WHAT IS GRAPHIC DESIGN?
To be able to talk about the role that graphic design plays in the world of Web design, we must first understand exactly what graphic design is. Having a definition, we can begin to examine the subject in detail.
So, what exactly is this thing we call “graphic design”? Katherine McCoy touches on the multi-faceted nature of the field, asking “Is graphic design art, science, business, craft or language?” She offers no definitive answer but does formulate a simple concept of graphic design in the context of its birth:
McKoy, Katherine. “American Graphic Design Expression: The Evolution of American Typography.“ Graphic Design History
A spontaneous response to the communication needs of the industrial revolution, graphic design was invented to sell the fruits of mass production to growing consumer societies. From this perspective, we might understand graphic design to be a creative act that serves to advertise. That hardly constitutes a complete definition, but it does shine a light on what might be the single most important aspect of any graphic design: communication.
It is ultimately an exercise in visual communication. That communication could be executed through a number of techniques – typography, illustration, shape, and color, for example – but the goal remains to convey information to the viewer effectively (and occasionally immediately).
It stands to reason, then, that the process of design involves making deliberate and appropriate graphical choices in order to best communicate the intended message. This applies as much to designing for the Web as it does to designing for print.
We stress the word “graphical” because that is what we are addressing here. We do recognize, however, that graphics communication in and of itself does not account for the entire scope of Web design, which includes aspects such as user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design. While these aspects of design certainly have connections to each other, they serve different functions and exist independent of one another.
UI and UX are more functions of system design, and they focus on usability and response. Does the user understand the system? Can they find and understand the navigation? Can they quickly and easily accomplish the task they set out to do? Does the system give them a positive experience? These are all questions that pertain more to UI and UX than to graphic design per SE.
It can certainly contribute to and be considered a part of these areas through many of the techniques we’ll discuss below; but to fully understand its role in Web design, we need to consider graphic design – the visual transmitter of meaning – on its own terms. Moreover, we need to understand its rich and fascinating history. Through this understanding, we can come to grasp some of the finer points of the subject.
The Language of Design
Design is more than lines, shapes, and images on a page. It encompasses a rich visual language, and digging into its history helps us see how those who came before us contributed to, defined and gave depth to this wonderful visual prose. As theories about the nature and application of design have evolved, so too has the visual language that they describe. Today, this language is firmly rooted in rich theories that have been tried and tested, written and rewritten, proven and expounded by some of the field’s greatest minds.
The better our grasp of this language, the easier it will be for us to evaluate instances of graphic design and to instinctively recognize what to keep and what to discard. These instincts evolve as our exposure to graphic design broadens and our understanding of the visual language becomes more sophisticated. Much like literature, design history contains volumes of classics to enjoy, explore and learn from.
The development of the grid has led to three different expressions of design. The first is based on the Van de Graaf canon; the second is a simple modular grid; the third an experimental geometrically based construction.
Consider the grid – on which so much thought and energy have been spent, all in an effort to understand its role in the design. The grid has been used to structure designs as brief as poems and as grand as operas. Yet many are happy to continue producing work with all the sophistication of a knock-knock joke, aligning images and text just because “it looks neat that way.” Understanding the history of design helps us avoid bad jokes.
TIMELESS DESIGN VS MOMENTARY DESIGN
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