Contemporary Communication Design


Lesson Info

Defining Communication Design Today

So we're gonna start with communication design today. And there's, like I said, a lot of confusion about this. Even our field keeps renaming itself. A long time ago we called it graphic arts, then we started calling it graphic design, and now we're calling it communication design. And the big shift between graphic design and communication design is graphic design tends to imply more print products whereas communications design is a more expansive term which also includes digital design. But this has led to some confusion, because in our industry there's a lot, there's kind of this tendency to define the medium you're working with as your actual career path. That's why people don't say I'm in communication design or they'll say "I'm a web designer" or "I'm a print designer". But the reality is a medium is not a career path. Communication design is actually much more expansive than that. So what is communication design, today? Well, it's a living field that addresses how we see and how w...

e communicate ideas and experiences with one another, systems, and institutions. And so let's kind of break this down. When I say ideas and experiences, it's about honing your message. But that message isn't just always in text. For example in a book, right. It can also be expressed through an experience. Say your idea is the brand positioning for a new fashion label, right. Graphic and communication design also encompasses experiences. That means how do people interact with what you're trying to communicate over time and in space. Another example of that is say, a digital product, which falls under the umbrella of communication design. How you navigate the latest app on your phone is also an experience. And it's not just an experience with each other, right. It can be with systems and institutions. And communication design can be expressed through text. It can be expressed through visuals. It can be expressed through a whole range of experiences. And communication design really impacts every aspect of our everyday lives. It's the ad you see on your breakfast cereal box when you get up in the morning. It's when you roll over and you pick up your phone first thing and you "like" your friend's vacation photo on Instagram. That's all communication design. But communication design can also impact systems in a profound way. Let's start with an example. This right here is the 2000 presidential ballot in Palm Beach, Florida. And for you guys, I don't know if you remember this election, but it was like the cliffhanger of 2000. Because it was the closest race in U.S. history. Al Gore, the democrat trailed George W. Bush by 1,784 votes. In a country with over 300 million people. This is mind boggling. And what it really came down to was Florida. They were fighting for these 25 electoral college votes and 1,784 votes in Florida actually swayed the election and changed the course of U.S. history. And so let's kind of unpack this. This is an example of some of the worst design ever. It's also an example of the power of good communication design. Or in fact, what happens when you have bad communication design. So let's look at this ballot for a second. Here we have a series of little dots. You can take this hole puncher and stab it through the paper to indicate who you're actually voting for. This is where things get confusing. On the left side, you have the first candidate the republican George W. Bush. And right below him in the second box, you have the democratic candidate Al Gore. But here on the other side, we have the reform candidate Pat Buchanan. And my question to you is say you wanted to vote for Al Gore, which hole would you punch? That's a great question. I think a lot of people might punch the second hole. And why is that? It's because he's the second box. That's only logical. And so what happened is when they tallied the vote, Pat Buchanan the reform candidate, who by the way had never even campaigned in Palm Beach, Florida, had over three times as many votes as any other county in Florida. And the office was flooded with calls saying I made a mistake, I think I voted for Pat Buchanan, but I actually wanted to vote for Al Gore. And not only was there confusion in Palm Beach, Florida, over whether you voted for Pat Buchanan or Al Gore. There were over 29,000 ballots tossed. This is staggering when you think that there was a difference in voting by 1,784 votes. And do you know why 29,000 ballots were tossed? And this is after people waited hours in line to vote. These people want to vote. It's because they were confused by the ballot. They chose more than one candidate by accident or they didn't choose one at all. Maybe instead of punching it they tried to mark it with a pencil in their pocket. But whatever happened, they did not vote the right way. And if communication design is built upon clarity, right, there's a rational aspect to communication design. And our goal is to increase understanding we can agree that this was a catastrophic failure with profound, profound implications. And my question to you is who knows what would've happened with the election, right. But if this was designed a little bit better, so that people could actually understand what was going on in this crazy ballot, would the history of our country have changed? So this is the thing with communication design, is it never exists in a vacuum. It always exists in relationship to content. You need the "what" that you're saying. Remember the what and the how. The "what" that you're saying here is all the candidates for president and now comes the "how". How do you communicate that? In this case, not very effectively. But we also move to the medium. How you mark something is through this stupid hole puncher. That's how the word hanging chad entered our national consciousness. What a word, right? Before the election, nobody even knew what a hanging chad was, which is when a hole is incompletely punched. But this is the thing with communication design. Mediums keep changing. Thankfully we're not punching as many holes in our ballots now. There's new ways that we can vote. And as long as the world continues to invent new ways of communicating ideas back and forth, such as who you want to be the next president of the United States, communication design is gonna keep changing in return. This right here, this is the computer that I used when I was in school. I titled this course contemporary communication design because our field has undergone a digital revolution. It is not what it was 20 years ago and I know this is hard to imagine, especially if some of you in the audience are younger, but when I was in school, there was no internet. Like there was no e-mail, I used to play games off of a floppy disc on a green screen. I thought, I used to play a game called "Oregon Trail". I don't know if you've ever heard of this, but you try to get your oxen to cross the river. And I remember all the oxen could do is move from the left side to the right side of the screen in one color, in black on green. And I thought that was the height of technology. There was no smartphones. Nobody walked around everyday with tiny computers in their pocket where you could have all the information at your fingertips. Like none of that existed. And so, to give an example of how the digital revolution has impacted our field, let's give the example of an editorial designer. In 1950, an editorial designer really focused on print. Whether you were designing a magazine or a book or a newspaper, your job was to try to figure out how to communicate that content in one medium. In a book, a magazine, or a newspaper. And that was still challenging. How do you lay out the type, how do you sequence the images in a way that's compelling and communicates clearly. But things have gotten even more complicated. In 2017, an editorial designer not only has to think about the print component, right, how do you tell a story from cover to cover, what is the experience like flipping through the pages. How do you set the type, how do you set the image? But you also have to think about how that content lives across multiple medium at once. So you have the print, but you know what, now you have the blog, you have Twitter, you have Instagram, you need a responsive website. And all of these things are happening at once. So it's not about experiencing the content cover to cover. Now it's about imagining what that story would look like on screen where you start at the top and the way you flip through it is by scrolling to the bottom. And like I said, communication designers today is now really the conductor of this symphony of communication. And a good analogy for this is a furniture designer versus an interior designer. A furniture designer designs a single object with a very specific intent and a specific audience. An interior designer has to think about all the pieces of furniture in a room, the lighting in a room, how somebody feels moving through a space. That really captures the shift in our field.

There is a tendency in design education to discuss mediums as career paths. Web designer. Print designer. Type Designer. And while there is enormous value in specialized skills, technology has radically reconfigured the landscape of the industry. Print designers are asked to design—and create—content published in monthly print magazines, weekly blogs, and daily social media posts. Social media marketing is redefining advertising. Branding includes more customer experience, both on and offline.

The field is rapidly redrawing its own boundaries and its relationship to other industries. What does it mean to be a communication designer in today's market? And how can we build success for tomorrow? 

In this class, YuJune Park, Associate Director of the Communication Design program at Parsons School of Design, will share with you the fundamental skills that graphic designers, or rather, communication designers need to succeed in an industry that expects its practitioners to move fluidly from printed matter to digital screens and beyond.



  • Very thorough introduction to contemporary design that explains the skills, mindset, and processes necessary to be successful in this field.