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 (actor)

Like the acting process that Harry H Corbet describes, design is re-creational. Indeed, the process of design is as a simulacrum – the intentional distorted recreation of an original (re-presentation, as opposed to representation). Or as Baudrillard might call it, a hyperreal version of reality (Baudrillard, 1994). While implementing creative solutions we graphically reproduce versions of the original, often inspired by a creative brief and always loaded with meaning, limitation and compromise. In addition to artifactual 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 may provide written content, timescales and context and sometimes also critique, approve or reject designers’ work. Some stakeholders also pay the designer. Such stakeholder interventions in designers’ creative processes may provoke or limit designers’ original ‘beautiful savage idea’. And so it is perhaps inevitable that designer stakeholder– interaction is complicated, even problematic.

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

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 increasingly formulaic template-driven direction of much in-house graphic design reproduction, as well as to enable the use of defamiliarisation within graphic design practice, potentially elevating its scholarly gravitas.

Thus, much of my research looks into the relationships of graphic designers and stakeholders (Meron, 2021), through the prism of performativity, as a methodology for making familiar design environments, observations and thought processes intentionally less familiar – a process called defamiliarisation. More specifically, my research draws on the inherent performativity within graphic design practice, as a method for defamiliarisation (Meron, 2020). 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.

In embracing the innate performativity of graphic design and harnessing allied methodologies such as defamiliarisation, perhaps we can also reinvigorate some of that original ‘beautiful savage getting the idea’.

<This article was updated on 20 August 2021>

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