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Monday
Nov202006

Graphic & Interactive Design: Five Observations

Last week I came across a challenging critique of traditional graphic design, The Thin PMS185 Line by Andy Rutledge. In the piece, Andy focuses on what he sees as misguided practices and destructive ideals in the graphic design community.

Here's an excerpt:

There is a difference between art and design; the same distinction that describes the difference between doing something notable and doing something useful. It has long been my perception that too many traditional graphic designers don’t understand and don’t care to understand these distinctions. And I continue to see evidence to support this impression as graphic designers struggle to approach and embrace business and the Web.

And I do mean struggle. In her column in Communication Arts magazine issue 331 (in late 2004), DK Holland quoted that year’s AIGA National Conference organizer Terry Irwin as saying, “There is still a fairly big old guard [in AIGA] that wants to practice design as a primarily decorative, artistic practice in a market dominated by the ‘celebrity designer.’” How unfortunate that this “old guard” doesn’t understand that decoration and art are not design. And what’s with this preoccupation with celebrity?

What’s more unfortunate is that AIGA’s old guard is a product of a misguided organizational and educational culture that clearly still exists, largely unaltered. I say clearly because that ill-conceived approach to design is still common today, to the detriment of all members of the now disparate design communities.

Since I've spent time in both graphic design and interactive design, I'd like to share some observations on one aspect of Andy's article — why some traditional graphic designers may have difficulty embracing interactive design.

Through these observations, I hope to provide some understanding for interactive designers while encouraging traditional designers to embrace the web.

A Little History
First, a little about my background. I spent my first eight years as a traditional graphic designer, working on print projects, corporate identity, annual reports, packaging, and a bit of web design at the end of those eight years. In 1998, I took a leap into interactive design, while maintaining my interests in corporate identity and other traditional design services. Read more about this in My Unusual Work Life.

I love both interactive and print design. I embrace technology and the web but still love the tactile experience of sketching on paper. I'm not a pure graphic designer nor a pure interactive designer — I'm a blended designer who loves to design, solve problems and make useful things.

So, here are five thoughts on why it may be difficult for traditional graphic designers to embrace interactive design:

1. Substantial vs. Ephemeral — Interactive design to a traditional graphic designer who focuses on print, could be seen as less substantial than a print piece, since interactive design lives in such an ephemeral space — the web, or a computer. Because pixels and software are so changeable and variable, a traditional graphic designer may feel a website is less significant than a solid, physical, printed object.

I believe interactive and traditional design are both important in the right context. Both types of design are especially powerful when used together in creative ways.

2. Fear of the Unknown — A traditional graphic designer who hasn't embraced the web, or hasn't spent time considering the opportunities as well as the limitations of interactive design, may fear what they don't fully understand. Rather than exploring interactive design, XHTML/CSS and Web Standards, a traditional graphic designer might take the view that interactive design is something best left to the computer geeks. Each type of design has a part to play in a greater whole, with the ability to strengthen and compliment the other.

I believe traditional designers should be aware of how interactive design works, so they can understand the limitations and benefits of this powerful medium.

3. Interactive Design as Production Art — Production artists in traditional graphic design operate on a very technical, scientific level, while graphic designers are the creative ones who dream up the ideas. Because interactive design has a strong element of technical details and code, some traditional graphic designers might consider interactive design a kind of web-based production art.

In my experience, effective, creative and artful execution of a great idea is just as important as the great idea itself.

4. Static vs. Dynamic — Interactive design adds another dimension to design — interactivity. Traditional graphic designers are used to producing great looking, static pieces in print which are delivered to the end user for review, filing or tossing away. The idea of a design project which looks a bit different to every user can be a challenge for a control-hungry designer. A design project with daily interaction, that offers feedback from its users on design decisions is a pretty big paradigm shift from the way traditional print graphic design projects work.

Interactive design is different type of design challenge. It demands a different way of thinking, and a willingness to approach the medium on its own terms.

5. Frozen vs. Living — Another fundamental difference between print and interactive design: print design projects have definite life spans that are eventually "frozen" in ink, while, an interactive project may continue living on, with updates and improvements over a long period of time. A typo on a print project means a serious, expensive problem, while the same typo on an interactive project, means a few moments spent correcting the error.

