The cultural power of visual design
The cultural power of educated visual design has become a pressing matter due to the pervasiveness and ubiquity of instant digital visual media and the leaning towards a popular stream of visual communication, with the power to broadcast messages increasingly falling towards the commonly untrained and uneducated citizen and not just the image professional.
Let’s start by clarifying the notion of visual design. It departs from the concept of communication design, an area that includes but is not limited to graphic design, and expands to embrace all areas of visual creation, regardless of their medium, that deal with the creation and transmission on visual messages. In short: if it’s visual and was created deliberately, we can call it visual design.
From a historical point of view, the visual designer’s task has been to transmit contents. Typically, their task consists of being given contents by a client and then finding the best way to transmit those contents visually. So the visual designer’s task has been quite straightforward throughout times: to lay out images and letters on a surface.
It seems like child-play. The thing is, too many variants come into play, which prevents us from being free to just go and exploit this playfulness however we want to. The foremost of these limitations is inherent to the activity: laying coloured shapes on surfaces is a complex task of infinite possibilities. People get haunted all the time by the numerous possibilities and so arises the need to limit them. When clear bounds are set by the assignment itself, visual communicators get partially relieved from the stress of choosing their way, but when no boundaries are established they may tend to feel lost. Especially nowadays, when visual design must be open to all aspects of visual culture.
Adding to this, no one creates from scratch: the Zeitgeist is global and not only do we have to bear this fact in mind but we also have to create from that knowledge, for it represents the visual culture of our audience. So visual designers perform mainly on—and for—a specific cultural context, but that context gets more and more global each day. On top of that, the visual designer’s client must always be the public, and not just the person signing the check, thus exposing the designers’ visual work to the judgment of many and not just one.
Traditionally, art and design sell us our visual culture: the artist sells his own vision and the designer sells someone else’s. This might have been clearer in the past but it’s getting progressively blurred, as we watch manifestations of ego from designers being supported by commercial clients and artists eager to attend to their patrons’ expectations.
So we should ask ourselves: what does society expect from visual design? And, more importantly, what does visual design expect from society? Nowadays, employers and clients typically require cheap, fast and replaceable hand labour, but a visual designer mustn’t be any of this, because they should be cultural agents and be recognized as such: no longer the people who have an eye for matching colours or typefaces, but the professionals who have a great cultural awareness and act on that.
MA Design Course Leader
London School of Design and Marketing