Thursday, March 31, 2011

Graphic Design

Graphic design is a field that has interested me for years. I first became conscious of its effect on me in my twenties, when I began to notice that I was buying quite a few books that I never bothered to finish reading. Eventually it dawned on me that I bought them not so much because of their informational content but because of the beauty of their layout and text and/or the quality of included photographs and other graphic material. It was a pleasure to look at them, in other words.

During my early thirties I abandoned photography for a few years and set about teaching myself to draw. Needless to say,  that raised my consciousness about graphic design even more, and had quite a salutary effect on my photography when I eventually went back to it.

Around the time we opened Mindport in 1995, I stumbled across the books of Edward Tufte, perhaps some of the most beautiful books I've ever encountered. Tufte, among other activities, taught in the Department of Graphic design at Yale University, and has written at least four books on the visual presentation of data, the first being entitled, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. These books have asserted an influence on me in my effort to make the instructions accompanying Mindport's exhibits clear and comprehensible.

The task of writing instructions and other documentation I find enjoyable. There's a fascination in the attempt to view a familiar exhibit from the point of view of a total stranger seeing it for the first time, then in devising a way to explain as succinctly as possible how to make it do something. This involves organizing diagrams, photos, and text on a page in a manner that makes instructions easy to understand and follow, and choosing minimally ambiguous language in order that instructions and labels not be misinterpreted. I consider myself an amateur at this process, but I hope I have succeeded at it to some degree.

In the world outside, of course, the most obvious venue for graphic design is in advertising. We delve into that at Mindport to the extent that we put considerable effort into the design of our posters and other publicity materials. That's not my domain, personally. Staff members AnMorgan, Carol, Karen, and Tallie have been the main contributors to that department, though I do put in my two-cents-worth from time to time.

We all swim in a sea of graphic design, and, like fish swimming the ocean, most of us are scarcely conscious of its atmospheric presence or its effect on us. I've heard plenty of people complain bitterly after having struggled through the assembly of some consumer item labeled, "some assembly required." Right there is an example of what happens when an item and/or its instructions are NOT well designed. With well-designed objects and  instructions, you're likely to finish with the comment, "well, that was fun," possibly never realizing that the work of some designer eased your way through the process.

If the subject of graphic design interests you, I recommend having a look at Edward Tufte's books, or watch the documentary film, Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight. Glaser is a well known graphic designer from New York, who was responsible for the "I [heart] NY" graphic, and by extension, the "I [heart] . . . [whatever you can imagine], visible everywhere. Glaser, incidentally, claims that he made not a cent off the design of this graphic. The film about him provides an outline of what the finest graphic design is all about and might awaken you to a new appreciation for ways in which we're influenced by it.

Kevin Jones

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