“The Name Game” by Michael Worthington originally ran in a 1998 issue of AIGA’s The Journal (vol. 16, no. 2). It’s part of a series in which we painstakingly page through and republish the best yet-to-be-digitized articles from our vast print archives.
Just over two years ago my grandmother confessed she didn’t know what I did for a living. I kept telling her I was a graphic designer, explained to her what I did, but she never got it. I tried showing her a book I designed, but she couldn’t see how I’d made the book but not the work in it, that I wasn’t the author but rather an accomplice. I wish she understood my work.
I thought that her talent for misunderstanding graphic design was rooted in her need to encounter a profession in order to understand it. Everyone knows what a plumber does—you encounter plumbers in everyday life. You need plumbers. She’d never had a need for a designer—she’d seen plenty of graphic prints, but never felt it necessary to make any of her own, but technology has changed that.
Grandma bought a computer and then a modem, and before I knew it she was making web sites, flyers for the church bazaar, letterhead for her friends. She’d call me at two in the morning to ask me the difference between serif and san serif fonts, how many points were in an inch, whether she should use a duotone or a full color photo. She wanted me to set up a see-you-see-me eyeball camera so we could have a live video hookup. I felt like a Bill Gates pawn trapped in a nightmarish Microsoft commercial. “Where do you want to go today? Somewhere grandma can’t email me.”
Granny finally understood graphic design because she had a need for it—she was a designer herself. She became one of the millions who, once the tools were available, gained admittance to the formerly invisible and inaccessible art of graphic design and now I was her access route; suddenly my profession was useful—especially for those late night calls to discuss the finer points of Helvetica versus Gill. I know technology has given the willing enthusiast the tools, the access, and the cultural permission to be a designer. I’m all in favor of that, but not my grandma, please.
Now she not only understands graphic design, she describes herself as a graphic designer—and my first reaction is to run away fast and far as I can from that term.
I want a word that separates us—something that defines me as a profession, her as an amateur.
I tell her, “Granddad built a wall in the garden but he doesn’t call himself an architect.” She pensively answered, “He might not call himself an architect, but he is one.”
I’m biting my tongue. I know I’m a hypocrite; I want design for all, but I also want some acknowledgement of my professional status. I know I’m not alone. Other designers are secretly trying to think up new names for themselves, whether to describe the changing nature of their profession in light of new technology, or whether, like me, to escape their grandmothers.
I decided to look back at the origins of the term “graphic design” to try and find some deeper reading of these words, something that I could lay claim to that my grandmother couldn’t.
When W.A. Dwiggins first coined the term in a 1922 article in the Boston Evening Transcript, he used the term to describe the myriad skills (illustration, calligraphy, type design, layout design, and so on) he was using as an advertising artist. The headline of the piece, which contained the phrase “blending common sense with artistic taste,” may be key to how Dwiggins came upon his term. Dwiggins saw graphic design as “an aesthetic practice for making public messages.” He was clearly looking for a term to combine the creative as well as the communicative aspects of design.
Dwiggins’ term “graphic design” is a marriage of two individually defined words. In the Oxford English Dictionary “graphic” is described as “visual symbols (letter, diagrams, drawings),” but is perhaps more accurately used in terms of descriptions: “Given a clear and easily understood image.”
The word “design” is described as “general arrangement or planning pattern arrangement of line, shapes, details as ornamentation.” By combining these separate definitions we define an occupation that seems to be about creating ornamentation, but also clearly and easily understood images. In his juxtaposition of the two words, Dwiggins seems to have found the dilemma at the heart of graphic design that could be expressed in several ways: ornamentation versus communication; form versus function; style versus content. This is perhaps the key to the enduring nature of his phrase.
Graphic designers in the past have used various other names to try to describe their shifting jobs: Saul Bass described himself a “pictorial consultant” and as a “title designer;” I first heard the term “content provider” from Laurie Anderson talking on the subject of new media; and Ed Fella once called me a “style fairy.” Various terms have emerged from art directors, concept developers, directors, artists, consultants, and performers. Perhaps Robert Brownjohn, who is frequently heard to describe himself as just a “fucking genius” was the most eloquent. I tried to create sweeping new nouns to describe the changing role of graphic design—ornamenter, digital consultant, hyper-typographer, visual translator—but nothing seemed to be able to complete with Dwiggins’ term, though Stewart Ewan’s “visual masturbator” may be closer than most.
Eventually I realized it is the vagueness of the term “graphic designer” that makes it so appropriate. The same reason my grandmother initially couldn’t understand that term is the very reason it works.
It can cover myriad skills, cope with technological innovations and changes in the profession, but still refer to the larger concerns of the visual communication, representation, and issues of creating meaning through content. This flexibility allows me to take on the role of an interface designer, web site designer, or motion typographer, and add that knowledge to the variety of skills that currently fall under the title “graphic designer,” a term that itself is as unfinished and malleable as any digital piece of work.
I no longer need a new job title to separate me from my grandmother. “Graphic design” works as an umbrella term. Thinking about it I’m happy to be under the same umbrella as grandma. There’s room for both of us, and for now we’re both graphic designers.