Graphic Interruptions is a photographic project that investigates graphic design in shared environments that has been interrupted in some way. These interruptions can come in many forms and be the result of a variety of sources. What interests me in these observations is how meaning may be changed from that intended by the hand of the originator. This essay, first published in May 2016 as an introduction to a limited edition book of research photographs, sets out to explore the contexts behind the project.
Graphic Interruptions is an ongoing project: for updates follow the @graphic_interruptions Instagram feed or the hashtag #graphicinterruptions on Twitter.
Graphic Interruptions: the essay
As a graphic design educator, practitioner and academic it is difficult for me not to notice items of visual communication that I am surrounded by on a daily basis, especially given the ubiquity of graphic design in our society. Such a broad statement could demand a list of examples to qualify it, but to provide one would make this an endless essay. If proof is needed, a quick glance around your current location should provide many examples of informational or persuasive messages trying to communicate something through the use of type and / or image. Whether these are produced by a creative design studio or by an untutored hand on a home computer, numerous graphic communications insert themselves in to our lives in a pervasive manner.
There are advantages to this personal awareness: I encourage my design students to recognise that there is a research base for them everywhere they go. There is also a down side; being both hyper-aware and ultra-critical of the examples of visual communication I see in my everyday, it is not easy for me to ‘turn off’ from this constant surveillance and assessment.
This is not the case for non-graphic designers. They receive the message that a piece of design plants in their mind and move on, giving little thought to what has happened past the detail of the communication they have just received. Senior design lecturer and author Malcolm Barnard comments on how, for the general public, graphic design “…is often taken for granted, passing unnoticed and unremarked as it blends in with the visual culture of everyday life”. He goes on to state that: “…newspapers, gum-wrappers and websites are read for their content, not for their layout, choice of typeface or use of colour.” (Barnard. 2005. pp1–2)
Does it matter if most people don’t recognise an item of graphic design as just that? The simple answer to this is no, it doesn’t matter. This is because what is important is that the said item does its job and communicates the message it is designed to deliver—it is the act of communication that matters. But from a designer’s point of view, if one were to try to assess the success of a piece of graphic design, and whether the desired communication has actually happened, then it is in the everyday that this assessment should take place—at the interaction between the artefact and the end user, and not in the pages of a trade journal; at an award ceremony; viewed in an online portfolio; on the pages of a monograph; or beamed up on a lecture slide. Work photographed for portfolios and client presentations is pristine and unaffected by what the everyday has to throw at it—the design is presented as the designer intended, unencumbered by random placement of subsidiary objects and not affected by the natural decay of materials, battered by the weather or compromised by competing signs.
When an item of graphic design goes out into the world there is rarely someone there to look after it ensuring that it is doing its intended job and that it is cleaned or repaired. Any inadequacies in the concept or crafting of the work will be ironed out during the iterative design process prior to application outside of the studio. Yet the everyday will undoubtedly affect its appearance and therefore interrupt the desired communication. In noticing occurrences of these interruptions, such as a road sign partially obscured by another; the decay of tarmac fracturing the painted icon of a disabled parking bay; graffiti scrawled over a piece of advertising; or a ripped poster outside a local chemists, I started to question how others read such images.
Design that is affected in such a way is in danger of becoming interpretive, which is the antithesis of what graphic communication is supposed to be. That is because graphic design has a specific function and any misreading could have unfortunate consequences; just consider the potential results of an ineffectual sign for the nearest public convenience! But graphic design is affected by the everyday, as my photographs demonstrate, and it is outside of the designer’s control as to how the public interprets their work when it is affected. As Baldwin and Roberts state:
…the way in which the consumer uses the designer’s work may be at odds with what was originally intended—indeed, as Italian academic Umberto Eco pointed out, this tendency towards ‘aberrant reading’, far from being the exception, is in fact the rule. (2006. p146)
Such issues have become so much of a problem that the British government’s Department for Transport has set up a taskforce to look into ‘aesthetic blight’. “Research conducted by the department in 2013 showed that the number of traffic signs had doubled in two decades”, reported an article on The Guardian website. Quoting Stephen Glaister, an emeritus professor of transport at Imperial College, the article went on to report: “The aesthetics of roads have been neglected … there’s no doubt users want clarity—and it is a problem when they get obscured and difficult to read.” (Topham. 2015. Guardian.com) While this is a concern primarily for local authorities, national government and road safety experts, it is a prime example of how graphic designers need to consider the reality of the world their work is placed within because, as Highmore explains:
In this everyday material world different temporalities exist side by side: the latest version alongside last year’s model. Everyday life registers the process of modernisation as an incessant accumulation of debris… (Highmore. 2002. p61)
In my observations this debris can hang around on street corners for a long time, becoming tatty and left to decay. This is due to the fact, as mentioned previously, that much graphic design seen in our shared environments is not given a great deal of due care and attention beyond the initial hurrah of its application. Such items can then become unwitting metaphors when their intended communication is interrupted. Some become interpretive if their original graphic forms are obliterated beyond recognition, while others simply clash with their surroundings. Some may raise questions in the reader about gentrification; the nature of the heritage industry or what civic pride means in this day and age. Others may provide an opportunity for a humorous interpretation; highlight the obliqueness of fashion photography or prompt the thought about whether a missing cat was ever seen again.
These photographs of Graphic Interruptions allow the reader to explore these contexts and provide their own interpretations to the images. Most of the items I have photographed, I suspect, go unnoticed by the public when going about their daily lives; but when studied, they can become objects of interest in their own right. While many of the examples are the result of decay, this is not an exercise in ruin-porn—I do not seek to glorify such examples because of their degradation. Instead the intention behind Graphic Interruptions is to reveal an overlooked aspect of my trade, while at the same time provide an opportunity to question the visual environment of our everyday. This is the stuff that decorates our commons, our shared spaces. It therefore becomes a part of our lives and where once there was intent, now there is neglect. This can affect how we feel about our neighbourhoods, even if we are not completely aware of what may be triggering such feelings. This is the visual reality of 21st century communal living. It is the art on our streets; it is the pictorial ephemera of our daily existence.
Baldwin, J. and Roberts, L. (2006) Visual Communication: From Theory To Practice. Lausanne: AVA Publishing
Barnard, M. (2005) Graphic Design as Communication. London : Routledge
Highmore, B. (2002) Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. London: Routledge