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My research focuses on the investigation of the systems that support graphic design.

Statement of Research Interests

Systems Theory and Its Application to Design

History is full of systems as the method mankind uses to apply order to and master his environment. Systems apply order to processes, products, and services. To purchase a McDonald’s franchise is to buy the systems that have been refined over time and are proven to work. The use of systems increases as a field grows and matures. Even through different systems are applied in different ways in different fields, the underlying principles are very similar.

My research focuses on the investigation of the systems that support graphic design. Design systems are conceptual creations, behaviors, and physical structures. Design problems have become extremely complicated by globalization, changing technology, and new forms of media. Design deals with complex, dynamic, and evolving problems. Design education compresses more and more content into the same timeframe. Systems thinking offers designers concepts and tools that support the decision-making and critical thinking skills needed for the efficient and profitable practice of design.

Terminology

The term system is a set of rules that governs behavior and/or structure. The term system refers to the interdependent relationships of visual objects that, when combined, form a new whole.

A system is a configuration that functions through the interaction of its parts. On the macro level (left1), the behavior of a system depends on how the parts are related. On the micro level (right1), the system is in the form itself and comprised of equilateral triangles. Meta-systems are comprised of multiple smaller systems (like a pattern that repeats or modules in a grid).

City of Melbourne Identity Program - Landor Associates

Sydney Office of Landor Associates, 2009. Identity Program for the City of Melbourne, Australia

Systems thinking (in design) is a thought and problem solving process. It starts from the recognition that applying a system can be a potential solution for a given design problem. Systems thinking is defining and understanding problems from a systems perspective, applying systems-based solutions, and designing within systemic parameters. Systems thinking is the act of seeing the gestalt (whole), recognizing patterns and relationships, and structuring more effective, orderly, and creative format solutions through the application of a design system. To apply a system to a design problem is to use a structure as a method of imposing order (such as information and images organized to fit in a grid).

Goals

My research goals are to:

  • Understand, explain and document systems thinking in graphic design
  • Discover, analyze, and catalog the different types of systems used in graphic design
  • Standardize the terminology used to describe the different systems
  • Evaluate parallels between systems thinking and the design process
  • Develop recommendations for when systems should be applied
  • Determine criteria for a successful system
  • Document case studies of successful systems
  • Expand the available number of solutions by adapting systems from other fields to graphic design
  • Create accessible tools for design education that enable educators to integrate the study of systems into their curriculum

The Literature on Systems

Several professional organizations have been founded to study systems including the Society for General Systems Research in 1954 and the International Society for Systems Science in 1988. Many scholars have studied systems in fields other than design and a rich trove of literature exists including the works of Margaret Mead, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, Bela Bánáthy, and Ilya Prigogine, the 1977 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry for the study of complex systems and Chaos Theory. My research in the field of systems is influenced by Prigogine’s chaos theory (1977) and Bánáthy’s (1996) domains for categorizing systems.

Some of the most important research in systems comes from an early scholar in this relatively new field of inquiry, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy’s 2 (1976). He stated that, “There exists models, principles, and laws that apply to generalized systems or their subclasses, irrespective of their particular kind, the nature of their components, and the relationships between them…universal principles apply to systems in general.”

While Von Bertalanffy2 divided the study of systems into three major domains—Philosophy, Science, and Technology, I’ve chosen to adapt the more recent domains in the work of Bela Bánáthy to my research. Bánáthy divides systems into four domains– Philosophy, Theory, Methodology, and Application.

Prigogine (1977) postulated that, “Systems are highly sensitive to fluctuations. All systems contain subsystems, which are continually fluctuating. The more complex a system is the more numerous are the types of fluctuations that threaten its stability.”

My research has much in common with previous research in the field of graphic design by Wake (2000), Faimon and Weigand (2004), Saltz (2009), Budelmann, Kim and Wozniak (2010), and Lidwell, Holden and Butler (2010). Kimberly Elam’s (2001, 2004, 2007) work with geometric, typographic, and grid systems has had a significant impact on my research subject matter and design.

Budelmann, Kim and Wozniak (2010) limited their published work on branding and identity systems to 100 total findings and put them in groups of three in order to fit the information into the artificial construct of a book. The findings are constrained to visual categories such as color choices, three-dimensional forms, and shapes.

Lidwell, Holden and Butler (2010) collected a fairly comprehensive list of the 100 universal principles of design, but they limited their findings to the behaviors of design systems such proportioning an image (right) or aligning elements of a design with the golden ratio.

Lidwell, W., Holden, K., and Butler, J. (2010). Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers/Quayside Publishing Group

Kim Elam’s Geometry of Design (2001), Grid Systems (2004), and Typographic Systems (2007) provide an excellent model of theoretical research on systems and use both visual categories and behaviors. Geometry of Design details concepts such as symmetry and proportion in natural and man-made objects. Grid Systems is a comprehensive survey of grids as a system for organizing information. In Typographic Systems of Design, Elam identifies and explains various methods beyond grids for organizing typography (left). The content is very technical and Elam’s work has made this information accessible to undergraduates studying design.

