How will Graphic Design change in the future?

Steve MerrymanGeneral2 Comments

I was asked recently by Anna (of whom you may have heard in a previous post) about the future of graphic design and what my thoughts are on where graphic design will be in twenty years. I responded with an email, but thought an expanded version might be good blog fodder, so here it is.

I’ve been a graphic designer for (looks at watch) thirty-five years. In that time the industry has undergone massive changes, moving from largely analog procedures to nearly completely digital.

What does that mean?

It means the industry was completely transformed by technology. We used to do everything by hand, from initial thumbnail sketches all the way through the creation of printing plates.

Just for fun, Google the following: non-photo blue; paste-up; sizing wheel; technical pen; graphic design waxer; T-square. Those were some of the tools of my trade. Not only does no one use those tools anymore, many new designers don’t even know what they are.

Percentage Wheel
Percentage Wheel, or as Pat Sajak calls it, the Wheel of Proportion

1980’s Laptop: We called it paper and pencil

Today, many of us old-timers still use pencil and paper for initial ideas, but more and more the tendency is for younger generations to go straight to the computer from the very start. In that sense, the future of graphic design is electronic.

But is this reliance on technology a good thing?

I’m not sure. On the one hand, in the old days we’d rely on typesetters to provide us with type galleys for our layouts, but only after we marked up sheets of typewritten text, noting which font went where, what size to make the font, how wide to make the columns, the leading (space between lines), and general letter-spacing preferences. It involved a LOT of math. It usually took a couple days to get the type back, then we had to wax ‘em and paste ‘em up in place on a layout board. Today the designer instantly controls all aspects of the type whether it’s by using InDesign, Illustrator, or some other software application.

Graphic Design Waxer
If you ask for a Brazilian and the beautician hauls this out… RUN!

Additionally, In the old days we’d send photos out to a separation house for scanning and sizing. Again, that would take a couple days. Today we’ve got Photoshop.

Great Power Brings Great Responsibility Memes

Technology has given the designer immediate control over all aspects of the work, which is, overall, a good thing, assuming the designer has some sense about him/her.

In truth, it’s impossible to overstate the impact of computer technology on the field of graphic design over the last thirty years. From the first Apple Macintosh, the Laserprinter, Adobe Postscript, the internet, to video production, everything has changed to be faster, more precise, and available to everyone, everywhere.

The last word of the previous sentence is particularly important to me. Computer technology is now available everywhere. Were it not for the personal computer and desktop publishing software, I could never have started my own design studio from my home. I’d probably still be an employee somewhere, and it’s all but certain I’d be thoroughly unhappy, given my “No Pants Friday” motto.

What the automobile did for travel, computer technology did to graphic design, and in a compressed timeline within a decade, not a lifetime. It was a completely transformative event.

Graphic designers of my generation are the bridge between the old and new. For us, the future of graphic design is right now. We saw it happen under our feet. We partook in these amazing changes and thrived.

The future of graphic design is plugged in

As wonderful as this new graphic design world is, there are drawbacks to heavy reliance on technology.

I used to spend a lot of time critiquing student portfolios and one of the questions I always asked them was, “Can you still design when the power goes out?” It was largely a rhetorical question and I never expected an answer, but I asked it in order to shock the students into thinking a bit about what it means to be a designer.

It’s not the technology that makes you a designer, although knowing how to use it will absolutely help you. It’s not the computer. Nor is it the software. It’s not even the pencil, paper, ruler and X-acto blade (if you’re still using one of those).

The point of the question is that as much as a designer relies on her electronic tools, her most valuable tool is not tethered to a wall outlet, or dependent upon a lithium battery.

What makes a designer is the knowledge and ability one has between one’s ears: The mind makes the designer.

Graphic design is all about visual problem solving and communication. It’s about being creative, and that always starts with ideas, not gadgets. One must learn and constantly practice the ability of generating ideas.

Uhhh, What Was the Question Again, Sonny?

This is all a long way around explaining what I think the future of graphic design will be in twenty years. I apologize for taking the slow road, but as an old geezer, it’s important for me to know where I’ve been in order to know where I’m going, and more importantly to find my way back.

In twenty years, I think the technology will change (duh!). Perhaps it won’t change nearly as much as it has during my career, as that was a major tectonic shift, which doesn’t happen too often.

I can almost guarantee that the medium of delivering design will change. It used to be 100% printing. Now printing is the poor cousin to internet marketing, social media, and video. What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but I suspect the delivery method will continue to favor those electronic means over physical paper. There will still be printing; cereal boxes will always need to look appealing to three year olds, and products in grocery stores will still need to compete with attractive packaging (by the way, the grocery store is one of the best places to look for graphic design samples – every package, every wrapper is designed – it’s a great place to look for inspiration as a design student).

The future of graphic design? My advice to anyone looking to prepare for the design field in ten to twenty years is to be flexible when it comes to the tools, because those are always changing and developing.

But the one thing that WON’T change in graphic design is the need for creative thinkers, visual communicators, and problem solvers; people who “can still be a designer when the power goes out.”

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2 Comments on “How will Graphic Design change in the future?”

  1. Tools are one thing – but what is it that you think allows a person to excel at graphic design? I mean, I don’t have it, so I’m like a dolphin talking about hang gliding when I talk about graphic design.

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