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Chapter 2 - The Medium is the Message


Table of Contents:


What is Graphic Design?

The calligram sets the most perfect trap. By its double function , it guar­antees capture, as neither discourse alone nor a pure drawing could do . It banishes the invincible absence that defeats words , imposing upon them , by the ruses of a writing at play in space, the visible form of their referent. Cleverly arranged on a sheet of paper, signs invoke the very thing of which they speak-from outside, by the margin they outline, by the emergence of their mass on the blank space of the page . And in return, visible form is excavated, furrowed by words that work at it from within, and which, dismissing the immobile, ambiguous , nameless presence, spin forth the web of significations that christen it, deter­mine it, fix it in the universe of dis course. A double trap , unavoidable snare : How henceforth would es­cape the flight of birds , the transitory form of flowers, the falling rain?
--Michel Foucault, Ceci n'est pas une pipe

The word '''Graphics''' is rooted in the ancient Greek word of Graphikos or γραφικός which means: able to draw or paint. It is equivalent to gráph(ein) implying to draw or to write. The term graphic designer first coined by American designer William Addison Dwiggens in 1922 and is today universally acknowledged as the title for the occupation of an artist engaged in communication or advertising design. In Europe, the title became widely accepted in the 1960s, sixty years after the profession had actually been established. In French, the term for Graphic Design is graphisme and a graphic designer is either un graphiste or un maquettiste. Nevertheless, the proper French term for a designer, which is now increasingly used in French, is concepteur, associated with the verb concevoir or to conceive (a concept). In Germany, during the early years of the history of the profession, the graphic designers were simply called Künstler, artists, or Zeichner -- literally meaning a drawer, but implying a designer. Until the adoption of graphic designer, the term Gebrauchsgraphiker, commercial artist, or simply Graphiker, an abbreviated version, was the most widely used and popular label in Germany through World War II. As well, Germans frequently used the term Angewandte Künstler, applied artists, which corresponded to Angewandte Kunst, applied art, produced by applied artists. In Persian the term used is " انگاره آفرینی --Engareh Afarini" the creation of perception. Although, some persian designers use " طراحی گرافیک -- Tarrahi Graphic" a mixture of Arabic-English words that literally translates "Graphic Design". I prefer the word انگاره آفرین --Engareh Afarin" the creator of perception, since I believe as graphic designers we create perceptions or engareh, which are the source of new ideas. A graphic designer reflects upon how to visually communicate a perception using the collective memories, humane sensitivities, cultural norms, historical experiences of triumphs and tragedies, visual grammar of geometry; texture; gravity; completeness; tension & harmony, colours, and we restructure the existing structures of powers and understanding. Today Graphic Design may be defined as the art of creating visual statements by artistic compositions of images and/or writings. To do this, a Graphic Designer uses various elements that are related to creation of signs, charts, logos, graphs, drawings, line art, symbols , geometric designs, photographic collages and so on in an artistic paradigm.


Signs and Structures of Meaning




As Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) has insisted in all his works the power of life in all its forms is its power to to pose problems. Life assumes problems – not just for– a thinking consciousness, but to all forms of biological, mechanical, and other forms of organizations such as cells, machines and electromagnetic waves that are all manifestations of reactions to the quandary or ‘problematising’ impulse of life. The questions of philosophy, art and science are extensions of the questioning power of life, and in this regard Graphic design is not an exception. In the 20th century phenomenologists , such as Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), argued that life needs to be studied just as it appears (as phenomena). These thinkers tried to establish a secure foundation for meaning based on experience itself, totally independent of who or what was doing the experiencing. Another school of thought, named structuralism, represented by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908- 2009)and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981)was engaged in a search for 'deep structures' underlying the 'surface features' of phenomena and argued that meaning ought not to be discovered by experience but by exploring the structures that make experience possible: structures of concepts, language or signs. They seek to discover meaning in the overall organization of sign systems as 'languages' - as with Lévi-Strauss and myth, kinship rules and totemism, Lacan and the unconscious and Barthes and Greimas and the 'grammar' of narrative. In the words of Saussure:
It is... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon,'sign'). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge. (Saussure 1983, 15-16; Saussure 1974, 16)
Structuralism has also found advocates among graphic designers, who have argued that a visual language, like any other language, has a vocabulary that is organized by a grammar. Visual elements are in a way the alphabet of this visual language that include:
     (i). 'Abstract objects' which are idealized shapes that can’t physically be created (Points, Lines, Surfaces and Volumes),
     (ii). Concrete objects, which are perceived within defined limits called contours, which can be geometric, organic, or random.
Any element of a visual design on the page is a concrete object, which can be organized into direction, tone, color, texture, dimension, scale and movement. A visual structure is formed by placing two or more objects in relation to one another. They can be abstract or concrete.

