What do Charles Dickens, the Golden Mean, and nuns have to do with graphic design? They’re examples of how it influences pretty much everything around us—and they’re also the subjects of an ongoing eponymous series of books from London publishing house GraphicDesign& that brings a diverse group of designers together with an equally diverse group of experts (philosophers, social scientists, mathematicians, Dickensian scholars, theologians, etc.) to show how graphic design relates to the world at large.

We spoke with co-founders Lucienne Roberts, a designer, and Rebecca Wright, a design educator, about their plans to expand the public’s perception of graphic design, their recent survey that aims to figure out who graphic designers really are, and their latest publication—about nuns.

What perceptions about graphic design are GraphicDesign& challenging?
Of all the visual arts, graphic design is arguably the most prevalent and inclusive. It not only serves and speaks of the world, it also shapes it. However, the common perception of what graphic design is, and who it is for, don’t align with this. GraphicDesign& is concerned with how graphic design connects with the wider world, so one of our core objectives is to reach out to a non-design audience.

Our first two books paired graphic design with the “core subjects” English and math. In 2012, we published Page 1: Great Expectations, a literary title that shows how 70 graphic designers laid out the first page of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations.

Our second title, Golden Meaning, invited 55 graphic designers and image-makers to communicate one of the most famous and controversial mathematical concepts: the golden mean. Working with mathematician and author Alex Bellos as our advisor, this project attempts to demystify mathematics, a subject often considered baffling.

Why produce books? You’ve also done posters and postcards.
Our first project was a a double-sided poster by philosopher and writer Alain de Botton and designer Anthony Burrill. Our second output was a set of cards by social scientist Nikandre Kopcke and designer David Shaw that showed the results of a live data gathering exercise we ran at London’s Design Museum. Both were very valuable initial experiments, but it became clear that books were the best vehicle for what we want to explore. They’re easy to keep and refer to, they remain coveted objects, and demonstrate what design offers on many different levels. All our books are standard sized paperbacks that are not overly costly, but are accessible, transportable, and easy to dip into. The format can also still have the production values designers hold dear.

Two sides of a poster created by Alain de Botton and Anthony Burrill in collaboration for GraphicDesign&

GraphicDesign& uses the Bliss Bibliographic Classification system to guide its choice of subjects. Can you tell us more about that?
Since all our outputs tie graphic design to another subject and our objective is, in part, to challenge existing hierarchies and categories of knowledge, we searched for a system to help determine what those subjects might be. The obvious option was the Dewey Decimal System, well known to library users. But Dewey doesn’t actually have a graphic design category. It was a bit of a Shangri-La moment when we found the Bliss Bibliographic Classification system, a creation by American librarian Henry Bliss during the ’30s and ’40s.

Critical of the systems available to him, he developed this method that provides distinct rules, but allows for a subject to be put in more than one place, a concept called “alternative location.” This attracted us greatly, as did the system’s typographic quirks: Bliss used every character available on his extensive and rather eccentric typewriter, and WFG is the code for Graphic Design. This idiosyncratic combination of characters seemed bliss to us indeed!

How has working with people outside of the profession changed how you view graphic design?
I run a small design studio, LucienneRoberts+, and the greater part of my time is spent working with clients in a variety of industries. Also, after working as a design consultant on my client’s behalf, I’ve become aware of the misconceptions that designers have of clients as much as the other way round. The client/designer relationship is often less of collaborators and more of business associates, whereas with GraphicDesign&, our experts and designers meet as skilled equals. We hope to demonstrate how effective and inspiring such an approach can be.

You’ve previously written the book, Good: An Introduction to Ethics in Graphic Design, that looks to people outside the field to understand your profession. Did that have an influence on GraphicDesign&?
Definitely. In Good we looked at graphic design through the prism of other subjects—philosophy, religion, politics, and law—to see if “goodness” exists before testing the resulting ideas against various design models.

Graphic Designers Surveyed is the latest project, and similar to Good, we’re using another subject to look at graphic design—this time it’s social science. We’ve invited social scientist Nikandre Kopcke to find out who graphic designers are and what makes us tick, via a survey that is richer and deeper than a lot of industry questionnaires. The survey is a mix of classic social science measures and more unusual questions that we hope will capture the personality of our industry. We’re surveying designers working in the U.K. and the U.S., two places with large numbers of graphic designers, and relevant comparator surveys for other industries. The more designers take part, the more meaningful our results will be. Nikandre will analyze the results and information designer Stefanie Posavec will visually interpret the data in a book that will be published later this year.

Our survey closes end April and we’ve received over 1,550 contributions thus far—we really want to get to 2,000!

Tell us about your upcoming GraphicDesign& book on religion. How did that come about?
When we founded GraphicDesign&, we wanted to tackle projects that might be too eccentric, too risky, or too niche for a more mainstream publisher. In one of our earliest discussions, we discovered that we each shared a perhaps unfashionable curiosity about the church’s rituals and regalia, and we talked jokingly about creating a kind of spotter’s guide to nuns.

From Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music to screen-printing nun Sister Mary Corita Kent, mystic Hildegard of Bingen, to Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mother Teresa, nuns occupy a peculiar place in popular consciousness as figures of fondness, fun, entertainment, naughtiness, strictness, purity, kindness, and grace. They’re distinguished by their dress, the habit, which is visually minimal but full of meaning. Although instantly recognizable, few of us understand that the habit is a form of visual code. It struck us that this was where graphic design can play a role.

Looking Good: A Visual Guide to the Nun’s Habit is a collaboration between GraphicDesign&, Cambridge theology graduate Veronica Bennett, and illustrator Ryan Todd. It’s more of a visual manual than a spotter’s guide; a pocket book that identifies and illustrates the differing dress worn by over 40 Catholic nuns and sisters across multiple congregations. The book catalogs and compares examples of this extraordinary religious clothing and explains its distinguishing identifiers—the length of the rosary beads, the color of the fabric, why a belt or rope is worn, etc. We expect it to come out in fall.

Tell us about the exhibition GraphicDesign& is also working on.
Provocatively titled Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?, it’s an international touring exhibition due in early 2016 and commissioned by the Wellcome Collection, part of a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in health.

We will curate a show and plan to publish a book on the critical role that graphic representation plays in constructing and communicating healthcare messages, disseminating information, and raising awareness of some of the most significant aspects of human welfare.

This interview has been edited and condensed.