The Codex Project at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London was set up to question how the computer had affected the teaching of graphic design and its subsequent practice in the industry. A number of graphic designers, journalists and educators linked with the CSM Graphic Design course contributed, and we made a series of in-depth interviews that brought into focus the interface between old and new technologies and the potential for evolution of the discipline.
Most of the designers involved stated the belief that there is a definite continuum between graphic design education and subsequent professional practice. Many of them felt that constant retraining was required of them throughout their professional lives. This was not limited to skill-based training (such as learning about new computer programmes and technologies), but included extending the ability to investigate the world and to maintain creativity. At art school, information gathering, such as the collection and archiving of visual materials in sketch books or collections of ephemera, are part of the acquisition of visual skills often regarded by more academic disciplines as eccentric. These practices constitute a method of learning that carries on through the working life of most designers, juxtaposed, for many designers interviewed, with more formal learning.
When asked to identify formative learning experiences, designers spoke of contact with craft-based media, such as silk-screen, etching and above all letterpress. These responses reflected a need for tangible insights and a real understanding of the ‘physicality’ of the craft of design. These views correspond with our experiences at Central Saint Martin’s, where in recent years the teaching of letterpress has become a significant learning tool that complements computer based design education.
The following designers were interviewed for the Codex Project: Phil Baines, Geoff Fowle, Vince Frost, Alan Kitching and Graham Wood, all of whom have engaged with the idea of craft in design through their practice.
‘When I first went to use a computer, I found it easier because I had learnt to use letterpress before. When using Freehand I was able to work in a similar way to when I was using letterpress. It wasn’t until after I had been using the Macintosh that I found that I could change the typefaces in the same way I could with letterpress! I could use 21 point and re-scale everything. I was working using the same methods.’ Graham Wood
It is a fortunate time to be a graphic designer: there is a thriving industry, an abundance of clients, expanding markets and new technologies, making it possible to create and be creative in ways that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Yet there are a number of issues that designers and writers on design are finding difficult to address. Is graphic design rising to the challenge of the information revolution? Has it, as an industry, displayed an understanding of the significant change that society is undergoing? What direction will it take in the future? How can graphic designers conceive of appropriate forms of ‘good’ design when we are being faced with a deluge of information? These questions are often addressed in specialised publications about graphic design, but the debate needs to be broadened.
The newly defined ‘generation Y’ designers are aiming to differentiate themselves from the previous generation, which was interested in the ambiguity of design and the possibility of deconstructing language. Ironically, the new generation is looking for an orthodoxy that can supply it with rules for the practice of ‘good’ design. It is characteristically unenamoured with technology, due to familiarity. This is partly a reaction to the excesses of graphic design in the eighties and nineties, which promised much to industry but delivered very little in reality.
‘In written English, in the construction of essays, the rationales, the formality is established. There is an evident setting out of the parameters, a proposition, a developing argument, and so on. Yet in design the inarticulate stab at some visuality and a grab at some fashionable graphic seems to do. Thus ‘graphics’ equals the trite, the inconsequential, the fluff of commerce. But so called commercial art has come a long way, further too than Mac jockeying.’ Geoff Fowle
At Central Saint Martins, we initiate an environment of creativity. Students are encouraged to keep sketch books and to experience hands-on ways of working - printmaking, experimental photography, drawing, letterpress. At the same time they are introduced to technology through various workshops, from Photoshop to Dreamweaver. This combination of methods leads students to be innovative in their approach, creating future designers who feel equally at home working with their hands or using computers. We celebrate the incorporation of both modern and traditional technologies, not only in working processes, but in the finished product.
As an industry we have been unreflective in finding solutions for the digital environment. The lack of alternative metaphors and models needed to address this question has meant that previous models are being employed wholesale and merely transferred to the digital environment - for example, the unsatisfactory web ‘page’. The drive to transfer information and content from print to new media has meant that scant attention has been paid to the potential that exists do develop new kinds of knowledge. Is the graphic designer’s role in contemporary life that of an interpreter of existing information, ideas, values and concepts? Or is there a profound challenge awaiting the profession - that of leading the development of new strategies for communication in the digital era? Finally, there is the more worrying question as to whether graphic design itself might face extinction if it is absorbed by technology.
