Back to the future

posted in: Seen and Done | 0

Professor Mark Hunt (University for the Creative Arts) has recently suggested that the UK’s traditional lead in design and innovation may soon be lost, due to an over-reliance on design using digital technology. He may be right.

I have been a graphic designer for over 25 years and a part-time lecturer for the last five years. Over that time, I’ve seen the impacts, both positive and negative, on my own work and that of the students I help to teach. I qualified in 1986, just about when the first Apple Macs with a practical design capability were being bought by design studios. I think I was in my second job out of Uni, when one day this box arrived, seemingly from nowhere. This was the first professional Mac, but it was soon clear that no one had the foggiest idea how to switch it on, let alone how it worked and what it could do.

As a recent and naturally curious graduate, I was given the task of finding out. I do remember that the manual was around two inches thick, but I dived in anyway. It turned out that the machine was great at producing regimented, geometric objects, but had very little to offer by way of sophistication. However, dazzled by the shock of the new, I used it on quite a few early design projects.

Around a year later, it dawned on me that my design work was being limited to the capabilities of a machine. Preparatory sketch work and the testing of ideas prior to implementation, the basic tenets of the way design was taught to me, had been short-circuited, by a computer. Since then, I have always worked the ‘traditional’ way – only going to the computer when the idea is strong and the method of production matched to the communications requirements of the brief.

At the University of Lincoln where I teach part-time, this process of experimentation and the testing of ideas is long established, and this year is starting to be taken further by colleagues teaching year 1 students. Walking past the glass walls of the year one space, I saw tables and walls covered with sheets of old-fashioned paste-up; students were asked to use a simple photocopied grid as the basis for setting and arranging text columns and headlines. The excited students have also been introduced to the joy (and despair) of Letraset (what’s that? some said) and stencils. This kind of grounding in the basics of graphic design; size, scale, contrast, space and above all, experimentation, is essential for students in starting to understand how to communicate through design.

When I teach, I try to instil the same attitudes. I’m sure I bore the pants off students with sayings such as ‘there are no ideas in computers’ or, ‘you could push that layout around the screen all day, but it won’t get any better’. However, I’ll keep saying these things until they take them on board. It’s important, because it’s the difference between being an imaginative, creative designer and a stylist – someone who is a whizz with software but not much else. The UK will only stay ahead in the innovation game if we produce more of the former.

Image by Mark Mathosian on Flickr.