Graphic Value Back to Discussion

April 12, 2021

Published by
Nicole Arnett Phillips

Graphic Design’s value is often misunderstood because we are immersed in it. Unlike Art and Architecture where scarcity and materiality are seen to contribute to an artefacts value, Graphic Design is often produced on mass, commercialised (by its very nature) and accessible to wide audiences. Because our work is so ephemeral, our impact can be interpreted as less meaningful. So while Art, and Architecture are treasured and protected like a piece of haute couture, our high consumption, throw away society disregards Graphic Design in the same way we do ‘Fast Fashion’ available from a high street.

We are still a (relatively) new discipline.

For those of us designing today, there is significant value in studying, collecting and curating Graphic Design’s past. As we generate a professional archaeology, we help to define the industry, and we build a resource that enables us to learn from the aesthetics and approaches that predate our own practice. This historical record also starts to provide evidence for the importance of our work.


The act of design is not value neutral.

In 1922 Book and Type Designer W.A. Dwiggins wrote an article suggesting a new title for the emerging profession of Graphic Design. He advocated for our craft, insisting the print compositors and commercial artists of the day were adding value to the content they were working with. Dwiggins sought to elevate our profession, our process and our outcomes so that people outside our industry might better understand and respect what we do.

95 years on, our profession has evolved, as have the audience, mediums and channels we design for. Today, there is a growing appreciation for Graphic Design, and it is more widely understood how we inform, influence and interpret the world around us. Recognising the active role we play in society, and our professions historical and cultural relevance, a number of institutions have started to collect critical examples of Graphic Design.

Graphic Design feeds back into culture.

Just as our work is for an audience; our visual history speaks of that audience. Our work both reflects the human condition and records social developments as they happen. While often attributed as a ‘lowbrow’ visual discipline (by the arts elitists!), Graphic Design deals with the realities of every day life at a particular point in time.

Chenoa Pettrup of the Asia Pacific Design Library notes “We often think of objects and artefacts as ephemera in the lives of people, but it could be said that the opposite is true—people are the ephemera in the lives of objects. The object continues to exist well after the people are gone. This is the importance of collection exemplary design items as they act as examples more of moments in time and place. Such items act as a visual representation of how people responded to and understood issues of the time.”

Galleries, Museums and Libraries around the world are changing the way they acquire, diversify and disseminate their collections. The traditional hierarchy between art and design (or in some cases highbrow and lowbrow visual artefacts) is changing and cultural institutions have begun to evaluate pieces of Design based on social significance, historical relevancy and work that demonstrates a departure from technical, visual, and philosophical norms.

Cooper Hewitt is keenly interested not only in the emergence of our profession but also charting the evolution of processes, technologies and materials in our work, they have been collecting examples of Graphic design since the 1970’s, Ellen Lupton explains, “We seek works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that have had an iconic impact on the field and that express technical or aesthetic innovation. The best pieces exemplify their period or an important style. We keep an eye out for contemporary pieces that speak to where the field is going next.”

Contemporary Graphic Design is not static, unlike many art’s mediums, graphic design is constantly responding to advances in technology. The digital media landscape presents a lot of challenges to institutions wishing to collect graphic design that isn’t tactile or as tangible as a paper-based artefact. While archivists ‘wrestle’ with preserving digital materials in robust formats, the Design fields are pioneering methods for the collection of technologies.

The collection as evolving entities.

MOMA’s Juliet KinChin writes “Graphic design has been vital part of MoMA’s collection, exhibitions and identity from the outset in the 1930s, with two early monographic exhibitions being devoted to graphic designers Cassandre (1936) and Edward McKnight Kauffer (1937), and “Bauhaus 1919-1928” (1938), an installation designed by none other than Herbert Bayer of the Bauhaus.” In 2011 MoMA began to acquire typefaces, 2012 video games and in 2014 they started to add apps to the collection.

The digital media landscape presents a lot of challenges to institutions wishing to collect Graphic Design that isn't tactile or as tangible as a paper-based artefact. While archivists 'wrestle' with preserving digital materials in robust formats, the Design fields are pioneering methods for the collection of technologies. The MoMA collection now includes 8,000 examples of Graphic Design. “Mostly posters, but also including printed ephemera, letterheads, magazine covers, letter fonts (digital and metal type), signage, album record covers, film title sequences, apps, packaging, video games and interaction design.”

As specialist teams of conservators work toward collecting and preserving the form and format of digital design artefacts, other specialists are working to make the analogue examples more accessible via digital means.

In 2017 the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced a collaboration with Creative Commons to make it’s collection available online for unrestricted use. By digitising their collection, the works can now be viewed, studied and used by designers worldwide. Former Director of Digital & Emerging Media, at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum Seb Chan, said museum collections should be “not on the web but of the web” making full use of all the affordances of the digital landscape; inter-connectedness, share-ability, openness, and highly social—this democratisation parallels the broad reach of graphic design.