‘I think that all craft based media should be kept within design education; letterpress, silk-screen printing, etching etc. It is best to have those options, it’s very good education. It has to be kept, otherwise art schools will just become empty shells.’ Alan Kitching
Art schools have supplied generations of young design graduates to the graphic design industry. In the past, art school education and specifically graphic design departments created a forum in which the ‘craft’ of design was learnt and design students were afforded the opportunity to question previously unchallenged ideas, while also developing skills for their immediate future. Graduates rounded off their education with a period of apprenticeship in a design company, (though this model was not always adhered to, it was often the route followed) and young designers would develop disciplines, such as typographic design, editorial design, art direction, as well as a wider understanding of the commercial culture. These disciplines had a distinct relationship with the craft of printing, which meant that a clearer set of roles existed for the design graduate. These established routes distinguished graphic design as a ‘craft’ and prescribed the transition from education to industry.
Changes that have taken place in the last 20 years in the industry and the dismantling of these established routes has coincided with a larger number of graphic design graduates leaving art schools. With the introduction of new technologies onto the curriculum, students are now expected to acquire a larger number of core skills, ranging from traditional print to an understanding of the new media, during their three year course. This increase in the skills learning demanded of students and the overlapping of the roles of technician, programmer and designer (as required by multi-disciplinary practice) means that less time is spent developing their individual creativity. Students nowadays often assume that solutions to design problems can be solved through technology, rather than through their own knowledge and skill. It has become the responsibility of graphic design tutors to encourage students to find creative, skill-based solutions and to facilitate the exploration of creativity through play.
Creativity is the operation of a mode of thought and its interaction with the physical world. It is fundamental to good design and is needed to execute innovative and effective communication. In recent years the huge increase in the amount of designed material has accompanied a comparative decline in creative solutions to graphic problems.
This is in part due to the rise of consumerism, and the commercial demand to capture the attention of consumers through the media of television, print, the web and advertising. The industry has demanded of the graphic designer work that is not only ‘of the moment’, but also strikingly visible. This ‘high volume attention’ requirement has on the whole resulted in the subordination of content over style. Our consumer society has come to understand that ‘style’ sells. Many people in the design and corporate identity industries seem unable to distinguish between novelty (applying to a product style without a rationale) and creativity. Novelty results when creative solutions are demanded by businesses which do not acknowledge that to be genuinely creative you have to risk failure.
Intuition and creativity are skills that are given little credence and rarely allowed to operate in society. By contrast, they have traditionally been fostered by the art school system. It has previously been difficult for design educators to locate, identify and endorse these skills as part of a pedagogy. However, new research emerging from the field of cognitive psychology, notably the work of Professor Guy Claxton, has begun to shed light on the mechanisms behind these forms of thought and lends support to the promotion of intuition and creativity.
These findings emphasise the importance of play in the learning process. Play is important to the creative act because it invites participants to find new paradigms and develop skills which are gained cumulatively: they have to be nurtured and allowed to grow. Play as an activity has a number of qualities. It:
Increasingly, as a society we are realising that the old solutions are not working. Creativity and play must be nurtured in order for us to deal with the demands of the future.
In recent years at CSM we have made a concerted effort to counterbalance the teaching of technical skills in computer based design and have found ourselves re-evaluating the use of letterpress. Students often assume that when they learn a computer programme, they are learning to design. As we enable them to make the distinction between ‘tools’ and ‘ability’, we also encourage them to make their own decisions about what design is and to be questioning about the capabilities of the tools that they use. An effective means of guiding them through this transition is the use of letterpress. This traditional method of composing type and designing layout demonstrates the ‘first principals of design’ and often acts as a seminal learning experience for graphic design students who had previously only laid out type on the computer screen.
