Judging by the design blogs, the chatter at conferences and award ceremonies, and the rhetoric in the magazines, graphic design is a profession where insecurity and doubt are rife. Whenever graphic designers get together, the talk invariably gravitates towards the default topics of restrictive clients, inadequate remuneration and graphic design's junior status in the contemporary media family. It reminds me of Walter Sobchak, the psychopathic character played by John Goodman in the film The Big Lebowski
and his warning to everyone he encounters that they are entering a world of pain
Yet it is one of graphic design's oldest sources of discontent that causes the most pain, namely its vulnerability to client interference. A seemingly innocuous request to "make the type bigger" hardly ranks as a great sociological evil, but it pricks designers where it hurts most: it punctures our fragile sense of personal authorship. It also demonstrates that designers and clients don't often see the same thing when they look at a work of graphic design: a request to enlarge a line of type can have a ruinous effect on a layout, but it's rarely a factor that troubles a client. The designer notices, the client doesn't.
It is fashionable to talk up the idea of "graphic authorship". When we use the term we generally mean designers creating their own content as well as the package the content is delivered in. Yet this definition misses a fundamental point about graphic design, which is that all design, no matter how menial and inconsequential, is authorship. Even the designer who creates the banners for the sun-loungers in the local supermarket is engaged in an act of authorship. The attraction of making a mark that we can call our own is almost without exception the reason why we become graphic designers in the first place. It doesn't matter whether we are designing a bus ticket or a hospital signage system, we have "authored" its look, and therefore feel entitled to put a metaphorical signature on it. Tibor Kalman
famously said that he was more interested in the "message than the medium". But I wonder if Kalman (a bona fide graphic design genius) liked having his work altered by clients? I doubt it. Many designers share Kalman's belief in the pre-eminence of the message. They espouse design's purely functionalist role as a conveyor of other people's intentions. Yet I never met a designer who was happy to have his or her work meddled with. Even the most service-minded of designers become deflated when they are unable to protect their work against interference. For the designer, outright rejection is often easier to take than demands for petty changes.
Rational and fair-minded people will doubtless scoff at this "sensitivity", and accuse designers of having skins thinner than apple peel. They will point out that anyone who accepts payment for their work is a hired hand and should do the bidding of the hirer - If a client wants a 14pt telephone number enlarged to 72pt, just do it. They might also observe that people who work in insurance or warehouse distribution also have a claim to authorship in their work, and are therefore entitled to pout and stamp their feet in protest when asked to do something they object to. And in truth, it's tough to argue that designers are a special case. Yet when Paul Rand
- hardly a bleeding heart graphista - was asked what made a good client, he replied: "Most clients are nice clients. It is the people in between who give you the problems: the account executives, the marketing people. They destroy people's work: 'this should be bigger, this should be up here, there should be a sun here with a price.'"
This is not to say that graphic designers can't have discussions with clients that result in changes to their work; or that all designers resist change purely on the basis that they are sensitive flowers who can't be told when they are wrong. But there is something in the nature of graphic design that invites interference from its paymasters. Clients are rarely embarrassed to demand changes, and in modern businesses it is a sign of mercantile machismo to tell "my designer" what to do. Designers are not helped by the fact that graphic design has never been easier to change. In the digital era, every client knows that displeasing gestures can be swept away with a keystroke. And since much design has migrated to the screen, change is made easier still: websites can be tinkered with even after they have been "published".
Client interference also raises the question of perception. No two people see exactly the same thing. When viewing a piece of work, clients see one thing, designers another. In his 1943 book The Art of Seeing Aldous Huxley
called this "the mental side of seeing". Huxley observed that if a naturalist walks through a forest, they would see things that no layperson would see. It's the same with design: as soon as we become professional designers we lose the ability to look at our work in an untutored way. We see it "differently", which causes much of the frustration and antagonism that exists between clients and designers.
Clients are quick to discuss design's more abstract and intangible qualities. They talk about "warmth" and "friendliness"; about "impact" and "accessibility". They are understandably concerned with the "message" and not the aesthetic, structural and technical make-up of design. And even if they are aware of these factors, they don't attach much value to them. But without professional and technical skill, without aesthetic judgement honed from experience, without scrupulous attention to detail, "messages" are lost or neutered. When design becomes client driven, and the designer sidelined to a role of passive implementer, the result is the timid repetition of formulaic ideas and endlessly recycled stylistic poses. In fact, great design is by definition a merger of technical skill and aesthetic judgement (craft) and the delivery of a clear message (communication). This test can be applied to the work of Vaughan Oliver and Paul Rand, and both, in their own way, pass with flying colours.
But the onus is on the designer to explain why the details of graphic design are important, or to find acceptable subterfuges to preserve them. None of this is unique to design; all professions have to deal with the problem of informed perception. But it seems a particularly pressing issue in design: after all, seeing differently is a serious handicap in an activity that is principally about "seeing", and as with any handicap, we have to learn to overcome it. If we don't, we can look forward to a lifetime inhabiting Walter Sobchak's "world of pain".