Graphic design and interactivity: still a paradigm shift for graphic designers?

Just after the turn of the century, I received a masters degree for my dissertation entitled ‘Interactivity – a paradigm shift for the graphic designer?’ (Meron, 2001). Paradigm shift is an overly dramatic term that I would probably not use now. However, upon recently re-reading the paper twenty years later (and pondering my reasons for using the term), I think that it was an accurate sentiment. Whether that’s still the case, is a matter worth exploring.

My argument for using the term at the time, was that the transition from print to the interactive environment had brought about so dramatic a change in design practice for it to occasion a paradigm shift in the creative process. Indeed, as I have argued subsequently (Meron, 2021a), the dissertation was written at a time that was arguably the peak of an evolutionary process of graphic design, with practitioners’ struggling to adapt to emerging interactive paradigms (Engholm, 2002; Girard and Stark, 2002). It was a period of design and technological hybridisation that heightened professional practice ambiguity (Kotamraju, 2002; Baer, 2010) and brought technological challenges to a creative practice that were not always welcomed by graphic designers themselves.

I argued that, unlike previous professional challenges such as the industrial revolution – which arguably professionalised graphic design (Meggs and Purvis, 2012) – or desktop publishing (DTP), interactivity would ‘necessitate that designers expand their brief to embrace more empirical procedures in areas such as research and visual communication’ (Meron, 2001: p2). The reasons for this, I argued, were that (for graphic designers) interactivity was not simply a technological challenge of disruptive technologies (such as DTP). Nor was it just a new mode of design process with a new medium of communication. Indeed, I argued, both the industrial revolution and digital publishing changed the means of production for graphic designers – which in the case of DTP required a recalibration so as to reapply traditional creative skills to new technology. However, the design outcomes were still very much the same – the one-way (linear) communication of the printed medium.

By contrast, with interactivity it was not so much the means of production that altered for designers, but the product itself – interactivity. This, I argued, had (and in many cases still has) the added complication that the end results of interactive design are not as definitive or easily understood as the print medium, either by designers or by clients. I argued that interactivity itself was governed by a set of parameters that was (at the time of writing) essentially alien to those of graphic design. It was, I continued, a model largely drawn from software engineering, with graphic designers being drawn into the medium by market forces that required design input for their branding and ecommerce solutions. Moreover, with regard to interactivity and websites, it has been argued that by 2008 graphic designers had been ‘pivotal’ in advancing the World Wide Web from a ‘primitive level of usability’ to something ‘that was rapidly becoming an intuitive and ubiquitous part of everyday life’ (Wragg and Barnes, 2021: p144).

Outcomes from this dialectic (for want of a better word) of graphic design and software engineering, was a degree of confusion and resistance from graphic designers. I also pondered to what degree the different existential outlooks of graphic designers and software engineers might affect the direction of of interactivity going forward. I also suggested that 21st century debates between the ‘aestheticism’ of graphic design and the ‘empiricism’ of software engineering had similarities with those of graphic designers and printers from the 20th century. I speculated that such debates would only be resolved when the market and the medium matured (Meron, 2001: p30). Twenty years later, it remains unclear to what degree those discussions progressed, with UI versus UX perhaps symbolising one area of debate in contemporary interactive design discourse.

As ever, such issues inevitably bleed into discussions about the roles of graphic designers and their creative legitimacy (Meron, 2021a). Now as much as in 2001, graphic designers’ adaptable skillsets are ideally suited to take on the creative aspects of interactivity. In 2001 I suggested that the complexity of interactivity might require graphic designers to consider (in the short term) embracing technical aspects of it, something that John Maeda described as ‘hybrid designer/technologists’ (Maeda, 2000). However, I argued that this was not realistic for one job role to cover so many bases and, moreover, designers that I interviewed at the time felt that the increasing emphasis on technology as a primary solution was to the detriment of design standards.

Twenty years later, the democratisation of design software suggests that this was at least a partially correct speculation. Indeed, my argument in 2001 was that ‘thinking cyclically’ to creatively mirror interactive software design methods, might be a more fruitful way forward. While I always acknowledged that both the technical back-end and commercial understanding of a creative project was required in an interactive design project, I argued that graphic designers, with their background in interpreting client briefs (Meron, 2021b) and problem solving capabilities, were ideally placed to draw those elements together into a creative solution. It is something that I contend remains true today.

Graphic designers have constantly faced challenges from disruptive technologies (Drucker and McVarish, 2013), but these challenges are changing. For example, the DTP revolution of the late twentieth century once empowered practitioners – allowing them to embrace methods of creative production that were once the domain of print production professionals. Somewhat ironically mirroring this, the more recent democratisation of creative software increasingly enables non-professional design practitioners access to many aspects of (what once was) professional graphic design artefact creation. Thus, while interactive graphic designers may still feel pressure to become more technically proficient, my argument from 2001 remains that graphic designers’ value lies in our creative, interpretive and analytic skills, rather than as technologists.

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