The concept was simple: A basic blue letter “O” partially obscured by five red and white stripes. From the choice of color to the selection of font to its understated simplicity, this basic concept gave aesthetic appeal to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But more than a logo, this stylized letter “O” created a brand and connected with an audience. It permeated the public consciousness, appearing on far more than rally signs and campaign buttons. His success is due, in part, to his choices of colors, fonts and logos. His message of change was delivered not only through what people heard, but also by what they saw.
“We are very tied to style, taste, aesthetics and materials,” says Marilyn Jones, assistant professor of design arts. “Graphic design has changed tremendously. It’s about creating an experience. It’s more than a logo and materials—it’s about people and orchestrating behavior.”
Artists working in all media are challenged by a rapidly changing world, in which society looks to design for solutions as much as aesthetics. The field of design is undergoing a transformation that emphasizes the necessity of understanding human behavior. As the 2008 presidential campaign demonstrated, design resonates with the human psyche, and designers are forced to have a greater grasp of how people behave, react, relate and even shop.
“The whole culture has been conditioned into a series of images that we’re accustomed to and acclimated to; they’ve become design icons that are now a part of our visual language,” says Berrisford Boothe, associate professor of art and a founding member of Lehigh’s Integrated Product Development program. “You need to understand sociology when you’re dealing with the nature of how people respond in a consumer-driven marketplace. The Gap became the Gap and Starbucks became Starbucks because of people in my field.”
As a result of this pictorial conditioning, Boothe believes that culture is driven by design. While the hand of an artist can be seen through a painting or an illustration, it is also visible in a watch, an item of clothing or a car.
“There is a misunderstanding about the power and role of the function of art in this culture. We live in a culture where image is king. Don’t believe me? Go for a drive. Look at the billboards, look at the magazines—we are perpetually immersed in the language of design,” says Boothe.
An interdisciplinary approach
A newly constructed home, the costume worn by an actor on stage, a fork or even a campaign logo can all be created by wedding art with psychology, sociology, history and marketing. As a result, artists from disparate fields are increasing their awareness of one another’s perspectives. They are taking an interdisciplinary approach to their work, extracting from the past and becoming more socially conscious of the world around them.
“Design is a psychology, a way of seeing,” says Boothe, a painter, printmaker, installation artist, lecturer and curator, whose current work is inspired by circles, religion, African-American artifacts and jazz. “It’s a way of being and a way of integrating elements into form. But it’s also about how we, as individuals, go about the business of recognizing and pulling and clashing and integrating experience with the basic tenets of form as we’ve come to know them.”
Jones sees art as the heart and soul of design, necessary for generating ideas and sparking creativity, but adds that as a graphic designer her work is also informed by business and marketing in reaching her audiences. She believes in tapping into the left side of the brain as much as the right side. “Liberal arts education is so important to design,” says Jones. “You have to attack design from many disciplines. You need to have social understanding and global understanding.”
“Fundamentally it’s about lateral interrelationships,” agrees Boothe. “No one field has dominance over the other. An engineer needs to know how to talk to a marketer, who needs to know how to talk to an architect, whose profession it is to define spatial relationships through design.”
Other artistic fields are very much influenced by the greater world as well. Associate professor of theatre Erica Hoelscher, who designs costumes and sets for the theatre, delves into the lives of her characters and their environment before her pencil even touches paper.
Hoelscher has been designing for a production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, which plumbs the depths of the human spirit, locating its beauty in a single, unadulterated moment with tremendous redemptive power. For Hoelscher, her designs must create a world that will speak to someone and connect artist with audience. She taps into anthropology, human behavior and psychology because they help her better understand why a person believes or acts as they do.
In all her productions, Hoelscher also employs a theatrical design teaching method called “scenography”—an old-fashioned term used mostly in Europe to describe the work of the theatrical designer. Here the designer creates the entire world of the play, which includes all visual elements as well as some aural ones. While her work has traditionally focused on costume design, she recently embraced scenery as well in order to exemplify the scenographic model.
“My process in designing A Moon for the Misbegotten, and every other play, is a collaborative one,” says Hoelscher. “I think the collaborative nature of my design process makes it unique from what other designers and artists do,” she adds. “It’s exciting to me as a designer when one of the visual elements describes a different aspect of the production than another.”
For this production, Hoelscher drew from paintings by German artist Max Ernst to help her envision her concept. “The environment of the play represents, for me, the inner mindset of the characters and prevents them from making intimate connections with others. It is a dangerous, hurtful place.”
“It’s our responsibility as artists or designers to take what the culture is and reflect it back on them, not to tell them what to do but to say this is what we’re noticing is happening in the culture,” says Boothe.
Design for the modern audience
Hoelscher also believes that researching the past influences present-day work. Her research relies heavily on books, images and visual cues that will give direction to where she wants to take her characters and the environment in which she wants to place them. In A Moon for the Misbegotten, Hoelscher incorporated photographs of landscapes from the New England countryside, which she discovered in the Library of Congress collection, as well as farm images of decrepit buildings.
“The artist in the postmodern context is pulling from everything known, and everything that’s come before it,” says Hoelscher, who believes we’re conscious of everything around us in the modern world because the world has become so small.
“All periods borrow from one another,” she adds. “For designers, all times exist in one space. Any life can be relevant to the modern audience.”
For a graphic designer like Jones, the concept of pulling from the past has more to do with utilizing the techniques that were employed in previous eras of design. The key to understanding this, she says, is that technology is not what innovation is all about. Jones’s students are encouraged to move away from the flat screen of a computer in order to get a sense for elements such as dimension, texture and form. “We can’t design in isolation,” says Jones. “We have to keep current, but build on the past.”
More traditional design techniques, including silk-screening, painting, hand drawing and illustration, she says, do not have to be at odds with computers. Instead, the transition between the digital environment and design done by hand should be seamless.
A new graphic design aesthetic is reflecting this, and Jones believes it’s due in part to a technology and the reliance style and trends.
Boothe adds that not all designers heed the experience of those who came before them, and as a result, the public often accepts bad form as good design.
Socially conscious design
One of the biggest examples of how the social culture is permeating the field of design is a heightened awareness of issues tied to the environment and sustainability. Today, designers are more conscious of the ethical responsibility to consider the role design plays throughout the life cycle of a product.
“The critical question is not what happens when you make it or how much fun it is when you use it; the critical question is sustainability and what happens after we use it,” says Boothe, who adds that sustainability issues are critical in training new generations of designers.
Jones agrees that designers no longer simply look at products, but more closely examine their long-term effects. Graphic designers are more carefully weighing the choice of paper, the selection of ink, and the life cycle of a product when they conceive new work.
“Good designers are becoming conscious and aware of things. They are identifying problems and taking on a higher social role in solving problems rather than being market driven,” says Jones. “We live in a time when we have to consume less. For designers, this takes understanding of social needs and empathy.”