Why Research? Or the Necessity of Design Theory…


If I were writing about almost any other field of endeavour I probably wouldn’t have to make the points I’m about to make but I think it’s worth while taking a little time to consider attitudes to design theory and history, particularly in the area of visual communications. Some of this is stating the obvious, but sometimes that can be a useful exercise in itself in negotiating our approach to these issues.

Recently I’ve been talking to a number of people about the Design Research Group. The responses to some degree surprised me. People are interested in design, and design theory. But, at the same time, there’s often a degree of ambiguity as to exactly what sort of function the DRG and other groups actually serve. Is it meant to be a bridge between industry and academia? Or is it meant to be be specifically about delving further into theoretical issues? What is research, and how does it integrate with design? Is it historic research or contemporary research? What aspects of design are included, and which are excluded?

One person suggested that in the sort of articles you read here it wasn’t necessary to be overly theoretical. In one sense I understood that. In the late 1980s I was one of the few people at the college I attended who knew how to type at a reasonable speed and I was asked by numerous friends in Fine Art to type their theses. Many of these were fascinating, but over-laden with theoretical jargon. The dense verbiage obfuscated as much as illuminated their contents.

And yet…although I was entertained, to some degree, I was also envious. Here were people looking at aspects of culture, artifacts, visual material and they had methodological tools available to use. The scope of the topics they took always appeared to me to be remarkably broad. By contrast visual communications history and research seemed to lean upon a traditional academic historiography which eschewed the theoretical in preference to a concentration on the physical attributes of various artifacts and biography of those who had created the pieces. The limitations of such an approach are obvious. Research tended to the descriptive, analysis was constrained. A wealth of methodologies remained untouched.

This puzzled me then, but less so today. Design was, and I am concentrating on visual communications here, regarded as a ‘commercial’ field and in the highly politicised atmosphere of the late 1980s and early 1990s this was a negative in itself.

John Berger and Judith Williamson had considered advertising material (or what they rather quaintly termed ‘publicity’) and done so in an almost uniformly negative fashion. Advertising in their analysis was an inherent part of capitalism and therefore little more than a lie. There was, and remains, some truth in that. However, what is remarkable if one returns to Ways of Seeing is how advertising is the only element of broad visual communications represented within it’s pages, in order seemingly to counterpose it against examples of Fine Art. There are no constructivist posters within it’s pages, no examples of the counter culture, no sense that within a decade or two of it’s publication the means of graphic design production would be shifted from the print workshop to the domestic space with the advent of the Personal Computer. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but it’s almost as if Berger as he runs towards the post-modernist, carrying a portion of Marxist analysis here, a piece of Structuralism there, is saying, well we can now judge all these visual artifacts from a better position and engage with them all, except for that tat in the corner termed ‘advertising’. A curious position if only because advertising and other visual communications (and beyond them design in it’s broadest sense) permeate the public and private space.

During the same period there simply weren’t tools available to those working in design history, theory or research. One could generate a sort of bespoke methodology, from Berger and others, but the very fact that he had taken such a hostile approach to advertising made it difficult to do so with any real conviction.

Now it’s important to point out that in various places across the globe research on a more fundamental basis was being carried out.

Quentin Newark in What is Graphic Design? (Rotovision, 2002) has noted how “design has [in the 1980s and 1990s] flirted with French literary theory, often termed ‘poststructuralism’, over the past decade or so, plucking its most controversial and politically charged ideas and feeding them part-digested, with very mixed results, into education (especially Cranbrook in America), criticism (numerous articles in the magazines Eye and Emigre) and practice (usually marked by excessive use of the Photoshop program).”

His criticisms are well made. Covering any analysis in a thick conceptual treacle leavened only by second hand jargon borrowed from theory can on occasion be a substitute for a serious engagement with research topics. But, at least such efforts were being made. And of course, they weren’t the first. Ulm in Germany had forged a serious approach to visual communications in the 1950s and 1960s with a curriculum which explicitly incorporate semiotics as part of it’s analytical approach. Stretching back to the Bauhaus one can see similar efforts to move visual communications (and other areas of design) into a more theoretical configuration. It is hardly coincidence that each successive wave of post-Bauhaus design came with it’s own manifesto (something I’ll address in another post), or that this work linked directly into concepts of social design entirely antithetical to Berger’s ‘publicity’. Moreover the linkages between Fine Art practice and theory and design during the 20th century are too significant to be ignored. From De Stijl through to abstract expressionism and later Pop Art a significant cohort of those involved in producing Fine Art would later turn to visual communications, and vice versa.

But others were also considering visual communications material from a theoretical viewpoint. I was always struck by the fact that Roland Barthes selected a piece of designed material to illustrate his concept of ‘myth’. When deconstructing an image on the cover of Paris Match magazine. Barthes described how the cover presents ‘…a young negro in a French uniform…saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour’. Barthes considered that each element of the image together or separate to other elements allows for multiple interpretations and secondary levels of meaning beyond the image itself, most obviously the relationship between the soldier and the colonial power, the meanings implicit in the French flag and so on.

But why a piece of printed material? According to design theorists Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller when they revisited Barthes in Design, Writing, Research, Writing on Graphic Design (Phaidon Press, 2003)

The Paris-Match cover is important to Barthe’s analysis because, as a photograph, it is the record of a real (even if staged) event. But the belief in naturalness would depend on a viewer who accepts it as an uncontrived image. While Barthes accords a critical capacity to the journalist, who constructs such images, and to the mythologist, who deciphers them, he posits a gullible public as the consumers of such myths.

