Field Guide — Authors and thinkers By Alistair McCready

4 weeks ago by

Design is a term used in such a broad sense. For example; an engineer and a typographer are both considered designers. The word encompasses many outlooks, many outcomes, and many opinions throughout the developing world. Its intention, or meaning, often changes from conversation to conversation, and is unique to the individual. Over the years we’ve put our own attributes in front of it: graphic, industrial, spatial – all attempts at defining some form of specialisation away from those around us. Points of focus, in an otherwise obscure curriculum.

Debates rage, as we try to rationalise with one another what our ultimate outlook as designers must be. At the heart of this argument, are two parallel standpoints: design as thinker, and design as author. Whilst there are many other outlook, these two terms represent two ends of the spectrum. Sitting at odds with one another, it is usually those of the opposing view that suggest the other is wrong. This article is not about being a proponent for either viewpoint. It is simply an attempt at unpacking some ideas about both. Perhaps then, you yourself might find your own stance on the subject.

What we’re seeing is essentially a battle between a more traditional understanding of designers being artisans, masters of their craft; and strategic minds considering a way forward in a tech-centric world that grows smaller by the day. Businesses are now valuing graphic designers in ways that go far beyond the visual and deep into systems, structure and branding.

It is our ability to think the way we do, that is seen as our craft. While design industry is still very service-centric, the approach of honing one’s talent toward a specific skillset or purpose is considered an attitude of the past. The trouble with this viewpoint however, is that by assuming the age of the artisan is redundant, do we in turn lose the values that go with it.

The word author is suggestive of origination, being a creator of sorts. To somehow fit this term into the framework of a designer, therefore implies that the designer in this sense, is perhaps more of an artist. Michael Beirut has notably stated his view that the difference between design and visual art, is the client. This suggests that it is through the process of our work being commissioned, that we become designers, not by measure of our skills alone. That design does not exist unless it is for the betterment of someone else. The question then, is what attracts others to commission our work in the first place? If we do not maintain some sort of unique perspective, where lies our point of difference? And if we choose not to approach a brief with at least some notion from the author within us, how can we creatively harness what the client wishes to express? After all it is their story, through our eyes, that will make a solution innovative. It is for this reason, that computers remain the tool. The design itself comes from us as human beings.

Design thinking, on the other hand, is a term that is still rather difficult to define. Focused more on the process side of design, practitioners look to approach a question through a much broader sweep of ideas. Here, defining the problem is more, if not equally, important as finding the solution. It is less about the artisanal craft involved in executing a particular idea, and more about the ideas themselves. With the bulk of the work done in the preliminary stages of the process, this stance is seen by many as the way of the future for design in it’s broadest sense. Design centred on strategy and purpose. As with the nuances of type, it is less about the personality, and more about allowing the content or message to be clear. Removing any sense of the maker, and placing them in the position of problem solver. This is considered the lens through which we must look as design in today’s world.

The tools we use – they are both a blessing and a curse. The computer has greatly enlarged what we can achieve as designers, as well as burdening us with more tasks to master. A redefining has taken place – we still have a great need for the specialist, but the fact remains that the computer has also played a large part in removing our specialisation. Technology can never be a substitute for skill, but our culture in this part of the world does not overtly understand this. The computer has made our role as designers a lot easier, however it has also de-sensitised the general public’s opinion of what constitutes as good design. If you need your car fixed, you take it to a mechanic. If you are sick, you see a doctor. If you’re pursuing a new business venture, you save money and produce a logo or website yourself. This is what we as designers have to work with. It is also, arguably, what has brought the design world to it’s knees through the rapid influx of young, would-be design practitioners – the bottleneck that occurs between education and profession.

Due to the development of technology, design educators and practitioners have had to revisit what it means to be a designer. Sadly, it is design students who are caught in the crossfire, as tertiary institutions relentlessly attempt to decode how to turn out a successful design graduate. What is it that determines an individual’s success? The style and content of any course is dictated by the interests of the educator. Students must blindly follow this path if they want to succeed, and are made to feel incompetent should they head down any opposing route. All this does is snuff out the spark which lead them to design in the first place.

Further to this, we should consider the position that our culture places intellectual roles over those that involve more hands-on based skills. How often do we see the vocations that involve making by hand, projected as being of lower societal value than more academic fields such as math and science? We are taught from a very young age that it is our ability to think, rather than our ability to make, that measures our worth. The fact is however, that one cannot exist without the presence of the other. It is the two ends of the spectrum working in harmony that will provide us with a positive outcome.

While the world around us screams we must rise and succeed, there will always remain a need in some way, for those we call experts in their field. The issue should never be about which pathway is right or wrong, but rather what direction best reflects us as individuals. The question should not be: which side do we align to? And more about finding where on the spectrum between entrepreneur and practitioner resonates with us the best? We should pursue an understanding of both perspectives. The path of the innovator: thinking, planning, researching. As well as the role of doer: making, learning, generating. All the while we appreciate that this is likely to change in time.

Alistair McCready is a native New Zealander, currently residing in the United Kingdom. His work has been recognised through various awards and accolades, however, this is not something he generally leads with. Rather, his motivations stem from an ardent belief in the efforts of the working designer. Starting his professional life as a printer, Alistair continued in this vocation while studying design at Auckland University of Technology. He has since moved into the field of graphic design, working across a range of outputs for various clients and organisations. Alistair is both a founding member and current editor of Stemme; an annually published journal centred on design and collaboration.


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