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I Am Not A Graphic Designer

Mark Busse – 77 Comments

we are not artists

The longer I stay in this industry, the more I realize the difference between producing graphically appealing (pretty) solutions and creating strategic communication designs that produce results.

Though I use my training in Graphic Design daily and often find much of what I do professionally to be based on visual language and aesthetics, it is only one of many services I offer my clients. Being labeled a Graphic Designer feels a little like being called a draftsman, colour artist, desktop layout artist or something else that does not come even close to describing what I do. I believe this is likely true of most of my colleagues in the communication design industry and I want to know. Though it irks me when people cite Wikipedia as a source of definitions, it is interesting to note the definition of Graphic Design on that site as a subset of the field of Communication Design.

As I’ve mentioned previously, a new definition of Graphic Design was presented to the GDC National Annual Meeting in Edmonton in 2006. It’s a dandy description and I have no problem with anything except the title. I think it’s time for more discussion and debate so we can create a strategic plan of action. If you have an opinion on this matter, please add a comment or send me my an email.

OK, OK, I am a Graphic Designer.
OK, stop. Before I go on, let me make something clear. Of course I’m a Graphic Designer. The title of this diatribe was more to get your attention and provoke thought than anything else. I love graphic design, though these days I end up doing far more managing of my team than actual design myself. I deeply respect the history of our trade and wish our craft and creative skills were as respected as they once were. Heck, I’ll even admit that perhaps if we all worked together hard enough, we might be able bring back some of the former glory and understanding of the title Graphic Designer. But is that realistic considering recent trends, technological changes and today’s design landscape? Me thinks not. Not without some significant changes from within. But I will say this: I’ll gladly admit I am wrong if a strong enough argument is presented to me. Show me up. Prove to me that I am just suffering a little crisis of faith about the state of my own design career and that I’ve missed the bigger picture.

It seems to me and the dozens of colleagues that I’ve polled in the last year that the word “graphic” fails to accurately describe the design solutions that we create. Many feel that the word “graphic” refers primarily to pictures and images — not the strategies, concepts, words, sound, animation or any other immersive experiences we may choose to include in the design solutions we produce. I suggest that it is time to ask ourselves if we are holding on to outdated terminology that is in effect putting our reputations and entire industry at risk of being misunderstood and confused with desktop layout providers.

Some people argue the other perspective – quite angrily in fact – claiming that trying to educate the public is too high a hill to climb and we’d be better served to just focus on doing good work. Easy to say, not so easy to do as the marketplace gets increasingly competitive. Many get hung up on arguing over the technologies designers use these days or the difference between an artist and designer, but computers are just tools and art will always be a huge part of what we do. Finally, many claim that we’ve come too far and built up too much recognizable brand equity with advocacy associations such as The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (of which I am a proud member and executive) and that a change now would do more damage than good. I’ll allow that is a possibility, but I don’t think that my suggestion to consider a broader view undermines what graphic design has, and always will be. I am not suggesting dropping all reference to graphic design at all, but challenging that we have on a whole become more than just designers of graphic language. Others have already acknowledged the change.

We’re falling behind.
Back in the day when webs were for spiders and nets were for tennis, it was fairly accurate to say that most of what we provided was primarily graphically focused. That is no longer the case. Our very society, culture and values are being shaped by a variety of media, each designed to communication more than just the words on the page. Literacy in this zeitgeist requires more than aesthetics and readability.

“21st century literacy is the set of abilities and skills where aural, visual and digital literacy overlap. These include the ability to understand the power of images and sounds, to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute them pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms.” – A Global Imperative (Adobe, April 2005)

If we take a look around at the design industry landscape we find design associations are wary to make drastic changes and put their brand equity at risk, while international design associations and education institutions have already taken the plunge, embracing new titles such as “Visual Communication Design” or just “Communication Design” – some even changing their very association names to reduce confusion and create opportunities to educate the business community and public at large about what we do as creative professionals.

The international association Icograda has recently switched from “graphic design” to “communication design” as part of their official vernacular. Evidence of this can be clearly found in official communications such as Icograda President Jacques Lange’s address to the International Forum on Cultural and Creative Industries this past December. This is a very important moment representing a paradigm shift as Icograda is the “world body for professional graphic design” and national graphic design member associations should soon follow. GDC and SGDQ are both members of Icograda.

Here is the official explanation directly from Icograda:

“A policy decision that was made by the Icograda board at our board meeting in April 2006 in Montreal. In 2006 we have been concentrating on renewing Icograda’s strategic objectives and measuring the relevance of our best practices and policies as well as identifying gaps.

In April, as part of the policy discussion on competition guidelines and best practices on soliciting design work, it became apparent that there was consensus amongst the board that the term ‘graphic design’ did not reflect either the current state of the profession or how our members described themselves. So we made time within the agenda to devote a session to the topic of defining the profession.

As designers, our members work in increasingly rich media and collaborative environments. In addition, the senior members of the profession are working increasingly in consulting capacities with less focus on ‘traditional’ design production. In many ways, it reflects the shift from thinking about design as an artifact – producing a thing – and embraces the reality of design as a process – a means of creating communications solutions.

There was unanimous support as the outcome of this policy session and subsequent follow up in a virtual environment to shift from ‘graphic design’ to ‘communication design’. In general, it has been well received by our stakeholders, especially design buyers, who understand the idea of communication design more clearly than graphic design and the value and role that it plays in their businesses.”

Icograda Vice-President Russell Kennedy recently published a terrific article on this subject, called “Blurred Borders Sharpen the Focus: Adjusting to the New Paradigm” suggesting that trying to ‘reclaim’ the term graphic design is like trying to beat the tide coming in the Bay of Fundy. From the article:

“The borders between graphic design and its associated creative disciplines have been blurring for some time. The discipline is currently in a state of flux. This is due in part to the computer revolution and the multimedia phenomenon, but mainly to a changing attitude towards design itself. Design is now referred to holistically. Multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary practise is growing.”

Even our US brothers and sisters at the AIGA have dropped use of the term “graphic” from the title and gone with only “design”, positioning themselves as “the professional association for design”. They have decided to keep the “G” (for Graphic) in their name which may cause confusion with other design fields such as interior, industrial, fashion, etc as the descriptor “designer” can be rather vague. But the reality is that they too have dropped the old term, recognizing the difference between aesthetic design versus strategic communication design. “Design is the intermediary between information and understanding,” says AIGA President Richard Grefe, “it’s not just something with an aesthetic or style.”

From the AIGA website:

“In an ongoing quest to fulfill both needs, AIGA’s board and chapter leadership recommended a shift in positioning. The organization has begun using the existing acronym along with a new tagline that better describes AIGA, its members, and their interests instead of using the full name of the organization. “AIGA, the professional association for design” was chosen for its ability to help the organization create a greater understanding of our members’ potential role, the value of their role and importance of their contributions. Retaining the brand equity of the acronym “AIGA” has been a priority, as it preserves a rich legacy of graphic design. By shifting the language away from “graphic arts” and towards “design,” AIGA can achieve greater recognition for design’s role in culture, civic society and business.”

Other respected “graphic” design associations followed suit, not only dropping the old title but also changing their association names. In 2005, the Professional Graphic Design Association (PGDA) debated the risks and benefits of repositioning and rebranding itself with a new name that was felt to be more inviting, more international, and more distinctive. Championed by President Catherine Morley, PGDA decided a change was necessary as a response to sweeping changes in the industry to focus design on clients instead of graphics, ultimately deciding on a new name: the Professional Society of Communication Design, or Proscodi.

Even international award competitions have recognized the need for change. With more than Since 1955, the Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen sponsored Red Dot Award has been one of the oldest and most sought-after design competitions globally with over 5,000 entries each year. They officially adopted the term ‘communication design’ back in 2001, no longer making any reference to graphic design in any of their award categories. Likewise, the influential German-based iF Awards, considered by many as an international display window on the latest design developments and trends, has dropped using references to graphic design – also choosing to embrace the title communication design. Many other competitions have adopted this change in stride and more are surely to follow.

Errol Saldanha has perhaps put forth the most articulate argument in favour of this sweeping change to our own self-identity on his recently updated website www.beyondgraphic.org and in his article on Cat Morley’s Creative Latitude. A former professional GDC and RGD member, Mr. Saldanha has approached both graphic design associations on this matter with little results. Frustrated by the lack of movement on the issue in Ontario, he and several other professional Communication Designers formed a quickly growing professional association called the Communication Designers of Toronto, or Cdot, serving as a local forum uniting professionals, educators and students of the communication design discipline throughout the GTA.

From the Cdot website:

“Cdot emerged out of the need for graphic designers to go “beyond graphic”. Industry research via beyondgraphic.org made it clear that once again the role of the “graphic designer” was evolving — and that our professional title must evolve with it. The term communication design deliberately emphasizes readability (function) first and aesthetics (form) second. Design with a message…”

We are losing ground and I fear the longer we as a creative industry cling to this dated term the more we’ll be misunderstood. The public and business community may not immediately understand what Communication Design means, but at least we’ll have the opportunity to explain, demonstrate and earn their respect for doing something more than make things pretty.

We are Communication Designers.
Design is rapidly growing in its importance in modern society. As our friend Rick Poynor says,

“It is no exaggeration to say that designers are engaged in nothing less than the manufacture of contemporary reality. Today, we live and breathe design. Few of the experiences we value at home, at leisure, in the city or the mall are free of its alchemical touch. We have absorbed design so deeply into ourselves that we no longer recognize the myriad ways in which it prompts, cajoles, disturbs and excites us. It’s completely natural. It’s just the way things are.”

While much of what we do as visual communicators still involves aesthetic choices and artistic skills (craft), our professional practice revolves around a message-driven design discipline that involves research, learning, concept development, structuring and presentation of messages designed to facilitate better understanding within an audience. The terms “communication design” or “visual communication design” or even “information design” seem far more accurate and suitable to express the uniqueness of our trade.

“The focus of information design is on the reduction of noise in the communication channel by eliminating extraneous content, simplifying formal options, and narrowing possible interpretations. The general economy of this kind of thinking leads from the many to the few… Contrast this with a practise of graphic design that adopts a general economy of excess, one solution produces a multitude of interpretations: the tendency is additive, not reductive.” – Andrew Blauvelt, Editor @ Emigre

Of course we still use the elements of traditional graphic design such as image, type and colour to communicate, but often use important elements of modern messaging such as sound, animation, touch–or even smell in a recent case in my studio–to produce effective human experiences and targeted message via print, electronic, three-dimensional or environmental applications. We also no longer work in a narrow field of specialization, but rather work across and/or specialize in various fields such as branding, marketing, packaging, advertising and publishing – both in the traditional print space and online (interactive). To say we practice Graphic Design is to disregard much of what we do in our practice.

Change can be very good.
As I imagine the next ten years and a continuing trend of “design democratization” where anyone with Adobe Creative Suite, camera, printer and Internet access can potentially teach themselves the basics and begin selling their services as a “graphic designer,” I fear that our industry may continue to lose its influence and ultimately wither and die as we cling to a dated term that only partially describes what we do professionally. It is more crucial than ever that we demonstrate what differentiates us from the self-taught or poorly trained amateurs.