Elam, K. (2007). Typographic Systems. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Elam, K. (2007). Typographic Systems. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Ina Saltz’s (2009) book on essential type concepts is unique in that it provides an excellent combination of visual categories and behaviors. It contains core concepts such as establishing hierarchy using type weight and mixing typefaces using historical compatibility.

Ina Saltz’s (2009) book on essential type concepts is unique in that it provides an excellent combination of visual categories and behaviors. It contains core concepts such as establishing hierarchy using type weight and mixing typefaces using historical compatibility.

 

Research Design

The first part of the research plan is to apply the context definition model of research, determining the range of work that has been done in this area of inquiry and then identify additional factors that have not been identified in existing published findings. My current research concentrates on collecting, analyzing and cataloging systems in use. A survey of the literature documents what is considered a system in the field of graphic design.

I will then translate and adapt systems thinking terminology for design and provide an overview of the history, research and perspectives of systems thinking. It is important to establish an introduction to systems terminology and categories as a framework for understanding the concepts.

Second, I will finish collecting data on systems in graphic design. I will analyze and categorize graphic design systems on the macro-, meta-, and micro- levels in both visual and functional terms. I will develop a construct for implementing systems to solve design problems. This may take the form of a morphology or a similar construct that can be integrated holistically into both practice and design education. While teaching graphic design, I’ve integrated new and existing methods for teaching systems thinking into my courses. Since I regard systems as one of the most significant theories in design, most of my fieldwork is of an experimental design using student reactions to teaching tools. My research to date is predominantly a qualitative and process-oriented approach based on student feedback and the level to which they integrate the concepts into projects. I use observation-oriented methods such as the analysis of student projects on a rubric and blind student assessments of teaching tools along with course assessments.

Third, I plan to consider the impact of systems on the macro level. I will compare and contrast the theoretical applications from the literature with the reality of applying systems in the practice of graphic design. Remaining grounded in both the theoretical and in practice ensures an outcome that solves real design problems for both.

I am carrying out empirical studies on complex systems. Coca-Cola’s new global design system provides an extreme example of a complex system—their branding platform is used in over 200 countries and applied to 450 products/brands. David Butler, VP of Design for Coca-Cola, is one of the foremost advocates of systems thinking in the design field and one of Fast Company Magazine’s 100 Masters of Design. He is sharing the Coca-Cola global design system he developed as a case study for this research. Quoted in Fast Company3 as a ‘self-proclaimed systems geek’, Butler supervises a staff of 50 in-house designers, and 300+ advertising and design agencies worldwide.

Summary

This study is important because graphic design, in order to progress as a field, needs more of the theoretical underpinnings to drive practice and education. This work can supplement the theoretical component in undergraduate and graduate design programs.

Teaching design has allowed me to better understand the implications of this research on design education. This information can have a significant impact if it is presented in a form that is accessible to undergraduates with the right tools and reference materials.

Despite the effort involved in building a large data set on systems, the reward has been a deeper insight that has contributed a great deal to my teaching. I have applied this to coursework in symbolism, corporate identity, publication design, interface design, packaging, and environmental design. Students embrace it and apply it to their personal design process. This is the “why” something is done in design. I propose that systems as a concept needs to be studied further and integrated into design education at the foundations level.

Along the way, I have invested a great deal of thought and effort in the best method for sharing the results of this research. I feel that I can have a greater impact in design books as opposed to professional journals. My research has immediate commercial application as a textbook. I am contractually required to submit it to my publisher, NorthLight Books (who have rights of first refusal), but I think the manuscript will be more appropriate for Rockport, Wiley, Yale, or Princeton Architectural Press.

Footnotes:

1 Sydney Office of Landor Associates, 2009. Identity Program for the City of Melbourne, Australia.
2
Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, 1976. General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York, NY: George Braziller

References

Bánáthy, Bela (1996) Designing Social Systems in a Changing World. New York, NY: Plenum

Bertanlanffy, Ludwig von (1976). General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York, NY: George Braziller

Budelmann, K., Kim, Y., and Wozniak, C. (2010). Brand Identity Essentials: 100 Principles for Designing Logos and Building Brands. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers/Quayside Publishing Group

Elam, K. (2001). Geometry of Design. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Elam, K. (2004). Grid Systems. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Elam, K. (2007). Typographic Systems. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Faimon, P. and Weigand, J. (2004), The Nature of Design: How the Principles of Design Shape Our World—from Graphics and Architecture to Interiors and Products. Cincinnati, OH: HOW Design Books

Kim, D.J. (1995) Systems Thinking Tools: A User’s Reference Guide. Westford, MA: Pegasus Communications Inc.

Lidwell, W., Holden, K., and Butler, J. (2010). Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers/Quayside Publishing Group

O’Connor, J. and McDermott, I. (1997). The Art of Systems Thinking; Essential Skills for Creativity and Problem Solving. London, UK: Harper Collins Publishers

Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I. (1984). Order Out of Chaos, Man’s Dialogue with Nature. New York, NY: Bantam Books

Saltz, I. (2009). Typography Essentials: 100 Design Principles for Working with Type. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers/Quayside Publishing Group

Wake, W.K. (2000). Design Paradigms: A Sourcebook for Creative Visualization. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons

Weinberg, G.M. (2001). An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. New York, NY: Dorset House.