Structuralists insisted that nothing is meaningful in itself; meaning is determined in relation to other components of a system, so that an object has no sense outside of its visual grammar. They objected to the idea that language is an instrument for reflecting a pre-existent reality or for expressing a human intention and believed that ‘subjects’ are produced by linguistic structures which are ‘always already’ in place. A subject’s utterances belong to the realm of parole, which is governed by langue, the true object of structuralist analysis. This view was criticized by the post-structuralists. Thinkers such as Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Gill Deleuze (1925-1995) and Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) argued that the structuralists' systematic view of communication excludes all subjective processes by which individuals interact with others and with society,they brought to attention the impossibility of founding meaning either on pure experience (phenomenology) or systematic structures (structuralism). Post-structuralists tried to deflate the scientific pretensions of structuralism. If structuralism was unequivocal in its desire to master the world of artificial signs, post-structuralism is sarcastic and suspicious in its refusal to take such claims seriously. Of course, Saussure himself had noticed that there is no necessary connection between signifier and signified. Sometimes a language will have one word (signifier)for two concepts (signifieds): in English ‘sheep’ is the animal and ‘mutton’ the meat; French has only one word for both signifieds (‘mouton’). As Saussure puts it,
‘A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas.’
Rene Magritte (1898-1967), who dis­liked being called an artist, preferring to be considered a thinker who communicated by means of painting, in an early version of his poster-like painting Ceci n 'est pas une pipe, appeared in 1968 in the journal Les Cahiers du chemin, had visually expressed a similar conclusion: In this work the pipe as a sign is not so much a well-understood object that can momentarily provide a ‘fixed’ point of reference between two moving layers of signifier and signified. As Foucault explains:
Magritte ' s drawing is as simple as a page borrowed from a botanical manual: a figure and the text that names it. Nothing is easier to recognize than a pipe, drawn thus; nothing is easier to say-our language knows it well in our place-than the "name of a pipe". what lends the figure its , Now, strangeness is not the " contradiction" between the image and the text . For a good reason: Contradiction could exist only be­tween two statements, or within one and the same statement. Here there is clearly but one, and it cannot be contradictory because the subject of the proposition is a simple demonstrative. False, then, because its " referent" - obviously a pipe - does not verify it? But who would seriously contend that the collection of intersecting lines above the text is a pipe? Must we say: My God, how simpleminded! The statement is perfectly true, since it is quite apparent that the draw­ing representing the pipe is not the pipe itself. And yet there is a convention of language: What is this draw­ing? Why, it is a calf, a square, a flower. An old custom not without basis, because the entire function of so scholarly, so academic a drawing is to elicit recognition, to allow the object it represents to appear without hesitation or equivocation. No matter that it is the material deposit, on a sheet of paper or a black­ board, of a little graphite or a thin dust of chalk. It does not " aim" like an arrow or a pointer to ward a particular pipe in the distance or elsewhere. It is a pipe."
Foucault in his Book Les Mots et les choses, had already tried to tackle this enigma:
that there is a worse kind of disorder than that of the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inap­propriate; I mean the disorder in which a large number of possible orders glitter separately, in the lawless and un­charted dimension of the heteroclite; and that word should be taken in its most literal etymological sense; in such a state, things are "laid," "placed," "arranged" in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a common place beneath them all. (...) Heterotopias are disturbing , probably because they secretly undermine language, be­cause they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they de­stroy syntax in advance, and, not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to but also opposite one another) to "hang together."
Saussure himself had recognized that signifier and signified are two separate systems, but he did not see how unstable units of meaning can be when the systems come together. Having established language as a total system independent of physical reality, he tried to retain a sense of the sign’s coherence, even though his splitting of the sign into two parts threatened to undo it. In the words of James Harkness:
In Saussurean linguis tics, words do not "refer" to things themselves . Rather, they have mean­ing as points within the entire system that is a language- a system , further , conceived as a network of graded differences. " D o g " is not somehow at­tached to the real animal, arising naturally from it and participating magically in its essence or presence. In­stead, " dog " has conceptual signification insofar as it evokes an idea that differs from the idea of a cat, a bear, a· fur seal, etc.
Post-structuralists criticize the belief in impartiality of the Anglo-Saxon empiricism that considers the researcher as the source of all meaning: derived from a repeatable scientific experiment, in which the human mind receives impressions from without which it sifts and organizes the inferences into a model of the world. The researcher as ‘subject’ grasps the ‘object’ and puts it into a model in shape of a verbal or visual statement. This model has been challenged by a theory of ‘discursive formations’, which refuses to separate subject and object into separate domains. Meanings are always formed from discourses which preexist the subject’s experiences. Even the subject itself is not an autonomous or unified identity, but is always ‘in process’.