If we decide to embrace this evolution and are smart about how we spread this message, I believe we can use this as a powerful branding and PR moment for the entire professional design industry. If we all adopt this new identity that more accurately reflects who we are, we can create buzz and grab the attention of designers, educators, the media and the business community around the world. This idea upsets the staunch defenders of the craft of Graphic Design and I completely understand why, but I am not suggesting we drop using the term entirely. Some will indeed remain practitioners of primarily Graphic Design and call themselves this to be clear. But for the rest of us that have expanded our skills and responded to the changes around us and our clients’ needs, using much more than graphics in our designs, the title just doesn’t fit anymore.

Many of my respected colleagues feel this discussion is tired and irrelevant, some even penning wonderful rebuttals which argue that fretting over the words we use to describe ourselves rather than promoting our craft is tantamount to hiding our true creative skills beneath layers of business rhetoric. Perhaps, but I am not suggesting that we drop “graphic” or “arts” from how we describe what we do. On the contrary, I firmly believe that our craft skills and training in the traditional visual arts – sketchbooks, pencil crayons, felt pens and all – are a big part of what differentiates us from the pretenders. But without the understanding that we use more than just pretty things to produce successful design solutions, we’ll always be viewed as the “artsy fartsies” and the strategy, interactivity and innovative work will be left for the others while we proudly show off our lovely poster designs. Can we take back the power of the word “graphic” as an alternative to adopting new ones? Maybe. But I doubt it. Not in this zeitgeist. But if we truly desire the professional respect and increased patronage of the business community we need to evolve our own brand identity, perhaps by using a little business rhetoric.

Will claiming we’re Communication Designers, or even Visual Communication Designers, make it much clearer to those who don’t already understand? Likely not at first, and adopting a new title won’t automatically bring more respect or higher hourly rates either. But it will create an opportunity for a conversation and open the door for change. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I suggest that we need to make this change now or it may haunt us forever as part of our legacies. Respect starts with self identity, and the core of self identity is what we call ourselves. As for me, I am no longer a Graphic Designer, I am a Communication Designer, though I offer graphic design as part of my services.

If you have thoughts, opinions, facts, ideas or anything you think relevant to this discussion, please take a few minutes to send it in or post in the comments below.

77 Responses to “I Am Not A Graphic Designer”

  1. Cameron Jantzen

    I think that ultimately we will change, and that we should change. I think we need to be able to put a significant amount of resources into a rebrand, just like any rebrand, for it to be effective. N-one knows what a communication designer is, and that’s a great opportunity, but we have to be able to effectively educate what it means and what it doesn’t (dtp). Otherwise we make our corporate efforts more difficult in the short term and may not get the benefit out in the long term.

    Cameron Jantzen LGDC
    National Representative GDC/BC

    Reply
  2. Sigrid Albert

    I no longer call myself “graphic designer” because I find the term limiting and too similar to “graphics designer” or “graphic artist”, both of which are often used by people who are completely unfamiliar with the field. “Graphic designer” implies that I create graphic images, illustrations, and layouts, but don’t get involved in their content. It implies surface decoration and shallow focus. It also implies static forms rather than online/interactive form. I prefer
    “communication designer” because it covers a much broader spectrum and more accurately reflects what I actually do: I advise my clients on concept and content, sometimes even create content, or at least
    organize the content before I even design anything. I create and organize ideas. I design communications, some of which may take on a graphic form. But I definitely don’t just design graphics.

    The term “communication design” has already become commonplace in the educational field. There are fewer and fewer “graphic design” programs. Have the schools clued into something that the professionals haven’t?

    Sigrid Albert, MGDC
    Former Education VP
    GDC BC Chapter

    Reply
  3. Heather Tryon

    I think that the term “Graphic Designer” is outdated. Designers are doing more than creating visual imagery and content. Concept, planning and plan implementation are quite often falling on the plate of the designer. Perhaps this is because there re so many more small to mid-sized business in the marketplace today that rely on the “communications” expertise of the design world. Small to mid sized business often don’t have this expertise in house.

    Heather Tryon
    Associate Member & Secretary
    GDC BC Chapter

    Reply
  4. Leanne Prain

    I’d support the change to the title of Communications Designer for the reason that it’s more inclusive and supports areas of our industry that have developed over the past few years (ie: not only does one come up with graphics for a website, but often the program, holding knowledge of back end systems, etc…)

    More importantly, it recognizes the notion that we are not just coming up with something “pretty” but rather developing solutions to problems in a visual away. Designing is no longer just about appearances and production – but rather creating pieces that are integrated in large strategies for communication – based on messaging, timing, concrete copy, and audience need. “Graphic” simply doesn’t cut it. We do so much more than this.

    Of course, having “Communications Designer” on my business card for the past four years, I’m fully aware of how little the general public understand this title (I usually have to say “I’m a graphic designer” before I see a look of understanding cross their face) – If the GDC were to change their name and terminology, I think that a huge public campaign would need to be in order.

    Leanne Pain LGDC
    Volunteer Chair
    GDC BC Chapter

    Reply
  5. Linda Coe

    Design Nomenclature

    (I have often thought I should reset my stationery to read; “Linda Coe Grahpic Desing Limited” as this is how so much correspondence is addressed to us.)

    Bad spellers of the world untie!!

    Seriously, I prefer “communication design” for sense/logic.

    “Visual design” has a better length, but may be construed as “art” and does not assume the conceptual process.

    ANY new title is going to take time to saturate the design and business communities, consistency is important.

    Among our wide range of clients in varied markets, the majority of mine thankfully understand that ‘graphic design’ today is more than print and more than the visual output. They know that designers work from concept through to completion providing strategic planning, marketing and “graphic design”.

    Occasionally, someone will refer to “graphic artist” or “graphics” and surprisingly, these are the younger clients. So consistency in the use of “graphic design” worked well over the past couple of decades.

    However, as stated earlier, “communication design” is clear, concise and has been in use for many years now. It is my choice.

    My own company name is changing to reflect this.

    Linda Coe, FDGC
    Ethics VP
    GDC BC Chapter

    Reply
  6. Casey Hrynkow

    I, too, have been struggling with this. My current state of ideological development hovers on the notion that there exist, at least in Canada, two schools of design (outside of the wholly 3D world). There is one camp among us that sees our field in its more original state. It is a craft of organizing information and images in practical ways to make that information more accessible and aesthetically pleasing, using an appropriate visual vernacular to do so. I respect and value this role. There is a place for these craftspeople among clients who need information organized and cleaned up in order to put it in front of the public. Many smaller businesses can afford no more than this role and, as far as I know, it comes with a slightly lower price tag than what I do.

    This craft, although it is a part of my business, is not the focus of my business. I am in your camp on strategic thinking, guiding clients through the process of defining and/or redefining their communication challenges, then developing solutions to meet those challenges. We are designing communications both literally and figuratively. We are a form of outsourced communications managers that work either with counterparts with the same titles inside organizations, or as replacements for that role in organziations that require it. I spend the majority of my time meeting, writing and facilitating.

    I am with the title Communication Designer. It’s what I teach at Emily Carr Instititute. It’s what I talk about. It’s what I do. I am still not sure how everything fits together and I believe we are in a relatively young state on how this will all shake out with those who continue with the craft part of the business. We can’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I’m fairly sure the baby is outgrowing the plastic tub.

    Casey Hrynkow, B.Des. MGDC
    President, Herrainco Skipp Herrainco Communication Inc.

    Reply
  7. Graphic Designer in Roanoke, Va

    I understand the argument, but I just plain prefer the term “graphic designer.” Communication Designer sounds pretentious I think, and Graphic Designer feels like it has history tied to it. Just my opinion.

    Reply
  8. Peter Hoang

    I fully appreciate and understand the argument. I am a Communication Designer through and through. It says so right on my Bachelor of Communication Design degree. However, after trying to use the term for over 10 years I’ve grown tired of how ineffective it is in everyday conversation. When I introduce myself as a “Communication Designer” invariably the reactions range from “What is that?” to my favorite, “So you make telephones?”. Communication Design is about effective, efficient, memorable and impactful messages. In my personal experience, using the title “Communication Designer” ironically requires paragraphs of follow up clarification. On the other hand, when I use the term “Graphic Designer” people just get it and the conversation is freely flowing.

    Is the adjective “graphic” accurate? Partly. Is it all encompassing? Certainly not. I’ve grown to really like it though. It’s like an old school badge of honour. I consider it a term of affection. In fact, I like it so much I may even adopt another throwback title. How’s “Graphic Blacksmith” sound?

    Reply
  9. Eric Karjaluoto

    I’ve read your post and agree with you. In recent years, designers’ roles have changed as has the scope of work we take on. It’s a good time to reflect on whether our moniker accurately conveys what we do.

    This is an industry-wide brand question that will best be answered by remaining dispassionate and analytical. Ultimately, this is only an adjective change; yet, it offers to help better articulate our offering and strengthen our industry’s position. Those are substantial gains that I believe outweigh the retirement of a word that has become archaic.

    Eric Karjaluoto, MGDC

    Reply
  10. Vida Jurcic

    I was trained as a “graphic” designer, a communicator through graphics and visuals, which encompasses in my view, anything that can be “seen”, whether in reality or the mind’s eye, but my role has evolved to so much more.

    In the Funk and Wagnalls dictionary “graphic” is defined as: 1. Presenting an exact picture; describing in full detail; vivid 2. Of, or pertaining to, or illustrated by graphs and diagrams. 3. Pertaining to, consisting of, or expressed by writing or inscribed representation: graphic signs 4. Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of the graphic arts.

    The definition goes on to give contexts of “graphic” in Math and Geology. Graphic Arts is defined as 1. Those visual arts involving the use of lines or strokes on a flat surface, such as painting, drawing, engraving etc.

    We are definitely much more than renderers of strokes and lines in intelligible formations. In the course of my career, not only do I communicate by arranging those strokes and lines, choosing colours and fonts that have meaning in our socially conditioned world, (striving to be unique yet understood by the target audience), I also write headlines, art direct photography, and sometimes have input in sound design.
    So yes, my role as a communication designer encompasses so much more than graphics.

    Vida Jurcic, MGDC
    PARTNER, HANGAR 18 CREATIVE GROUP

    Reply
  11. Rene Quijada

    The reality is that a lot has change since the term graphic designer came to be in the 1900’s, it no longer tides in with a name that the New Technology Movement has brought to our profession:

    KEYS: STRATEGIC BRAND DESIGN. COMMUNICATION CONSULTANCY + WEB GRAPHIC PRODUCTION. INTERDISCIPLINARY WORK: MULTIMEDIA DESIGN + LINGUISTICS + PSYCHOLOGY.

    KEYS: WEB & DIGITAL MEDIAS
    NEW PARADIGMS OF VISUAL AND FUNCTIONAL DESIGN. ACCOMPLISHMENT OF A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE AND STRENGTHENING OF THE USER-BRAND RELATIONSHIP. SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION ETC.

