Changes in Communication

How we communicate as a society has radically changed in the past ten years. In 2005, Twitter did not exist, Facebook was barely a year old, and WordPress was two years old. Flickr was a year old, YouTube was just born, and Instagram was not developed for another five years. Additionally in 2005, The New York Times started charging $49.95 for select online access to its newspaper and eliminated 190 jobs due to declining readership. “Snowfall”—the groundbreaking article forever changing online reading and content—was still seven years from its debut.

Apple iPhone 2007

The Arab Spring uprising, unlike past conflicts was not supported through some sort of guerrilla print or word of mouth campaign; rather a sophisticated social media onslaught helped connect and empower rebels to overthrow a brutal regime. Today, politicians regularly fall from grace not due to their policy and legislation choices, but because of misuse of media outlets not available in 2005—unfortunately, Anthony Weiner is permanently burned in my mind. Furthermore, the Blue/Black, Gold/White dress controversy is a perfect example of viral digital communications, as well as the digital media campaigns of Barack Obama and the efforts to maintain Net Neutrality, none of which were possible only seven years ago.

The driving force behind this shift can be found in changes to the devices used to communicate. Newspaper, television and radio were the dominant forms of disseminating communications—and still are for Lindsay Graham—until personal computing devices became popular, but the true game changer, the smart phone, came in 2007. With the release of the iPhone, how people accessed and distributed communications radically changed. Today, smartphones are ubiquitous and can be had for as little as $70 up front and $30 a month. With an estimated 182 million smartphone users in the U.S. alone, there is an undeniable shift in how we receive information and communicate as a society.

The Problem

Despite the obvious shift in how we communicate, I am still shocked by the work I see at nearly every graphic design portfolio review or senior show I attend. The usual projects are always there: stationery sets, annual reports, CD Booklets, two-page magazine spreads, postcards, postage stamps, calendars and gig or social cause posters. All of this stuff is printed from an inkjet printer on glossy paper and organized into some sort of binder. If it is a student show, then all the aforementioned ephemera is mounted on foam core or museum board and dutifully mounted on the wall.

Most of the time, the work is well thought out with a clear visual hierarchy, good understanding of color and strong typography, but every time I see this kind of work, I silently wonder if graphic design education is failing to prepare students in a world where Hillary Clinton has her own email server—hopefully right in her living room—and the angry Paul Rand had his own Twitter account. While the core tenets of good visual design have withstood the test of time, their contextual applications have exponentially changed since 2005, and many of the student projects I currently see are obsolete.

A Solution

It is time that design educators re-contextualize the application of existing skills such as layout and hierarchy, color theory and typography into new projects that will be expected of our contemporary students when they enter the workforce. For example, print campaigns consisting of mailers have now been replaced by email and social media campaigns. Thus, teaching students good typography and what vital information should be included in a banner image at the top of an email, on a Facebook post or on an event registration page should be the order of the day.

One or two page magazine spread projects should be replaced with blog post design instruction that ensures that the typography is well suited for the reading environment, color helps create hierarchy not headaches, and images are used to both convey messages and are part of a visual hierarchy that moves users throughout an article.

In fact, I am willing to bet that every single print based project from poster to postcard has a contemporary digital parallel that graphic design educators could reimagine without substantial changes to their design practice.

Sure there are a ton of news skills that should be added to the core of layout, color and type. Hierarchy through movement, HTML/CSS, and contextual use cases quickly come to mind. Why these have not been incorporated en masse throughout graphic design education is a question for another day. This is not about what graphic design educators are or are not teaching. Rather, this is an open call to educators to determine how to re-contextualize their current pedagogy to reflect the contemporary communication systems shaping our world, better easing the transition from student to professional.