Technology presents opportunities

NFT's present a very new opportunity for collecting and displaying digital media. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are electronic identifiers that verify the existence and the ownership of a digital collectible. The technology has been around since at least 2017, and come as an offshoot of the boom in cryptocurrencies, which also run on the blockchain. “We are disrupting the art museum industry by transforming old paintings and artwork into NFTs,” wrote Global Art Museum on Twitter. “The NFT space is new and nebulous, but we aim to bring the museums into this space. The days of boring, staid, and stuffy museums are over.”

Mike Winkelmann, a digital artist who goes by the name Beeple, set the auction record for the medium last month with Christie's selling a digital collage of his "everyday" series for $69 million.

“I do view this as the next chapter of art history,” Winkelmann said. “Now there is a way to collect digital art.”

Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile, collects art and design, he bought a beeple NFT for $66,666 and resold it for 100 times that just four months later, he co-founded the Museum of Crypto Art in part to display his growing collection. He sees Winkelmann’s rising sale prices as a way of proving to the public that the technology matters.

Collectors, producers and curators of design are looking to the art world to see how these emerging digital technologies can be adapted to preserve, display and value the output of our practice.

Accessibility & visibility.

While the internet and digitisation of collections creates the ability for designers to discover and engage with more design exemplar than ever before, many of these institutions are also offering more immersive, opportunities to experience examples. Many believe it does not belong in gallery spaces or under glass and exhibiting Graphic Design does present contextual challenges but because these artefacts have made such critical contributions to culture Jonathan Barnbrook’s iconic record sleeves or London Underground poster can and should sit with authority in exhibition spaces.

Tom Wilson, head of collections at Design Museum acknowledges, Graphic design exhibitions attract specialist audiences and as such sometimes get less ‘air time’ than other disciplines. “For a non-specialist visitor, it can be difficult to separate the design of a poster from its message” and that

“The risk is that graphic design is appreciated only for its aesthetic qualities and not as a complex entity in its own right. However, such challenges do not deter us from looking at graphic design; rather, we are seeking to explore new ways of charting, recording and displaying graphic design as it continues to evolve in our rapidly changing world.” In addition to exhibitions, the Design Museum aims to become a hub for dialogue, hosting talk series and “bringing discussion and research around contemporary graphic design to the widest possible audience.”

Chennoa Pettrup explains “There is a saying that truly good design is invisible—it is experienced almost unconsciously rather than noticed and this is especially the case for visual communication.”

APDL are actively working to increase the visibility of the discipline with the public-at-large. One of the libraries initiatives ‘DesignFinds’ invites designers to curate an exhibition with five remarkable items from the SLQ, APDL or Australian Library of Art collections and create a visual response (to build the collection), as well as a talk to articulate the significance of the items to the community. The exhibition’s and talk series are well subscribed, the free events tickets ‘sell-out’ quickly, which she believes is a great sign that there is growing interest and appreciation for not only in our practice but also our history.

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

Connecting the Past, Present, and Future.

An understanding of our past helps us to define our own territory today. I remember the first time I saw Jan Tschichold’s work, I was sitting in the Auckland public Library, and I could feel my heart swell and head explode. Viewing Oz Cooper’s use of grid’s and page proportion in ‘Chicago Designers book of 1937’ gave me a new appreciation of information hierarchy. Beatrice Warde’s ‘Printing Should be Invisible’ has greatly informed my position on a designers influence. And Rick Poyner’s ‘No more rules’ helped me to make sense of the graphic landscape and model’s for contemporary practice. I could list and credit many more significant influences but the point is each piece of work I have done since has been a dialogue with those designers who preceded me.

Today’s cutting edge may well be tomorrow’s mainstream. As an industry, our work is both linear and cyclic, each ‘new’ trend or technology that emerges in Graphic Design is often a direct reaction or repetition of a previous one. Early and important examples from our past help to shape and define contemporary practice while adding credibility, value and meaning to our future. Collections, exhibitions and digital repositories documenting our history and increasing our visibility are vital to helping us grow and to innovate both as individual designer’s and as an industry.

We are incredibly grateful to Creative New Zealand who funded the 2020 Kātoitoi pilot. This article sits within a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 12 weeks supported by CNZ.

The artwork to accompany this essay is by Joseph Carrington

This article expands upon an earlier essay Nicole Arnett Phillips wrote for The Recorder Magazine, (edited by Emma Tucker).

Other sources;

The NFT outfit Global Art Museum now says it is an art collective conducting a "social experiment." Sarah Cascone, March 22, 2021

How Beeple Crashed the Art World. An N.F.T., or “non-fungible token,” of the digital artist’s work sold for sixty-nine million dollars in a Christie’s auction. It’s good news for crypto-optimists, but what about for art? By Kyle Chayka March 22, 2021

Beeple sold an NFT for $69 million, Through a first-of-its-kind auction at Christie’s by Jacob Kastrenakes March 11, 2021