There has been a parallel shift in the history and philosophy of science. Popper insists that there is no such thing as induction and that there is no process by which the testing of a scientific theory yields reasons to believe in that theory. It is alright to use a theory that has passed severe tests, but we ought also to be continually attempting to disprove that theory - keeping in mind that one false consequence provides sufficient grounds for rejecting the theory while no run of correct predictions provides any grounds for believing the theory to be true. The only time we learn something definitive from the scientific process is when we discover that we are wrong. Within science there is a fundamental distinction between data and theory: theories make claims that go beyond available data, and thus yield predictions about what will occur in cases that have not yet been examined. Familiar examples of theoretical claims include:'All objects fall to the earth with (the same) constant acceleration (provided that we can neglect air resistance),' 'Acceleration is always proportional to force,' 'All energy transfers take place at velocities less than the velocity of light in vacuo,' and 'Information always travels from nucleic acid to proteins, never in the reverse direction.' These examples include some claims that were once held to be universally true but are now rejected. T. S. Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have challenged the belief in the steady progression of knowledge in the sciences, and have shown that science ‘progresses’ in a series of jumps and breaks, in a discontinuous movement from one discursive formation (or‘paradigm’) to another. Individual scientists are not subjects apprehending objects through the blank mirror of the senses (and their technical extensions). They conduct and write up their research within the conceptual limits of particular scientific discourses, which are historically situated in relation to their society and culture.

As Kuhn (1962) has shown (within science) revolutions or transformations of paradigm are not easily accomplished. This is to be expected as the very nature of a paradigm is that it ‘is both underground and sovereign in all theories, doctrines and ideologies’, instituting the ‘primordial relations that form axioms, determine concepts, command discourse and/or theories’ (Morin, 2001). Post-structuralists, like Foucault emphasis notions such as self-organization, time as an irreversible dimension, and a world of infinite possibility because it is characterized by the principles of openness, in-determinism, unpredictability and uncertainty. Many of these thinkers like Deleuze, recognize that impossibility of organizing life into closed structures is not a failure or loss but a cause for celebration and liberation. The fact that we cannot secure a foundation for meaning means that we are given the opportunity to invent, create and experiment. Deleuze asks us to grasp this opportunity, to accept the challenge to transform life.



