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(2) Where is our place in academic discussion?

University of Lapland

Placing our professional knowledge in the academic field

by Silja Nikula

In this essay, I concern the problem of communicating who we graphic designers 1 are and what we can. Our faculty of art and design is a part of the University of Lapland, and I often meet academic people from other fields, and we talk about our teaching and research. I claim that we, visual communication designers, have failed in telling about the substance in our field. People normally know a small part of our design results: we make flyers, create nice pictures or can change numbers to visual diagrams. Often, we are also asked to design logos or making layouts for books. Hmmm… How to tell about our work, not just mentioning the large field of the different outcome? Might there be any core principles in our design thinking, do we even share certain nuclear concepts? Where is our place in academic discussion?

In combining practical design work with theoretical discussion, there are different relationships. Visual communication design can well be studied “outside”, from other academic fields, as aesthetics or art history. When analysing visual material, qualitative research methods are useful and our field is linked with social sciences. However, we miss research from the designers’ own point of view. This could bring new kind of knowledge, fresh and focusing on the relevant questions. My interest is in shedding light on the question, what kind of knowledge is produced in practice based research processes. (Here, I prefer using the term of practice based research instead of artistic research, because our goal is defined, as making design for communication purposes. However, I see it included under the umbrella team of artistic research.)

Graphic designers use professional skills to solve many kinds of communication problems and we help people in changing messages between them. Actually, based on our practical work experience, we have a lot of knowledge, however part of it may be hidden or intuitive. The theoretical background is based on many traditional research fields. For instance, when designing posters, we think how to use colours and forms so that they can be seen far away, we concern cognitive sciences. When we compose visual elements to forward potential meanings, we address the semiotics. In advertising, we aim to persuade people – so we use our skills in rhetoric. In many design cases, we use our understanding about human behavior. Experienced designers also know about the use of different media, where representations are nowadays multimodal, combining visual language with motion and sound. Added to that, many of us have learned marketing theories, even aesthetics. In our current visualized world, data journalism, branding, signage systems and visual storytelling are in a more and more important role.

There has been huge rise in visual communication around us. However, we as designers stay invisible. Partly it is understandable, because the final design works are usually anonymous. In them, the content and the message come first, while the visual form remains transparent or fading. When the audience sees the final design works, the role of the designer remains hidden. In spite of that, it is now time to start finding ways to articulate our broad field of working. Otherwise there is a threat, that we are still regarded as decorators, subcontractors or seen only as finalizing ready ideas and messages – not as independent thinkers. For advancing the research in our own terms, we find ways to articulate our situation in the academic field and to find our own voice. We have to keep talking about our principles and working methods. Defining the core as one unity might be problematic, because our field is so enormous. For making the research interdisciplinary, we can seek common surfaces with other academic fields – but not forget to strengthen our own profile.

There are some basic requirements for practice based research: First: it is established on professional design skills. Without that, high standard knowledge cannot be achieved. We can use previous or create our own methods, the most suitable for each specific context. Second: regardless of the methods, the outcome is to be connected with the previous knowledge and discussion in graphic design, widely understood as covering the whole field of visual culture and communication. Professional designers can use their antennas to define what kind of research questions are relevant.

So, what are the challenges in practice based research? It is based on special and limited cases, often including personal emotional touch, as well as intuitive thinking. That is why there are difficulties in generalizing the results. However, we have to keep in mind, that professional practitioners can produce deep understanding through these cases. While working, they can also find and make visible new concepts that are salient in design thinking – even if these concepts are not named yet. What is characteristic of this kind of process is that the research question is not definitely clear in the beginning, but focused and specified gradually, while doing and reading the literature. Also, it might be difficult to report the process according to the conventional structure of research articles. How to articulate our findings in a convincing way, is also a matter of further considering.

Through advanced practice based research designers can take part in academic discussion. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that the direction goes vice versa: the knowledge of practitioner-researchers can as well be adapted in daily design problems. This thinking is based on my previous career as graphic designer and teacher, as also my practice based dissertation published in 2012. It concerned with the process of making pictures based on my travel experiences about “the spirit of the place”. The theoretical discussion was connected with the visual storytelling through still images. The final pictures were presented also in three exhibitions during 2009–2011. Concerning this research process, I have later done critical reflection and evaluation in my mind. Especially I have considered, what actually were the weaknesses and strengths in this way of producing knowledge.

1 I use graphic design and visual communication design as synonyms

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