    The fit for a better or proper title, is something I feel we must do in, in order to move with the IT trends of our virtual world we are living in.

    Rene Quijada MGDC

    Reply
  12. Matt SamyciaWood

    “Yeh, my brother-in-law designed them, he is a Graphic Designer”

    How many times have we heard this one or a variation of it. And, how many times have we seen what the brother-in-law has created and actually thought WOW, they are a designer – not often right?

    Our industry has been diluted by the brother-in-laws, the neighbours, the friend at work who have titled them self as a Graphic Designer, often without ANY design education [these people often design in Photoshop] or have a limited education. Saying that, there are also a lot of trained designers who are also producing poor quality work.

    The similar situation is happening in the photography industry. The value of good photography has decreased because people can now buy a 10 mega pixel camera and shoot it them self.

    I Googled the words ‘Graphic Designer’ and the results were interesting. We are defined by what people say about us [Google has a loud voice]. These 2 sites were in the top 10, look at them and ask your self ‘do you want this representing your profession when you say you are a graphic Designer’?

    http://www.usask.ca/education/coursework/skaalid/theory/cgdt/designtheory.htm

    http://www.attentiondesign.ca/index.htm – who designed: http://www.classycats.ca and http://www.88crimerun.org/

    When I Googled ‘Communication Design’ there were more schools and only a few Communication Design studios or Communication organizations – which was interesting [you may want to get onto this].

    Also, if it is easier to describe your self as a Graphic Designer when in public [which I agree with it, it is] then we have to live with that they may put us in the same catergory as their brother-in-law or a desk top publishers [“oh, you design business cards” – we have all heard that one].

    If it takes a few seconds longer to describe to someone what a Communication Designer is, then in my opinion this is time well spent. Firstly it is educating people on the difference [if designers don’t educate people on the difference – who is?] as well as it differentiates us from the norm.

    As I said earlier, we are represented by what people see out there and say about us. If we change our titles to Communication Designer and then all the crappy designers and desk top publishers follow suit then we have not changed anything. There is NO ONE regulating the title from a quality perspective. I have no idea how this would happen, but people could apply to be a communication designer, to prove they are strategic in their thinking and design application. We would earn the right to call our self a Communication Designer.

    Matt SamyciaWood MGDC
    Different Solutions Ltd.

    Reply
  13. Steve Culley

    The term/phrase “Graphic Design” is outdated and limits the scope of creative services that can be offered to clients. While for some “graphic designers” this title may fit the bill but for the majority of designers, they take on a larger roll. Graphic design is just one step in the overall visual communication.

    The term “Communication Designer” would not be so restrictive and also have more meaning, illustrating to potential clients that a whole scope of creative services could be offered.

    Reply
  14. MIchael Holdren

    While I agree with most of what you’re saying, I don’t think there needs to be an elitist change in terms just to make us feel better about what we do. If we must change it, I will say that the term “Visual Communications Strategist” works much better than “Communication Designer”. Does “graphic” seem low-brow? Everyone is so quick to drop the word, but all seem so fond of the term “designer”. Lovely, as long as we can still wear our black turtle-necks and drink our Starbucks, it’s all good, right?

    Really, it comes down to an understanding and perhaps education of the terms. Let’s break down what “graphic design” is. Graphic: visual, Design: strategy. Graphic design is taking a defined problem and, using a number of strategies, finding a visual solution to communicate a particular message.

    On byondgraphic, Errol said:
    “Result? After 3 years of careful thought, I have decided to go with the term “communication design(er)”. Why? I could not come up with anything better and this term is already in widespread use.”

    That’s a pretty lame solution, which seems to defy and be the antithesis of her very argument. She claims she does more than make things pretty, but when it comes down to it, she’s being lazy in finding a solution to the very term that she chooses will define the perception of the “strategist” that she is.

    Reply
  15. Sandra Hanson

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the invitation to give my thoughts on this matter of the label of “graphic designer” vs communications designer”, or maybe even “designer”. It’s a subject that is currently on my mind as I do what I see as my “job”.

    Graphic Design seems to be an understood idea in the main stream social conscience. But it currently pales in it’s respectability, when clients and designers alike remain complacent about expressing the known commodifying role designers take in creating value for a product or service. Who in this industry can’t site an example of when their services has taken an existing product, service idea, or organization to a
    different height of recognition. Same stuff as it was before – only re-interfaced. A makeover.

    As I see it – and I have colleagues that I regularly debate with about this – my job is to listen to what clients think they need, and then proceed to provide them with much, much more. [often without remuneration]

    The need for a new model of discourse about what a graphic designer is, or does, would definitely benefit the industry. I am not sure I have case to worry about self taught designers being a threat. That threat has always existed since computer technology was introduced in our industry. To be real, my education was prior to computer technology, and I had to teach myself. In fact I was a lousy designer too, and my skills increased with maturity and experience. For most of us it is a learned process, by observation and motivation or by formal education. (Not wanting to look like an idiot is also pretty fine motivation.)

    Mass media has shifted our social consciousness to a certain level of media literacy in the public realm. Art and tv media are subsumed and mirrored into advertising strategies faster than we can say hello. Most people/potential clients don’t know, or care about how it gets there – the client doesn’t know, or would not care to admit their lack of knowledge about the interface we provide between them and consumers. That’s a big part of the problem. We can preach to the
    converted till we are PMS 300, but the average client or consumer is unaware that we offer thinking as part of our service. They just know when they are ready and want it right now.

    I think the technical and tangible result is accepted and understood much more than the conceptual and critical side of design.

    Attempting to explain the process by which a design thing happens can become a pedantic rant – or a fairy tale – depending on who you talk to. Many colleagues still believe we ARE in the profession of making something pretty to look at. Some of these same colleagues are surprised when I talk about reading the client’s material before I design a thing. (this is primarily talking about print design). Sometimes I help people reinterpret their message before the visuals or form are even talked about. That can be, and often is, an extremely sensitive issue. Some designers say the communication content is not our job
    – our job is only to make a visual statement – sometimes any visual statement. Personally I have a hard time with that. Particularly when the client is ultimately spending money to create our work.

    So maybe there are different categories of designers within media relations. Just as art (artist) in contemporary culture is often broken down into visual art, media art, installation art, 2D and so on, maybe
    the designation has to be defined? Visual designer, 2D designer, Type designer, Web designer – Communications designer. And then what if you’re one of those triple threat designers that can do it all and deal with clint relations. HA> I am rambling a bit here…

    Contemporary art strategies and critical thinking, somewhat informs my methodology and process in developing a structure for my clients. I design the form based on the given information and desired
    perception-projection, or specific communication need a given client has. Sometimes THEY only want the thing to look good or groovey. Sometimes they have the ah-ha that what we are doing is creating communication. It’s the difference between being happy watching
    Seinfeld reruns, Six Feet Under, or the news in the Middle East. Our job partly becomes reading the client for levels of their comfort in projection identity and sustainability commitment.

    I would agree to the term communication designer if only for the fact that it usually does involve a rich articulation of vision and words into a tangible visual form. But sometimes that “form” makes a
    difference. Is the designer who creates installation graphics and spacial representation a communications designer?

    It’s a tricky thing. Whatever is decided about this, I agree there is need for a change in perception and identity for what we do. What we do as has power if done right. Maybe a name change strategy is needed to
    regain some of the sense of power and mystery we once had. That “wow – how’d you do that” thing.

    Let me know how it works out.
    best, Sandra Hanson.
    visual artist, (?) designer, sooth sayer and house flipper…

    Reply
  16. Thomas Jockin

    You know this is not the first time this has happened. Our good friend Dwiggins was in the same situation back in the 1920’s, as that is when he coined the term we’re now calling as outdated to our times— Graphic Design. Dwiggins was responding to the same pressures has we are, new technologies, new possibilities and severe limitations to being tagged to a specific practice.

    In Dwiggins time was the printer/graphic artist/ bookmaker/ typographer.
    For us it’s Graphic designer/Web designer/ Info designer/etc./etc./etc.

    Now, of course the integration of “graphic designer” into the common language didn’t come to completion until the 1950’s—1960’s with the rise of the corporate international style in the US with Paul Rand + Saul Bass.

    So that’s a about 40 years to transition to move from a theoretical idea of “graphic design” with quotes to a practical professional term we use now.

    Likewise, I would argue all this talk of “communication designer” is still a very theoretical idea— not a practical label yet.

    Was Dwiggins a graphic designer because he claimed to be one? Maybe in a retrospective/revisionist way, but I contend not. He wanted to be, but he didn’t have the built up knowledge of graphic designers of Paul Rand’s day (which was a rarity at the time, and became it’s real manifestation only after the desktop revolution).

    And just like Dwiggins, we may claim to be “communication designers” but it’s going to be several decades in order to develop a new canon of thinking and perspective for this developing profession. Until then we’re simply Proto-Communication Designers, since we’re still stuck in the rather lame canons of graphic design.

    On this topic of Proto-Communication Designers, I have a project you might be interested in: http://www.milieudiscourse.com/

    Reply
  17. Paul Nishikawa, MGDC

    Hey Mark. Interesting question, with no easy answers in today’s ever changing landscape for the professional designer. After many years in the trenches with the GDC both at the local and national levels, I have to agree with the point you bring up.

    Casey makes a great point about separating the craft of design from the business of design. Most successfuly agencies and larger firms have done exactly this.

    I’ve personally felt for a long time – probably 4 or 5 years – that “graphic designer” isn’t the right title for what I do. If you measure the worth of a designer solely on the portfolio or amount of peer recognition, I’m not that good. But I’ve always worked on the premise that my value is what I bring to my clients. Often, it’s not a visual or “graphic” solution, but simply a different way of looking at the problem. Sometimes, I’m not even the provider of whatever solution we’ve found. The key is that it’s collaboration, instead of order-taking – it’s strategic thinking, instead of delivering a printed copy. The traditional paradigm of “client needs a widget” just doesn’t apply to how I work anymore. It’s about trying to make clients understand that design isn’t a cost, rather an investment that should provide returns, not a loss. I do still think it’s “design”, just definitely not graphic design.

    More importantly than what *I* think is of course what this means to our market and our clients. If we ever want to get past that first impression result of “Oh, you’re a graphic designer. You’re a computer guy/gal then right?”, we have to build credibility as a profession – no matter what the title. With the lack of cohesiveness as a group (a very small percentage of practicing designers actually are members of either GDC or RGD) and no simple solutions to the “big” questions, we’ve got a long way to go baby. Until most designers of all ilks are on the same page about how to “sell” design, we’re not going to be taken seriously as a profession. Many designers can’t get past the aesthetic argument. Sure, it’s got to look good, and there’s no question that there’s a certain subjectivity to any visual solution. And don’t get me wrong, there will always be designers who don’t care about a client’s widget or competition or business plan, nor how to help them improve the bottom line, but can make a killer flash intro for their website. Without strategic underpinning and process, that’s still just art… Not that there’s anything wrong with art, it’s just not the best investment for a business on a budget with concrete goals in mind.