Graphic design is perhaps the most potent manifestation of this opportunity which is the main building block of the the human culture. It exhibits cultural aspirations, historical memories of struggles and triumphs , spiritual beliefs, socio-economical modes of life, moral and ethical judgments and so on and so forth. In no other phenomena but the Graphic Design the truth of Marshall McLuhan statement in his , Understanding Media , is so evident that:
In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology

What McLuhan implies is that independent of its content or visible messages, a visual design has its own intrinsic impacts on viewers' perceptions, which stems from the interrelationships among the socio-cultural factors, which create a unique message unrelated to its content. In fact, the visual design recreate its content, and by virtue of determining the overall form of a written message it determines the ways in which that message will be perceived and thus would have far-reaching sociological, aesthetic, and philosophical consequences, to the point of actually altering the ways in which we experience the world. It is interesting to note that McLuhan co-authored a book, 'The Medium is the Massage' by Quentin Fiore, a graphic designer that gave the book a pertinent graphic treatment, combining modernist typography with collage and various images. The authors tried to show that how the medium is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of man's personal life. In particular, how the medium forces people to reconsider and reevaluate practically every thought and every institution they formerly took for granted. Thus, graphic design changes the world and, of course, a changing world alters the graphic design -- both the message and the interpretation of that message. This is why the graphic design needs to be analyzed in the wider context of the social relationships.


The reason why is the title of the book 'The Medium is the Massage and not The Medium is the Message?' according to McLuhan biographer W. Terrence Gordon, is that by the time the book appeared in 1967, "McLuhan no doubt recognized that his original saying had become a cliché and welcomed the opportunity to throw it back on the compost heap of language to recycle and revitalize it". When the book came back from the typesetter's, it had a typo on the cover -- 'Massage' instead of 'Message' but the typesetter had made an error. When McLuhan saw the typo he exclaimed,'Leave it alone! It's great, and right on target!' With all due respect to McLuhan, as the rest of this piece tries to demonstrate; 'The Medium' cannot, and should not be 'the Massage'. The art is not dead, and the artists are still revitalizing the world.
What is Communication Design?


Today Communication Design is an interdisciplinary practice that involves, aesthetically trained craftsmanship , intellectual curiosity, technical dexterity, and creative talent. It is concerned with the analysis, organization and methods of presentation of visual solutions to communication problems. In fact, Jean-François Lyotard, a late professor of philosophy at the university of Paris, in one of his "fables"; The Paradox on the Graphic Artist has accurately characterized graphic designers as artists, attorneys, witnesses, historians, and judges all rolled into one. As manufacturer of objects of visual communication they have “very little freedom of movement. Not only under stringent constraints, but various kinds of constraints […] They [the graphic artists] struggle in this web like crazy people. Each in his or her own way. What are these constraints? Lyotard argues "The heavy-duty ones are obvious: to be liked, to be persuasive, and to be just". Then he explains that what he means to say is that the graphic artist's work
"gives pleasure to the gaze; that it induces a disposition in the viewer to buy into (in the double sense of going there and believing in it) the demonstration, the exhibit, the institution, etc. : that the work is faithful to the thing (institution, exhibit, etc.) it promotes, faithful both in the spirit and in the letter. (...) By targeting this pleasure, the graphic design falls into the realm of aesthetics: by targeting belief, it derives from rhetoric. And by respecting the truth of thing -- or by revealing it, the truth of the thing promoted, the graphic object takes on the value of testimony, it belongs to the art of proving, to inquiry, to history, to the establishment of knowledge" ”


This reference to the design of objects of visual communication, as a message, demands a further clarification of the constraints.
First of all, art is not free. It is freedom, within constraints at every level, conscious and unconscious. But then aesthetics is an art, the art of producing or of feeling pure (disinterested pleasure. Rhetoric is an art of persuasion. History is an art of true recounting, And interpreting is hermeneutics art, perhaps the most difficult of them all Its rules are almost unknown.
Lyotard describes these constraints as the necessity to make decisions in the midst of the design process all of which are equivalent to a judgment on the message to be communicated. The search for truth and, at the same time, the necessity of a surprising effect which pulls the viewer of an object of visual communication from the boredom of an overstimulated environment, is at the heart of the aesthetic experience that graphic designers want to achieve. In this, designers are always depending on the continually changing, collective, aesthetic preferences of the cultural context. To define, influence, and develop these further is equally as well part of visual communication as the exchange of icons.
Graphic artists "target" an object, but the target keeps shifting. It cannot be said that they commune, or even dialogue, with their people. On the the contrary, they are banking on an unsure, unforeseeable, perhaps impossible communication. They are the popular artists of cities without people and populations without traditions. Their addressees, all of us, are inhabited by the monotonous passion of 'performances," only thinking about what is possible, about what is "feasible," as one says.

