Dialogs on Graphic Design

From Industrial Design, Volume 7, 1960

by Norman Ives

Laying out his own work as illustration, a graphic designer discusses graphic design as a universal language.

There is a major difference between the terms “graphic art” and “graphic design.” Graphic art, as in painting, deals in private symbols: graphic design deals primarily with public symbols. Paintings are individual expressions which may be extremely personal and mysterious. They take time and reflection on the part of the viewer to understand and explore the painter’s point of view. The graphic designer can never be obscure in this sense. He must interpret and compose ideas in a public, universal way that will relate to the instincts and cultural ideas, conscious or unconscious, in all of us.

Graphic design covers many areas, but these fall essentially into two categories: one is the organization and syntheses of existing material, the other is the creation of an image of an idea. The first comprises the design of books, magazines, exhibitions, packages, and the multitudinous literature of commerce and institutions. The second comprises the design of posters, magazine and book covers, advertisements, and symbols. 

In both categories the designer acts as catalyst to give the raw materials of communication — manuscripts, type faces, paper, printing processes, ink, photography and other pictorial materials — a meaningful form through the vocabulary of vision, the parts of which are color, mass, shape, texture, balance, contrast, rhythm, line, volume, and proportion. In addition, since most books, magazines, and commercial printings are mass-produced, the graphic designer must be aware of all the stages in production, and of the conditions imposed by the various processes and manufacturing services that he must use. 

The extent of a designer’s imagination and ingenuity in the face of these limitations can be measured by the appearance of the resulting design. Nowhere is this clearer than in book design, which presents the designer with the most restrictions and built-in limitations. When one considers the vast numbers of books that are published today, it is surprising that they do not look more alike than they do. 

A great tradition in book design has grown up during the 500 years of its existence, and, of all graphic design, the book has undergone the least change in appearance from the impact of the modern art movement. This is not primarily the fault of the designer; it springs from limitations and conditions within the whole industry. These restrictions are present wherever products are mass-produced — and they are necessary and desirable.

It takes an ingenious and dedicated designer to overcome them or use them to advantage, and the overall results we see in the book stores are, on the whole, much better than they would be if there were no restrictions. Examples of the latter can be seen in certain limited editions, in which a well-written manuscript or group of poems is put together in some inappropriate format, set in a romantic type, and printed on very expensive handmade paper.

Magazines confront the designer with other difficulties, since a good magazine is only as good as the visual and literary material that goes into it. Decisions on size, type face, process, paper, etc. must grow out of this material, as should the arrangement of the material on the pages. If there is a photographic essay, for instance, the photographs themselves will determine their own size and placement in relation to one another on the page.

This will depend on the content of the photograph, which includes the story it tells and its emotional value, and the formal values within the photograph.

By creating a visual drama from page to page that relates to the story the pictures tell, the designer can augment the photographer’s intention and communicate the story idea forcefully and memorably. When the designer is given a series of unrelated pictures to arrange, he imposes an order on them, introducing relationships and images, not inherent in the material, to reinforce that material and to help the reader understand it. This draws close to the second category of graphic design, the creation of an image, although it is not precisely the same.

The design of posters, covers, and symbols imposes conditions and restrictions of a different nature. And in one sense this kind of design has more freedom: since there is no great tradition of poster design in this country, the designer has greater latitude for the exercise of his talents. Nevertheless, only a handful of individual designers have made successful posters, and in each of these cases it is obvious that the designer had complete control over the design. Judging from the majority of posters, there are apparently too many economic considerations for the manufacturer to permit the designer a free hand. The result is always a collaboration between the designer and non-designer (the seeing and non-seeing), with no attention giver to the relation of form to idea. This is especially true in photographic posters. It is generally recognized that photographs have a strong emotional content, but they are seldom used for other than documentation. The photograph’s formal values, and the use of these values to emphasize and increase the effectiveness of its content and message, are rarely used to advantage. In poster design the photograph becomes even more difficult to handle because, in addition to its own formal values, there are the formal elements of the poster layout and its written message. These elements should not have a separate visual entity, as is often the case, but should relate to the photograph’s formal values.

Vision is the most universal of languages; seeing is more convincing than reading. It is up to the designer to interpret our culture in a way that is universally understood: though the eye.