Colleen B Murphy

Visual Design Skills + Concept of Value + Life Experience + Happiness = Quality Design

Design, Thoughts

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A response to Michael Beirut’s “Why Designers Can’t Think” “Why Designers Can’t Think”

Michael Beirut’s theory as to why graphic designers “can’t think” claims that graphic design curriculums value the way graphic design looks but not what it means. He determines that mediocre design comes from designers who are “worshipping at the altar of the visual”. He proposes that important exposure to fine arts, literature, science, history and politics (things that “unite us in a common culture”) are excluded form design programs. This essay was written in 1989 yet it seems to be even more relevant today than ever before because of the need for graphic designers thus resulting in more graphic design curriculums at universities.

As a current student in graphic design education, I have had a first-hand account of the situation, and there have been times throughout my education I have felt something was missing. It took me a little while (plus a year abroad) to figure out what it was and I soon realized that I was missing the world outside of the graphic design hemisphere. I was too busy reading in depth about Neue Grafik that I didn’t take a second to read a book I’ve always wanted to read. As a result, I started to create a life that had time dedicated to other passions. I searched for value, meaning, and philosophies. I studied abroad, took business classes and started pedicabbing instead of taking on more design freelance jobs. Since then I’ve felt fulfillment, but to be honest, I feel a bit ashamed. I am not engrossed with graphic design twenty-four/seven. Why should I feel ashamed to be equally as passionate about other things?

There are a few colleagues, people I look up to, who are hopelessly devoted to graphic design to the point where having a conversation about anything else seems pointless. They are intimidating and pretentious, but they are the students that professors like and give the best grades to. I have deducted from my education that the difference between a good graphic designer and a great graphic designer is to immerse yourself in that world and that world only; to find connections with graphic designers who also are immersed in that world, to talk to them in circles about that visual graphic design world. It is to pretentiously dismiss other worlds. Beruit’s theory is that “modern design education is essentially value-free; every problem has a purely visual solution that exists outside any cultural context”. To be successful as a graphic designer is to immerse oneself completely in the design world and to be solely passionate about that and that only. Only then can you prove your commitment to design and be a successful graphic designer. How can I be a “great” graphic designer if I don’t live up to these standards?

But wait, that feels wrong. I am passionate about design and I know my designs are successful. What is going on? This can’t be right. What is the difference here? Why is my university telling me that it is not okay to value other things?

If I, as a designer, only consider the visual aesthetics of a subject matter without valuing it, without really having a history with it, a knowledge or philosophy about it then the results will be a low quality design that doesn’t have an impact on me or the viewer. I will lack a feeling of fulfillment and the feeling of success.

I feel as though I can create a logical equation to simplify this:

 

Visual Design Skills + Concept of Value + Life Experience + Happiness = Quality Design

 

To be successful as a designer, in my opinion, is to find balance within all aspects of life. Immersing yourself in one idea, one interest, one-way of thinking, is to blind yourself from other aspects of life and design. This will then have influence on a designers work whether they know it or not. Everyone needs experiences like travel, culture, drinking and mistakes. A graphic designer can design components to experiences like a concert poster but to experience said concert will shape thoughts, action, and design. Although a university that focuses on the process and visual design strengthens a student’s graphic skills, it may simultaneously weaken other life skills that could contribute to whether or not a design is successful.

So, in a perfect world, a university creates a curriculum with the intent of exposing other worlds into students and thus value is instilled. But wait, this leads us to an even more important question that may never be answered: can you teach the concept of finding value or is it something that every human is responsible for attaining himself or herself? Can you teach someone to be curious, to take risks, or to create an opinion on something? Can you teach someone to find things that interest him or her and pursue them whether the social norm (or in this case, the graphic design world) says it is allowed?

Michael Beirut, you’ve made me think.