Visual Communication, Way Finding and Universities

2 years ago by

Written by Professor Guy Littlefair

Professor Guy Littlefair The Dean of the Faculty of Design and Creative Technologies at AUT questions what role the university should have within design education

Visual Communication design is a profession that is in a constant state of change. Across the last 50 years it has morphed from Commercial Art into Graphic Design and today it operates both within and beyond print. It is seen at the forefront of not only what we communicate but also how we embrace and make sense of new and emerging technologies. Since the 1980s its parameters have been questioned and expanded by research both within and outside of universities.

The profession’s constant position at the vanguard means that universities have had to change as they have sought to provide more effective environments for research in the discipline. They have had to address the fact that many designers work in their most sophisticated ways beyond the limitations of the written word. Their methodologies are also very distinctive, often highly user-centred and their research has to address both the academy and the professions. As a result there is a constant push for clarity in writing, relevance in theory and researchers able to not only produce research but also communicate it in very sophisticated ways.

Historically the design professions have posed challenges to traditional ways that universities view research. Although many of the older disciplines like the natural, social and technical sciences appeared universities in the 1900s, there have been since that time, two substantial shifts. In the early twentieth century, new academic disciplines like education and psychology arrived and then in the 1970s and 1980s subjects like Design and Business came in from the street. While John Wood notes that disciplines like these had their culture of research situated in craft guilds, when they arrived in universities along with their professional cousins like media studies, nursing, hospitality management, and corrections, they demanded higher levels of relevance, flexibility and accessibility.

Interactive page from a illustrated magical realist novel by PhD candidate Tatiana Tavares. The book has three narrating saints, each of whose voiced-over rendition of the story is accessed through AR technology. Using the printed image as a base, the saints distort emphases in the picture to make it align with their interpretation.

AUT now stands internationally as a leader in the field of practice-led research in Design. Currently the school of Art and Design has 18 postgraduate students undertaking Visual Communication design research and there are an additional 20 candidates working across design disciplines at PhD level. Many of these researchers come from other countries and a number of them already hold theory based doctorates. Others are professionals who use these degrees to carve out independent research in an environment that can be separated from the needs of clients and commercially assurable outcomes. This means that in postgraduate programmes, sophisticated Visual Communicators are using practice-led research to develop very rich forms of creative and theoretical research. The spectrum of inquiry is very diverse. It includes everything from the design of new forms of interactive graphic novels, the creation of new systems of musical notation, the development of sustainable packaging systems, and the expansion of processes for transforming sound into three dimensional objects. At doctoral level the discipline has also encompassed historical analyses of print media, the design wayfinding systems for Thai Urban Transport and the development of digital tools for te reo language revitalisation.

As technology has expanded the parameters of print have expanded and so has opportunity. Design is now no longer a process but also a way of thinking. As a consequence  the journey towards supporting design research in universities continues to be an intriguing one. When at AUT we first offered a degree in graphic design in 1991 our aim was to combine degree level questioning with creative growth. By the end of 1994, fears about degree level education being professionally irrelevant were largely put to bed. Within three years graduates were achieving an 85% employment rate in design related professions within 2 months of graduation. Six years later the university, as part of a world-wide shift,  began extending into postgraduate degrees with a Masters in 1997 and PhDs in 2001. By the turn of the century New Zealand was already well positioned internationally for its design education and our degrees were attracting large numbers of masters and doctoral students from both Europe and Asia. These degrees continued to place professional and creative practice at their core.

Today we see Visual Communication Design as a discipline with strong historical and future focused concerns. This is why in addition to investing in the latest Virtual Reality environments we also maintain bookbinding and manual print studios. We still teach face to face but at the same time many of our students live stream their work, connecting in real time with professionals and other academics all over the world. We take seriously the nature and responsibilities of change. We look for and work with productively divergent and disruptive thinkers because we understand ourselves as part of the academy and part of our profession.


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