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Designers need to master a wide variety of skills and concepts.
What follows is an overview of the nine categories of investigation
you can find in most design programs. Not every category is taught
in every undergraduate curriculum-the time is just too short. Each
program emphasizes certain subjects and teaches others more
Designers atwork shows different ways to practice graphic design and serves
as a counterpoint to this overview of education. A practitioner
does not develop expertise in all aspects of design but selects a
special area of interest in a particular kind of communication
problem. One designer may love print media and therefore prefer
magazine or book design. Another may have a great interest in type
design or want to design exhibits. Design education is a
preparation for practice, so if a certain kind of design appeals to
you, think about what kind of learning supports it. Flip back and
forth between this section and Designers at work as you
consider how your education can prepare you for a particular kind
of design practice.
Designers think about visual forms and how they are put together to
convey meaning. These forms are a kind of visual language. Points,
lines, planes, volumes, spaces, areas, textures and colors, as well
as how they are used to create symmetry, proportion and rhythm, are
basic aspects of the designer's visual vocabulary.
Form and structure analyzes positive and negative
Form analysis examines how two- and three-dimensional
forms create a feeling of space.
Structure and system consider various ways to create
order in space. For example, grid system is one way to create a
sense of harmony and order.
Visual phenomena explores the intuitive response of the
audience to form, color and texture.
Composition and visual framing involves deciding what
to include in an image and how elements of an image contrast with
Visual abstraction identifies the key features of an
object and simplifies them.
Unity of form looks at relationships among design
elements, such as proportion, scale, symmetry and contrast.
Designers need to be familiar with basic tools, techniques and
processes to produce images, sketches, models and finished work.
They need to use tools with skill and sensitivity. Students learn
photography, various kinds of drawing, model making and diagramming
as ways to develop their ideas.
Photography, although often regarded as a “truthful”
rendering of the world, may convey realism or emotion, as
demonstrated in these examples.
Visual translation is the process by which the essence
of an image is abstracted in a drawing.
Model making explores three-dimensional forms in order
to plan and prototype an exhibition or a new product.
Drawing teaches the student to look and to see as well
as to put down meaningful marks on paper.
Technology always plays a role in the process of designing and in
communicating information visually. Designers create ideas in two
and three dimensions using various materials such as paper and
film. They use tools such as computers, camera and airbrushes and
work with the technologies of letterpress and video. The designer's
selection of materials and tools can change what an image looks
like and what it says.
Designers create solutions to design problems. A part of every
solution includes communicating how to get the job done
technically: how to get the poster printed or how to create the
mechanicals for the package design. The designer must learn to
clearly express and transmit ideas and instructions as well as to
receive and evaluate feedback. To this end, the student learns to
specify technical instructions; to write objectives, briefs and
reports; to present ideas verbally, graphically and with
audiovisual support; and to listen carefully.
Designers address communication problems. They interpret ideas and
represent them with images and words. Skill in thinking about and
creating meaning with images, type and symbols is essential. The
ability to put a persuasive or informational perspective on an idea
is also important.
Semantics is the study of how people understand words
Visual metaphor studies symbols. For example, a torch
can signal the abstract ideas of victory or freedom.
Persuasion and information examines how to create a
memorable visual statement.
Image, symbol and sign explores the ways in which
graphic marks, such as handprint or a target, communicate.
These Bill of Rights broadsides demonstrate design planning.
Seminars with legal experts helped the students study the judicial
processes of the Supreme Court and specific legal decisions.
Students then did additional research and experimented with
typography, historical imagery and the “re-presentation” of
photojournalism to determine how to present their ideas visually to
a high school audience. The broadsides communicate difficult
concepts by identifying specific elements in the Bill of Rights and
the landmark Supreme Court decisions that anchor them.
Design methodology provides a path for the designer in
the search for solutions to communication problems.
Design evaluation judges reaction to a design through a
testing procedure. For example, observing a child's reaction to a
book might answer the questions: Is the book easy to read? Is it
appealing? Is meaning communicated effectively?
Design management involves an overview of the process
of design, including managing creativity, costs, schedules and
Designers are part of a visual culture that includes art,
architecture and design. It is not only interesting but also
important to know what has gone before. Designers study the past
for inspiration and to understand its themes, styles and technical
developments. It is possible to trace how certain ideas,
developments in the art and technological advances have influenced
particular designers. Criticism helps the designer evaluate the
usefulness or beauty of a design.
Design theory explores the principles underlying what communicates
and why. For example, why does one color communicate happiness to
you and fear to someone from another society? What are the ways
culture affects the designer and the audience? Design theory seeks
to find the unifying principles-which might be intuitive or
deliberate-that are the basis for all graphic design. It is where
education and practice meet.
Letterform investigations look at the forms of
logotypes and letterform found in everyday objects and in
Typography examines text messages created for
information or expression.
Type and image explores the relationship between the
two and the power of each to communicate in relation to the other.
Type also becomes images in some applications.
Design systems serve to unify appearance and coordinate
production. Visual characteristics, such as the 45-degree angle,
the square on its tip, the color and the torn paper, are played out
over many pieces to guarantee an easily recognizable
Symbol and identity systems seek to specifically
identify an object for the public and to use that identity in all
Information design clarifies data, helps orient the
viewer and guides the search for what is important by establishing
a clear visual hierarchy. These qualities are particularly useful
in computer interface design.
Diagrams, graphs and maps distill information to make
it easily understood. For instance, a three-dimensional form can
show the relationships of solid, liquid and gas.
Publication and print design explores the overall
structure-pacing, sequence and hierarchy of information-as well as
the particular use of text and image found, for example, in the
editorial material of magazines and newspapers.
Book design is concerned with both the exterior package
of the book (the cover) and its interior contents (the pages).
Poster design combines words and images in a powerful
public announcement, whether for an art exhibit, an election
campaign, or a circus.
Film and video graphics organize ideas dynamically in
time. They communicate by using images in sequence with narration,
music and text.
Computer graphics explores the digital world of highly
Package design serves multiple function: to protect,
display, dispense, store and announce the identity and qualities of
Environmental signage and graphics helps people find
their way through streets and buildings and gives clues to the
nature of the environment people find themselves in.
Exhibition and display design seeks to involve an
audience in exploring an idea in space and time through the use of
graphics, objects, text, sound effects and participatory
Advertising design is calculated to attract attention,
make a compelling pitch to an audience and create a desire for the
Graphic Design: A Career Guide and Education Directory
Edited by Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl
The American Institute of Graphic Arts
Suppose you want to announce or sell something, amuse or
persuade someone, explain a complicated system or demonstrate a
process. In other words, you have a message you want to
communicate. How do you “send” it?
Section: Tools and Resources -
There are probably as many kinds of designers as there are kinds of
design, so how do you know whether a career in design might be
right for you?
Tips for design students on finding the first job.
Section: Tools and Resources -
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Section: Why Design -
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Section: Tools and Resources -
in-house issues, INitiative, human resources
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