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A Comprehensive Guide to Graphic Design Theory by Meredith Davis: Download PDF for Free



Graphic Design Theory by Meredith Davis: A Comprehensive Guide for Students and Practitioners




Graphic design is the art and practice of creating visual communication that conveys information, expresses ideas and influences audiences. Graphic design can be found everywhere in our daily lives, from logos and posters to websites and apps. But how do graphic designers create effective and engaging visual communication? What are the principles and methods that guide their work? And what are the theoretical frameworks that inform their decisions?




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This is where graphic design theory comes in. Graphic design theory is the study of the concepts, models and approaches that underlie graphic design practice. Graphic design theory helps us understand how graphic design works as a system of signs, how it creates meaning and expression through visual representation, how it affects perception and cognition through cognitive approaches, how it reflects cultural movements and paradigms through modernism and postmodernism, and how it responds to contemporary issues and challenges through social, cultural and material contexts.


In this article, we will explore graphic design theory in depth by reviewing one of the most comprehensive books on the subject: Graphic Design Theory by Meredith Davis. This book is a textbook that combines an analysis of historical thinking about design with contemporary critical theory. It explains complex theories with total clarity, encourages readers to evaluate existing design work critically, and shows how to apply theory in a modern graphic design practice. It covers topics such as communication models, visual representation, cognitive approaches, modernism and postmodernism, and social, cultural and material contexts.


Whether you are a graphic design student or a practitioner who wants to improve your work and embark on a successful career, this book is a must-read for you. By reading this article, you will get an overview of the main ideas and arguments of the book, as well as some examples of graphic design work that illustrate them. You will also learn how to access the book online for free if you want to read it in full.


So let's get started!


Communication Models: How Graphic Design Works as a System of Signs




One of the first topics that graphic design theory addresses is how graphic design works as a system of signs. A sign is anything that stands for something else, such as a word, an image, a symbol, or a gesture. Graphic design uses signs to communicate messages to audiences, but how do these signs convey meaning? How do audiences interpret them? And how do graphic designers manipulate them to achieve their goals?


To answer these questions, graphic design theory draws on three main approaches: the semiotic approach, the rhetorical approach, and the pragmatic approach. Each of these approaches offers a different perspective on how signs work and how they can be used effectively in graphic design.


The semiotic approach: signs, signifiers, signifieds, codes and contexts




The semiotic approach is based on the theory of semiotics, which is the study of signs and their meanings. According to semiotics, a sign consists of two parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the physical form of the sign, such as a word or an image. The signified is the concept or idea that the signifier refers to, such as an object or an emotion. For example, in the sign "dog", the word "dog" is the signifier and the animal that it represents is the signified.


However, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is not fixed or natural. It is arbitrary and conventional, meaning that it is based on social agreement and cultural norms. Different cultures and languages may use different signifiers for the same signified, or different signifieds for the same signifier. For example, in English, the word "dog" refers to a domesticated animal, but in French, the word "chien" refers to the same animal. Conversely, in English, the word "dog" can also mean a contemptible person, but in French, this meaning does not exist.


Therefore, to understand a sign, we need to know the code and the context that govern its meaning. A code is a system of rules and conventions that determine how signs are used and interpreted in a given culture or domain. A context is the situation or environment in which a sign is produced and received. Both code and context can influence how we perceive and interpret signs, and how we respond to them.


For graphic designers, the semiotic approach offers a useful tool for analyzing and creating visual communication. By understanding how signs work in different codes and contexts, graphic designers can choose appropriate signifiers for their intended signifieds, avoid ambiguity or confusion, and create clear and coherent messages. For example, consider this logo for FedEx:



This logo uses two signifiers: the word "FedEx" and an arrow formed by the negative space between the letters "E" and "x". The signifieds of these signifiers are: the name of the company and the idea of speed and direction. The code that governs this logo is the corporate identity system of FedEx, which defines its color scheme, typography, and style. The context that influences this logo is the global market of express delivery services, which requires trustworthiness, efficiency, and reliability.


By applying the semiotic approach, we can see how this logo communicates its message effectively. The word "FedEx" establishes the name and brand recognition of the company. The arrow suggests movement and progress, which are relevant to its service. The color scheme of purple and orange creates contrast and visibility. The typography of sans-serif font conveys simplicity and modernity. The style of capital letters implies authority and professionalism. All these elements work together to create a coherent and memorable logo that represents FedEx's values and identity.