    I really hope that this doesn’t become some kind of academic argument, only about the semantics of our titles or our professional organization. In my mind, the key is how does this help us provide better results to our clients? What will help them understand that design starts at the top, not merely the classic lipstick on a pig approach that still seems so prevalent. How can I get into their office before they’ve made up their mind on the solution? By making the way we refer to ourselves more indicative of what we can deliver, these things may happen…

    Cheers,
    Paul Nishikawa MGDC

    Reply
  18. Robert Wurth

    I just wanted to point out a couple of quick things regarding the mention of Proscodi in the above article. First of all, the quote announcing our name change does not, in fact, come from the Proscodi site, but from my own company news page. [thanks Robert, that quote has been removed to reduce confusion –MB]

    Second, looking at that quote out of the context of my company’s news page, I fear that the quote might be misconstrued to imply that *I* started the discussions for the PGDA to change its name. It would be more fair to say that discussions began in which I, as vice president, participated. [again, quote removed. Also added mention that the push from change was championed by Catherine Morley –MB]

    I also worry that saying we “responded to Icograda” by changing our own name almost makes it sound as though we were asked to, or felt pressured to. There were actually a number of factors that went into that decision, including the potentially limiting nature of the term “graphic design.” [reworded that paragraph, thanks again –MB]

    My own opinion is that “graphic design” is not a term that will go away. Rather, it may simply need to reside under the umbrella of “communication design.” Similar to the way that “lawyer” is not an accurate blanket term that can be applied to anyone working in the legal profession, “graphic designer” doesn’t necessarily accurately reflect the work of everyone working in the communication design profession.

    — Robert Wurth

    Reply
  19. simon pates

    hmmm, interesting and i agree with you. i’ve been in the business for over 20 years and what i have learnt is that the term ‘graphic design’ communicates what we do to a wider audience in the sense that it is a recognised term. when someone asks what i do for a living, i say i’m a graphic designer. if i was to update my job description in an attempt to stay current, by that i mean keep up with corporate sales patter, i would be in danger of confusing my customers. an engineer is an engineer no matter what he actually engineers be it electronics or combustion engines or both

    we are in essence, graphic designers. to change the way we describe ourselves is to lose sight of the basis of our craft. moreover, it could fragment our industry to the point we are all working in our own private sector, defining our own roles in business. we would become like inventors searching for investors.

    interesting discussion though.
    simon pates.

    Reply
  20. Lam Tang, Copywriter

    I see where you’re coming from but to me, Communication Designer does sound a mite snobby and begs the question “What’s that?” which leads to the whole discussion again. Probably better than saying Graphic Designer and having people assume you’re somebody’s cousin’s little brother with Adobe Suite. If you’re looking at a title for your business card or email sig, would something like Design Communicator or Graphic Communicator work? It’d put even more emphasis on the strategic as opposed to the strictly aesthetic.

    Reply
  21. Kevin Brome

    An interesting take on this issue can be found in Bruce Nussbaum’s column for BusinessWeekly where he writes:

    Are Designers The Enemy of Design?

    In the name of provocation, let me start by saying that DESIGNERS SUCK. I’m sorry. It’s true. DESIGNERS SUCK. There’s a big backlash against design going on today and it’s because designers suck.

    So let me tell you why. Designers suck because they are arrogant. The blogs and websites are full of designers shouting how awful it is that now, thanks to Macs, Web 2.0, even YouTube, EVERYONE is a designer. Core 77 recently ran an article on this backlash and so did we on our Innovation & Design site. Designers are saying that Design is everywhere, done by everyone. So Design is debased, eroded, insulted. The subtext, of course, is that Real design can only be done by great star designers.

    *gulp* A little bitter going down no? Seems that the issue is less with what we are sticking in front of the word designer and more to do with our profession as a whole. You can read the rest of the article here

    Reply
  22. Chris Waind

    Personally I don’t get too caught up with being wrongly identified. After 4 years in Vancouver where 75% of people thought I was either Australian or Scottish, I’ve come to think of myself as a bit of a double agent – both culturally and professionally.

    Even so, one incident does stick out in my mind as a illustration regarding the misidentification of our trade as it stands today. It took place in a place most Canadians will never see. The immigration interview room. This is where they take you if they suspect that you’re a terrorist, a drug smuggler, or even worse, an Englishman on a temporary work visa.

    Upon arriving from the motherland, I was asked to step into the office to answer some verification questions:

    Immigration Officer: “Why did you move from London to Vancouver?”
    Me: “Have you taken the tube at 11:30 on a Friday mate?” That didn’t amuse him. We were off to a bad start.
    Immigration Officer: “So you’re a graphic designer – specifically, what work do in Canada?”
    Me: “Branding, website design, illustration, print, advertising, and photography.”
    Immigration Officer: “So you DON’T do graphic design?”
    Me: “Yes, that’s what some graphic designers do.”
    Immigration Officer: “But that is not the description on your visa.”

    After a 25 minute debate over the intricacies of my working week, the officer finally granted me clemency and started processing my visa. Under ‘Job Description’ I saw him erase ‘Graphic’ leaving just the lone label of ‘Designer.’

    Reply
  23. Steve Mynett

    I’ve been thinking a lot (without resolution) on my own identity with the design field as well as my larger identity considering music and photo and how to respond when asked; “What do you do?”. If that answer should be music or photo – the choice of words is obvious and those words are understood by the other person. (OK… some questions of what a professional musician is…. but for the most part the point is conveyed). But when I choose to answer with “Graphic Designer”, the response is always something along the lines of “What’s that” or “What kind”, or “What do you actually do?”. In my experience of talking to people outside the industry, the title graphic designer doesn’t carry significant recognition. When I explain “Interactive Designer, that’s designing and producing websites, and I also do print design and album packaging” they start to understand what I do – and the concept of the difference between Graphic and Communication design hasn’t really been addressed.

    So what should I say when asked “What do you do?”. I agree with the movement towards “Communication Designer” on a lot of levels. (as outlined in Beyond Graphic – no need to ramble them here). However the one thing that it (or its alternatives) doesn’t have from what I’ve seen is recognition. What I want is one term that encompasses so I don’t have
    to say “design websites, and produce websites, and do some posters, and some CD packages and…. and… and….” until someone finally figures out what I do. And I’m not trying to come off listing the things I do – I think the nature of our business is diversity. Look at yourself, Haig and other designers from students to seasoned pros. We have to be able to wear so many hats.

    It’s late and I’m starting to get side tracked so I’ll try to wrap up.

    For me, Graphic Design needs a supporting dialogs to inform people what it really is, and Communication Designer will need that also. I want a concise title that will convey what our industry is. Communication Designer is more meaningful to us, and hopefully that can translate to the general public.

    Steve Mynett GRAD
    Web Committee
    GDC BC Chapter

    Reply
  24. Matthew Clark (SUBPLOT DESIGN INC.)

    I would be embarrassed to be called a “Communication Designer”.

    Those who can’t hack regular English in high school and university take “communications”. Great writing is “poetry”, or maybe “literature”. Average writing is “communication”. Everything about the word “communication” says low-end, low-brow, barely functional and pedestrian. Lowest of the low. “Communication Designer” sounds like someone who designs bad information pamphlets for the local credit union.

    Mark, I get you. You want to redefine the word “communication” to stand for the entirety of messaging that design can do, from the literal message, to the feel, touch, taste and personality. You want to make “communication” the master category of design that all other disciplines fall under.

    Problem is, there already is a word that does that better. It’s called “BRAND DESIGN”.

    A much-maligned word, I know. We’re all sick of it, and I am tired of hearing it misused daily (seeing “branding” on a design firm’s website only to then be shown a stationery package … which is not “branding” no matter how you cut it). But love it or hate it, a “brand” is the sum total of every aspect of what a company or product puts out there – from ideas and concepts, to a promise to its consumers, to look, feel and graphics, to language and messaging, to emotion and feeling. That’s the definition of “brand”, after all.

    So, if designers claim to be able to do all that for their clients (which we do), then they are “Brand Designers”. Nice and simple. Now – here’s the rub. There are plenty of design disciplines which I think fall outside of brand design. Here’s a sample (incomplete) list:

    BRAND DESIGN
    Brand Strategy + Planning
    Naming / Verbal Branding
    Brand Identity
    Logomarks
    Packaging
    Annual Reports + Investor Communications
    Corporate + Product Brochures
    Print Communications
    Marketing Communications
    Publication Design
    Campaigns + Posters
    Retail Identities + Environments
    Promotions + Point-of-Sale
    Digital Branding + Interactive
    Brand Standards

    GRAPHIC DESIGN
    (not really about promoting a brand per se on their own)
    Illustration + Design Graphics
    Typography + Type Design
    Motion Graphics + Film Titling
    Information Design + Signage Programs
    Product + Structure Design

    There is a place for “Graphic Design” in my mind. When design is not necessarily promoting the brand as its first job, it tends to be more “graphic”. The rest of what we do, I think falls nicely under “Brand Design”. And that what we (Subplot Design Inc.) say we do for a living – Brand and Graphic Design. But “Communication Design”? No way. Too small. Too limited. “Communications” is just one of the many sub-sets of “Brand Design”.

    As a last aside, we need to be careful with his debate. If we become to insular – and too apologetic about “Graphic” design – our potential clients out there will think we trying too hard to justify how “serious” we are. It’s like putting “child-care specialist” on your first resume, when you really been “babysitting”. Don’t try so hard to be taken seriously, it’s a very unconfident posture. Do you think Pentagram Design worries that their clients won’t take them seriously because they list “Graphic Design” on their website? Don’t think so.

    Is the goal to raise the profile and seriousness of “Graphic Design”? Yes? Then we shouldn’t worry about the name – we should all do better work! Do great, breakthrough and meaningful design work for our clients. And we should set a benchmark for the GDC – don’t take in anyone who will pay the dues. Set a criteria for what true, great and seriously-skilled design is. Whatever it’s called.

    BE great. BE a skilled designer. BE an important contribution to your clients. Then, they will know what real design is.

    Matthew Clark MGDC

    [Great comments Matthew, thanks. I agree with much of this – especially the stuff about BEing great and skilled and cautious about spending time arguing over titles and not good work. However, we have vastly different views about the importance of our title and also about using “brand” as an umbrella concept. From our perspective, the business community and general public have as much or perhaps even more of a misconception of what “brand” means or skill entails as “graphic”. Funny that if you consider that your view of the word is essentially a discussion about the very “brand” perception of the word “communication” itself. From our perch, without communication strategies, methods and channels, there is no brand. Without communication choices, graphic or otherwise, there are no perceptions at all. And your harsh criticism of the word “communication” is rather contrary to the international perspective I’m afraid. I’d be awfully offended if I read those words and was attending any of the finest schools around the world such as London’s Royal College of Art where its Communication Art & Design program is within the School of Communications. –MB]

    Reply
  25. Greg Blue

    This is an entirely worthwhile debate! I completely agree that the term Communications Designer is far more indicative of what we do. I remember talking with Ray Hrynkow about this around 4 years ago and he was adamant about the change then. I can also state on an academic level on behalf of Langara that our curricula is based on three primary issues – 1st client, project and target research in (in partnership with the client), to generate a solid communications strategy based on a tangible result. 2nd – creative & strategic process – how do we create a tangible solution to carry this strategy off. 3rd – visual execution – now we make certain that students have a superb understanding of typography, the psychology of colour, layout and production skills.

