Why Graphic Culture Matters is a compilation of 46 thought-provoking essays by renowned design critic Rick Poynor, delving into the realms of art, design, and visual communication.
The topics covered encompass the corporate dominance in design, the evolution of design critique and its historical context, the interplay between written and visual elements, the cult of design celebrities, the established principles, the creative identity in graphic design, critical approaches to practice, and the timeless connection between art and design.
I interviewed the author, Rick Poynor to find out more.
First of all, could you tell me how the idea of the book was formed?
I’ve published three earlier collections of my essays about design. I wanted to produce a new collection that pulled together some key themes in my writing since 2000. Occasional Papers hoped for a book that had a feeling of urgency and I felt the same way. The focus of my writing is graphic communication, which I address as an aspect of visual culture that’s central to society. As a writer, I’m always questioning what I see and thinking about my own reactions to visual phenomena. I believe graphic culture is important and I’ve devoted many years to documenting and analysing it. The book’s title – Why Graphic Culture Matters – states this concern as clearly as possible. I hope designers also believe passionately that graphic culture matters, and that non-designers will be intrigued by the boldness of the title and want to find out more.
In the blurb, you mention that the essays are written by a non-designer deeply immersed in the practice of graphic communication. How has this perspective influenced the approach to the topics discussed in the book?
I’ve been writing about graphic communication for 35 years as a commentator, a critic and a historian of the field, so it’s true, I’m deeply immersed in this subject matter. As practitioners, graphic designers who write about the subject tend to be most concerned with the creative process and their professional craft. I understand those concerns, but my focus as a writer is much more on the outcome and how design functions in the world. Designers can also be reluctant to publicly discuss and criticise other designers’ work – it’s just not done. But that’s exactly what revealing commentary and criticism require. The kind of writing that I do needs some critical distance. To see things as clearly as possible, you have to be able to pull back, take a wider view and appreciate the full context. Before I discovered graphic communication as a field to write about, I was deeply immersed in art, photography, film and literature. My first two books were about musical and architectural subjects. I’ve always seen design and graphic design in a broader cultural context and I’ve taken a close interest in design’s many points of overlap and intersection with other fields.
One of the core topics in the book is the commercial takeover of design. How has the graphic design landscape changed in this regard over the past two decades, and what are the implications for designers and society?
When I started writing about graphic design at the end of the 1980s, it appeared to be a discipline that was thriving and growing. Graphic designers were very aware of the essential role they played in all forms of communication. They were confident about asserting the value of their work. It was a time of graphic and typographic experimentation and the new computer technology accelerated that. Designers and design teachers insisted on the value of graphic design history and many new design writers emerged. There was a thriving design press, where discussion took place. Even back then, marketing’s attempt to control graphic design was an issue, but designers were riding high.
By degrees that exceptional creative confidence has faded. In the course of the 1990s, designers were forced to accept the new imperatives of branding and, on this side of 2000, that way of thinking about design’s purpose has taken over. Many designers now see their primary task as brand consultancy. The rise of digital media and social media further eroded the once central role of highly creative graphic communication, though some countries have fared better than Britain. It’s a great loss. I feel it personally, as I say in my book, but I also regard it as a heavy blow to our public graphic culture, which used to be so much more inventive, unpredictable, vibrant and free. Perhaps we can get it back, but it does seem that general expectations of what graphic communication can do and contribute are lower than they used to be. We need to single out and celebrate anyone who breaks the mould.
What do you hope readers will take away from “Why Graphic Culture Matters,” and what impact could this book have on the field?
First of all, I hope readers will enjoy the book and find it engaging and stimulating and provocative as a piece of writing. I believe design is just as worthy as a subject for writing as art, or architecture, or music, or any other field. Second, I hope that the existence of writing like this, especially coming at this moment, helps to underpin the idea and value of graphic culture as something that can be thought about, questioned, criticised and championed. Third, I want to keep reasserting the idea that free-thinking design criticism is essential to the discipline. We need more of it and if we don’t have it, then that would suggest there is nothing in the field worth talking about seriously. Not good! As for impact, I don’t think that’s for a writer to speculate about. Readers use books however they want. That’s certainly true of my own reading. It’s twisty and unpredictable, but endlessly nourishing and inspiring.
Buy a copy at your favourite bookstore or online at occasionalpapers.org
Rick Poynor is Professor of Design and Visual Culture at the University of Reading. He is the author of three other essay collections, Design Without Boundaries (1998), Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World (2001), and Designing Pornotopia (2006). A public champion of critical design writing for three decades, he was the founding editor of Eye magazine and a co-founder of the Design Observer website. He has taught critical writing at the Royal College of Art, London, and the School of Visual Arts, New York. His other books include No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism (2003), Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties (2004), Jan van Toorn: Critical Practice (2008), and David King: Designer, Activist, Visual Historian (2020).