A chat with the designer, author and lecturer, on communication, his favourite designers, and where design is heading.
AVA: Did you enjoy writing Visible Signs? What about it do you think has made it so successful?
DC: Yes, it is a book I always felt I needed as a tutor which is why it has been successful, I think.
AVA: A second edition is about to be released; what will be different in this new book? Why does this topic remain relevant?
DC: The new edition draws on classic texts and well established principles so its core will remain relevant for many years to come.
The new part is an updating of the examples to make them more relevant and we have extended the commentary on these examples which should be more useful.
AVA: How important a part of graphic design is semiotics? And what do you find most interesting about the subject?
DC: For me the interesting part in generating and controlling the production of meaning and I think it is central to all graphic design.
AVA: I know that you studied Communication Design at university; what first stimulated your interest in this topic?
DC: Like many young people I was interested in fashion and music. My Foundation Course helped me see that it was the representation of ideas rather than clothing/music that I was really interested in.
AVA: Looking back over your career, what are you most proud of so far?
DC: Both books, and managing to maintain some practice-based work alongside a managerial role.
David’s book Left to Right: The Cultural Shift from Words to Pictures is also published by AVA and is available from our website.
AVA: In Left to Right, you touch on issues such as dyslexia, texting and the decline in levels of literacy amongst school children. Do you think we are over-reliant on the television? Will grammar and the rules of language continue to be an important part of a child’s education if images are becoming a substitute for words?
DC: Our knowledge of formal grammar does seem to be subsiding but I see these changes as part of a gradual change in language and its presentation. Our spoken and written languages have been changing continually since they were first used.
AVA: Is your assessment of your students’ assignments based mainly on their use of the written word? If so, is education falling behind in our increasingly visual society and would you change it if you could?
DC: Quite the reverse – we have increased the number of choices to make presentations less formal and more visual if they want to take that approach.
AVA: I text, but I don’t use a lot of symbols, and in Left to Right you give some examples that I have never seen before. My favourite is :-# meaning ‘secret’.
Do you use these ‘smileys’ personally?
DC: Only the basic ones :-)
AVA: Do you think images such as these could come to replace words?
DC: I think they have already in some contexts.
AVA: You make the point that in many ways, symbols are more efficient than words because they transcend language barriers. But what would happen to great poetry and literature if the written word was lost in translation to a visual society?
DC: I agree that there is an accuracy, level of detail and a beauty in words that cannot be replaced. However, visual poetry already exists too.
AVA: Do you agree with Leonard Schlain that a picture of Earth, taken from space, did more to alert people to environmental issues than the miles of text written on the subject?
DC: Obviously both have had an effect but its also clear that ‘news’ is much more powerful when it has imagery to communicate it.
AVA: Overall, has the appearance of new digital tools damaged design by taking the emphasis away from craft, or has it broadened its appeal and expanded its possibilities?
DC: I think it will expand the possibilities by coupling digital and analogue together but we have not yet fully capitalised on this.
AVA: Would you describe yourself as ‘figural’ or ‘discursive’, ‘holistic’ or ‘analytical’ – are you a left or right brain person? If you had to choose words or images which would it be?
DC: Both, but probably I am more system based and analytical than I like to admit.
AVA: Who are your favourite artists and designers? From whom have you personally drawn the most inspiration?
DC: Abram Games, Neville Brody, Oliver Vaughan, Malcolm Garrett, Peter Saville, Rene Magritte, Miro, Robert Rauchenberg.
AVA: Where is the future of design heading? How important do you believe design is, or could be, in the world?
DC: This is an essay question really but a simplification might be to say that we are realising that design exists beyond ‘artefacts’. This means design groups are now looking at management, experience and service as design arenas.
AVA: I believe you have contributed to Eye Magazine; what other design publications/websites would you recommend design students look at?
DC: Creative Review, Design Week, Wired. There are so many websites that I couldn’t single one or two out…
AVA: Are there any other topics you would like to publish/lecture on?
DC: I am interested in craft futures and the relationship between analogue and digital processes.
AVA: What one development in technology would you argue has had the most profound impact on the world from a design point of view?
DC: Probably I would still cite the Printing Press although television and the web are obviously huge paradigm shifts too.
AVA: What advice would you give to young people who are trying to begin careers as designers?
DC: Be prepared to take a portfolio of jobs and roles, and that you can and will learn from all of them.
AVA: What message do you hope students take away from reading your books?
DC: That they are engaged in the social and political business of how we all negotiate our own way through the world, and that this journey is largely done through symbolism and subtle semiotics. They are providing the tools for all of us to generate meaning and identity.
Many thanks to David for answering our questions, especially as we know he is a very busy man!
Images in this post are taken from Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts, 2nd edition. The book is available to purchase through our website.