Dialogic design


The title of my graduation thesis at the art academy Sint Joost in Breda (NL) from 2009 was Dialogisch ontwerpen (Dialogic design).

If you follow the link you can download the pdf of the thesis, in Dutch. Here I present a short summary in English. For any question or feedback please contact me.

My research began when in my first year as a graphic design student I started looking differently at all those graphic objects that we come across every day: flyers, posters, logos, business cards, book covers, written texts, ads and so on. As I looked closer I stumbled upon a number of visual things that were somewhat unclear, difficult to read or understand, puzzling.

Those objects did not satisfy my expectations about visual communication and they immediately raised some questions. Why was such a visual object made and distributed, what was it trying to tell me and how? What did I think about it?

I felt quite attracted by this kind of images, and if I could not decifer them, my mind could play with them for days in a row. I looked for possible meanings, I tried to discover relations among the visual “hints”, the signs that compose the visual object. Sometimes I talked about it with friends and together we tried to solve the puzzle.

This is exactly what dialogic design wants: these images try to tell their message in such a way that the ones who look at the images must to some extent become aware of their process of formation of meaning. The “encoding” and “decoding” of the message becomes apparent.

This is in open contrast with one of the most widespread lessons of design, that teaches us that we should make the message clear and our work of designer invisible, as we want our public to concentrate on the content rather than on the medium of communication.

In my thesis I ask myself the question “under which circumstances is dialogic design possible, desirable or functional?”

I largely based my research on the article by Anke Coumans, De stem van de grafisch ontwerper. Drie vormen van dialogische verbeelding in het publieke domein. and I integrated it with readings from Stuart Hall (Encoding, decoding) and Umberto Eco (L’opera aperta). Besides that I interviewed four Dutch graphic designers who use dialogic design in their practice: Erwin Slegers, Martijn Engelbregt, Esther Noyons, and Els Kuijpers who talked to me about the work of Jan van Toorn.

One conclusion I can draw from my research work is that dialogic design is based on breaking the rules that make normal communication possible. According to Umberto Eco, even a minimum of coding can initiate communication. So a part of my research is focused on defining limits for dialogic design. Are there limits? Can we describe them?

For example if we think of design for orientation and safety, like on traffic signs or safety instructions, then we obviously meet one limit for dialogic design. No point in making a traffic sign that does not “pass” its message as directly and smoothly as possible.

A different order of limits can be defined by the question “how attractive is dialogic design for the public?”. According to Els Kuijpers it is precisely the purpose of dialogic design to bring the public outside their comfort zone. Also Erwin Slegers tries to engage his public through confrontation, and Jan van Toorn makes work with several layers of meaning, that is often relying on the intellectual background of his public. It is up to the designer to keep the dialogue open under these special circumstances. If confrontation becomes too rough or if the meaning is too far fetched, the purpose of dialogue will no longer be served.

Can we get tired of dialogic design? Not really, because innovation and change are fundamental ingredients for this working mindset. When some paths of dialogue will become obsolete, there will be new found and the public is not just following but also leading the search.

What is probably true about dialogic design is that it is not a form of communication that works on everyone. It has an own public. That does not mean that it is necessarily elitair, because this public is not an elite in the economic or intellectual sense. It is a special target though, one with a taste for the new, the unexpected, the different, one that probably is curious and undertaking. These qualities may not be of everyone but they are not reserved to a closed social group or to one subculture. They occur in every sector of society.

The biggest limit of dialogic design may be in the mindset of the client, the company or organisation that gives the assignment to the designer. It takes some open mindedness and some guts to choose a different way for corporate communication. If one invites their public to a dialogue, then they must also be open to listen to what feedback comes from the public, adjust their policies and make changes accordingly, if needed.


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