Visual Design is Not a Thing

The process of designing a new wayfinding system for a museum requires research, prototyping, observation, and storytelling. Only at the very last does it involve the “graphic” in graphic design.

Graphic design will save the world.
Right after rock and roll does.

— David Carson

It was a Thursday, I think. A cold, drizzly day in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. Nestled in amongst aging sycamores and field maples sits the most official looking building in Cardiff: the museum. The building is as you’d expect: slightly dirty white limestone, grandiose architecture, a musty smell of aging wooden furniture and floor polish masking the underlying whiff of decay.

It’s an old place full of old things.

My colleague and I worked for an agency that was designing the new wayfinding system for the museum. And that cold, wet day in February, we were tasked with prototyping our new signage system in the museum. Armed with several head-height mock signposts, reams of paper covered with illustrations, iconography, and all manner of words in different typefaces, we set about the first responsibility of our day: observing.

Watching people is difficult; your mind wanders. Who are these people? What do they do for a living? Why are they here and what did they eat for dinner last night? Casting those thoughts aside, we watched for pain and confusion, the pain and confusion that arise when you look for but can’t find the right way to go. When people are strongly task focused, or in a place of unfamiliarity, they need quick, unambiguous signage—messages that are the least disruptive to their mission. We would intervene in that process and provide a sign, constantly looking for their reactions to it. Good signage is only there when you need it, and in precisely the right place. We intentionally interfered with that flow, and, of course, it had hilarious results.

A Roach and an Arrow

We’d provided signage at the top of some stairs—a key decision point that begs the question: Which way do I go? To the left was clearly a dead end, a wall with no doors on a dimly lit landing. To the right was a well-lit, open door leading to an exhibit room. We placed two signs head height, one on top of the other: an illustration of a roach (a small, silver freshwater fish) which was pointing toward the exhibit room; and an arrow icon pointing toward the empty, dimly lit wall. It was cruel, really. We’d created a confusing physical space combined with incorrect signage. But the results after watching people for an hour were that people ignored the arrow and followed the direction in which the roach was looking.

Throughout the project, most of my time was spent prototyping, watching, and recreating. The project lasted more than six months, and I’d spent maybe a total of a few days in front of my computer creating black-and-white signs. Over the course of perhaps only a couple of days, I’d done anything for the project that involved typography, color, illustration, layout, or iconography—that which is now so-called visual design. But for six months, I was designing. I was a graphic designer doing what graphic designers do.

Graphic designers don’t make things pretty. Graphic designers solve problems. They work with research, they analyze and watch, they test and iterate, they tell stories. They’re not coloring things in. The graphic in graphic designer is not limiting or to be taken literally.

Relegation of the Old Guard

I started being a graphic designer in the early 1990s. I originally intended to be a commercial illustrator, but it was typography that captured my imagination and grew in my heart. During my final year in university, the web forced itself into my sphere of practice. I wanted to design books, but the web appealed to my impatient side. I didn’t have to wait for printers; I could just do it myself. I was a master of my own destiny.

Like many other graphic designers, I ended up completely jumping ship. Making the web beautiful was my new goal. It was a brave new world of experimentation as we struggled to get to grips with the new medium. Many designers very quickly jumped back to what was familiar, though. The web was a difficult place back then. Nothing worked as you’d expect, you had to try to understand HTML and CSS, your canvas constantly changed, and there were these other people involved—information architects, content producers, researchers. While design historically was a solitary affair, design for the web became a multidisciplinary practice.

Graphic design is a deep, rich craft. But it’s also a process defined by ideas, markets, audiences, and consumers. Paul Rand defines a graphic designer’s role thus:

The designer does not, as a rule, begin with a preconceived idea. His idea is the result of subjective and objective thought, and the design a product of the idea.

In order, therefore, to achieve an honest and effective solution he necessarily passes through some sort of mental process…Consciously or not, he analyzes, interprets, translates…He improvises, invents new techniques and combinations.

He intensifies and reinforces his symbol with appropriate accessories to achieve clarity and interest. He draws upon instinct and intuition. He considers the spectator, his feelings and predilections.

— Paul Rand1

Throughout the 2000s, graphic design became a dirty, embarrassing word in web design. Other design professionals in the web industry thought that graphic designers merely concerned themselves with how things look—that they didn’t consider navigation, user goals, business goals, or other vital parts of any design project. In their opinion, graphic designers belonged to another field of practice entirely. Graphic designer equals print designer equals not quite good enough to think like a web designer. I myself have been subjected to this snobbery but have dished it out, too. It’s true that so much more is involved in web design than in your customary poster or annual report design. But that’s not the whole picture.

If Paul Rand or Josef Müller-Brockmann were practicing today, they’d likely be designing websites. Perhaps not exclusively, but they’d be applying the same critical thinking, the same graphic design process to designing websites as they would to designing a poster or an encyclopedia or a museum wayfinding system. And all these, from poster to museum wayfinding, require an extraordinary amount of user research, information structuring, observing, iteration, and, finally, production. Just like web design practice today. Graphic design is not defined by the medium of delivery. It’s a much broader practice.

Graphic Design and User Experience

What happened next altered the definition of graphic design forever, at least within the web design community.