A traditional designer may be challenged by living projects, while an interactive designer may be challenged by projects with definite life spans that freeze once the ink is dry. Again, each is a different type of challenge requiring thinking that's in context with the project.

An Encouragement to Traditional Graphic Designers
I've faced some of these issues as I've opened my mind to interactive design these past eight years. At times it's been tough. Admitting I don't know something and starting from zero isn't easy — it's hard work that requires a degree of humility.

I've found that embracing interactive design has provided a broader perspective and understanding. This continual embrace of the web keeps me growing and learning, improving my design thinking and problem solving.

So if you're a traditional graphic designer — embrace the web and interactive design! Be willing to start from scratch, to learn something new and dynamic. Find joy in applying your traditional design knowledge in a new medium, while accepting that medium on its own terms.

With so many excellent books, resources, tools and other helpful designers available too you right now, it's a great time to step out and learn interactive design. It may come slowly, and it will take effort, but it's worth it.

Update 2006-11-22Andrew Faulkner at Fadtastic has an excellent interview with Matt Davies, a UK designer at Attitude Design and Defacto Design. In the interview Matt discusses various topics, including the differences between design for print and the web, and the process of embracing web design. Good stuff!

Related Links:
What About Print? and To the Print Designers by Joshua Jeffryes

Reader Comments (6)

I'm not sure it's so useful to focus on the divisions, maybe it's better to focus on the commonalities.The way I see it, a designer, regardless of medium, isn't designing the appearance of the material, he's designing the interaction that happens at the point of contact. Knowledge of the media and its effect on users is the key, a talented designer knows multiple media and can deliver the desired experience through whatever media is required, or may pick one most amenable to the desired experience. This used to be an extremely rare talent. Maybe it still is.It's hard to believe how difficult this used to be. I remember back in the 80s when DTP was just starting to hit it big, I used to give lectures to designers how to work in multimedia. I would demonstrate how to design a corporate logo in Illustrator, then you could use it in print media, video, laser printing, or even slides (wow how long has it been since you've seen a presentation given with slides?) and the logo would have a consistent look in each media. You could see the light bulbs popping on above their heads.
November 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCharles
A good balanced response Mike.

You've hit several nails squarely on the head here as to why 'Trad' designers are uncomfortable, or resist, the accelerating convergence of ICT, design and media.I saw the same resistance years ago when the Macintosh first came to ascendancy in the creative industry and now it would be unthinkable to consider working in this business without tools such as a high-powered workstation and pro-quality software.I firmly believe in continuous learning, many of my graphic design heroes cite this as the motor that drives them throughout their career. As always in our business new tools and new rules is pretty much a given, from Papyrus scrolls and Roman graffitti to Caxton's printing press, to hot metal typesetting, Phototypesetting and finally (for now) to DTP.Good communication is a fundamental element to successful design and the more adept a designer is with the communication tools the more relevant solutions they can deliver.As I see it decorative work is for artists, which is not a problem if you're unconcerned with making a living, but commissioned design work is different, with the designer held responsible for the successful (or otherwise) solution to the brief.I also admire, respect and am inspired by many fine artists of all disciplines - every success to them and long may they continue, but in my world my work is granted through a business arrangement, rather than the sponsorship of a wealthy patron.
November 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDavy McDonald
Charles, thanks for the comment!

You have a good point about commonalities between graphic and interactive design � I do think there are many similarities shared between the two very related areas. That might make for an interesting follow-up piece.

For this piece, my approach in discussing why some traditional graphic designers (hopefully a minority percentage) may see interactive as different (or even lesser) was a way to calling out those ideas and offering alternatives.

Partly this approach was to give interactive designers an idea where some graphic designers might be coming from in their thinking, while also challenging and encouraging tradditional graphic designers to think a little differently and embrace this other discipline of design.

I didn't want to suggest that a hesitant traditional graphic designer could easily and effortlessly "do websites" without first understanding how they are different. I've found it a constant process of learning that is somtimes hard work, and still is, but rewarding when I put in the effort.

The way I see it, a designer, regardless of medium, isn't designing the appearance of the material, he's designing the interaction that happens at the point of contact.


Agreed. Each medium has a different interaction point and purpose. Interactive and print design have different points of interaction, which I think designers should be aware of.

