In 2000, with the new digital technologies emerging as a powerful shaping force in graphic design practice, the International Congress of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA) issued a collaboratively written manifesto for the future of graphic design education. In 2011 the manifesto was revised and a group of design educators and thinkers were invited to comment on the new manifest. David Sless was one of those. His reflections are reproduced below.

Iam uneasy about manifestos. I am also mindful of the violence implicit in many political manifestoes, as astutely observed by Walter Benjamin:

There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.(Illuminations, p 248)

Benjamin suggests that the grand words used to write a manifesto for a new civilisation inevitably do violence to the existing civilisation or to those who question the manifesto’s legitimacy.

The potential violence I see in this document is twofold: to the well-established craft skills and tradition within graphic design, and to the cumulative body of research and practice which is ignored as the new order in the manifesto replaces the old.

There is the danger that the old crafts will be displaced in the new curriculum by new demands. Make no mistake, the transition from Graphic Design to Visual Communication will place enormous demands on students and teachers alike; and the danger that the manifesto will remove the obligation to scrutinise the earlier work, which offers findings and insights that could save needless reinvention in the new manifesto’s ‘future’.

Some of us have been travelling this new route pedagogically and professionally for nearly 50 years. For example, in the mid-sixties I and colleagues set up a new type of graphic design course called Visual Communication (Sless 1996) for many of the reasons stated in the manifesto. We developed many aspects of this new approach for pedagogy(Sless 1981), and subsequently for professional design practice (Sless 1998).
Though I cite my own work above, the pedagogy and practice were developed collaboratively. Institutions such as the International Institute of Information Design and journals including Visible Language and Information Design Journal were at the forefront in encouraging and participating in our efforts.

I will summarise what we discovered.


Introducing the term communication to graphic design discourse proved formidable. First, ‘communication’ is problematic, philosophically and empirically: what it is, how its effect is measured, or how one might value its contribution to public and private life (see Sless 1991, Sless & Shrensky 1995). Second, moving from a definition of design as a craft of making things to one of actively engaging in the social, economic, and political life of a society involved formulating the critical criteria by which designs could be judged. No longer were the craft criteria such as fine typography and aesthetics an adequate basis for judging the quality and value of a work. New criteria such as communication effectiveness, social responsibility and ideology had to be created, debated and accepted before they could be used to inform pedagogy and practice.

Effectiveness and evidence

Once we move from the design itself—its style and beauty—to its performance in the social world it becomes necessary to ask how we judge its effectiveness in achieving its social purpose. The primary insight of those of us who have asked this question, whether working on documents, websites, wayfinding systems, forms, diagrams, or advertising, is that we cannot rely on our professional judgement alone as a measure of effectiveness. We have to collaborate with the potential end-users of our designs by testing and refining the designs till we have gathered evidence that they effectively achieve their purpose.

Critically, we have moved from a practice based on judgements made exclusively in the studio and clients’ offices to an evidence-based practice based on work conducted outside. The implications of this move for both teaching and practice are profound. Many designers are reluctant to make the shift from designer as heroic figure in the cultural landscape to designer as evidence-based professional. New skills have to be learnt and practiced, creativity needs to be augmented with the disciplines of evidence, and new tasks have to be undertaken to take a brief from start to finish.

Design process

These new tasks led us to ask about the stages we should take a design through, in order to arrive at an acceptable outcome. In the mid-1980s my colleagues and I at the Communication Research Institute began conducting research into possible processes, and in 1990 we published the first of many case histories and papers describing this work and its findings (Fisher and Sless 1990).
Our cumulative findings, and findings of other design methods researchers, suggest that there is at least one optimised process that can lead to successful outcomes (illustrated below).It may not be the only process, but having used it successfully for two hundred-plus projects over twenty years, , we are confident that it is broadly applicable as a mature and proven process. (See Experiences in Co-designing for a description of each stage of this process.)


I will leave you with a few significant findings from the research:

  • Much of what is taught currently in graphic design courses prepares student to do about half of what has to done in prototyping and about a third of what has to be done in implementing. The other tasks in the process are superficially touched upon.
  • The missing skill in prototyping is writing. Research clearly shows that successful communication is a mixture of graphics and words (Schriver 1997). Most graphic design students do not gain professional writing and editing skills as a normal part of their training.
  • The missing skill in implementing is creating customised output systems. Design students are still trained to develop single designs for mass production, whereas organisations are increasingly calling for rules for implementing systems where every individual receives a customised item..
  • The amount of effort engaged in carrying out all these stages to a successful outcome is 50% of the effort, of which prototyping is seldom more than 10%. The remaining 50%, not shown on the above diagram, is the political management of all interested participants.

Thus the transition from graphic design to visual communication involves a radical, painful and expensive change to the curriculum. Less than 10% of the content of the so-called new is currently being taught. Where is the remaining 90%-plus going to come from?


Ahn S & Poggenpohl S 2002
Between word and deed: The Design Education Manifesto
Design Issues
Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 46-56 Spring, 2002

Fisher P & Sless D 1990
Improving information management in the insurance industry
Information Design Journal 6 (2) 103-29

Benjamin W 1992
Edited by Hannah Arendt, Translated by Harry Zohn, Glasgow: Fontana

Schriver K 1997
Dynamics in document design: Creating text for readers
New York: John Wiley & Sons

Sless D & Shrensky R 1995
The boundary of communication

Sless D 1981
Learning and visual communication
London: Croom Helm

Sless D 1991
Communication and certainty
Australian Journal of Communication 18 (3) 19-31

Sless D 1996
Early travels in information design
Information Design Journal 4 (2) 172-73

Sless D 1998
Transitions in information design