“Stone seems an uncomplicated material, instantly knowable,
compliant conveyor of factuality. Philosophy’s favorite object,
stone is firm support for ponderous thinking. Thales of Miletus,
hailed by Aristotle as the first philosopher, turned to lodestone 
and amber to explain how matter acts. Faith in stone’s 
epistemological solidity is easy to understand, given its ubiquity,
heft, impenetrability, and immensity.”

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone, 2015

In our minds, we incessantly observe, analyze and reflect (at least, hopefully, we do). What seems to permeate the various pockets of this cognitive experience is not only a search for meaning, but rather a search for a solidity of meaning upon which we can comfortably build our understanding of a particular phenomenon and our further relationship with it. In his book Stone (2015), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen describes the need for such epistemological stability as a need for ‘an imperturbable solid upon which we build our truths’.

As a graphic design (GD) student, one may find themselves extremely occupied by this search. The quest for epistemological solidity becomes problematic in our discipline because we do not have a set of well-defined theories or processes. What seems to be at the heart of this problem is the crisis of definition. Whether we consider GD as an academic discipline or a professional practice, its field of operation, application, audience, media, or goals are so diverse and ambiguous that one cannot firmly identify its boundaries or means of verifying its value. Although the discipline is most commonly associated with typography, branding, and more recently, web design design, it takes on most various forms. 

The only constant that one observes in GD is its complexity and amorphous state. As Andrew Blauvelt notices, ‘The distinguishing characteristic of graphic design from both architecture and product design lies in its inherent ephemeral state’ (Blauvelt, 2012). But if an individual can live with such an ambiguity, a discipline is constantly faced with this challenge that calls for a collective reflection. It needs a forum where we can at least try to identify the core aspects of our discipline. While there are many organizations for graphic designers, there seems to be a lack of criticism that brings this issue to surface and resolution. 

And so we, the students, frankly freak-out as we are told to make graphic design outcomes but not instructed on how to make sense of it all. We struggle to identify the extent and limitations, the core and the periphery of our disciplinary capabilities. What really constitutes GD? How do we conduct research? How can we be accountable and responsible in our roles of curing visual communication? When does GD blend into its neighbouring disciplines like Industrial Design? The discipline, just like its student, is challenged by such questions and a vast variety of conflicting answers one may find in a department. The question of definition is a question that haunts us in all of our design steps and activities. The lack of academic foundation, common language around research and visual methodologies deepen our anxiety.

It seems that the fervor with which we argue our territories aims to compensate for the shaky platforms on which we dwell. The question ‘what is graphic design?’ points to our fundamental need for structure and solidity on which we could build our knowledge and claim expertise in this field. Cohen recalls a number of philosophers who perceived stone as a paragon of epistemological solidity, ‘an uncomplicated material, instantly knowable, compliant conveyor of factuality’. For us as designers, the notion of graphic design seems to be the antithesis of the philosophers’ stone. It is anything but an ‘uncomplicated’ and ‘knowable conveyor of factuality’.  And so we are left to twist and turn it constantly trying to understand the essence of this crazy (not little) thing called Graphic Design. 

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July 2019