Graphic Design is Our Access to The New World

 N7: Roderick Grant.

“I am not sure how many of you can actually read or see this,” Roderick Grant, Co-Chair of the Graphic Design Program at OCAD, wondered of his slides on the 50″ screen as he began his presentation– a maybe unintentional but certainly on-point introduction. 

The devil will be in the details for future graphic designers of all stripes, from interface designers who must conceive human behaviours on touch screens, to typeface designers who must account for whether their letters and symbols will be front- or back-lit. Yet their goal is the same: “At the end of the day it’s not about brands or about sales,” Grant warns, “It’s actually about people, access and inclusion. It’s a universal problem.”

Urban Capital Annual, Trends in Design, 20012

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N7: Roderick Grant,

Grant told two seemingly unrelated stories, one on the individual scale, how gadgets like iPhones will no longer ship with manuals, and the other on an environment scale, how signage at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport gets multilingual, multi-generational travelers from gate to baggage claim.

The crux of the matter is our aging populations and their failing eyesight. While this has implications for many sectors of the economy, it’s of paramount importance for those working in the field formerly known as graphic design – now an agglomeration of way-finding, signage, identity, information, packaging, publication and systems design.

On the one hand, on the individual scale, designers must visually translate objects and their behaviours, often based in physical reality, into pixels and intuitive, compelling and functional interfaces– keypads, calendars, magazines, to name a few basic examples. Sometimes this is done well (Flipboard) while other times it’s a mind-boggling disaster (Apple’s faux leather trim for iCal for OSX Lion).

“What are you asking someone to do before they get to do the thing they want to do and why?” Grant asks, citing Donald Norman’s maxim from The Design of Everyday Things. “If we are going to play inthis digital soup of phone interfaces, the web, or whatever, it’s a question for which we have to come up with an answer pretty quickly.” Good on-screen design translates a physical reality into virtual behaviours towards which people are going to gravitate.

On the other hand, in architectural environments, where type isn’t “scalable”, designers will increasingly have to worry about such things as accessibility for disabled people. While this means larger type for the growing numbers with dwindling eyesight, it also means more non-verbal cues. “We might start seeing an increased reuse of the visual rather than the verbal, ideally you start seeing those things happening at the same time to guarantee communication,” Grant explains about his signage master plan work for Sea-Tac, but which applies to all public spaces.

His two narratives, extreme cases, bookend the future for designers and the level of attention they have to respond to. “Eventually, somewhere and somehow it’s  a profession that has to speak to everyone.”


Roderick Grant
Co-Chair, Graphic Design Program, OCAD
Roderick Grant is a professor, designer, and current Co-Chair of the Graphic Design Program at OCAD University. He has taught graphic design in Canada, the United States and the Middle East. Prior to his work in education Roderick was a graphic designer with Methodologie, then nbbj in Seattle, Washington, working on complex information design and wayfinding projects.



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