Note that they don’t uncritically accept Barthes analysis, but note that the idea of a passive and ‘gullible’ public has little resonance in the contemporary period. Lupton and Miller were both designers, but as importantly they were theorists, engaged with and engaging design across a range of areas. The fact that design, a profession which is based around either commercial or social design projects, in the 1990s begun to use the tools of semiological analysis speaks of an understanding that the discrete elements of design were and are insufficient to fully explain the production and dissemination of designed material. Indeed Jeremy Aynsley amongst other design historians also references this in his history of 20th century design, A Century of Graphic Design: Graphic Design Pioneers of the 20th Century, where he notes how post-modernism in design has led towards a greater understanding of the nature of design itself through semiotics and structuralism. As he states:By contrast with what modernist graphic design had proposed, it was no longer the designer’s role to try to control meaning or to solve the problem of communication. Instead typography could be a discursive practice, not concerned with the delivery of a certain message but inviting a multiplicity of readings. As the recipient “deconstructed” the visual message, communication became a self-reflexive process.

And there is the crucial point. Self-reflexivity was not merely a sort of intellectual garnish but was core to the practice of design as well as design theory and history. Because only by engaging in a sustained way with designed material and placing that within theoretical, historical, economic, social and anthropological contexts was it possible to appreciate it fully.

But semiotics and structuralism are only one way forward (and arguably critical theory has moved on, particularly with reference to structuralism). Material culture studies have also illuminated the field. This has now changed to an appreciation of mass-produced objects, now known as material culture, and their value within social and cultural constructs of consumption. Material culture, in some respects, leans upon other academic disciplines such as Anthropology, Economic and Technological History and Media and Cultural Studies (indeed Dr Stephanie Rains of IADT made the point at the Material Culture Conference last Autumn that it is indicative of the nature of the area that there are no Departments of Material Culture yet extant). But this inter-disciplinary aspect to it affords it a particular strength. Indeed I’m reminded of Joseph Lee’s proscription that ‘if the contemporary historian is not himself to become an agent of yet further fragmentation, he (sic) must strive towards total history, not in the futile sense of trying to write everything about everything, but in the sense of seeking to reveal the range of relevant linkages between the varieties of activity with which he (sic) is concerned’.

And for historian, read researcher, and for researcher, read practitioner. Because in truth this is a process which requires all three.

So why the aversion to theory? Why would I hear that theoretical interpretations should be downplayed in the context of design writing? I think that the idea that design and design theory are mutually inimical runs deep. I know from discussion with colleagues in the DRG and elsewhere that the very idea of self-relexivity is anathema to many designers and students. The “why” of their practice is seen as less important than the work itself. There is a tendency to be wary of theory, a sense that it somehow is fluff. Quentin Newark has recognised that “Designers don’t read much…it is partly to do with design being perceived as non-intellectual – therefore designers are not encouraged to read theoretical texts – and partly to do with the genuinely non-lliterary way in which we develop visual skills”, but he asks “Compare the amount a designer reads on a degree course with what an English student has to read. Why should it be different? Why should designers know less?”. Some of this is the natural out workings of having to make a living in a competitive world where there is less time for analysis than perhaps there should be. Some of it comes from a belief that intuition is more important than constructive introspection. This attitude extends in some places to a disinterest in design history, or indeed in other areas of design practice or Fine Art. So rather than viewing all these as a continuum of practice there is a retreat into niches. And this is mirrored – to some degree – on the part of those engaged in history and research, where there is an aversion to ‘over-theorising’, because the material is ephemeral, because it is mass-produced, because some of it is ‘commercial’.

I think that is a pity, but I don’t think it’s impossible to counter that view. Indeed with so many models as to how to engage with design theory and history we are perhaps faced with an opposite problem, just how to successfully consider design in it’s myriad forms and make meaningful linkages between them. But that is a problem of success, not failure, and it offers all those involved in design the opportunity to move forward. I would argue this is probably more true in the context of Ireland where design theory and research is still largely in it’s infancy. As yet we have no Irish history of design. Nor, other than Oranje and Green by Conor Clarke, any text which even begins to address the issues I raise here.

Newark writes that “surely the starting point is to treat design like art. We need to see a piece of design as an artefact, a real physical thing with a specific place in history…” He goes on to note addressing the question of theory, “Design is at abase a practical activity, the making of artefacts. is there any need for theory at all….Johanna Drucker, designer and theorist, says “People who work from a theoretical perspective, whether it’s in design or the visual arts, often do very stilted, self-conscious work that ultimately is only an illustration of a theoretical position”. We tend to think of theory as delivered fully formed in a book, but every piece of design has a theoretical basis, even if has been made by a designer who has never read a book….Drucker says: “I don’t think that design needs theory, but I think designers need theory”. They need it as a counterweight, a litmus test for the second hand ideas that bubble up through culture”.

Newark asks a final question, which I would only amend by incorporating the term “design theorists and historians” into it, and this is at the heart of this post: “If the development of rich, sophisticated, supple design that deepens, redirects and even rewrites its content does not come from designers themselves – independent-minded, literate, politically sophisticated and historically aware – then where else will it come from?”

Ciarán Swan


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