Reading Graphic Design in Cultural Context introduces key approaches to interpreting the graphic designs we see all around us - in advertising, branding, corporate identity, packaging, high street and high fashion - and to understanding them in their cultural and social context. Drawing examples for a wide range of design genres, leading design historians Grace Lees-Maffei and Nicolas Maffei explain theories of semiotics, postmodernism, globalisation, and consider issues and debates within cultural and visual communication theory such as legibility, the relationship of word and image, gender and identity, and the impact of digital forms on design. Their discussion takes in well-known brands such as Alessi, Nike, Unilever and Tate, and everyday designed things including slogan t-shirts, car advertising, eBooks, corporate logos, posters and music packaging.

I presented the introductory chapter for Reading Graphic Design as an invited Keynote Lecture, ‘Not Mere Messengers or Window Dressers: Understanding Social Contexts for Graphic Design’, Unfrozen, the first SDN Design Research Winter Summit and 9th Swiss Design Network Symposium, 28-31 January 2016.

Graphic designers are wrongly perceived as mere messengers, engaged in superficial ‘window dressing’, beautifying and delivering content for others, who are classed as originators. I aim to counter these unhelpful stereotypes by examining the work of graphic designers as a vital channel of discourse between individuals and society. My approach avoids aesthetic value judgments, and I do not set out to focus on the most beautiful, or iconic work in graphic design (although I have examined aesthetics and iconicity in design elsewhere). Rather, informed by cultural sociology and theories of semiotics and post-structuralism, and the work of designers and commentators on modernism, postmodernism and legibility, I ask : What kinds of messages are delivered through graphic design, how are they delivered, and why ? 

My co-author, Dr Nicolas P. Maffei (Norwich University of the Arts) delivered an invited research seminar presentation about chapter 2 of Reading Graphic Design, ‘The Responsive Brand: Uniformity and Flexibility in Logo Design’ at the University of Hertfordshire on 10 May 2017.

From the uniformity of modernism to the embrace of difference, this talk explores the historical shift from static to dynamic logos, from universal international brand identities to more flexible and responsive corporate personalities. This transformation occurred over a period extending from the nineteenth century to the present, and includes the roots of branding, the ideals of modernism, the emergence of the critical consumer, the development of the responsive corporation, and the co-creation of brands in online landscapes. From Peter Behrens’ designs for the German Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG), in 1907, considered the first corporate identity, to Paul Rand’s flexible and humanizing identity developed for International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) after WWII, this talk reviews the rise of the unchanging logo and, in turn, the multivalent brand-mark. In addition, the design responses of corporations to the vocal and ethically informed consumer are surveyed via the anti-branding movement, which has targeted Starbucks and McDonalds among other corporations. Nike is examined through local reinterpretations of the global brand. Gap’s failed logo of 2010 shows the power of the online consumer and the need for companies to listen and respond. Finally, brand reactions to the responsive consumer – characterized by chameleon-like logo transformation and an emphasis on user interaction and co-production of meaning, are investigated through the designs for telecommunications company Ollo (Bibliothèque, 2012), the identity for the Tate museums (Wolff Olins, 1999), and Experimental Jetset’s Responsive ‘W’ for The Whitney Museum (2011).