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  • Katie Hughes

A Case for Diagrams

Graphic designers have their fingers on the pulse of culture and the very nature of communication at large. From the moment you wake up, everything you interact with has been designed unless you live in the remotest wilderness (and even then!) The fonts and graphics on your toothpaste tube, the letters on the license plate of the car in front of you in traffic, the street signs and traffic signal hand icons – these were all designed and redesigned countless times for various ends. Design makes things easier to read (ideally) and can help sell products and services. From business cards to billboards, everything around us is yelling a hundred messages at us all the time. We each live in a more passive Time’s Square, and often we take it all in subconsciously.

Design becomes more apparent when you leave the comfort of your home city or country. Any time you’re in a place where you don’t understand the language, you become immediately faced with just how much signage we absorb at home without even thinking about it. Accessibility comes in when we consider how easy or difficult it is to get around in another place without language. Do signs have universal graphics (images like people walking, hands, and other symbols that we’ve been taught across the globe to interpret the same no matter where we are)? Or even better, have the industrial designers made it so that the affordances of the objects, doors, buttons, and other tools we use are clear and need no graphic design whatsoever?

Design is a tool or rather a set of tools we use daily much as we use language to accomplish tasks. Similarly, both design and language take on artistic and fluid purposes (things like poetry, abstract poster design, and art at large enter the discussion here) but it’s important to remember that design brings with it the benefits of intentionality. We can use design and language to a variety of ends. Political parties on both sides of the aisle hire designers to get their arguments across. Governments hire designers to pick clear fonts for road signs or to make websites more useable (ideally). When design is its best and most interesting (beautiful, pleasing, good, exciting, engaging, etc.) it has the power to fundamentally change the way someone views the world.

There is a fine line between education, persuasion, and propaganda. A good designer thinks clearly about the messages behind the work they create and realizes how semiotics affects the ways in which viewers interact with their designs. Psychology and history (anthropology and sociology too) form great wells of knowledge for designers looking to make a mark on the world. Like literature, references to books and television shows and other pieces of design abound in the world of design. Cheeky jokes, visual puns, and snarky references make certain areas of design fun and sharp. Your favorite band t-shirt or bumper sticker has layers of art and thought sandwiched together in the ink.

Keeping all this in mind, I believe that there’s a generally under-explored field within graphic design that should be examined. Coming from backgrounds in neuroscience and physics, I spent so much time relying on illustrated diagrams to help me understand everything from the different parts of the brain to what happens when you shoot a bullet at a block of wood. Humans are naturally visual creatures, on average, and whether you learn better by listening to a lecture or watching a video, there is an obvious inherent benefit to trying to develop as many different learning aids as possible for different subjects to get people to understand topics better. (Aside from the discussion of design for the blind, which is a whole other field I will write about in the future).

Think about some of the diagrams you’ve experienced in life. You have the alphabet posters from elementary school, the periodic table from some science classroom, and geographical maps. School abounds with visual aids, but there’s no reason to think that we need to stop there. I’d argue that the world would be a more colorful and better educated place if we didn’t replace scientific diagrams with corporate spreadsheets as the number one source of visual data design adults consume.

I have come across some absolutely stunning books in recent years of artists and designers developing graphics and diagrams to explain and document the world around us. The inclination isn’t a new one – biological and botanical books going back hundreds of years combined science and art in beautiful ways. You’ve probably seen some gift wrap or poster that shows a diagram of plants or fruit or the human body from a few hundred years ago. Scientists like Darwin relied on accurate drawings to act as a visual database for their discoveries. Color matching and books just made to be color references for plants, animals, and minerals acted as important scientific information, and are now interesting in their own rights as both art and science historical imagery.

I think the concept of a modern version of old botanical books is really interesting and exciting. For the most part, photography has replaced colored pencil drawings when it comes to data base entries for plants and animals. If you pick up a nature guide at your local bookstore, there’s a fifty-fifty chance it will either have photographs or drawings, and sometimes a mixture of both can be found too. But for the most part, the advent of photography did away with botanical drawings in as much the same way as it did away with historical portraiture. We still have paintings and we still have drawings of plants, but they’ve shifted their meaning and usage due to the advent of new technologies.

There’s an argument to be made that diagram design is more prevalent now than ever. Data science has taken over Silicon Valley (and everywhere else), and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits Visualizing Black America has been reprinted to incredible acclaim. There’s a market for exploration of data and facts in a palatable or ideally beautiful way, and I think now more than ever we have the tools to build in accuracy and depth to our drawings, tables, and iconography.

So far, I’ve only had one assignment in my two years of art school that asked me to design an infographic. I think explorations of scientific or anthropological, historical, and geographic data stitch together a handful of fields in a beautiful and unique way that graphic design can highlight and elevate. This builds the foundational thinking for a lot of the work I’ll be pursuing over the next year, and on a moral note, I believe there is more than enough room to pry into how data and design shape our understanding of the world. Is there a way in which graphic design can mitigate against fake news, the spreading of misinformation, and contemporary distrust of the government and science? It seems like a pretty lofty goal, but it’s one we should strive to, if that kind of work is up your alley. It’s certainly up mine, and I’m excited to see where this path leads.


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