I can't think of a graphic design that doesn't contain type or an image. It's just unfortunate that other objects also fit that description. This means that the qualities of displaying type or image, or some combination of both, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a graphic design object. What makes them distinct from other kinds of objects, such as illustrations, photographs and other works of fine art? There must be another feature of graphic designs that we can include in our description which will exclude these other forms of visual communication.
I had to take a break from writing for a little while, because, frankly, I was stumped at what the answer to this question might be. I had to go away and do some reading before having a stab at the answer.
Here's the first of a few of my ideas: a graphic design object is the outcome of a graphic design creative process, and that's what makes graphic design objects unique. But that leads us on to the next question:
In some ways this avenue of exploration could be really helpful, but there's also a chance that such a line of reasoning could be fruitless. Defining a graphic design by the property of being made by 'the graphic design creative process' simply shifts the question from 'what is a graphic design object?' to 'what is the graphic design creative process?'
We would have to be really careful not to define the graphic design creative process as 'a process which results in the production of a graphic design object,' otherwise we'll have ended up with a closed loop, no closer to an answer when we started. This would be a strong constraint on any kind of empirical investigation into 'the graphic design creative process.'
However, a comparative approach to such an investigation, is likely to be fairly enlightening. For example, there are some obvious differences between the photographer's creative process and the graphic designer's. The photographer will make use of some kind of light sensitive apparatus to make images. Manipulating this machinery will be their first point of call.
While it is increasingly the case that graphic designers are expected to be competent photographers, it is not a requirement. Designers may art-direct photoshoots or commission illustrators, or forego both options and opt for a typographic treatment. It is possible to be a graphic designer without using photographic equipment as part of one's creative process.
When it comes to illustration, the comparison between processes becomes more tricky. I once heard the Art Director of Walker Books (a children's publisher) describe the illustrator's creative process as 'world-building.' Such a description hints at a strong creative imagination, generating contained images that do not necessarily need to refer to anything outside of themselves.
I'm aware that this is quite a convenient description of illustration, that suits my purposes, which neatly separates graphic design from illustration. I am sure there are quite a few practitioners who would disagree with it. For example, editorial illustrators may contend that their work only makes sense in relation to the text it is placed next to. Would the above cover illustrations make sense without the titles?
There are also practitioners who solely work with geometric shapes in the abstract. This last example is extremely problematic as their output bears a strong resemblance to graphic designs and graphic design images. It is likely that finding a description that encompasses all these illustration practices in order to compare it with the practice of graphic design will be just as tricky and as full of pitfalls as my current study of graphic design is proving to be. Indeed, some of these practitioners may not even describe themselves as illustrators.
Unfortuntately, the creative process of the fine artist is even more broad and varied than the illustrators', so much so, that it could include almost every creative discipline. Performative art will require group work and rehearsals. Video artists use film equipment, whilst others have constructed large factories and employ a team to create their artworks. The traditional sculptor or painter may, in contrast, be solitary. For others again, this process involves working on combining type and image.
Examining and comparing processes could tell us quite a lot about what graphic design objects are and the way in which graphic designers practice, which is an interesting study in itself. Some initial areas of research could include exploring the relationship between designers and their computers and the physical act of making, and whether their practice reflects the description of graphic designers as 'compositors' or 'combiners' of different elements.
There are a few other options we could look at that might shed some light what makes graphic designs unique, which will most likely inform such research should it be conducted. We'll return to this idea in due course. Next I will examine the idea of the role or function graphic designs have, to see whether this might separate art, illustration and photography from graphic design.