Research Lite: Design Research Made Easy (If Not Accurate)

I am conducting research for a design article, well aware that very soon I will need to get off my duff and conduct some real research. No more “research lite,” my term for the unscientific process of sending emails and perusing the internet. If this paper is going to get finished, I need to interview actual people, travel to the location, do some onsite observation, read scholarly publications and perform a bit of detective work. As comfortable as it is lounging in the living room with my computer on my lap, the internet will not answer my questions or provide trustworthy data. However, it does get me thinking about graphic design research on the web: especially—because it so liberally provides information—through Wikipedia.

I wouldn't consider myself an internet junkie. I do not read about the latest trends, nor am I quick to adopt the latest technology. Yet somehow I find myself, night after night, looking stuff up online. A month spent in my rural hometown over the summer emphasized this recent obsession. When I visited someone with a readily available computer, I hungrily “Googled” for facts to settle family disputes, find trivia, travel tips and answers to my latest passport dilemma. Working on the New York Times crossword puzzle also pointed out this tendency. Sure, the dictionary was useful, but try resorting to a set of 1970s encyclopedias to find out facts. Topics had far less information than I'd remembered. I delighted in discovering the little gold stickers my mother had affixed throughout the books to reference updated information provided in the World Book Year in Review. But as we all know, if you want any answers to a crossword puzzle, just type any cryptic clue into your search engine and voilà, you're sure to hit a blog with all the answers. That's cheating in more ways than one, but it works like magic. I get the exact answer without having to think—“thinking” being the whole point of the crossword puzzle, or any research project for that matter.

In the early 1990s I was enamored with the book Hypertext by George Landow. For a brief moment the literary theory I was diligently trying to summarize for my senior graphic design students and the technology I was also trying to master converged. It all sounded a bit frightening, magical and potentially mind-altering. Hypertext was described as “blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms link, node, network, web and path.”1 Even though Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies, decried this method of reading as a threat to our whole way of thinking, there was a mesmerizing pull to the idea.2 Since I was also reading Jorge Luis Borges's The Garden of Forking Paths, this was convergence at its finest.

Now, our Wikipedia pages are littered with hyperlinks, providing hours of wandering pleasure, the threads of connectivity growing increasingly more tenuous. Search for the phrase “garden of forking paths,” and Wikipedia's entry pops up with 26 hyperlinks within eight paragraphs. With all these little paths to entice us onward—one wonders why Birkerts was so concerned—we are lured into reading more and more. Though I have often experienced this “book to real world—real world to book” type of immersion that places you in an almost out-of-body zone, the internet successfully creates its own version of removal from the here and now.

As a college professor, I am aware that the internet's tidy summaries, convenient access and infinite links to information and imagery provide an ideal way for my students to conduct design research. At least they seem more enticed by this method of sleuthing out information than slogging through the stacks at the library. In my design history class, students are assigned readings from specific history books and articles I distribute in class. But, let's face it, when called upon to do actual research, the ease of access to online images and materials proves too strong to resist.

I assign the students aspects of early type history to present to their fellow classmates. Each student is provided with a series of images for their topic. With only about five minutes to speak, they are given plenty of images to use as discussion points. When I mention they might add images to the presentation, off they run to their favorite search engine. Soon a range of obscure images and “facts” enter the lecture. The less likely the material is to be found in their assigned reading, the more excited they get. It provides a fascinating nuanced presentation of minutia, although I hope they still get the big picture.

Wikipedia as a source for research lite entered my consciousness accidentally—it just kept coming up in my quest to find out stuff. As a free source of information, it sure beats that old set of World Book Encyclopedias; plus it actually has “graphic design” as a topic (our 1970s edition contained no mention of it). Wikipedia, on the other hand, provided a succinct description of graphic design, plus those ever-present disclaimers:

This article does not cite any references or sources.
Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. (help, get involved!)
Unverifiable material may be challenged and removed.

Since Wikipedia is written by the people, for the people, it's an unhampered free-for-all; therefore, what is and isn't included becomes significant. My assumption is that the design community is providing the content, monitoring what is fed into this open source of communication. In September, under the category of “notable graphic designers,” the list contained 78 names. I thought I could probably list at least 78 more. Since our culture is so obsessed with lists, I thought, perhaps we should create a countdown of the 100 Greatest Graphic Designers…Ever. (Who would be on your list?)

I noticed that Wikipedia's list did not include a friend of mine that has made quite a significant design contribution, but included a close peer. Should I write him in? Who decides the merits of inclusion? I guess it would be shameless self-promotion to submit oneself. Wikipedia says all submitted information must be verifiable. Their regulations for “Biographies of Living Persons” are a bit sterner: be “right,” “civil,” “verifiable,” “neutral” and “do no harm.” Sounds a bit like playground rules for adults.

A few months later when I revisited the graphic design entry, the warnings had changed, going from no references or sources to requesting additional ones for verification. The increase in information in a couple months was impressive. The number of graphic design notables swelled to 97-now the magic 100 is within our grasp.

It doesn't stop there. From the lowly list of 78 names in September, the amount of subcategories has multiplied like rabbits: up to 130 graphic designer stubs, 92 typographers and 44 type designers as of this publication. The 11 subcategories cause an ever-widening expansion, and even include stamp designers, currency designers and woodcut designers (OK, so there's only one in this section). Under “graphic designers by nationality” it begins to sound like scores from an idealized Olympics: Americans 94, British 31, Dutch 18, German 18, Iranian 5, and one Venezuelan. Even my design friend, unlisted in September, is now among the notables-hmmm.

Fascinating stuff, these lists, which offer a more unique array of design luminaries compared with those familiar design history tomes. I'll revisit Wikipedia's graphic design page in a month or two to check on the pace of proliferation, but for now I am getting dizzy following these trails. Research lite is losing its charm. I think I will go read a book-or maybe I should I invest in the Kindle.

1. Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (John Hopkins University Press, 1992). Landow is quoting Roland Barthes in S/Z.
2. Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies (Fawcett Columbine, 1994), 102.

Thumbnail photo: © Roel Smart,