In contrast to propaganda, which perhaps is a more pertinent representative of McLuhan's idea of 'massage' relative to 'message', as it pertains to a systematic propagation of magisterial policies through manipulative communications to the public, Lyotard describes the work of a graphic designer as a search for unknown visual deviations able to draw the attention of passersby. In this, he situates visual communication as a close relative of liberal arts, so-to-say street art, that operates with the very same means of the visible — color, shape, and composition on a two-dimensional surface. In relation to the evaluation of objects of visual communication, Lyotard writes: “What you’re not telling is what makes for a good poster, a good logo … And there is where we come across the constraint I’m talking about. Graphic art is not just good to sell things. It is always an object of circumstances, and consequently ephemeral. Of course, you can put it in archives, collect it and exhibit it".

According to cognitive neurologists the way our brain works is trough seeing multiple images of our surroundings at once. Like all other comprehension processes, our brain armed with a "blueprint" of a concept, provided to it by cultural and biological environment, tries to decipher various observed signs. These signs are transmitted by the eyes in their persistent search for clues in a process of “visual inspection” of the world. The process continues until the brain would find a replica that would satisfy the main characteristics of the aforementioned blueprint. This convinces the brain that it has arrived at a moment of understanding. The visual communication tries to emulate and enhance this process in an efficient and timely manner, so that, upon seeing a visual design, many of observers arrive at the same moment of understanding.


Morteza Momayez, Mythological  Antic I, 1961


Based on this theoretical paradigm, the term Visual Communication in the modern world has expanded markedly to incorporate activities at large exhibitions, socio-political signage projects, corporate logos, scientific expositions, social engineering, fashion design, street art and so on, as well as the traditional demarcation of graphic design encompassing; typography , posters, magazine layouts, book covers, and advertisement. Furthermore, with the advent of the worldwide web and internet, there has been another rapid expansion of the field in the digital universe of blogs, and websites. As Dietmar Winkler, the former director of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, has argued; design theory cannot be separated from evolving contemporary and future professional practices. An analysis of design issues must be in the context of a theory that incorporates the historical realities of design practices.

Morteza Momayez,9th Shiraz Festival of Arts, 1975





Most people agree that the images such as as those of twine towers in New York on September 11, 2001, or that of the brief student uprising in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989, with a lone protester standing defiantly in front of a line of menacing green Chinese tanks have  been etched in our minds for the rest our lives. This is not only because these are highly emotional images, but because we have reflected on the philosophical, cultural , political, social, and economical significance of such images with words. According to studies cited by educational psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University people only remember ten percent of what they hear, thirty percent of what they read, but about eighty percent of what they see and do. In other words, words are easily forgotten, but pictures stay in our minds. In today's world, because of integration of the visual media and computers, through phenomena such as YouTube, and Facebook words and pictures have integrated to create a formidable and ubiquitous mode of communication.


The great documentary photographer, Lewis Hine, who often used words to accompany his photographs once said,
 "If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn't need to lug a camera." 
It is beyond question that words and pictures are different modes of communication. But each possess a language that some can interpret better than others. There appears to be a disagreement among various thinkers and artists about the role of image in conveying of a message. According to the photographic historian Helmut Gernsheim;
"Photography is the only 'language' understood in all parts of the world, and bridging all nations and cultures." 
On the other hand, the photography philosopher John Berger states;
photographs supply information without having a language of their own. Photographs quote rather than translate from reality.
and Sol Worth, an expert of visual communication arrives at a compromise between the two points.
Pictures are not a language in the verbal sense. Pictures have no lexicon nor syntax in a formal grammarian's sense. But they do have form, structure, convention and rules.

However, the semiotic approach to visual communication stresses the idea that images are a collection of signs, which are linked together according to some grammatical rules. Both the visual communicator and the viewer need to understand this grammar so that they would be able to communicate various layers of meanings. In such a paradigm the role of observer cannot be a detached and indifferent one. On the contrary, the observer must engage in visual communication and participate fully in the realization of meanings. On the other side, the role of the designer is not just to offer a visual message about a particular issue but rather to identify and call out issues and concerns that confronts the viewers' humanity and integrity.


