Graphic design as a specific research discipline

Graphic design has tended to be seen as the poor cousin of the various design disciplines, often being seen as a secondary supplement to wider design practices (Poynor, 2011; Triggs, 2011), or even being treated as simply an aesthetic practice (Jacobs, 2017; Walker, 2017)

This seems to be especially the case within academia, where it doesn’t appear to have much theoretical representation (Frascara, 1988; Harland, 2011; Soar, 2002). Indeed, if you spend any time scanning university departments for graphic design academics, it soon becomes obvious that there aren’t many of us there. Many departments also now describe themselves as communication design (and a host of other terms), almost as if ashamed to be associated with such a ‘lumpen’ results-focussed professional practice as graphic design.

All of this is a shame, as it means that the discourses around what has become known as design research and design thinking, remain tilted in favour of a series of practices that often have little to do with graphic design. I’m thinking especially of architecture, UX-design and product design. I think this is further exacerbated when looking at the gap between the public vernacular perception of design, the academic one, and the emerging professional practices of design thinking, service design and so on. 

Some of this is up to graphic designers to deal with. We need to be more assertive, more engaged with academic research and with theory (Harland et al., 2018). But it’s also a matter of education within the wider discourse of design. In many quarters, the term ‘design’ is bandied about in much the same way as ‘mindfulness’ is, sometimes rendering it largely meaningless. 

At the same time, perhaps it is time for graphic design to embrace its inherent interdisciplinarity (Davis, 2012).  After all, we’ve always borrowed from other disciplines, as well as entering new areas of professional practice. Desktop publishing allowed us to move into prepress and print production, WYSIWYG web design software enabled us to start designing websites, then came multimedia (remember that term?), then social media and so on.

The bottom line for me is the graphical communication aspect. Our ability as designers to convey information, to transform written and verbal meanings into visual ones. Thus, graphic design is a simulacral design practice. The taking of an original concept and intentionally reproducing it as a graphically altered copy. This renders graphic design practice as intrinsically defamiliarising, because it alters the way in which the designer and intended audience view a design outcome (Meron, 2019).


Davis M (2012) Graphic design theory. UK: Thankes & Hudson.

Frascara, J. (1988). Graphic Design: Fine Art or Social Science? Design Issues, 5(1), 18-29. doi:10.2307/1511556

Harland, R. (2011). The Dimensions of Graphic Design and Its Spheres of Influence. Design Issues, 27(1), 21-34. doi:10.1162/DESI_a_00054

Harland, R., Corazzo, J., Gwilt, I., Honnor, A., & Rigley, S. (2018). Graphic design research: a cause for the concerned. Paper presented at the Design Research Society 2018 Conference: Catalyst, Limerick, Ireland. 

Jacobs, J. (2017). Managing the Creative Process within Graphic Design Firms: A Literature Review. Dialectic, 1(2), 155-178. 

Meron, Y. (2019). Strangely familiar: revisiting graphic designers’ perceptions of their relationships with stakeholders: RMIT University. https://researchrepository.rmit.edu.au/permalink/61RMIT_INST/13r5bm8/alma9921861857101341

Poynor, R. (2011). Does Graphic Design History Have A Future? Print, 65(4), 30-32. 

Soar, M. (2002). The First Things First Manifesto And The Politics Of Culture Jamming: Towards A Cultural Economy Of Graphic Design And Advertising. Cultural Studies, 16(4), 570-592. doi:10.1080/09502380210139124

Triggs, T. (2011). Graphic Design History: Past, Present, and Future. Design Issues, 27(1), 3-6. doi:10.1162/DESI_a_00051

Walker, S. (2017). Research in Graphic Design. The Design Journal, 20(5), 549-559. doi:10.1080/14606925.2017.1347416