I often talk about choosing a concept to lead your design; a central idea that provides the underlying logic, thought, and reasoning for most of the decisions that follow. A concept is a constraint you create to guide you.
Last week I wondered if we could define a more general concept at a higher level of our work. A concept not for a specific project, but for the entirely of projects we take on. I wondered aloud if our industry allows us to act nobly and think larger by setting a concept for the whole of our work.
About a year ago I read Graphic Design: A New History by Stephen Eskilon. In his closing remarks, Eskilon kicked things one level higher by asking what’s the raison d’être or conceptual core of the entire design industry.
The Quest for Meaning
Starting in the mid 19th century Eskilon’s book discusses various schools of design and influential designers across different eras. Underlying the organization of the different schools and designers are the ideas that drove them. The book takes on graphic design history through the lens of what each era of designers tried to achieve on a larger scale.
In the closing pages Eskilon mentions a few of these different groups of designers and points to their raison d’être, their reason for existence as designers.
- Late 19th century designers — wanted to raise the quality of industrial goods
- The Dadaists — wanted to subvert western society
- Practitioners of the New Typography — wanted to create a universal language of the machine
- Designers of the International Style — wanted to create a modern design solution for their clients
- Postmodernists (1970s and 1980s) — wanted to reject the orthodoxy of the international style and experiment with new technology
A few question were left hanging. What’s next? What purpose unites the designers of today? What are we trying to achieve on a larger scale?
The quest for meaning in graphic design is partly a product of its artistic side. While accountants or engineers are not usually beset with finding larger meaning in their work, graphic designers often have asked abstract questions along these lines.
What is our quest for meaning? Do we have one? Do we need one? As I said last week, I think serving clients is an honorable thing to do. Two of the groups above have the client/customer relationship at their core.
If your reasons for having a career in web design revolve around it being an enjoyable way to put food on the table for you and your family, I both agree and think it’s a perfectly valid reason for choosing the profession. My goal isn’t to suggest otherwise.
Rather I’d like us to think and wonder if there’s something more. Web designers from those who lean toward the graphic to those who lean toward the code, have this artistic side Eskilon mentions. Perhaps not all of us, but I think many of us are people who, for better or worse, seek to find larger meaning in our work.
What is our Conceptual Core?
I don’t know.
Even if I could define a raison d’être for myself, no one person defines the purpose of an entire industry of designers. One person can ask questions though.
- What values do you hold and believe in?
- What wrongs and injustices do you react against?
- What do you hope to achieve beyond your day-to-day work?
- What has meaning in your life that you want to share with others?
- What would you like to change as a result of your life and work?
When I look around at the things we share as an industry, we’re good at digging into technical challenges and finding solutions to technical problems. While the web has seemingly been with us a long time (for some their entire lives) it’s still very, very young. Much is and still needs to be worked out.
Is this our core? To work these solutions for future generations of designers? Are we to be like the designers of the International Style seeking a modern design solution for clients.
Given how quickly technology changes I think every generation of web designer is going to be dealing with technical change and seeking modern solutions. I doubt this single purpose will guide all designers for all time.
Perhaps our core is solution oriented. Perhaps it’s to guide the transition from print to web, which is still underway. I think there’s room for something more though. Solving technical challenges seems to now fall under the category of our day-to-day work.
I’ve thought about some of the words that are often used in the industry.
Is there something in these words that suggests a larger meaning? Are we reacting against the complexity of our world and seeking to provide more of the simple? Are the flexible, modular, and responsive solutions we put forth a comment on an ever more unknowable world and how best to deal with it?
As a culture we seem to live in a binary world where balance exists only through equal and opposite polar extremes. We believe in 1 or 0, but nothing in between. From politics to operating system flame wars we choose a side and declare all others wrong. We alternate between physical and virtual worlds. Is there something there to drive us as an industry and gives us purpose?
Is it Me?
I also wonder if these questions are just me. Do I think of the industry because I’ve yet to define my own conceptual core? Am I pushing these questions to you in order to avoid answering them for myself? Have I yet to find the voice with which I wish to speak?
For the industry to hold a conceptual core it would require those who work in it to first define their own conceptual core and influence each other until a mass of us are working toward the same thing.
I can’t say I’ve done that for myself. I know something of my voice finds its way into both my design and writing. It would be impossible for it not to. Like most, I am full of opinions and continue to refine who I am and what I believe and seek to uncover if a central and deeper meaning underlies it all.
I’m thinking out loud here, mainly in the hopes of getting you to think along with me. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it is enough to immerse ourselves in the day-to-day of the projects before us. That day-to-day is what attracted me and probably you to the industry in the first place.
Maybe it’s not for us to define and whatever lies at our core as an industry is something that only future generations can see.
Still I think there’s something more. The artist inside me has always sought to find the larger meaning in my life, the time in which I live, and the work I do.
Do you feel the same? Is there a concept that defines your work? Do you think there is or should be one for the industry?
If you liked this post, consider buying my book Design Fundamentals