Morteza Momayez, Mythological Antic, V 1961



Why do we need to know about history of visual communication?




In the modern era there has been an anticipation throughout the world that various art universities would introduce communication design history as an independent academic discipline. Today, communication design courses, except for a few places such as the Jan Van Eyck Akademie in the Netherlands; which offers some post graduate theory and criticism of art and design, are being neglected in most art schools throughout the world.


Guity Novin, Celebrating People's Uprising in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen , Jordan, and Algeria, 2011




In contrast to visual communication design, the history of art in general was established in the early 20th century as a full-fledged academic discipline and as a subject for study with a broad appeal to general public. Although  from time to time some analytical research dealing with various dimensions of communication design history has been presented at academic conferences and some articles incorporating historical analysis  have appeared in publications such as Design Issues and Journal of Design History; one cannot escape from the fact that the amount of research on visual communication is still very scant, particularly  in comparison  to the numerous books produced by scholars working in the fields of art, architecture, or film. This is not surprising since although the history of graphic design, as these notes attempt to show, goes to the prehistorical time, and incorporates a wide range of activities, its academic recognition is relatively a new phenomenon.





Guity Novin, Poster and Catalog for First Tehran International  Film Festival, April 16-25, 1972.

But, why do we need to study the history of visual communication design? One may argue that such a study would be essential for a philosophical grounding of the practitioners, and would allow them to approach their projects with a richer socio-ethical perspective, make it possible for them to arrive at a more informed decisions, and would allow for incorporation of various critically important human dimensions. In short, the inspiration of an informed designer would result in a more authentic creation that would communicate human values, avoid insensitivity to the state of human drama, and would minimize the occurrence  of avoidable mistakes. As Andrew Blauvelt, editor of the three “critical histories” issues of Visible Language, has argued:
The notion of design as a field of study without practical application is unlikely and undesirable. After all, it is the practice of graphic design — no matter how wanting or limiting — that provides the basis for a theory of graphic design. [. . .] The calls for graphic design to be a liberal art — a quest for academic legitimacy — need to be supplanted by strategies which foster “critical making,” teaching when, how, and why to question things.

Guity Novin, Negin Magazine Cover, 1971

Guity Novin, Negin Magazine Cover, 1972

The evolution, success, and usefulness of contemporary design-practices, including the professionalism of the field, as Deitmar Winkler argues are tightly linked to the thorough grounding of design practitioners in the understanding of human factors, namely the knowledge of the complex interrelationships between psychological and social behaviors of individuals and groups, their ethnic histories and social organizational systems, and the cultural values, which are expressed through their religions, laws, music, literature, etiquettes, customs, languages, metaphors and artifacts, and which either hinder or facilitate interpersonal and intercultural communication. A history of graphic design cannot ignore those human factors, but unfortunately, almost all the extant histories always do ignore them. Not only the present state of design education, as Winkler contends, is still vocational – technical and not intellectually mature – a direct continuation of the Bauhaus-spawned design guild training and anti-intellectualism, but more so is its history, which is really a vocational and technical history.

What is wrong with the the existing historical treatments of visual communication?


Guity Novin, Logos, Poster, 2009


What is wrong with the the existing historical treatments of visual communication?


Unfortunately, the  existing literature on the history of graphic design  does not deal with the history of cultural   interpretations, instead they usually present a sideshow parade of “great” historical moments. However, as  Umberto Eco has argued  "A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection -not an invitation for hypnosis." I believe that a socio-cultural history of visual design  goes a long way to satisfy Eco's profound demand, and can achieve this goal by starting from a historical understanding of the social grammar of visual communication.  As  Susan Midalia has argued visual images, like all representations, " are never innocent or neutral reflections of reality... they re-present for us, that is, they offer not a mirror of the world but an interpretation of it. "  Kress and Hodge have presented  the following outline of a Social Semiotic theory of communication:
We see communication essentially as a process, not as a disembodied set of meanings or texts. Meaning is produced and reproduced under specific social conditions, through specific material forms and agencies. It exists in relation to concrete subjects and objects, and is inexplicable except in terms of this set of relationships. Society is typically constituted by structures and relations of power, exercised or resisted; it is characterized by conflict as well as cohesion, so that the structures of meaning at all levels, from dominant ideological forms to local acts of meaning will show traces of contradiction, ambiguity, polysemy in various proportions, by various means. So for us, texts and contexts, agents and objects of meaning, social structures and forces and their complex interrelationships together constitute the minimal and irreducible object of semiotic analysis (1988:viii).

