In Absence of Understanding

Alistair McCready
Alistair is a contributing editor of stemme and part of the founding team. He is a printer, designer and design writer based in Auckland, NZ.

Consider the following as a dialogue. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the ‘graphic designer’ and where it all came from. As with most job descriptions it had to come from somewhere, and I’m certainly not the first to think along these lines.

Many years ago, it seems that the printer and the graphic designer were one in the same. Responsibility for design usually fell into the hands of the compositor, one of the many roles within the traditional printing establishment. This task was not seen as individualistic enough to be itemised on a printer’s final invoice. During the twentieth century the graphic designer began to operate independently, however typographer and critic Beatrice Warde describes the ongoing designer-printer relationship as “analogous to that of the architect to the building industry.” Now, as we see the rise in modern technology reshape the environments in which we live and work, at what point should we attempt to reconcile this relationship? Could this tradition be the way forward in a world where everyone with a computer can claim to be a designer? What I’m thinking here is that to be educated in design today, it’s crucial to understand the context in which we design. We shouldn’t just know what we’re doing, but why we’re doing it in the first place. To reunite the design apprentice with a printing press – in essence a skill of the hand – will plant a student’s thought processes on a tried and true foundation.

As visual communicators today, we are regularly having to justify the validity of our designs. If we are to truly define our skill set away from the ease of the computer.

I think that context is a major factor. So many of the terms and phrases that make up the modern designer’s vocabulary stem from the printing trade. The term ‘leading’ wasn’t invented by Adobe, though an awful lot of designers don’t know this. To assume that a practical understanding of context is no longer relevant to a modern design education is to rob the student of a foundation on which their knowledge may rest. This limits their ability to become what Raymond Ballinger back in 1977 referred to as ‘total’ designers. Some time down the track, the same individual when faced with a design problem suddenly realises they no longer speak the language they need to in order to produce the appropriate solution.

Although the computer may act as a gateway to producing work, it is important to not let it define the designer or their skill. Sure, it’s often the sole tool used on many jobs, but the design process is never limited only to the computer screen. How many times have you heard, “you’ll never know until you lay your hands on it...?” Here, the relationship between the eye and the hand is invaluable. An appreciation of the properties of ink and paper, and the process in which they meet is exercised to achieve the end result. The point I’m getting to is that whilst a computer can support the decision making process, we also need to bring to the table a degree of expertise, judgment and intuition before, during and after the computer has been utilised. Software can calculate parts of the design, but the designed solution itself comes from within.

Years ago I was fortunate enough to work with a gentleman named Ian. He trained in the early 1980s as a modeller for the design departments of leading car companies. The design team would give Ian a set of detailed plans, and he’d produce a clay mock-up. Quite often we’d be walking down the street and he’d point to the spoiler on a passing Porsche and comment that he made the original moulds for it. I learned an awful lot from Ian. I’ll never forget the day he told me that it wasn’t until the design team was able to see and feel a full-scale model in the flesh, that they would then consider proceeding forward. It seems that design is more than a glance at something, it’s a whole action we feel in order to be able to calculate. 

So often graduates struggle to find work because most listings ask for prior experience; the flip side is that the experience required comes from jobs like the ones listed. Gone are the days where the common thread is to stay with the same employer for twenty plus years; the world is changing too fast. Older and less relevant information is cast aside for the sake of the new. Experience is valued now not so much by how long one has spent in a given field, but by how relevant their credentials are to the given task. At some point it needs to be considered that the young graphic design graduate is more than just a glorified Mac operator. Their knowledge base is of more value as they have spent time calibrating a thought process and a way of seeing that is difficult to learn outside of immersive learning.

While we can regularly exercise our capacity for explicit knowledge, or ‘knowing that’, we can at times devalue the importance of tacit knowledge – ‘knowing how.’ Tacit knowledge is the knowledge we intuitively possess, which we are unconscious of and unaware of using. It is an knowledge that we cannot describe verbally or in writing, and for the most part remains untapped. For this reason, it is becoming more and more common for organisations to recognise the importance of tacit knowledge, with emphasis then placed on creating environments that provide outlets for valuable thought and insight to come forth. The word ‘tacit’ derives from the past participle tacitus of the Latin verb tacere, which means ‘to be silent’ or ‘to pass over in silence.’ It is tacit knowledge that makes it possible for us to walk or breathe without conscious thought. Each individual’s tacit knowledge is unique, as we each experience and process information in a different way, at a different pace. Different lessons can occur to different individuals, even while we’re all taking part in the same experience. This suggests the personal aspect of tacit knowledge; we unknowingly develop diverse solutions to the same problem.

In the context of design, tacit learning is key to developing our individual paths toward design thinking. While we may understand many aspects of theory, it is the thought processes behind the application of such theory that defines our ability to design well. Tacit also means intuitive, or experimental. We all recognise the ‘gut feeling’ we have that can drive action within a particular scenario. What we are often actually experiencing here however, is our unconscious sensing of the tacit knowledge that we cannot otherwise find the words for. Despite this, tacit knowledge is not to be confused with intuition, described as the ability to exercise instinct, without need for ‘conscious reasoning.’ To exercise one’s tacit knowledge is to combine education, natural ability and experience together to determine the best solution. To exercise our own intuition would subsequently be very similar, but for the greater part remains influenced by our own bias.


While we can gain the sufficient understanding of what may be required in a specific situation through explicit knowledge, the dialogue that develops a designer’s tacit knowledge comes from a sustained first-hand engagement with a specific process. This ‘experience factor’ is a desirable quality. The exceptional designer has often been exposed long enough to the varying processes relative to their skill in order for this inner dialogue to occur. As I suggested earlier, the language associated with printing and other industries closely related to the field of graphic design is of little meaning when used out of context. With this in mind you could also say that an explicit knowledge of graphic design is only partial to finding a successful design solution. You might know all the facts, but tacit knowledge is required also to sense and know where best to apply that knowledge. 

Dialogue is important. So often we’re told to colour inside the lines when truth be told we’d probably get to that point ourselves. By allowing this to be a discovery rather than a rule would allow an inner dialogue to take place that leads to greater inner understanding – tacit knowledge.  In this way, the design apprentice’s skills become aligned with the needs of the professional environment. Perhaps the request for designers to have prior experience will become less and less necessary, as those individuals looking to apply for work will be of the ‘well-rounded specialist’ variety.

There’s clearly a reason why graphic design grew into its own profession. It’s not feasible for every novice visual communicator to be able to hold their own in a print shop. However, they should be able to speak the associated language that only comes from a first-hand encounter: thinking with the hands, learning with the hands, doing with the hands. Performing the same task over and over again creates not only a strong skill set it creates a strong process. A designer will eventually be able to see and feel the direction they need to head in, as each step of the process unfolds into the next. The same concept applies for web / interactive design and other disciplines. If design is a way of thinking then it becomes a way of life, a way of feeling. What good is an architect who has no understanding of the properties of steel and concrete? We’re not helping our profession if all we can claim to be is quick with a mouse.