    The “democratization of design” has been dogging us since the mid 80’s when Aldus Pagemaker made an appearance although I think we more often used the term “end of the world”. It wasn’t. Nor am I concerned, as a commercial photography that digital cameras will replace me. The reality is that this new technology will absolutely create a host of people who call themselves designers and photographers, but have no idea what the true objectives of this profession are, and they will continue to produce ineffective and blatantly crappy work, and there will always be clients with no budget and little experience to hire them. But we who studied and made a huge investment in training ourselves as effective communicators will always recognize the difference between designer and hack – and so will the experienced clients out there.

    I feel this is about treating our profession with the respect it deserves, as well as making sure we hold ourselves accountable as professionals. I think the term Communications Designer, and all of the rationale that goes behind that term, helps to achieve that.

    Greg Blue ASSOC
    Education VP
    GDC BC Chapter

    Reply
  26. Steph Gibson

    If we change our name to Communications Designers of Canada, wouldn’t that make us the CDC (Centre for Disease Control)? I vote no.

    [Good question Steph. First of all, I am still open to ideas for better suggestions that “Communication Design” though I haven’t heard any yet, though “Visual Communication Design” isn’t bad. Second, you’re right that CDC conjures the wrong image (ick). But having always wondered why the SOCIETY of Graphic Designers of Canada became known as GDC instead of SGDC, I could image renaming the association the SCDC, or Society of Communication Designers of Canada, which has a much better ring to it, without much fuss and retain a lot of its brand equity to boot. Don’t you agree? –MB]

    Reply
  27. Matt Warburton

    From the GDC/BC Blog:

    So we get a stamp, we celebrate 50 years of design, we get the attention of international media and NGOs like the IOC, so you think it’s a good time to change what we call ourselves? Sounds like a poorly planned witness protection scheme…

    As an association we’ve spent 50 years defining and promoting the profession, not using the narrow definition IBC and Errol seem to believe we adhere to. The profession is recognized by business and government through legislation and policy. We, as professionals and as an association will continue to raise awareness and set standards, as the profession evolves and public perceptions change.

    What we need to do is take ownership of the term “graphic design” and “graphic designer”. It has been usurped to a degree by the DTP crowd, or rather, by people who think what we do is simply desktop publishing.

    Personally I find Communication Design to be focused on the end result, not the process. Yes, I do do communication design, but I also do package design, packaging design, web design, writing, research, marketing, advertising, etc., all of which ends up in communication pieces, but that is to focus on the end result, not the journey. My company slogan is “Communicative Information Design”, but as a general definition, I am a graphic designer first, with various specializations and areas of expertise. To “graph” something is to simplify, interpret, process, analyze, etc. As graphic designers, that’s what we do in a nutshell. The end result is that you hope it communicates, but the process is what we talk to clients about.

    Everyone communicates, especially cel phone companies and communication managers (ala IABC’s members) so the immediate response is, “you’re a communication designer, so you design cel phone plans?… Oh, you design corporate identities and logos, I thought that was graphic design”

    The word “graphic” has much more relevant connotations to what we do as designers. In modern cultural dialogue it means something with depth or something that really creates a strong impression. It could be it literature (graphic novels), movies (graphic violence/porn), or news media (graphic journalism). To “communicate” is common and not unique to our profession. To communicate in a graphic manner is a unique ability and something for which we are recognized worldwide.

    As branding experts our time would be much more wisely spent promoting a better definition of the broad scope of what graphic designers actually do to the small percentage of people who think that all we do is DTP work—but quickly understand the full scope once its explained to them. As an association w need to continue to refine and implement strategies that will get this message across to the business community and potential members. Personally I like the odds of educating 50% of somewhat confused people, vs. 100% of completely unknowledgeable people.

    I can’t see RGD Ontario being granted new legislation to control a designation entitled “Registered Communication Designer”. There were some very unique circumstances when the GDC chapters in Ontario got it in 1996, and are highly unlikely to be repeated, so its dubious to presume the legislators would agree to the new term. So 50+% of the designers in Canada will always be Registered Graphic Designers.

    Matt Warburton FDGC
    Former President
    GDC BC Chapter


    [Excellent comments Matt, thank you. Please do remember that all I really desire is a proper debate on this, which seems to be underway here. If I am convinced I am wrong, then I will admit so, though I doubt I’ll ever be happy about being labeled a Graphic Designer. I cringe each time I hear it, yet I admit I use it myself sometimes, but only as an explanation of one of my skills or services. I haven’t received many rationales as intelligent as this, though still find your perspective is still in the minority within the company I keep. And consider please that regardless of what the GDC has done recently or media coverage they may have received, this still seems protectionist in nature considering that controversy, evolution and resulting change is not a new thing to GDC or the design profession. Some interesting quotes directly from GDC’s history:

    In 1956 the Typographic Designers of Canada (TDC) was formed to “build a common understanding and clear direction for design in Canada, to set high visual standards and turn printers and compositors into proper designers”, ultimately renaming itself the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) in 1968, reflecting designers’ concern with “all aspects of visual communications.” (Brian Donnelley, “Fifity years of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada,” Communication Arts Magazine, March/April 2006)

    –MB]

    Reply
  28. Rick Poynor

    My feeling, as a writer, is that the term “graphic design” is no longer especially helpful in explaining to the public what exactly it is that “graphic designers” do. Like you, I find “communication design” to be a more inclusive description. When it comes to the territory I write about, for at least the last ten years I have tended to think of it as “visual communication” rather than graphic design.

    The AIGA faced this naming dilemma, of course, with its decision in the early 1990s not to change its name from the American Institute of Graphic Arts to the American Institute of Graphic Design, and more recently when it announced that AIGA as a set of letters no longer stands for anything, while the organisation should now be known as the “professional association for design”.

    There is a good article by Steven Heller in the latest issue of Eye (no. 63) about this very issue, titled “What do we call ourselves now?” Few young designers, he finds, think of themselves as graphic designers.

    I have recently returned to the Royal College of Art in London as a research fellow in the department of Communication Art & Design, in the School of Communications. They dropped “graphic design” as a course name several years ago.

    On the other hand, only yesterday, I was talking to a well-established British educator and writer who is happy with the term, which is still used as a course description. She believes that the students who sign up to study graphic design are happy with it, too.

    There is no doubt that some designers are still wedded to graphic design as a professional description, perhaps for emotional reasons because this was the field they entered. To call themselves a graphic designer is source of pride.

    Clearly, we are in a state of flux and there is no generally agreed view of the issue. Still, I don’t believe that the term has much of a future, although the processes of communication to which it refers clearly do.

    Best wishes,
    Rick Poynor

    Reply
  29. Juan Madrigal

    The whole conversation about the “Graphic Design” term is endless…

    I still feel that I’m a “Graphic Designer”, but I have to say that “Communication Design” rather than being the best option, it might be the only one.
    If “Communication Design” is what we’re called now in other countries and by ICOGRADA (“Icograda is the world body for professional graphic design and visual communication”), we don’t have another choice than rename our profession as “Communication Design”.
    It doesn’t make sense if we (Canada) have a different name than the rest of the world; well, it seems that the term has been already assimilated or is going to be.

    I love print, and I’m going to feel as a graphic designer even if I almost agree on the “Communication Design” term.
    “Visual design” is weak and “Design” happens to be too wide and ambiguous.
    “Graphic Communications Design” could be the answer or the point in between, but it’s a little bit too long.

    I don’t agree on most of the overly-thought explanations about why the name should be changed.
    I believe in the evolution and progress of our métier, but falling in a vague discussion saying that the word “communication” “communicates” more than “graphic” it’s a waste of time and it’s really redundant.
    If it happens to be that you’re an ultra-specialized designer that never felt the term “graphic” made justice for you, it might be that “communication” is not going to be enough for a lot of professionals like you.

    But what if I’m not that faraway from “graphic”, if I don’t want to be “beyond graphic” at all, what I want to stay flat and two dimensional? That doesn’t mean I don’t create, develop, conceptualize, research, design and direct professionally every project.
    The validity of this whole controversy is that we might be able to standardize and regulate our professional position, not a list of what we are and what we’re not.

    It is also worth to examine other professions.
    Architecture:
    Around the world you can only call your self an Architect, only if you are “licensed” or “registered”. Then is not about a name, it’s about an entity who rules the profession and protects the Architects from the self-taught or self-called Architects.
    You’re an Architect or a draftsman (CAD operator) by law. An architect can do the job of a draftsman, but a draftsman can’t do the work of an architect (legally speaking).
    It’s the same term all over the world; Architect, Architecte, Arquitecto, Architekt, Architetto, etc. You don’t have to speak English, French, Spanish, German and Italian to know the meaning of each of these words.

    Engineer:
    In most of Europe, North & South America the term “engineer” it’s so broad that there’s all kind of engineers and self-called engineers. When a specific term, as a Mechanical, Civil or Chemical is added to the word Engineer, they’re protected and regulated by a professional council. Even being limited by law, there’s technicians that called them self’s engineers, but you won’t be able to work as a Civil Engineer if your not a licensed one.

    The point is, we can change our profession title and create confusion among the rest of the non-designer human-beings, but if we are regulated, licensed or registered, and we hold the same term as most of our professional colleagues from abroad, then somebody who cracked a design software and downloaded some tutorials won’t be able to pretend that is one of us, and the business community would believe and relly on what we do.
    And most important, we’ll hold the same title within Canada, which is good for our profession.

    We might change design’s history…

    Juan Madrigal MGDC
    Communications VP
    GDC BC Chapter

    Reply
  30. Haig Armen

    Mark has raised a very interesting question indeed. The conversation has come up more than a few times here in the Industrial Brand studio and although there seems to be no clear answer, two distinct questions have immerged.

    Is Graphic Designer an appropriate term for our profession?

    Is Graphic Designers of Canada an appropriate name for the organization?

    graphic Designer = desktop publisher

    Calling myself a Graphic Designer has never sat well with me. Even 10 years ago when I was just beginning to establish myself in the Montreal design industry labeling myself a graphic designer seemed to not encompass the skills and talents that were used to deliver logos, book designs, music artwork and websites. Aspects of my background in Architecture and Jazz Composition, came into play daily and still do. Graphic Designer just seemed to cheapen the profession.

    At the core of the question is not how we see ourselves but how the world outside of the design community sees our profession. It’s a question of communication, does telling someone that you are a Communication Designer give them a good idea of what you do or does it actually convolute the notion of designing.

    graphic designer = designer – (strategy + concept)

    For a week now I’ve been introducing myself as a Communications Designer as a test and it’s usually met with an tilt of the head and a look of confusion. Communication aspect implies text and words to most people even if it’s followed by the word designer.

    communication designer = (marketing + text)/visuals > planning ~ confusion@#$

    It should come as no surprise that the GDC has never peaked my interest, although from what Mark has told me it definitely should have. Could it have been in the name?