This paradigm has constituted the foundation of the approach taken by Kress and van Leeuwen in their works on the grammar of visual communication. Such insights are of critical importance for a historical analysis of the ways that ideology is projected through different visual and verbal modes. In this regard, Baldwin's suggestion that design history should adopt  a “history-less history,” which reflects on history as a series of causal relationships with special emphasis on the systems of production and consumption of design is a valuable suggestion. A history characterized  by a long  canonical list of heroic white- male designers, with its emphasis on facts, and dates is not an informative history of socio-political, and cultural  values and practitioners of visual communication find this kind of history totally off-putting and irrelevant  to their studio practices.



Guity Novin, Rumi, Poster, 1982



In general, we must admit that visual communication in the modern world is evermore prevalent, both as a material economic necessity and as a wellspring of philosophical inquiry. With this in mind, it should be noted that with the surge of digital technology there has been a paradigm shift in visual communication and dissemination of information. The fusion of media platforms, such as; Ipod, interactive TV, and social networks have made such communications not only instantaneous in real time, but also ubiquitous. The new technology is changing the usual vocabulary, and creating new meanings, new concepts, and new realities. In this context, we need to reflect on Mitchell's argument that; "Visual culture is not limited to the study of images or media, but extends to everyday practices of seeing and showing, especially those that we take to be immediate and unmediated." In fact, visual culture is a defining characteristic of the postmodern consumers, and this is, of course, important because in today's world the traditional role of mass media has diminished drastically, and they are now consumers that produce through their own websites, blogs, and social networks most of the news, opinion pieces and commentaries with the aid of visual communication. In such a world, what Grazia Neri has written, in  Ethics and Photography, is equally poignant with respect to any other mode of visual design. She has argued;
"Each of us reacts to the picture on the basis of our own sensitivity, culture, intelligence, mood and passion. What is more, the interpretation of one and the same photograph will be different at different times. A photograph produced today will offer a different impact tomorrow. Even the place where the photograph is seen can dictate our reactions. A photograph published in a gossip weekly cannot have, a priori, the same impact as a photograph on display in a museum or of another printed in a sophisticated book. The environment where the photograph appears may determine our reading of it."
This is true, of course, of a propaganda poster in the Stalin Russia, a Street Art graffiti in New York, a Rock Painting in Australia, an Aztec codex, or an African pottery -- we need to interpret these visual communications in their socio-cultural contexts. 







Towards an Understanding of the Grammar of Visual Design
Kress and van Leeuwen in their book, The Grammar of Visual Design  have tried to produce a ‘grammar of visual design’ with the aim to present a socially-based theory of visual representation.  They employ an analogy with language, noting that others working in visual semiotics before them have tended to concentrate on what could be described as the ‘lexis’ rather than the ‘grammar’ of images. Those concentrated on the lexis have focused on the isolated meaning projected by the individuals, scenes and objects portrayed within images. Whereas a concentration on grammar would be concerned with the connected meanings.


In this context "grammar" is not a set of rules for the correct use of language but rather a set of socially constructed resources for the assemblage of meaning.  Kress and Van Leeuwen  believe that visual design, like language and all semiotic modes, is a social  construct, and thus they try to decipher what is encoded  in images in order to arrive at coherent, meaningful, and focused messages, in much the same way that discourse analysts examine how words are combined into clauses, sentences and whole texts.  In fact, both culture and ideology are  important in both the verbal and visual grammars, a point which Kress and van Leeuwen highlight in quoting Halliday’s assertion that;
“grammar goes beyond formal rules of correctness. It is a means of representing patterns of experience … It enables human beings to present a mental picture of reality, to make sense of their experience of what goes on around them and inside them. 