The rhetorical approach: ethos, pathos, logos and visual persuasion




The rhetorical approach is based on the theory of rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion through language. According to rhetoric, persuasion is achieved by appealing to three modes: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is the appeal to credibility and character. Pathos is the appeal to emotion and values. Logos is the appeal to logic and reason.


Graphic design can also use these modes of persuasion to influence audiences' attitudes and behaviors. Graphic design can establish ethos by showing expertise, reliability, or trustworthiness through visual elements such as logos, testimonials, or endorsements. Graphic design can evoke pathos by arousing emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, or fear through visual elements such as colors, images, or symbols. Graphic design can demonstrate logos by providing facts, evidence, or arguments through visual elements such as charts, graphs, or diagrams.


For graphic designers, The pragmatic approach: sender, receiver, message, channel and feedback




The pragmatic approach is based on the theory of pragmatics, which is the study of how language is used in context. According to pragmatics, communication is a process that involves five elements: the sender, the receiver, the message, the channel and the feedback. The sender is the person or entity who initiates the communication. The receiver is the person or entity who receives the communication. The message is the content or information that is communicated. The channel is the medium or mode that is used to transmit the message. The feedback is the response or reaction that is given by the receiver to the sender.


Graphic design can also be understood as a form of communication that follows this process. Graphic design can be seen as a sender who creates and sends a message to a receiver through a channel. The receiver then interprets and responds to the message, providing feedback to the sender. The effectiveness of graphic design depends on how well it adapts to the needs and expectations of the receiver, as well as the characteristics and limitations of the channel.


For graphic designers, the pragmatic approach offers a practical framework for planning and evaluating their work. By considering the five elements of communication, graphic designers can tailor their message to their target audience, choose the most suitable channel for their purpose, and measure the impact and outcome of their work. For example, consider this poster for World Wildlife Fund:



This poster uses graphic design as a sender who communicates a message to a receiver through a channel. The sender is World Wildlife Fund, an organization that aims to conserve nature and reduce threats to wildlife. The receiver is the general public, especially those who are concerned about environmental issues. The message is that human actions have negative consequences for animals and their habitats, and that we should act now to save them. The channel is a poster that uses visual elements such as images, text, and layout. The feedback is the awareness and action that the poster hopes to generate among the viewers.


By applying the pragmatic approach, we can see how this poster achieves its communication goals. The poster uses an image of a panda that is cut in half by a barcode scanner, implying that human consumption and trade are endangering this species. The text "Save me" appeals to the viewers' empathy and responsibility, while the text "Save our planet" emphasizes the urgency and importance of the issue. The layout of the poster creates contrast and hierarchy between the image and the text, drawing attention and interest. All these elements work together to create a powerful and persuasive message that aims to raise awareness and inspire action among the viewers.


Visual Representation: How Graphic Design Creates Meaning and Expression




Another topic that graphic design theory addresses is how graphic design creates meaning and expression through visual representation. Visual representation is the process of using visual elements such as shapes, colors, lines, textures, or symbols to depict or signify something else, such as an object, an idea, or an emotion. Visual representation can be used for various purposes, such as describing, explaining, illustrating, or expressing something through graphic design.


But how do visual elements create meaning and expression? How do we recognize and interpret what they represent? And how do graphic designers use them creatively and effectively in their work?


To answer these questions, graphic design theory draws on four main modes of visual representation: the iconic mode, the symbolic mode, the indexical mode, and the hybrid mode. Each of these modes offers a different way of creating and conveying meaning and expression through visual elements.


The iconic mode: resemblance and representation




The iconic mode: resemblance and representation




The iconic mode is based on the principle of resemblance and representation. In this mode, visual elements create meaning and expression by resembling or representing what they depict or signify. The degree of resemblance or representation can vary from realistic to abstract, depending on the level of detail, accuracy, and distortion that is used. The iconic mode can be used to describe or illustrate something in a clear and recognizable way, or to express something in a stylized or artistic way.


For graphic designers, the iconic mode offers a versatile and powerful tool for creating visual communication. By using visual elements that resemble or represent what they want to communicate, graphic designers can create images that are easy to understand and identify, or images that are creative and expressive. For example, consider this logo for Apple:



This logo uses an iconic mode of visual representation. It uses a visual element that resembles and represents an apple, which is the name and symbol of the company. The logo is realistic enough to be recognizable as an apple, but abstract enough to be distinctive and memorable. The logo also has a bite taken out of it, which adds a touch of humor and personality. The logo conveys the idea of innovation and creativity that the company is known for.


