Is Context to Design as Samson’s Hair was to Samson?
Aesthetically pleasing images surround us. They’re often used as ploys to encourage the purchase of a new perfume, eat at certain fast-food chains or drive a new type of car. We can’t help it. The prettier things are, more often than not they are easier to believe as desirable…right?
This notion lends a great deal of power to the owners and producers of those images. The companies and design firms businesses hire profit every time an image is successful in selling a product or service. However, what do these images really mean? Of course they’re lovely—attractive people enjoying beautiful things can make for an attractive picture, everyone would want to be a part of. But could it be even more powerful if all of the loveliness and beauty held actual context and meaning?
It’s like a tourist making his way to Venice who stops to admire Saint Mark’s Basilica in the Piazza San Marco—easily one of the most breathtaking churches in the world. It can be admired for a number of reasons: simply for its shining golden façade, it’s perfectly executed use of the Gothic style of architecture or its collection of art and sculpture created by renowned artists. However, these alone do not give the full story, nor do they (in my opinion) fully manifest its true beauty.
To give a quick context, think of its location—the Palazzo Ducale is conveniently located next door, the main plaza of the city sits on its doorstep, and the water’s edge and dock (where two columns with the city’s patron saints sit atop, that were used for executions and torture) sit no less than 100 yards away. The point is that the church is located amongst some highly charged monuments which all (during crucial points in Venice’s history) were a means to express the power of the state, their prosperous maritime economy and religious ties. Now, having this deepened context and background, tells a far better story. The beauty and aesthetic increases exponentially once it’s married to this understanding.
Now back to my point here. As expressed by Michael Beirut in his article, The Main Failing of Design School: Kids Can’t Think for Themselves, a “lack of rounded understanding” is a dangerous lacking for those involved in graphic design and the production of images. Graduates emerge with effective understandings of “semiotics and conceptual problem solving” which land them jobs at firms eager to hire for such skills, but that’s just it—are these repeatable, consistent skill sets really evolving the art of design?
Beirut’s believes that this is hurting, not evolving, the art of design. Designers with a more comprehensive literacy in not only the visual, but also other fields like literature, science, history, etc. would undeniably be better able to connect the dots between ideas, industries, facets of life, and the images that will represent them. Until this happens, images will continue to be produced, but not to their full powerful potential. They will simply remain pretty and misunderstood.
Think that our visual literacy needs improvement? Think it’s hurting us ? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.