    Graphic Designers of Canada always sounded like an old stodgy institution, which leads me to the second question…

    drop the adjective
    If the term Graphic Design feels like just a subset of what we do, why coin a new term? Why not just use the term Designer to include & attract the interactive designers, motion graphics designers, typographers.

    Haig Armen

    Reply
  31. david hewitson

    As creative professionals, we have the ability to document, criticize, represent, symbolize, energize, inspire, and define our world; to date the profession of graphic design has fallen short of using these abilities to brand it’s own worth. The title ‘Communication Designer’ is a great starting point to reflect the evolution of our interdisciplinary craft and educate where it’s going.

    Reply
  32. Marian Bantjes MGDC

    Mark has asked me to comment here, and I regret that I have not read all of the comments previous to mine, which is very bad blog etiquette, so I apologize if I repeat anything that has already been said.

    While I support Mark’s right to pose the question to the GDC, I think that this debate is a red herring. The huge amount of time and energy and debating (and cost of renaming and reprinting and “re-branding”) would be much better served promoting the things the GDC wants to promote about the profession, regardless of what it is called.

    I am reminded of a debate … a fight … a dogpile I ended up on the bottom of on Speak Up a couple of years back. It was about accreditation, I think, and in particular I was verbally eviscerated by Mark Kingsley and Michael Bierut. What I remember is Michael’s last words on the subject as being “Do good work.” I limped away, licking my wounds, and muttering about Americans and their individualistic perspectives, but those words stuck with me and sunk in. I now believe that it doesn’t matter what you call yourself or how much you try to engage in rhetoric about how “different” you are from all those other guys, provided you Do Good Work.

    Additionally, and at greater length, I also think this.

    Marian Bantjes, MGDC
    Former Communications VP
    GDC BC Chapter

    Reply
  33. Blair Pocock

    I don’t think we’ve used the term ‘graphic designer’ or described our services as ‘graphic’ design for years. While we recognize that the term graphic designer is probably better understood globally, (particularly outside the industry), the term no longer accurately conveys what we do (if indeed it truly ever did).

    Specifically, there’s a strategic marketing component involved in our work that is not captured by “graphic designer”…it somehow simplifies it too much…it makes it sound like we are simply laying things out so they are graphically pleasing (which we are to a degree), but it does not take into consideration the strategy and influence we are trying to achieve…for a very real business purpose.

    We feel that graphic designer is an antiquated term that doesn’t do justice to the strategic branding, corporate identity, multimedia, and communications expertise we offer our clients. It’s time to find another term and “Communication Design” is a great option to consider…though it may still require a bit of an explanation to clients, it is a discussion that allows us to more openly talk about the depth of communication design, rather than assuming the surface depth of ‘graphic’ design..

    Whatever term we decide on, it is as much or more the education of the clients and other industries as to what we actually do that will result in the biggest mind shift of all.

    Blair Pocock MGDC
    Fleming Design Group, Vancouver, BC

    Reply
  34. Michael Surtees MGDC

    From the GDC/BC Blog:

    It’s an academic question Mark. Your premise for definition is not relevant today. It might have been beneficial a decade ago, but today it’s irrelevant. A better question would have been about a mission for the relevancy of the National GDC which now is completely lost today.

    Michael Surtees MGDC
    Former GDC Communications VP

    Reply
  35. Marga Lopez MGDC

    From the GDC/BC Blog:

    I agree that the term Graphic Designer does not properly describe all aspects of the profession, but I’m not completely sure that the term Communication Design is as clear as we want it to be when speaking of what we do.

    I also agree that our profession is misunderstood by the general public and that we are the ones who need to educate them and change their perception. Possibly by changing our “title” or “description” is not enough. Either way it is our job to educate and brand ourselves properly, as an individual doing business or as a professional association.

    I think the issue is more complex than naming, it is about separating us from the amateur or Desktop publisher in a way that is more than just the title.

    I do not expect to have only “sophisticated” clients that understand the difference between a kid with photoshop abilities and my education and work experience as a Graphic Designer, Design Strategist or Communication Designer, but if the client is not that sophisticated, it is hard to make that difference noticeable. Our profession is lacking something more substantial than a mere title. It needs credibility and a change of name won’t do in my opinion.

    Many of us have a Graphic Design education under our belt, aesthetics is embedded in our brains and in the way we see the world; colour theory, typography, geometry, balance, etc… you can’t take that from the head of an educated designer and make it show on an CS application. Of course there will always be the few talented people with no former design education that make us look inadequate and that make the difference between the good use of a tool and our profession, pretty much impossible; but those are amazing people that have earned the respect of others who had the education and succeeded in a career that is very competitive and that appreciate talent to that extent. But can we call them Graphic Designers or Communication Designers just because they are talented? and should we do the same with other Desktop publishers?

    Democratization of design is about the tools being available to everyone, not about people taking credit for their abilities on the computer and start calling themselves “Graphic Designers” because they pay full price for a tool. It is up to us to differentiate our work by giving return of investment value to what we do. I think that is what will make our profession worthy, not just the name… every desktop publisher can start calling themselves “Communication Designer” just because it is the new trend.

    I think Juan nailed the problem… Our profession should be licensed or registered. I know why Architects and Engineers need to have their profession regulated, it’s because lives depends on their work abilities being validated by their education… maybe Graphic Designers won’t have that until someone dies of a case of “Bad Design by Desktop Publisher” or something in that realm : )

    I love the idea of making history… but let’s be sure we check all angles before jumping into something that might bite us back if we don’t consider the whole picture.

    Marga Lopez MGDC
    Membership VP, GDC BC Chapter

    Reply
  36. Sam Carter

    When I think of “graphic design”, I think of the “Stone Age” (lithography) and the achievements of Canadian artists like J..E. H. MacDonald. In the late 1800s he joined the Toronto Lithography Company and later, the Grip Engraving Company. He and several of his Group of Seven colleagues produced art of labels, poster and a range of printed works. This “Graphic Art” eventually became “Commercial Art”.
    From my experience, after the post 2nd World War, students entering art colleges and universities were told that “graphic art” was for individuals that wanted to make “limited edition- Fine Art prints” and sell theme through galleries or receive grants from Arts Councils and other sources.
    What was called a “Commercial Artist” became known as a “Graphic Designer” and eventually, in Post Modern times a “Communication Designer”. Now everyone wants to be called an “Artists”. Somehow, the current perception of a “Designer” is someone who in primarily commercially oriented and linked to consumption, money making, and all the problems associated with a consumer society such as advertising and branding and this issues of out of control consumption. These days some people are using the old title of “Applied Artist.” Hence, we are all artists, forget the “graphic” and forget the “designer”. – Just a thought! (grin) Prof, Sam Carter, Emily Carr Institute, Vancouver.

    Reply
  37. Walter Jungkind FGDC

    I wish to commend you for your efforts at helping to clarify the name and attributes of our profession in the new virtual environment. That was also the intent of my asking for, and attempting to define, a definition of Graphic Design. It took two years for the GDC to agree to establish a committee to do so; as you know, the result was accepted at the last GDC AGM in Edmonton. Not without some differing views expressed, as you may remember…

    In my view that definition holds up fairly well, even if the the nomenclature were changed from Graphic to Communication Design. But as many of the interesting comments you have already received pointed out: Communication Design is equally open to misinterpretation, by practitioners, by clients and the public at large. (Example: see the response received by Peter Hoang “So you make telephones”? Communication Design has long been adopted by engineers designing telephone and other electronic communication networks.

    When I was asked in 1970 to introduce a Graphic Design program at the University of Alberta (the first such program at a university in Canada), I insisted that it be named “Visual Communication Design”, partly for the above reason, and it has remained so ever since. This professional title has been more widely accepted in the educational field, and to my mind it is the more accurate. If you check dictionary definitions of design, the first and strongest element of “design” usually is purposeful planning, and that of course is also a vital element of communication design. However, planning is equally important to many other activities and cannot be claimed exclusively for Com.Des. Public speakers, playwrights, actors etc. also plan and communicate, hence further differentiation is required. Visual aspects still play a major role in our work, not merely in an aesthetic or a structural sense but also as carrier of meaning, context, emotional and cultural contents. Denying or omitting this core element seems to me obfuscating of what we can offer to clients and the public and students alike.

    And let us admit: the main reason for the confusion in society at large, meaning among public, students, clients, consumers and governments etc., is that the profession itself is largely confused, divided and seemingly unable to agree on even core elements of their competencies needed or delivered, nor finding a common denominator: an appropriate, generally approved name. The issue of “brand name” recognition also has to be addressed.

    Communicating the essential character and activities of our profession needs to become a vital purpose of GDC or whatever other name of the rose is chosen. If no agreement can be reached, the “cousin designers” with “inDesign” will take over the field.

    But the process of coming to an agreement on a change of name needs time and further discussion and must not be rashly imposed. So I am looking forward to a tolerant but fruitful meeting in Montreal.

    Best regards
    Walter Jungkind FGDC, FCSD
    Founding member and Former President GDC

    Reply
  38. Frank Piacitelli

    I’d like to second Ms. Lopez’s comment (#39) – “Our profession is lacking something more substantial than a mere title. It needs credibility and a change of name won’t do”. There’s a related post on my blog.

    Reply
  39. Rick Strong

    From the GDC/BC Blog

    Example 1: Back in 1989 when I was starting my graphic design company, I chose the term “Visual Communications Consultant”. After doing a mailout to professionals, I got a call from a medical doctor’s office asking me to see him because he had a nurse (one of the staff) who didn’t know how to talk to patients in his office or people on the phone without insulting them or otherwise not being tactful.

    I guess my letter didn’t communicate properly, because he wasn’t the only one who thought that I was providing group process skills.

    Example 2: I recently completed a complex 300 page hard cover book with lots of 4c plates, the works. Even though I showed an accountant friend the actual finished product, he didn’t “get” the specific work I had done until I showed him a series of the actual design boards.

    Of course, design and layout weren’t the only things I brought to the project. There were project management, marketing, editing, photography, print production and, yes, group process skills as part of the whole package.

    So, “Graphic Designer” doesn’t say it all, but if the vast majority don’t understand the business, “Communication Whatsit” won’t do it either.

    Rick Strong

    Reply
  40. Mark Busse

    Anyone interested enough to still be reading this should really take a few minutes to read Marian Bantjes’ essay “Untitled” on Speak Up. As usual, it’s thoughtful, well written and has caused a flurry of debate in the comments, though somehow the discussion sunk into the old debate about the difference between art and design.

    Reply
  41. Brenda Sanderson

    Mark, Marion, Walter and all –

    It is wonderful to read this post and the various perspectives on defining the profession for today and tomorrow. Yes, those are my words in the official Icograda postion at the beginning of this post, however they are a summary of the discussions that engaged Icograda board members representing South Africa, Denmark, South Korea, Canada, Qatar, Australia, Brazil and the United States.

    The World Bank estimates that in G7 countries more than 50% of consumer spending is now on outputs from creative industries, and that globally the creative industries account for 7% of world GDP. But where does design rank within that contribution?