‘One of the first things that I was conscious of when I first started teaching was that I wouldn’t tell people how to do it or what the solution should look like. I tried to be very open. When it came to letterpress, all I tried to do was show them the basics of how to use the equipment and what to do with it, then let them do exactly what they wanted to do.’ Phil Baines
The staff not only introduce students to the basic principles of setting metal type, but also involve them in experimentation and play. For some design students the initial introduction is followed by a more in-depth exploration of the conventions of letterpress. At this point, students realise where terms like ‘leading’, ‘spacing’ and ‘baseline’, come from and what they actually mean. This phase is also characterised by learning the fundamentals of typography and layout design. The processes involved in the setting of type and image in letterpress are slow and allow students to think and expand their imaginative faculties. The physical interaction with the medium creates an opportunity for creative and inventive thinking.
We have identified four main processes of engagement:
The physicality involved in the setting of type allows students to acquire learning skills which have a direct impact on the student’s imagination and memory. Metal type has the distinctive tactile qualities of weight, texture, and smell, and forms the basis of a multi-sensory learning experience. The knowledge gained from handling and setting metal (and also wood) type, which has passed through many hands, introduces learning styles that cannot be accommodated in the virtual typesetting and design environment. The tactile sensation of setting type allows for a range of intuitive investigations, leading to experiential learning.
‘I often choose to use letterpress as opposed to digital type because of its historical and tactile value. We are all being enticed into instant results. As the big computer companies make our lives easier with new programmes and inexpensive hardware, we lose sight of the craft of our profession. I believe that printed material has an aura, and the more well crafted a piece the more it glows.’ Vince Frost
Students are compelled to abstract pictorial space due to the process of setting type upside down. The imagination has to work to transform the set metal type (in the tray or on the composing stick) and internalise it into pictorial elements. Composition, layout and the setting of type enter the student’s visual imagination, and this seems to have a direct impact on their intellectual understanding of the fundamentals of design. This process of abstraction of pictorial space and the labour intensive and repetitive processes of setting out type and composition stimulate the student’s creativity, which is encouraged to grow owing to the stages through which they pass in decision making towards a final outcome. In letterpress, the entire image is ever present, and the development of the design is more tangible to the student.
It is interesting to compare the difficult task of setting seven point type on the computer screen and setting seven point metal type in letterpress. In letterpress, the compositor’s capabilities are refined by the decisions taken during the setting of metal type at its actual size - reading the text, the awkwardness of handling, making judgements about page layout. The computer engages us on a more detached level using the aid of a magnifying tool. All interaction takes place through the screen, there is no tactile experience. The computer offers a range of design options and outcomes that are held in the computer’s memory through the ‘save as’ function, which has become a means of creating many different variations. This can be a liberating experience, but it denies younger designers the opportunity and discipline of holding the image in the imagination and visualising an outcome. The use of these virtual functions promotes a reliance upon the prescribed routes that have been conceived by the programme’s creators. Feedback is either on the screen or as a printout, so that both scale and size are less present.
Using the screen, students are less inclined to conceptualise the virtual pictorial space in abstract terms. The relationship of image and type remains separate. The fundamental difference is process - the route taken through the use of computers does not stimulate the contemplative imagination needed during the design process.
The Codex Project made the discovery that although letterpress is a technology of the past, its intrinsic qualities are of direct relevance to the teaching of computer aided design. The qualities implicit the medium itself promote the cognitive skills needed by students and act as a bridge to the active imagination. We have realised that through the teaching of older technologies, we are able to challenge students to be more questioning about their use of new technologies.
The teaching of letterpress demonstrates the processes of play and creativity through interaction with the medium, which as part of the creative process, redefines established solutions and promotes the development of the imagination. This is essential to the future of graphic design.
Susanna Edwards is a designer and a lecturer in illustration at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art, Julia Lockheart is a lecturer on dyslexia at Goldsmiths’ College, and Maziar Raein is head of context, Central Saint Martin’s BA Graphic Design