. If we are to create meaningful and resonant communications, we must give appropriate new character to a more varied, idiosyncratic, and even eccentric graphic design expression.

The entire communications equation of sender– message– receiver needs to be reconsidered. Our Bauhaus Modernist design heritage focused on scientifically and aesthetically clear communication of the message. And our current design practices so often center on the needs of the ever-present and omnipotent client. As professional designers, we have developed an effective body of theory, method, and form to deal with both the sender and message. Now we must do the same for the receiver component of the communications equation.

In thinking about these revolutions, I looked at my own work and found an evolution away from mass communications-based Modernism. I found some serious mistakes in tailoring messages to audiences, demonstrating that this is not necessarily a simple process.

Then I began to look for work that might be evidence of the impact of these technological and societal changes on print communications today in the U.S. I have been looking for work done for clients on a fee basis, evidence that one can base a design practice on tailored subculture communications.

One specialized audience has always been other graphic designers-- design for designers. Paper company promotions and more recently cutting edge magazines like Emigre have provided graphic designers with opportunities for idiosyncratic graphic expressions. Design communications for other design professionals-- architects, fashion designers, and furniture companies, for instance-- and museums and cultural events have also focused on specialized audiences. But these are all culturally related subjects and "cultured" audiences. These are the traditional audiences for out-of-the mainstream graphic design, and do not really represent a trend to new subculture communications.

A more meaningful trend is the recent increase of design communications directed to industry employee groups. These communications frequently encourage unique work-related identities in their employee communities.

Another wide range of targeted graphic design is the category of "talking to techies". Graphic design for digital enthusiasts includes software companies and magazines like Wired. The future-orientation and rapid obsolescence rate of high technology tends to stimulate innovative, provocative and risky graphic design solutions.

Music and entertainment business people and audiences also stimulate highly expressive graphic design work. Style is important to this industry and musical artists often demand highly stylized graphic interpretations.

Age-oriented communications is a key example of the newly specialized nature of audiences, including retirees, post war baby boomers, Generation X, and the toddler market. Generational differences are being determined by time increments of ten years or less, with distinctly different values held by each generational entity.

Specialized languages are frequently required by specialized audiences. The sight-impaired require a Braille alphabet, and recent immigrant groups are better reached by their first languages. Other audiences share a knowledge of specialized vernaculars or jargon which communicate very clearly to their subcultures.

Specialized audiences possess specialized knowledge not shared by others. Effective communications can often celebrate this by omission as well as inclusion. Omitting information generally understood by a subculture but not by others creates a sense of belonging among a specialized audience.

Attitude is essential. Probably more than any other project, the Burton Snowboard catalogs by Jager DiPaola Kemp Design of Burlington, New Hampshire, demonstrate masterful design tailored to a highly specialized audience. Their market is a cross-breed of skiers, skateboarders, and rollerbladers that fall within a fairly well-defined age range. This audience speaks a vernacular language in a highly cool rhetorical style most of us cannot understand. This studio's eccentric graphic solutions cultivate an underground image while delivering a technical message in an irreverent, intelligent, satirical and totally appropriate manner.

Although much of the audience-tailored design shown here is quite unconventional, it is important to understand that subculture design is not inherently unconventional or wild. Rather, it reflects the nature of its audience. It should be noted that most of the current high quality graphic work for subcultures seems to be for audiences that value unconventional visual expressions, but this will not always be the case.

Audience-oriented design considers the viewing and reading context and environment. Is it private or public, reflective or active. Is there competition from other channels? Consider the audience's values, belief systems, biases, preconceptions, experiences, mood, and attitude. Will they be receptive, neutral or hostile? Lifestyle, personal style, and communication style vary widely from one audience to the next. Rhetorical customs and proportional verbal/nonverbal emphasis vary. Language preferences, formal language fluency, vernaculars, and jargon are central to effective communication. Literacy levels vary including reading levels and experience in decoding visual symbols and imagery.

Audience-oriented design requires the designer to establish an empathy with one's audience, to "buy into" their frame of reference. This can happen to such an extent that a designer may choose to specialize in audience areas natural to one's own interests and values, such as fashion, music, or sports.

Designers must become the audience's advocate. We cannot count on univalent and monotone mass communications methods to answer the needs of many graphic design problems. We must not to neglect the first and second components of the sender– message– receiver equation, but we must respond to the full potential of audience differentiation and diversity to shape and enrich the sender's expression and the message's coding.

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© 1998 High Ground Design. Reprinted from www.2011_highgrounddesign.com