I first heard of the field of User Experience Design in the early 2000s, about the same time as when Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think was published. Then, of course, came Jesse James Garrett’s seminal book: The Elements of User Experience in 2002.2 In this book, Jesse created a diagram of user experience that had five planes of practice, like a big layer cake. I’ve listed Garrett’s planes here, with my own description of each:

“Strategy: User Needs/Site Objectives
The strategy layer is where it all starts. What do we need this website to do and deliver on? What is the proposition?
“Scope: Functional Specification/Content Requirements
The strategy transforms into scope where the features and content are documented.
“Structure: Interaction Design/Information Architecture
The structure layer is where the information is shaped. How does the whole site sit together?
“Skeleton:Information Design/Navigation/Interface Design
The skeleton is the layer at which the interactions between the user and site are documented. What do people do on the site? More importantly, how do they do it?
“Surface: Visual Design
This is where the color, typefaces, layout all come together to create the look and feel of the site.

Quite rightly, Garrett’s book was a pivotal publication for the industry. It was a must-have for anyone who makes, writes for, or commissions websites. It clearly explained how good websites are constructed and the various roles and processes that are included. However, in one unwitting move, the industry’s response to Garrett’s layers relegated the practice of graphic design to the surface plane. This attitude was unfortunately reinforced by the recent rise in the opinion that user experience design—not graphic design—was the definition of good web design. Here on this surface plane, designers operate to make the product or website look great. They use color, typefaces, and layout. According to the industry’s perception of this model, what designers don’t do on the surface plane is design; they decorate.

Many also mistook this diagram as a process diagram. Agencies aligned their processes with Garrett’s five planes, and they assumed that meant that surface design came last.

Let’s be clear. From the position of graphic design, this model of UX is broken. It’s broken because graphic design is more than the look of something. It’s more than moving things around until they look right. Graphic design is a profession, a creative process, and a practice that has an established history. Graphic design is not decoration. It’s communication design, branding design, information design, packaging, and marketing. All of these things permeate the layer cake. They go way deeper than the surface plane; many go all the way to the bottom.

Studying to be a graphic designer is a journey. We work our way through initially understanding the problem, whatever that may be, thoughtfully considering the client, the business, the market, the goals, the audience and users, and then trying to find ways of telling the right story. To do this well, every graphic designer must be well versed in all aspects of the craft: research, writing, drawing, and of course, production. It’s our professional responsibility to completely understand the medium for which we’re delivering; be it print, television, radio, or the web. Yes, I did say radio. You see, many graphic designers are not schooled merely in graphic design. What they’re schooled in is communication and information design. It’s this schooling that ensures that what we do can work transmedia because it’s not about the medium.

A Rat and a Toilet

Back to Cardiff on that rainy, cold February afternoon standing beside a makeshift sign in a cold, dark museum building. I’m waiting for my colleague whilst slowly sipping tea that tastes like chemicals from the Styrofoam cup. On the sign this time, there are four pieces of paper stacked one on top of the other: a marsupial, an upward-pointing arrow, an icon of a man, and an arrow pointing right.

The museum is a quiet place. A place of learning, preserving, protecting, and recording. It’s not generally a place you’d expect to see a man standing next to a makeshift sign, drinking tea. Most people ignored me, instead following the arrow to a room full of stuffed animals; occasionally somebody would stop and momentarily stare at me with a quizzical look. One elderly gentleman plucked up the courage to approach me and ask what I was doing.

“Who are you?” he asked, as if not really wanting to know the answer.

“I’m a graphic designer working on new signage for the museum,” I said, smiling.


I wasn’t really surprised with the response and hoped he’d just carry on so I could get to preparing my next sign.

“What do you think of the sign?” I asked.

“I don’t care what your rat looks like. I just don’t want to get lost in here. I’m dying for a pee.”

And, just like that, off he went to the toilet.

In that moment, my experience of the true value of graphic design swiftly came into crystal clear view.

Graphic design is as much about use as it is about look. The semantics of the title of the craft—the graphic in graphic design—hide the true pursuit of the craft. It’s not about graphics. It’s not about shapes and moving them in two-dimensional space until someone (usually the designer) deems them to be beautiful. It’s not about making things pretty.

Real graphic design is about creating things with stories, for people to use.

But what about the designers? What about the visual designers inhabiting the UX industry? What do they do? If they’re getting wireframes from people and told to make them pretty, they’re not designing. They’re decorating. They’re applying a surface level sheen to someone else’s thinking. Because if you just go by Jesse James Garrett’s diagram, the story is already being told on the four layers beneath. The designing is being done there. This fifth layer is hardly more than some swirly frosting with a cherry on top.

Good graphic designers concern themselves with the what, the who, and the how. The message, the audience, and the mechanics. This is exactly how professional web designers work on the web. If, as an industry, we feel we need to call this practice something, can we just call it what it’s always been called? Let’s call it graphic design.

  1. Paul Rand, The Designer’s Role, (1946).

  2. Jesse James Garrett, Elements of User Experience: User-centered Design for the Web, (Peachpit Press, 2002).

Mark boulton

Mark Boulton is a graphic designer living in South Wales. After designing for the BBC and, he ran a small design studio, which published Five Simple Steps and worked with clients such as Al Jazeera, ESPN, CERN, and Drupal. Mark Boulton Design was acquired by Monotype in 2014.

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Illustration by Always With Honor · Portrait by Paul Blow