Talking graphic design as a tool for empowerment at AGI 2017

Andrew Ashton, Na Kim and Thomas Widdershoven discuss new movements in the world of graphic design.

Alliance Graphique Internationale is an annual convention for graphic designers to deliver talks and propel the exchange of knowledge in the industry through educational activities. Advancing the craft of visual communication, thinking on new trends and building a community among creative people is at the heart of AGI’s mission. This year, the design congress was held in Paris, France, and we had the chance to be a fly on the wall at four table talks where accomplished designers and teachers shared their insights with one another.

In this video, we caught up with three members of AGI who shared their thoughts about the changes in the graphic design arena at large and how it has affected the way visual communicators think in order to keep their work relevant. Andrew Ashton, a creative director and brand strategist from Australia and Na Kim, a graphic designer and teacher from South Korea, is joined by Thomas Widdershoven, co-founder of Thonik and former creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven.

The three creative sages share attitudes about what great graphic design means today in contrast to what meant years ago. According to them, there is an ongoing shift towards creating visual design that communicates conceptual meaning, rather than focusing on technical refinement that would only impress other designers.

“I think we learned the classical way of graphic design, such as how to deal with typography and image in a ‘good design’ way, but that’s becoming less important than before,” said Kim, “Students nowadays want think more in conceptual ways, acting more like artists.”

She surmised that, though the technique of graphic design remains important, creative people are thinking more in terms of making a connection to their audience and not just placing text and image in “correct” ways. All about communication over craft, the new vanguard of young designers are catering for emotive engagement from broader audiences instead of the academic elite.

This changes the way new designers must be educated and indeed the way seasoned graphic designers must make a shift in their approach to a project. Ashton took a similar view, remarking that “craft often gets in the way of the communicating”.

According to these design teachers, graphic design is starting to overlap with the sphere of visual art and moving away from visual engineering. Communicating with the layman, and not another trained designer, requires a level of relatability which in turn allows the design to transcend language and cultural barriers.

Graphic designers must be mindful of what it means to remain relevant in the 21st-century and not waste time arranging visual elements meticulously according to the book-learned rules. Global audiences tend to engage with content that is more accessible and probably took a lot less effort to put together than a technical masterpiece. These days, the social media-savvy amateur can gain huge influence by producing designs that engage viewers and speak to human truth in simple ways.

“A kid now can video themselves flapping around on the floor, cut it together with some typography and put it up on Youtube. Within 48 hours they can get a million people engaging with their concept,” said Ashton, “As much as I really love the craft, the audience’s gaze is moving somewhere else. We must be careful of not being relevant.”

The table discussion moved to the effect that advertising agency culture had on graphic design in a broad way. Ashton pointed out the dangers of becoming a slave to wages and losing touch with real creativity once it becomes a cycle of pleasing clients. According to him, it is easy to forget the deeper role of empowerment that graphic design plays for many people. Done the right way, graphic design can strengthen the relationship between merchant and audience and tell an entire story without uttering a word.