    When we can agree on how we define our profession, and the activities that fall under the umbrella of that label, we will be making a significant step towards the credibility that more than a few of you have highlighted.

    I look forward to seeing you all in Montreal for the GDC AGM – it promises to be a spirited debate. The outcomes will be especially relevant to the discussion at the Icograda General Assembly in La Habana, Cuba this October, when the topic will be considered in an international forum.

    “Communicating the essential character and activities of our profession” is the vital role that the GDC has played for 50 years. Walter, thank you.

    Brenda Sanderson MGDC
    Director, Icograda

    Reply
  42. Don Eglinksi

    “If I’m going to talk about design, that purely arbitrary and immensely human construct, I should say that by design I mean the process both physical and mental by which people give an order to objects, community, environments and behavior.” —Bill Stumpf

    I think the GDC should focus more on what and how they do it, the standards that define that process, and learning from orgs such as the AIGA and RGD. Changing the moniker does nothing if the processes remain the same (and outdated, I might add).

    Don Eglinksi

    Reply
  43. Cat Morley

    “Even if Graphic Designer is what people know, they still don’t understand what we do” (from the Vancouver GD group)

    This is so true. When discussing what I do, if I mention GD, eyes glaze over.

    Graphic Designer = has a copy of Photoshop

    Communication Designer = offers a wide range of services, has experience and knowledge behind them, is serious and in for the long haul

    Reply
  44. Jon Whipple

    From the GDC/BC Blog

    I am a Graphic Designer. Still. Ironically, before I got my MGDC, I would tend to refer to myself as a designer, a visual designer, or a communications designer. The fact that there was a GDC and a portfolio review made it all the more important to me to stretch myself and the gain the skills and experience that I would need to show others I was a professional too.

    Because of the scope and domains of your endeavours at IBC, you are obviously interested in all the things that graphic design touches, and I suspect your search for a more apt and useful term in your business activity is the motivation behind your return to this subject.

    I have always imagined that graphic design is at the epicentre of all symbolic design and there are few if any design pursuits that are not affected by graphical expression in some way. Graphic design is a common thread in all visual communication, in some cases providing a foundation in others a finishing touch, but it remains present nonetheless.

    For myself, Graphic Designer is more than adequate. It’s perfect.

    Jon Whipple MGDC

    Reply
  45. Yves Rouselle

    From the GDC/BC Blog

    I am more than a little torn on this subject. Two years ago, Walter Jungkind and I polled different designers and organizations in hopes of finding common language we could hang onto as we attempted to revisit the GDC’s definition of our profession. I personally believe that this kind of work is central to the mandate of any professional body. We must be in a position of leadership, and providing guidance to our members and the public. We did not review the name we use for our profession or for that matter the name incorporated into our Society. But I am not adverse to questioning it, in fact I encourage it.

    Many of my clients seem to be very confused in regards to what we offer as designers, what our capabilities are and so on. On many occasions I’ve had clients tell me that our firm is not graphic design because we don’t fit their understanding of what graphic design is and where a designer starts or ends. I believe that is partly due to changing times, it is partly due to the fact that all designers are different with different aptitudes, skills and interest, and lastly due to our professions lack of promotion and awareness.

    The name has not helped me, but then neither have any other monickers I’ve tried out with the exception of “Yves”. And even that is a bit of a stretch in english Canada.

    So whilst I encourage the debate my belief is that the path to success lay in the promotion of our profession. I would like to think that a new name would solve our problems. However I think we would get further, faster, by strengthening our brand awareness and getting our message out to business, government and educators. A strong communications plan explaining the value of design to business would get us much further along. And this debate does play a part in getting more people involved in a dialogue about the benefits our profession has to offer.

    Yves Rouselle MGDC
    Past President, GDC/BC

    Reply
  46. Tony Goff

    Interesting read, I’ve personally never been one for titles and have for many years now simply called myself a Designer. Call me strange but to me that sums it up pretty well. I may design for brands or communications but it varies with the project and the client.

    On a related note my current work place (a leading digital agency in London) calls me a Creative…which also works for me.

    Reply
  47. Matthew Clark

    Hey, Mark. Just to lambaste you even more, may I point out that you have 6 sections in your website’s “Work” section: Branding, Advertising, Communication Design, Interactive, Environmental, and Other. The work which you have showcased in “Communication Design” includes sales kits, conference materials, direct mail and annual reports, to name a few. And, rightly so. I agree, this IS Communication Design. By your own website’s admission, Communication Design is merely a subset of “design” as a whole.

    More curious still, your name, “Industrial Brand Creative” seems to flatly offer a perspective: you do a) design or “creative” and b) you do branding.

    I guess it just takes me back to my branding comments (previous caustic post), and I think, the importance of being more concerned with the quality of work we do and the way we educate our clients about the many, many facets and roles of the “designer”, and not thinking that a terminology change will affect any measurable change.

    Reply
  48. Miles Harrison

    I have to tell you that while sifting through the depths of the SGDC pages I was raptured by the polling questions and felt compelled to answer only one: the one about about the dusty “Graphic Designer” moniker. I answered “no” and was surprised to see myself in the minority.

    I realize this discussion has been coursing through the veins of design for some time and has resurged with the advent of blogs and streamlined communication but I hadn’t considered these fairly recent tech advancements as yet another reason for change.

    Despite following others who (prematurely in my opinion) have abandoned the “Graphic” portion, I believe “Graphic” is a distinguishing “feature” of the phrase and ideology. Everyone still shortens the discipline to simply “Graphics”. Don’t forget that the “Graphic” in Graphic Design was shortened from the previously widely used “Graphic Communications” terminology.The definition of Graphic is too intrinsically tied to exactly what we do and manipulate to dismiss it outright. The problem is that Webster has yet to expand the word “Graphic” into the digital age and there is no all encompassing term for Traditional Graphics AND Digital Media as one body or discipline. I believe they will, in the future, redefine their definition to include these disciplines.

    It irks me that that the term “Graphologist” has been snapped up by handwriting experts. It would be perfect to have to have “logist” in the title since it is also from the root “logos”.

    Now “Designer” is also a succinct term although I am not entirely opposed to drop it or change it in the same sense that an an Architect is also a Designer but they do not deem it necessary to refer to themselves as Architectural Designers. They are Designers and their discipline is Design but we all understand stand this and don’t need it explained in their title.

    I believe the strategic road should be that we retain “Graphic” and we should concentrate on a modifier or a 3rd word to expand the field term in the spirit and manner as the field has actually itself expanded. The modifier would also elevate the perception that we are merely pixel pushers, prepress trouble-shooters or desktop publishers.

    This would leave rise to terms such as “Graphic Linguistic Designer”, “Graphic Information Designer”, “Graphic Concept Designer”. Perhaps it’s as simple as reinstating the “Communication” modifier in “Graphic Communication” ?

    A second option would be to also refine or drop “Designer”. This may not be as horrific as as it first sounds. “Graphic Communicator”, or ” Graphic Information Architect” (ala Tufte), or “Graphic Strategist”, or “Conceptual Engineer” all come to mind.

    Other words/terms that keep me changing my mind include the much used “Visual”, “Media”, “Creative” and I keep thinking that perhaps “Casting” may belong…”Creative Visual Digital Media Casting”? hmmmmmm

    Keeping the dream alive…
    Miles Harrison
    http://www.aldrichpears.com

    Reply
  49. SMR

    As a student I hope that you will all be encouraged to hear that universities are beginning to teach “Graphic Design” as more than simply the construction of a pretty picture. Through my years in school I have learned that design requires more than an aesthetically pleasing image; it requires a specific message. If the image fails to communicate it does not matter how great the image looks; it still fails to fulfill its purpose.

    Reply
  50. Sharisa Petrowsky

    Nearing graduation this spring, I fully appreciate this argument as I too have recently been struggling with the idea of becoming a “graphic designer.” Don’t get me wrong, I have a passion and eagerness for design and find the opportunities the profession has to offer to be more exciting and diverse with each encounter in this flux market. Yet, recent experiences have come to make me question the appropriateness of “graphic” in the title “graphic designer.” At my recent place of employment I have found my co-workers interchangeably use the terms: graphic designer, graphics designer, graphic artist, etc. Which invariably seem to assimilate my profession primarily with pictures and images, a mere layout artist. It’s frustrating to me that clients I have, even the clients I don’t have, just the whole annoying failure of the world at large (even my closest friends and family) to recognize and understand what it is I do. “Graphic designer” inherently connotates that I make graphic images: pictures, illustrations, layouts, charts, diagrams, graphs. Yet, I do not think this could be more off base from what we actually do as designers. I agree that much of what we do as professionals is based on style and aesthetics. Our designs must be attractive and well thought in order to get individuals attention in the fast-paced environment we exist, but this is in addition to the more important artistic translation of concepts, strategies, sound, animation, interactive, web, environmental, message making solutions that efficiently satisfy our clients’ design problems. Overall I think the attitude toward design itself is beginning to change. Maybe this is partially due to the wide expanses in computer revolution and multimedia phenomena but the role of so called “graphic designers” has come to extend far beyond the historical associations with typography, layout, and design that resulted in visual identity for print. When I introduce myself as a graphic designer I feel like there are a small circle of similar responses: “So what is it exactly you do?” “You make logos and ‘stuff.’ That’s cool.” “Interesting.” And then there’s the always all too common, “Ohhhhh, so you’re an art major.” I think it’s time to take back (if we ever had any) the respect and admirability that our creative and conceptual skills deserve. It’s frustrating to me how much of our professional careers are misinterpreted by society. In general terms and maybe this is a biased opinion because I am a designer myself, but I feel that designers are intelligent, curious, well informed people with exceptional critical thinking skills that that ultimately assist in making the world function as a smooth and well oiled machine. My view is that the adjective “graphic” is somewhat limiting and doesn’t say enough about what we do as designers. Despite common misconceptions there is a large large difference between producing graphically appealing “pretty” and “professional” designs vs. “embracing the reality of design as a process, as a means of creating communication solutions” as Mark Busse so elegantly put it himself. Lately it has been very aggravating working with clients who tell me “make this look professional” or “clean it up” without being given any information relative to my audience, context, how it will be used, or what the heck it’s even for without having to ask myself. Without that knowledge it seems like designing something successful is just a flat out shot in the dark. And if that means this is what being a graphic designer is about, then I am not. I don’t know if changing our professional title is the complete solution, but I think it might help clean up some of the misconceptions people have about what we actually do in our professional careers. More and more I feel as if I am hearing the terms “communication design” and “information design” being thrown around and maybe that is a good sign that “graphic design” is on its way out. In addition, some individuals feel (designers included) that changing our name will damage the reputation we have earned as capital G “Graphic Designers” throughout history. Yet in my personal reality and experiences we don’t even have a reputation. At large I am surrounded by people who think I “just” make logos. So what is in a name? For me personally, considering this is what I want to spend the rest of my life pursuing, I think there’s A LOT to be said about a name. A name is extremely impressionable upon outsiders unfamiliar with the field and important when promoting our values, beliefs, ultimately what we stand for to the business world. It’s a legitimate debate and something of definite relevance we all need to begin considering as designers, but whether we keep this old terminology or revamp our own identity with a new professional title there is a higher call and responsibility for us to begin working together educating and facilitating a global interest and understanding in the value and relevance of designers.

