We explore how graphic design can inform, influence and empower.

They say don’t judge a book by the cover, but without graphic design, we wouldn’t even be able to cast judgment, in fact, we probably wouldn’t have books in the first place!

How would you be able to find an emergency exit in case of a fire? How would we be able to distinguish the difference between toothpaste and a tube of wasabi? Navigating your way around a new city without signs or maps — good luck mate!

I’m going to show you why we should believe in the importance of graphic design. Contrary to what some people think, it’s so much more than ‘making things pretty’.

Cool, so you’re saying it is powerful – but what is graphic design?

Graphic Design is the form of communication and problem solving using the visual and textual content. The goal is to communicate information, ideas, perspectives, goals, and emotions. The form it takes can be physical or virtual and can include images, words, or graphics.


The Problem.

People aren’t valuing graphic design because they don’t understand it. We often celebrate the finished product, but don’t understand the thinking behind an idea.

Source: Complex

When most of us think about graphic design, we tend to picture the end result – McDonald’s Golden Arches, Coco Chanel’s Mirrored Initials, Nike’s Swoosh. Our focus should be less on the finished product but the innovative thinking that went into creating it.

Shall we dive right in then?


Graphic Design is to inform.

Let’s look to the NYC Subway System. This incredible piece of infrastructure, over a century in the making, was exactly the problem that led us to uncover one of the greatest examples of graphic design as we know it today.

Up until the sixties, navigating your way around the subway system was utterly chaotic – it was a series of mismatched signage with no real consistency or sense.

Source: Ceros

Source: Gizmodo

It was clear that the subway needed a new visual identity in place to ensure the navigational system was not only effective but easily understood.

Who do you call? The modernist graphic designer Massimo Vignelli of course!

Together with designer Bob Noorda, Vignelli set out to understand what millions of people were looking for, where they would look for it and, ultimately, provide it, in the least confusing way possible.


Source: Design Boom

The designers weren’t just focused on aesthetics; they were focused on the experience.

Over the next few years, they developed The New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards, Manual. 182 pages outlining everything design-related for the entire subway system.

The subway signage manual is still in use today. It was issued in 1966 and, after 50 years it’s still in service! Surely that’s enough to prove the success of Vignelli’s work and the impact it’s made to the lives of many New Yorkers traveling across the city.

Taking the subway? Just follow the signs. 


Graphic Design is to influence.

I recently read about a (free!) exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, in London – Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? The exhibition ‘considers the role of graphic design in constructing and communicating healthcare messages around the world, and shows how graphic design has been used to persuade and to inform…

Don’t be a dummy guys! Source: US National Library of Medicine

“Cigarettes Harm Your Health” by Reginald Mount 1962-1963

Well if Graphic Design is going to save your life, it’s probably capable of killing you too…

Well if the nurse agrees… I’m taking up smoking!

It just goes to show that the meaningful choice of colour palette, typography, layout and illustration can be influential when delivering a message.

After all, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.


Graphic Design is to empower.

Any graphic designer should know the name Michael Bierut but for those of you who don’t Bierut is one of Pentagrams finest. He’s best known for his contribution to the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. He designed the ‘H’ logo.


Concept sketches for Hillary Clinton campaign logo, January  2015.

So simple, yet so significant.

What was the thought behind Clinton’s visual identity?

‘….we explored dozens of symbols, the one everyone gravitated to was the simplest of all: a perfectly square H….What looked like an H was really a window, capable of endless transformations. Because so much communication for the campaign would happen digitally, the logo could change at a moment’s notice. It could be customized not just by various interest groups, but by individual supporters. It was the ultimate dynamic identity system.

Source: Quartz

‘Still, we worried that the H alone, even as an ever-changing frame, was too static. We finally found what we thought was the right finishing touch, the simplest thing in the world: an arrow, emerging naturally from the geometry of the letterform, pointing forward, toward the future.’

Source: Design Observer

A cultural historian Maud Lavin, is the author of Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design, where she ‘shows how design fits into larger questions of power, democracy, and communication.’ In her book, she explores a graphic designers role in shaping cultural norms and increases our awareness of the power of design by taking us through political and social movements in history.

Graphic Design’s presence can be found during times of civil unrest which it can inspire social activism and political movement.

Graphic Design as propaganda, especially through the printed media of posters, was used by both sides to try and gain an advantage over the other.

We won’t have time to splash around in the psychology pool, but there are endless papers that explore the correlation between design and the way our human brain organises information.

Here’s a list of 15 books you should read if you’re interested to learn more.


In Conclusion

As we draw to a close let’s remember that graphic design HAS changed the world as we know it. It’s ability to inform, change perspectives and influence decisions should be taken very seriously. So the next time someone defines graphic design as ‘making things look cool’ punch them in the face.

Words by Ingrid