Thus a historian of visual design, instead of focusing on the designers, must concentrate on understanding of the visual culture. In such an inquiry, the researcher would focus on the socio-economical  effects of design and on day-to-day impact of the visual communication on culture and  on political power structure.  Unfortunately, in many art schools, the history of visual communication remains essentially an dispensable or inconsequential ancillary to the design studio. Although the history courses are offered to enrich the information set of graphic designers, they are mostly seen as irrelevant, due to their lack of any socio-cultural vision and analytical depth. In fact, many of the instructors of the history of graphic design courses are not qualified researchers. They have been assigned to their tasks because the school administrators, in their infallible judgments , have inferred from the fact that somebody is already a visual art practitioner, therefore must be able to teach the history of his/her practice. Even in many of the European, and American art schools the visual design history is often taught by part-time instructors on hourly contracts, and many graphic designers see no relevance in design history for the practical side of their profession. Moreover, many instructors themselves are unaware of the socio-cultural significance of their tasks, and quite frequently undermine the importance of having a historical background as a prerequisite for studio works. For instance, Louis Danziger, has described his design history teaching, as neither academic nor scholarly , but something which is primarily concerned with helping students to enhance their performance as designers. He has asserted that practitioners cannot be good historians because their experience “inevitably introduces biases,” and they “cannot be objective.”



Guity Novin, Charles Mingus Poster, 2009




The Conflict Between Advertising and  Graphic Art


In modern times, advertising is the most prominent conduit for the creation of graphic design. The transmission of commercial messages are enormously sophisticated and articulated through various studies incorporating such dimensions as psychological, demographic , economical, and ethnological issues, among others. Such communications are in relation to multinational corporations, global mass-media networks and a host of the alphabetic soups of international entities, such as the IMF, OECD, APAC, OPEC, EU, NAFTA, NATO and so on. The medium and the message both transcend frontiers and cultural divides. However, as John Berger in Ways of Seeing has argued:
... although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our own way of seeing. . . when an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art . . .Many of these assumptions no longer accord with the world as it is. (The world-as-it-is is more than pure objective fact, it includes consciousness.)
It is clear that advertising tries to introduce new assumptions about the world that are in conflict with its reality. According to Berger:
We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach-though not necessarily within arm’s reach. To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it.
Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.
Advertising in modern times have become more and more centralized, globalized, generalized and, therefore, standardized — like the economic forces that produce it, and the products it deals with. Graphic design, on the other hand, as practiced by artists, continues to be created and to structure itself in a humanistic manner , which is in direct correlation  with the specific social fabrics of different societies around the world. It is this humanism that provides the possibility for the development of graphic communications across the world in the future.In summary, there is a fundamental difference between commercial advertising and graphic art in today's world.

Guity Novin, Life, 2011


T
he rich variety and presence of multimodal texts, as Sharon Goodman has reminded us, are now a familiar feature in newspapers that contain photographs, diagrams and changes of typeface, and even in company letterheads that are carefully designed, with their choice of graphics and color of the paper to craft the company’s image. We now take it for granted that an electronic text, such as a page on the web, will use more than one of the language modes. In fact, in today's market place graphic designers are doing much more than the visual engineering of most printed matter, as they are engaged in a host of related activities that in part include; strategy and consulting, information and experience design, branding and broadcast design, and road- signage systems. Visual communicators are expected not only to acquire a certain classic set of skills including; drawing, photography, composition and typography -- the design and structural characteristics of letterforms, but also an ability to work with software programs such as Photoshops, Gimps, and so on. In doing all these tasks, it should not be forgotten that a graphic designer is an artist, and as an artist can act as a social critic, a historian, or a creator of pure beauty so long as he/she is honest and believes in the integrity of his/her creation; and businesses that respect the artistic integrity of their graphic designers are those that  will thrive in the longer run.   



Go to the next chapter; Chapter 3 - A Symbiotic Relationship : Books




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