    Reply
  51. Doug

    “As I imagine the next ten years and a continuing trend of ‘design democratization’ where anyone with Adobe Creative Suite, camera, printer and Internet access can potentially teach themselves the basics and begin selling their services as a ‘graphic designer’….”

    I am reminded of a line from On Writing, by Stephen King, “A good writer can become better, but a bad writer can never become good.”

    Only the intervention of talent can render the truly gifted from the truly bad.

    Reply
  52. Anas Shanti | Brandevise

    Bottom-line! although the term “Graphic Designer” best describe a designer involved in the the graphical part of design, but if you ask what is graphic design, i personally don’t have an answer, all i know that a graphic designer creates graphical elements, that goes on print or web or any other media, you can of course argue forever about this, for example, a logo is a graphical element, therefore the designer who designed that logo is a graphic designer right!

    Nowadays, designers are looking for an alternative title to describe what they do and honestly they do allot and they need to feel appreciated, designers are regularly exposed to a ridiculous amount of information that they have to deal with.

    Now! A “Communication Designer” literary means “us who are able to design communication”; do we really?! we actually don’t design communication, communication comes to us designed already. our job it to covey this information to the public. isn’t it true that some great designers cannot clearly communicate themselves!

    communications require -as far as i know- two factors; sending & receiving information, in this case we need results.

    that’s why we are not in the business of communication, yes we contribute and improve ways of communication, but communication itself is an Art by it self. so let us stop giving our selves names that we shouldn’t.

    our involvement in the communication part is in our ability to understand and comprehend information briefed to us by the client so that we could visually render it for the targeted audience.

    So what are we designers for then? hmmm.

    I believe a “Brand Designer” is more descriptive, businesses commonly use the word “Brand/s” so let’s not worry them not understanding what we do if we say we are “Brand Designers” they will get it. designers actual role is to deliver a message that drive sales, that’s our job. if you are still in it for the money!! 🙂

    Reply
  53. Mark Busse

    Here’s an interesting take on this issue of what to call ourselves on Icograda’s blog.

    I agree with Roy Clucas that it’s time for a change, though I’m not sure I like the sound of “Informatic Visiography” as an alternative to “Communication Design”.

    Ahh, the debate goes on.

    Reply
  54. jonas

    Visual design

    Visual Design is the design working in any media or support of visual communication[1][2][3]. This is a correct terminology to cover all types of design applied in communication that uses visual channel for transmission of messages[4][5][6], precisely because this term relate to the concept of visual language of some media and not limited to support a particular form of production, as do the terms graphic design (graphic)[7] or Interface design (electronic media).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_design

    Reply
  55. Nandini Ramakuru

    Mark,

    I really liked the method you used to get people’s attention. Totally got my attention. And definitely provoked me to think immediately.

    But I’m writing to thank you for explaining the exact meaning of “graphic design” and how it has now evolved into “visual communication”. Reading it has made the whole thing crystal clear now. And now finally I can wrap my head round it.

    I’m a student of architecture and wanted to pursue a purer form of design in the future. So I have been looking up all my options. But somehow I was always stumped when I looked for “graphic design” or “visual communication”, and yes I definitely wikied it, which got me even more confused by the end. But your explanation was so precise and to the point. It’s almost black and white now.

    I write this mainly out of appreciation and gratitude for now I have a clearer idea in my head as to what I want to do.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  56. Marc-Oliver

    Interesting article. I really enjoyed it and have to add some thoughts. Let me put it this way; Graphic Designers just made things look pretty and information easy to consume. Back in the days they were at the end of a long developing process, were business and marketing guys were sitting on the same table to discuss the next steps and tell other people excactly what to do – including graphic designers.

    Nowadays designers sit on this table. In some cases, they are the leaders – the visionary people. Think of the iMac designer or the designer of the social media campaign for Obama. You just can’t call them “graphic designers” anymore. And the work they do, is often not graphic design at all.

    Regards,
    Marc-Oliver

    Reply
  57. Mike

    Interesting, but I’m with Matt SamyciaWood.
    Even if there’s a unanimous agreement within the community to change your name, what’s to stop all the amateurs from taking that name too? Heck, maybe I’ll take the term now, after all I edited one line of CSS in my wordpress theme 😉

    Reply
  58. Chris Donnelly

    Wonderful debate!
    I have struggled with this for years, and have never put a stand alone “Graphic Designer” tagline as the the job description on my business card. What started out as “Visual Communicator” evolved to “Communications Designer”, both of which were met with the cocked head and blank stare. I am not sure that either title did me a great deal of good in the beginning. I can only imagine how many potential clients threw away my business cards, thinking that they didn’t need my services.

    communications = does she set up phones?
    visual = is she a painter?

    In the past few years I have stopped trying to fit what I do into a one word tagline – because there is no word that encompasses everything that we do. I don’t try to pigeonhole myself into any one role, and yes, I am very guilty of fluctuating between a few different titles. But isn’t that the nature of our work ?

    My current business card says “Graphic Design Strategist + Brand Communications.” It works, for now. n the future I may change it back to “Communication Strategist + Graphic Design.”

    I imagine that I will always KEEP the word “graphic” because I find it’s a great reference point for clients and people who might think that I work in a completely different industry. (Telecommunications)

    I don’t fret the duality of my title. I wear a thousand hats a week and am delighted to pare it down to two concepts.

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  59. s

    I totally agree with this whole name confusion of things. I sometimes call myself a Graphic Designer to ‘dumb down’ to those folk who would otherwise require a long explanation of the plethorer of digital skills I have.

    I studied Multimedia and Animation and that is exactly what my title is – a Multimedia Designer and Character Animator. I very rarely do design and in fact think I suck at it, blank page syndrome.. But everything else, sound, film, animation, motion, graphics..

    Anyway, I think Digital Developer has a nice ring to it. Communications does get confused with Telecommunications. Media gets confused with TV or journalists or newspapers. People need an explanation of Multimedia..

    Im pretty sure the term Developer is reserved for those more behind the scene coders (which I can also do) but like I said, Im a poor designer.

    There seems to be all these new terminologies popping up like motion graphics designer (Im guessing thats the motion graphics used on tv ads?) and some of them Im not even sure of. Do theses people really have such specific jobs and is that all they do all day? Am I in the minority where I can do everything and if so, why does the term ‘Generalist’ make me feel bad for not being.. er.. ‘Specific’ and therefore more focused and better at what I do?

    So.. Digital Developer? Or does that give you an image of green code running down the screen?

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  60. Kirk

    I hear you. But just as everyone has Photoshop and a PC these days or even a Mac, we’ve always had pencils and paints. It doesn’t make everyone an artist.

    The problem is technology convincing stupid people they’re being creative. Just as the art of great web design is to make a site that makes people feel clever through its own simplicity and ease of use, new software has convinced the sort of people that would once run screaming from a Lithographic Printing Press screaming that they can compete.

    Having Nikes doesn’t mean I’m gonna run a mile in 3:30. We all have to know our limitations. Creative Design is devalued and other professions and skills will follow. Programming is already going down the tubes (Thank God – any other designers glad to see the back of having to deal with some prick on twice the money you are and half the ability?)

    The thing is, people are stupider! That rant that someone linked to where the idiot rants about people’s creative MySpace pages – who designed the template that they’re customising? Again an example of non-creative people kidding themselves.

    And because people are that stupid, renaming myself a Communications Designer is a real bad idea. Why? Because it causes confusion. And why’s that bad? Because you do not want to confuse potential clients. The internet age has already seemingly lopped 20 off the collective IQ so any ambiguity in a job title is just going to lead to trouble.

    Me, I tell ’em what they want to hear. I’m a Graphic Designer while they pay their bills and a crazy bastard if they don’t.

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  61. Tracy Houston

    I think we need a Canadian Graphic Design Association and United States Graphic Design Association etc. Encourage through the accredited Visual Communications/ Graphic Design colleges throughout the countries they are automatically enrolled upon graduation and all past graduated students from the list of recognized accredited schools are encouraged to enroll. Have a 2 yr license for the trade as a grapphic designer that is renewed every two years for a small fee. To enroll in the association you are to provide proof of your accredicated education with a photocopy and transcript from your school. This will separate the self taught graphic designers by the schooled designers with diplomas. We can then use the Term ex: Licensed Graphic Designer by the Canadian Association of Graphic Design or Licensed Canadian Graphic Designer or Graphic Design CGD Licensed.

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  62. Roberto Blake

    While its true that we are Graphic Designers, I think the issue is that many of us are no longer “just” Graphic Designers.

    I had been working in photography, video production and web design and entry level programming before I even left high school. By the time I hit college and started Design classes, I saw that the future was going to be in designing across all Media instead of specializing in Print or Web (which is what they tried to force you to do back then.)

    I think most of us became what I think of as “Media Producers” a long time ago. But as others have said the Wizards First Rule is in play…”People Are Stupid…”, if you have the benchmarks and experience I recommend using the title “Senior Graphic Designer”.

    There are a few reasons, that difference usually allows one to command a 20% higher margin, and the other is that it commands the respect that makes people “shut up” long enough for you to make a point, and they argue with your methods less. (At least that was my experience).

    Most designers who have been at this for 6 years or more on top of their school education are probably qualified as: Graphic Designers, Creative Directors, Brand Developers, Production Artist, as well as Illustrators and Web Designers.

    However getting people to grasp the range of one’s abilities and that one can do it all and o it all well because, well frankly clients are employers are “uninitiated” most of the time and don’t realize how much overlap their is in Media skill sets and how important the communication, strategic and creative skills are.

    Even if they were, the issue is also that they are/were they wouldn’t want to fork over the appropriate amount of money to just one person. Its less cost effective but they would feel more comfortable hiring 5 people, to work slowly and twiddle their thumbs just so they can feel they have a “team of experts, or specialist” rather than understand that not unlike a computer or smartphone, the right person can accomplish a multitude of task, just as well or better.

    While I like the term Digital Director and feel is appropriate, it may be too broad. Even Digital Media Director still feels a bit “cluggy”.

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  63. Doc Brown

    I wouldn’t have been so attracted to graphic design if it was called “communication design”.
    Although I did become a much better communicator by studying graphic design, I don’t think it is just about about communication.
    It should probably be called “visual design”. Because that’s what it is. It’s not sound design. It’s not smell design. It’s visual design.

    It’s certainly visual, but it’s not art, so I think if you call yourself a visual artist, it is a bit misleading because in some cases you take other media such as photographs, body text, typography and illustrations and whack it altogether into a design. Someone has to do it, but I don’t even think that should be compared to art.

    Much is the same with industrial design now being called product design.
    I actually prefer the ‘industrial’ designation there too…
    I just find the word ‘product’ to fall flat when you put it next to that great word ‘design’.

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  64. clippingmaskasia

    Though you are not a graphic designer you have conveyed some very important information. You have mentioned some really true face about a sophisticated graphic designer that many of us don’t want to confess.

    Reply

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