Graphic design as a re-creational tool, process & research method

“The greatest joy for me and a lot of the actors that I work with is the act of rehearsal. It’s fantastic, it begins, you create. The terrible thing about our business is it’s re-creational. You see you create in the rehearsal, and it’s splendid, and then you spend ages and ages through the run of the play trying to recreate that first beautiful savage getting the idea.”

Harry H Corbet

Like the acting process that Harry H Corbet describes above, graphic design is re-creational – re-presentation, as opposed to representation. As such, the process of graphic design is as a simulacrum – the intentional distorted recreation of an original. Or as Baudrillard might call it, a hyperreal version (Baudrillard, 1994). While this may seem to just apply to our artifactual design outcomes, the design process itself is also simulacral.

In the process of re-creation, within professional practice, designers come into contact with stakeholders. Like it or not, (some do and some don’t) designers need stakeholders (unlike artists, we rarely design for design’s sake and generally have less control over our creations and outcomes). Stakeholders provide written content, timescales and context and generally also critique, approve or reject designers’ work. Some stakeholders also pay designers. All these stakeholder interventions in the designers’ creative process may intervene in or limit the designers’ original ‘beautiful savage idea’. And so it is perhaps inevitable that designer stakeholder– interaction is inevitably complicated, even problematic.

The quote at the top of this page was taken from an interview with Harry H Corbet – often lauded as a brilliant actor who, having become typecast for one role, never fulfilled his enormous potential. Corbet was largely known for playing ‘the son’ in the TV show Steptoe and Son, instead of the classically brilliant actor that he undoubtably was. Like Harry H Corbet, graphic designers often also have to face these creative limitations and disappointments. Those graphic designers who don’t become ‘superstars’ of the industry can often end up not fulfilling their ideal creative potential or dreams.

For example, while graphic designers may initially be inspired by the promise of a dream career (Wood, 2015), challenges, excitement and rewards (Leonard, 2016) or even a love of design (Oldham, 2017), the reality is that the graphic design process itself is usually one of compromise (Arias et al., 2000; Dorst, 2009; Ambrose and Aono-Billson, 2011; Arntson, 2012). Moreover, there is evidence that these compromises are not always equal or easily achievable, a complex and uneven playing field that graphic designers are sensitive to, as they seek solutions (Lawson, 2006; Benson and Dresdow, 2014). That these compromises are integrally influenced by the involvement of stakeholders (Crawford, 2008; Greever, 2015) and subject to regulation, measurement, rigid hierarchies and audit often results in a professional practice reality which, as Dorland notes, is even at odds with the design industry’s own marketing portrayal of itself (Dorland, 2009). With the increased democratisation, deskilling and formalising of the industry, such creative compromises appear increasingly set to increase. So how do we begin to engage with (and potentially address) these issues?

Much of my design research looks into the relationships of graphic designers and stakeholders, through the prism of dramaturgy/performance/theatre (delete as you wish), as a methodology for making familiar design environments, observations and thought processes intentionally less familiar – a process called defamiliarisation. More specifically, this acknowledges the inherent performativity within graphic design practice, as a method for defamiliarising practice. Such defamiliarisation enables complex creative issues – such as designers’ relationships with stakeholders – to be observed and analysed outside of their normative environments, allowing outcomes that might otherwise remain hidden in plain sight.

Like theatre, graphic design is also a uniquely communicative and innately performative practice (Gillieson and Garneau, 2018). This performativity provides an opportunity for professional graphic designers to assert their unique, practice specific, skills and talents. To rise above the formulaic template driven direction of in-house graphic design reproduction, as well as to enabled the use of defamiliarisation within graphic design practice, so as to elevate its status within academia.


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