Graphic design as architectural statement

Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 2017


From the editor's desk
In the beginning, primitive men found and inhabited the cave. Still unable to build, they were seeking shelter from fierce climate and other predators. But man wasn't satisfied with just protection for its newfound dwelling, so it began to do something that set it apart from all other animals; something uniquely human that even the animals that were already capable of building their own nest couldn't do: it began to paint on the rocks, depicting hunts and other scenery from its everyday life. Man left a sign on its own environment and visual communication was born.

While man began communicating visually much earlier than it was capable of building, today the fundamental role of graphic design appears to be almost neglected when compared to architecture. The reason might be historical: architecture was codified as a discipline as early as around 20BCE, when Vitruvius wrote his treatise 'De architectura' — the first book on architectural theory, presented to Emperor Augustus himself. What we call 'graphic design', on the other hand, has developed through the phases of art, bookmaking, printmaking and commercial art before emerging as a codified design discipline not earlier than 50 years ago.

 A 1684 depiction of Vitruvius presenting De Architectura to Augustus
A 1684 depiction of Vitruvius presenting De Architectura to Augustus.

This later evolution has been the most significant and is the most relevant for our reasoning. Graphic design has become a discipline that can be closely compared to architecture, both in creative process, production and requirements that must be taken into account for a viable solution to emerge. Architecture deals with context as urban planning requirements and the relationship with previous buildings on the same site; graphic design deals with context as content, company values, and physical considerations in the case of print design. Architecture deals with functionality as spatial, purpose and environmental requirements; so does graphic design as readability of typography, accessibility of information and discoverability of interactions in interfaces. Architecture deals with construction and engineering, and so does graphic design in the partnerships with printers and web developers that 'build' a book, a website or an app.

Ernesto Nathan Rogers, 1 the great Italian architect, suggested that by looking at a spoon one could tell everything about the civilisation that made it. As architecture and industrial design give shape to life in its material space, graphic design shapes our living in the immaterial space of visual communication. Wayfinding in public spaces, road signs, food packaging, books and apps of all kinds are but a few items that couldn't exist without graphic design. Even the softwares that architects themselves use to design buildings couldn't exist without graphic designers that clarified so many complex functions into an intuitive interface. As the internet incessantly branches out into all facets of human activities, recognition of graphic design as a discipline that is as critical as architecture to the development of society has become paramount.

If graphic design was suddenly purged from modern society, humans would find themselves navigating in complete chaos. All websites would transform into one seamless blank screen, all smartphones and tablets would suffer the same fate and computers' only option would be reverting to a command line operating system as easy to use as driving an airplane for the average person. Streets would turn into a mayhem of car crashes without road signs, and doing groceries would become a full-time job trying to tell products with blank packages that all look the same. Airports might as well shut down with hundreds of people trying to find their flight without any form of visual wayfinding.

The scenario that we just described should be enough for a careful reconsideration of the role of graphic design in our society. It is one of silent unwinding, so integrated in everyday life as to seem invisible but nonetheless it is fundamental. This realisation must come from within the profession first; more designers need to look beyond the making process to embrace intellectual, social, cultural and critical involvement in the conversation that pushes the discipline ahead and defines its role. On the long run this involvement will prove to be paramount for instilling awareness in the general public and ultimately bringing the perceived dignity of the profession to the level it belongs.

  1. 1

    Italian architect active after the second world war, part of the BBPR group. (