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 2006-11-22 — Andrew 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!