Composition has left the canvas

My experience as a graphic designer

12 DECEMBER 2013
Designbüro Frankfurt (Tim Heiler, Katja Baumann i Alexander Lis), Photography by Ralf Loehr
Designbüro Frankfurt (Tim Heiler, Katja Baumann i Alexander Lis), Photography by Ralf Loehr

I do identify as a graphic designer. I do identify with a seemingly old trade with origins in sign-making and painted posters.

I have a passion for the craft I’ve been taught. I highly value involving myself with shapes, composition, color and typography. What I actually do in my day-to-day work, though, seems different at first.

I am a communicator. I am a megaphone if you will. People pay me to make their message heard. People pay me to say what they want, shouting and yelling their message at the top of my lungs.

I want to be their singer and their poet. I hope to give their messages a sense of beauty, I am hoping to delight both listeners and clients with a message that is not mine.

I'd love things to be so beautiful and so romantic. I might want my job to be as simple as the metaphor of one person standing there intoning a single message.

Back to reality, the worlds (note the plural s here) of communication are going way beyond those metaphors today. Possibilities to deliver a message are constantly building up in number and we can put out messages to nearly every context today. Things have become unstable. Technologies and communication change and they seemingly change faster than we can catch up with.

Computers and the general rise of things with screens are shaking up even the last secure lines of communication and the lines of 'graphic' design for sure. Nowadays, one takes in messages while using a refrigerators display to go online and check facebook.

Nowadays, I don't even know what size or format my artworks will scale to or if there is even any graphic content left. And be sure that once I know what's happening, there will be new forms and framings invented at that very second. Coming from the point of traditional graphic design, this loss of a stable canvas is a shock. What the hell do we do?

Finding myself in this swirl of change, along with everyone else, I am slowly dropping my self image as an expert in anything “physical”. It's no more knowing, no more security. I am unable to tell you if the technologies I am using today will be worth anything tomorrow. It's all best guesses and gut feelings. There's no way to know "everything" anymore, but having "an idea about things" may help.

There is a new role being taken on by (graphic) designers right now: We are the advocates of soft knowledge. It's not necessarily the craft of placing shapes on a previously empty canvas that qualifies us as communicators. Today, it's the involvement we show and the emotional perspective we give out.

In most projects I have been working on throughout the past years, there was always a big need to establish a sense of feeling for the project and task.

A trained Designer today would not only bring a sense of visual quality to the team and table, but should also be able to find beauty and clarity within a group of clients, customers, suppliers and stakeholders for a project to be based on. At best, a good designer might bring out unseen qualities from within the group and by doing so, he or she might cause surprise and innovation.

It's not about the values of a single craft any more. If we want real communication (like in “community”) or anything real, we have to look out for the common ideas of the groups we try to bring some leverage to.

As a composition could be the shapes on a canvas, or the arrangement of musical notes and tones over time, so is composition the connection of people and groups.

What graphic design taught me most is getting a sense for how things relate and how to make them match harmoniously.

Composition isn’t dead, but it has left the canvas.

Text by Tim Heiler

More about the author: www.timheiler.com
About the design studio: www.designbuero-frankfurt.de