However, I've come across my share of sites still designed as if they were print pieces � huge graphics, limited HTML text, superfluous flash intros, deeply nested tables, PDFs that should be web text � someone is still creating these monsters. :-)

Knowledge of the media and its effect on users is the key, a talented designer knows multiple media and can deliver the desired experience through whatever media is required, or may pick one most amenable to the desired experience. This used to be an extremely rare talent. Maybe it still is.


I think it's probably less rare than years ago when technologies were younger and fewer in number. However, I have encountered a few hesitant traditional graphic designers, both young and old, who don't have any interest in knowing and learning more about interactive design.

One might put that down to focus � which I can understand. However, I got the sense it was more avoidance than focus, hence my encouragement to traditional designers embrace the web on its own terms.

It's hard to believe how difficult this used to be. I remember back in the 80s when DTP was just starting to hit it big, I used to give lectures to designers how to work in multimedia. I would demonstrate how to design a corporate logo in Illustrator, then you could use it in print media, video, laser printing, or even slides (wow how long has it been since you've seen a presentation given with slides?) and the logo would have a consistent look in each media. You could see the light bulbs popping on above their heads.


Exactly! I remember those days � I was a young designer then, and ate up the technology being offered � and also remember the traditional old-school designers who were completely freaked out by the technology.

Technology from that first DTP wave seems to have been assimilated into the graphic design community, but it took years to fully settle in. In many ways, interactive design is still in the "settling in" phase and my sense is that it's taking longer and is maybe not as easy for some traditional graphic designers to assimilate. I hope that changes.
November 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Thanks for the long response, Mike. I guess I'm trying to reframe the issue slightly. What I think both you and I are getting at, from different angles: designers have the skills to learn and effectively use new media, just as they have mastered print or other "traditional" media, so what's stopping them from achieving higher levels of mastery in interactive media?
November 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCharles
Davy, thanks for the kind words � excellent points about the differences between art and design.

Charles, always glad to clarify my thoughts � it's good for me. :-)

I do think we have pretty similar perspectives on the topic � I think designers in general need to keep learning things to keep growing. As I have watched and been part of the shift from analog design to digital design in the 80s/90s and also through the emergence of web design in the 90s and 00s, I know it can be done.

Maybe the reluctant designers are few and far between. They may fade with time, as younger designers who have grown up with technology and the web, complete the inclusion of interactive design as a basic design discipline. We'll see...
November 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
I think design is more of a balance. It's form AND function. Don't think that this "old guard" in the AIGA doesn't know that. The AIGA is very traditional, yes, but also a very good organization (from what I've seen with the NY chapter at least...despite the fact that I didn't renew my membership, I still feel strongly about it).

It's a very very fast changing world now and designers must be even more multi-disciplined than before. The web looks better and better each day and I've even seen parts of it infiltrate print design! ...much to my dismay.

However, I've adjusted and came to terms with both worlds. I was educated as a traditional print designer, but I've learned PHP, XHTML, CSS, etc. all those lovely letters.

So it'll all come together and change is inevitable - which is my point...However I did want to touch on the "celebrity" remark. That's something that really gets me annoyed. It's just trend. Everyone wants to be hip and it's cool right now to be a graphic designer...just as cool as it is to carry an iPod and drink Star Bucks. That's a big reason for why people design too now. Or why they get into design. Fortune and glory...and it's not about hmmm gee whiz what's that word? oh yea, COMMUNICATION. That's out the window, who cares if the company makes money or if people can read it? As long as someone gets pat on the back, it's all good. That old guard in the AIGA that Holland refers to may like decorative design, but rest assured they know what kerning and leading mean. Such basic practices in design are becoming unknown to the younger generation now. Which is just wrong. It's like as if all the photographers just went out and god point and shoot fixed lens digital cameras...forget all the numbers on that lens barrel...ha half of them don't even have them anymore!

Things are turning into a popularity contest and quick. That's the biggest disappointment with where I went to college...which will remain nameless here =)

You make some VERY good points here in your post.

I welcome the web, and thankfully I had the computer to use for my lifetime in design, but I must agree - with every new bit of technology, there's a little something taken away from not only tradition ------ but quality.
November 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTom

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