The symbolic mode: convention and association




The symbolic mode is based on the principle of convention and association. In this mode, visual elements create meaning and expression by being associated or linked with what they depict or signify through social agreement or cultural norms. The association or link between the visual elements and what they represent is not based on resemblance or causality, but on arbitrary or learned rules and codes. The symbolic mode can be used to convey abstract or complex concepts or ideas that are not easily represented by other modes.


For graphic designers, the symbolic mode offers a challenging and rewarding tool for creating visual communication. By using visual elements that are associated or linked with what they want to communicate, graphic designers can create images that are meaningful and expressive, but also require interpretation and understanding from the viewers. For example, consider this logo for Nike:



The indexical mode: causality and evidence




The indexical mode is based on the principle of causality and evidence. In this mode, visual elements create meaning and expression by being caused or affected by what they depict or signify. The causal or affective relationship between the visual elements and what they represent is based on physical or natural laws or phenomena. The indexical mode can be used to provide proof or indication of something that is not directly observable or verifiable.


For graphic designers, the indexical mode offers a reliable and convincing tool for creating visual communication. By using visual elements that are caused or affected by what they want to communicate, graphic designers can create images that are factual and objective, but also suggestive and implicating. For example, consider this poster for Global Warming:



This poster uses an indexical mode of visual representation. It uses a visual element that is caused or affected by global warming, which is the issue that the poster wants to communicate. The poster shows a melting ice cream cone that resembles the Earth, implying that the planet is suffering from rising temperatures and melting ice caps. The poster does not show global warming itself, but it provides evidence and indication of its effects. The poster conveys the idea of urgency and danger that global warming poses to the environment and humanity.


The hybrid mode: combination and integration




The hybrid mode is based on the principle of combination and integration. In this mode, visual elements create meaning and expression by combining or integrating two or more modes of visual representation. The combination or integration of different modes can create new or enhanced meanings and expressions that are not possible with a single mode. The hybrid mode can be used to create complex or multifaceted messages that appeal to different aspects of the viewers' perception and cognition.


For graphic designers, the hybrid mode offers a creative and flexible tool for creating visual communication. By using visual elements that combine or integrate different modes of visual representation, graphic designers can create images that are rich and diverse, but also coherent and harmonious. For example, consider this logo for Starbucks:



This logo uses a hybrid mode of visual representation. It uses a visual element that combines or integrates three modes of visual representation: the iconic mode, the symbolic mode, and the indexical mode. The logo shows a stylized image of a siren, which is a mythical creature that resembles a woman with a fish tail. The siren is an iconic representation of the company's name, which comes from a character in Moby-Dick, a novel about whaling. The siren is also a symbolic representation of the company's origin, which is Seattle, a city with a strong maritime culture and history. The siren is also an indexical representation of the company's product, which is coffee, a beverage that originated from exotic and distant lands. The logo conveys the idea of quality and diversity that the company offers to its customers.


Cognitive Approaches: How Graphic Design Affects Perception and Cognition




How Graphic Design Affects Perception and Cognition




Graphic design can influence both perception and cognition by using visual elements that appeal to the viewers' psychological and cognitive processes. These processes include attention, memory, learning, problem-solving, decision-making, and emotion. Graphic design can use these processes to attract and retain the viewers' interest, to facilitate and enhance the viewers' understanding, to stimulate and challenge the viewers' thinking, to guide and influence the viewers' choices, and to affect and motivate the viewers' feelings.


For graphic designers, cognitive approaches offer a scientific and empirical basis for creating visual communication. By understanding how perception and cognition work, graphic designers can use visual elements that are compatible and effective with the viewers' psychological and cognitive processes. For example, consider this infographic for COVID-19:



This infographic uses graphic design to affect perception and cognition through cognitive approaches. It uses visual elements that appeal to the viewers' attention, memory, learning, problem-solving, decision-making, and emotion. The infographic uses colors, shapes, icons, and text to create contrast and hierarchy, which draw the viewers' attention to the most important information. The infographic uses repetition, chunking, and labeling to organize and simplify the information, which help the viewers' memory and learning. The infographic uses questions, answers, and explanations to clarify and justify the information, which stimulate the viewers' problem-solving and decision-making. The infographic uses facts, evidence, and sources to support and validate the information, which guide and influence the viewers' choices. The infographic uses positive and negative emotions to convey the benefits and risks of the information, which affect and motivate the viewers' feelings.


Modernism and Postmodernism: How Graphic Design Reflects Cultural Movements and Paradigms




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