Project: Making graphic design visible

Published:  May 20, 2011
Project: Making graphic design visible

Words: Yoko Akama and Carolyn Barnes

How often do we struggle for words when explaining our job as a communication designer to our family or new acquaintances? Show them a piece of client work (hopefully, not an annual report, but something far sexier) only then to be asked, “Oh, so you work with computers?” The Australian communication design industry represents a significant field of cultural enterprise, social and economic activity. This field spans graphic design, corporate branding, advertising, information design, packaging, environmental signage and way-finding, exhibition and display design, interaction design, animation, illustration, broadcast and motion graphics. It has a major impact on the nature and experience of everyday life in Australia, yet so little of its nature and scope remains unexamined. Communication design is the least documented field of Australian design, both in terms of its history and contemporary practice. Priority is often given to commercial imperatives and relations with clients, fostering a culture that guards practices and projects. In addition, the ephemerality, its ubiquitous nature and the unauthored status of many design works contribute to the field’s continued lack of public recognition. Hence, the look of puzzlement by those who ask, “What does a communication designer do?”

As design educators and researchers we have had a longstanding interest in what happens in contemporary Australian communication design. This has prompted us to conduct a project to make visible to the public the diversity of designers and their practices – and especially to ourselves, the design community. This idea manifested as a project to reveal the people and the practices of communication design as a complement to the image portrayed by more visible, client-defined, commissioned work. Our aim is to initiate a conversation with individual communication designers and the communication design sector as a whole, making them stakeholders in this research endeavour.

Personalise this character in the box to reflect your identity

Who are you, how do you feel and how do you see the world?

During 2010, several workshops were conducted with numerous volunteer designers to brainstorm, design and critique the ‘tools’ to capture the designers’ practices. An important focus when designing these tools was their ability to trigger an open-ended response, rather than being reductive and seeking finite answers to the questions we pose. Neither design, nor designers can be defined through tick-boxes. These tools are designed to delight, be curious, relevant, engaging and prompt reflection. They are sometimes ambiguous, sometimes spontaneous and sometimes thought-provoking. A collection of these tools will be sent to participating designers across Australia to respond to themes such as identity, wishes/hope, creative inspiration, personal journey of becoming a designer, professional and personal values, and their local cultural, geographical and social environment etc – the designers can respond to them in any manner they choose. On sending the responses back, we then ask them to nominate other designers who they recommend participating in a project of this kind, letting this process continue until we exhaust the funding available. We hope to capitalise on social and professional networks among designers, which is a valuable human engagement and resource.

A trial of these ‘tools’ was sent out last month to a handful of designers to gauge the project’s effectiveness and relevancy, and to gain insightful feedback. These initial findings will shape the longer-term study, which is the final set of tools that will be sent Australia-wide, in order to reveal the breadth, distinctiveness and vibrancy of the Australian communication design community. This project is similar to creating a ‘snapshot’ or a ‘mapping’ exercise of the field today through contribution and participation from a broad range of communication designers. The collection will become a significant archive of the practice and profession of communication design – a community that is daily contributing to our visual culture and landscape. The vast collection from this project can be presented publicly, whether through a website or a physical exhibition. The body of knowledge will also be an important resource for design educators and researchers to help them generate more information on the nature of contemporary Australian communication design.

Doodle any spontaneous thoughts!

What do you value the most, and the least?

Magnetic poetry... for designer word-smithing

This project is in partnership with the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA), Swinburne University of Technology and RMIT University. We would like to thank the many volunteer designers who generously gave their creativity, skills and time during 2010 in making this project happen. For more information, or if you would like to participate in the project, please contact Yoko Akama ( or Carolyn Barnes (

From desktop magazine.

Image copyright Stephanie Lok.

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