Art that’s made to order

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, June 24, 2017

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I was recently contacted by an old friend via email. I updated her that I had changed from my previous career to graphic design. Although she has a day job, she is a painter of landscapes and has been for years. Her response was interesting to me. She said, “I love that you are doing art! I know it’s advertising, etc., but still, it’s CREATIVE!”

I thought, “Huh. She thinks I’m in advertising.”

Joy Carrico

I can see why. I guess most people, when they think about graphic design, think about advertisements and logos and stuff like that. That’s a big part of the field, but my job has little to do with advertising. Others are in charge of the advertisements for the newspaper. My work is about the content of the newspaper. My primary role is to take the various parts and create a whole.

It is said that good design is 99 percent invisible, and that’s certainly true in my job. If I do it well, most people won’t even notice, because my job is to make the paper as readable and appealing as possible.

Which leads me to what I’ve been thinking about.

It is my experience that the general belief is that graphic artists, especially those in advertising, are somehow less than genuine artists who make art simply because they are compelled to do so.

Have you ever heard the phrase “art for art’s sake?” It embodies the idea that true art is without any other purpose: that is, it’s not political, religious or commercial in nature. It simply is an expression of itself.

So, what does it mean to be a graphic “artist” (my job title)? Is it false?

Not to me. The idea of true art being outside the influence of all things is a relatively new notion, and I don’t buy it. It’s only been around for about 200 years. Art has been around much longer than that.

Before the early 19th century, art was always a means to some other goal. Artists were people who made a living by creating representations of whatever they were paid to represent. It was a rare thing for an artist to create the work first and have someone view it and buy it because it pleased them. That’s a modern idea. Most artists, including Michelangelo (the greatest artist of all time, in my opinion), worked on commission, and created what he was told to create. And, until the Protestant Reformation, the primary patron was the church.

So art, until recently, has been what I regard the graphic arts to still be: not art for art’s sake, but art for communication’s sake.

Art has always been one of the main modes of communication.

For the majority of humanity’s existence, most people couldn’t read. So what they learned about their religion, they learned from what they were told and what they saw through artists’ renderings.

Until photography was invented there was only one way to capture a likeness of a loved one, through a portrait commissioned from an artist.

Take a look at some of the illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages. Or the friezes on the Parthenon. Or Gothic cathedral windows. Or even the public murals in Bridgeport and Decatur. They all attempt to communicate and to enhance the environment.

Graphic design is a continuation of art’s purpose of communication.

Anything made by humans is designed, whether it is done well or not. And anything that contains words or images is graphically designed.

Books, magazines and newspapers are designed so that readers will enjoy the experience of reading them. When I succeed, the reader, whether or not they like what they read, takes little notice of how it’s presented. They just read it.

There’s a whole field of graphic design called wayfinding, or environmental design, which is the art of communicating to people where to go and how to get there. Next time you’re driving down the highway, look at all the signs. People have meticulously researched every aspect of the road sign. Everything about them – their shapes, colors, the fonts used, the size of the lettering, reflective surfaces – is taken into account to make them as clear to a driver as possible. At the airport, signs are created to direct travelers to where they need or want to go.

Someone invented the “You are here” dot on a building directory. That person was a genius. Who was it? I don’t know, but I bet it was a graphic artist.

Advertising and corporate design, the areas my friend seemed to assume I was in, are also about communication. What is an advertisement other than an attempt to get the person seeing it to want what’s being presented? And a corporate logo is key to a company’s success. Can you call to mind the logo for Nike or Apple? Probably. A good logo is a powerful communication tool.

So graphic design is art and graphic designers are artists, just like any other artist. Graphic design makes the world a more user-friendly and pleasing place. It clarifies where there is confusion and informs where there is lack of information. And it often persuades, or attempts to, the views of the viewer. That has always been the nature of art.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist.

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