January 23rd, 2009

Exclusive + Inclusive: The Twofold Nature Of Graphic Design

By Paul Nini

One thing that continues to attract me to the study and practice of graphic design is the diversity of activities and roles it includes. Not only do we research, develop, refine, and implement designed communications, but we also work with a variety of stake holders throughout the process, such as audiences, users, clients, suppliers, printers, fabricators, etc., each with differing needs and expectations. Clearly our field is not for those who seek simplicity and certainty. Instead, we must become comfortable with complexity, contradiction and ambiguity. We’re required to trust in our process, knowing that in the end a solution will present itself.

As I have been working as a full-time design educator for a number of years, I’ve discovered another aspect of our field that seems contradictory — that the profession is simultaneously exclusive and inclusive. Specifically, gaining entrance to both study and qualify to practice in the field can be a very exclusionary process. On the other hand, the actual practice of graphic design is most powerful when an inclusive approach is used — i.e. the more input we have from various stake holders, the better our efforts serve the public good.

On exclusivity

It’s no great secret that many of the better graphic design educational programs enroll only a small percentage of those who seek entrance. As an example, the undergraduate visual communication design program that I direct at The Ohio State University admits roughly 20% of its applicants, and the percentage of acceptances to the graduate program is even less. Other recognized programs would no doubt report similar results.

There are some good reasons for our exclusivity. A majority of design graduates tend to stay in a program’s geographic area for a period of time before spreading out to other locations. Many graphic design students participate in internships with local firms which can, on graduation, then turn into full-time job opportunities. Obviously, the job market can only absorb so many new designers per year, so keeping the numbers low benefits everyone. Graduates don’t have to compete against too many classmates, and employers are fairly certain that the graduates they employ are of a high caliber. In addition, and at the risk of sounding snobbish, not everyone who thinks they should be a graphic designer is actually cut out for the job. While it’s quite clear that there are well-qualified students turned away during our acceptance process every year, I’m not so sure that there are that many more that we’d accept, even if we could. It’s been suggested that we double our numbers and take in two cohorts of students to meet the demand for our program. However, I’m fairly certain that only a handful of that second group would actually perform at the level of those currently accepted. As we have no desire to dilute the quality of our program, we’ve thus far resisted this notion, and I hope that we’ll continue to do so. So, to conclude this point — graphic design is not for everyone, and a certain amount of exclusivity concerning who is allowed to enter the field is, to my mind anyhow, mostly a good thing.

On inclusivity

Apparently, “inclusivity” is not a word recognized in all dictionaries. But let’s go ahead and use it anyway. It’s my strong belief that the more inclusive graphic designers are of the requirements of those who experience our work, the better the results are for everyone. Audiences and users benefit from clear messages; our clients benefit from more satisfied customers and constituents; and designers benefit from providing a valuable service to all. Similarly, I believe that one of design’s main contributions to society and our nation’s public life is making communications easily understood by as many people from as many walks of life as possible.

One significant example of this role is seen in a recent project sponsored by the AIGA and coordinated by Marcia Lausen, a designer and educator in Chicago. This “election design” initiative entailed taking an inclusive, user-centered approach to the design of new ballots, election administration materials, polling place signage, absentee and provisional voting materials, and voter education and outreach literature. The designers involved made sure that all materials could be easily used by those with limited abilities and from low-income backgrounds, along with individuals who spoke languages other than English. The success of this program has been documented in a book to be published in 2007, which I would urge all graphic design students and practitioners to read and consider

The “election design” project is an example lifted from a graphic design educational program that takes a more user-centered approach. Others may involve more fine art or advertising. All are valid and necessary approaches, and many of these different programs use the exclusionary acceptance practices described earlier. My program at Ohio State has long been oriented to inclusive design, which is probably the most under-represented of the three approaches. I personally feel there is still much work to be done in this direction and invite other educators and practitioners to consider exploring this potentially more responsible approach.

So, by way of wrapping up, I’d suggest that we all think deeply about what our roles in society might be. Should our profession serve mainly the for-profit sector, or should we also put our considerable talents to use for the public good? The answer to that question may differ for each of us — but for students embarking on careers, it may offer an alternative to their expected career path. Our profession may not be for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that what we do can’t benefit us all.

Paul Nini is a Professor in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University, where he also serves as Coordinator of the undergraduate Visual Communication Design program and Past Graduate Studies Chairperson. His writings have appeared in a variety of publications, and he has presented at numerous national and international design and education conferences.

This essay first appeared in Never Sleep, a book written by Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert, published by de.MO. Summary: There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional. To demystify the transition, we share the failures, successes, and surprises during our years in college and progression into the field: the creative process, monetary problems, internships, interviews, mistakes, and personal relationships.