Communicating Expertise

Insights from Doing Graphic Design for Experts

A piece of graphic design created by Nguyen Gobber

When asked about what we are doing at Nguyen Gobber, we always answer something like: “We are a graphic design practice that helps people who need a compelling appearance for their knowledge and ideas.” A more straightforward term for those folks, of whom the knowledge and ideas are worthwhile to be communicated, would probably be “experts”. So, if you want to boil our answer down to the shortest possible version, it would be as follows: “We help to communicate expertise.” And we do so because expertise does not matter too much if you are not able to communicate it properly. There is no meaningful impact to be expected if nobody takes notice of your skills and knowledge and gets access to your insights.

In our practice, we had the chance to gain some insights into how one can communicate expertise best, and, in the spirit of the statement above, we want to share it. Drawing from our own experience in doing graphic design for academic and cultural experts, we can point to a few aspects worth considering, no matter what type or concrete instance of expertise you want to communicate. Although our studio works in the field of visual communication, we are convinced that the following points can also be applied to other types of communication as long as they remain unidirectional, meaning that there is no back and forth, no opportunity to respond and clarify.

Just like in any other endeavour, one of the first things to do is to get a basic understanding of the situation you are dealing with. In our case, we need to clarify what expertise really means so we know what exactly we should be communicating. Expertise can be understood as what distinguishes an expert from a novice. This does not tell us too much, though. So we might want to ask further what it actually takes to call someone an expert then? If you open a dictionary, you will read that an expert is a person who represents “mastery of a particular subject”, “someone with special knowledge and skill in a particular domain”, or that an expert is “somebody who has a broad and deep competence […] in a particular field”. No matter the phrasing, it is the surplus of knowledge and skill that makes someone an expert and which you, therefore, call “expertise”. It is worth noting, though, that in practice we tend to only call someone an expert if it is not just a slight but a significant surplus of knowledge and skill.

If it is common knowledge or expertise depends on the context.

What we like to point out, though, is that all of these definitions imply relativity. Expertise is determined by comparison and therefore the reference group matters. Depending on the reference group you consider, the person with a significant surplus in knowledge and skill in a given subject might change. A primary school teacher might be the expert in maths within the class they are teaching but not at an international conference about advanced mathematics. This relativity of expertise implies not only that the role of the expert may wander but also that the threshold which differentiates common knowledge from expertise can change depending on the context. This has consequences for the communication of expertise as well. For graphic designers, it goes without saying that visual communication needs to be tailored to the target audience in mind. When dealing with expertise, the communication additionally has to be adjusted according to the reference group within which something may or may not be recognised as expertise.

Communicating expertise, especially when looking at visual communication as we do here, is not limited to designing visual aids that help to explain a subject, such as an infographic, a book, an exhibition, and so forth. In fact, a lot of visual communication of expertise must have inevitably already happened before these kinds of visual explanations even become relevant. It is the kind of visual communication that signals expertise and thereby guides the interested. Just think about it: Before you go to a conference, you spot the poster about it. Before you buy a book, you look at its cover. Before you consider hiring a professional consultant, you visit the website of said expert to learn about them. Consciously navigating to a source of expertise is only possible if you are literally looking for it. Hence, carefully designing what one will be looking at is crucial. If the first contact point does not clearly signal expertise, the onlooker will not know that they have just stumbled upon a trace that eventually leads them to the source of expertise they were searching for.

Wir Sind So Frei!, FHNW, 2019

Now, expertise does not have a colour, shape, or specified dimension. However, there are different kinds of associations that go along with experiencing expertise. In our design, we try to evoke these associations so the visual communication is consistent with what it refers to. Some of these associations are rather general like expertise usually perceived as of high value. This subsequently means that in most cases the visual communication of expertise will not appear inferior, which is why you probably will not find a PhD thesis published as a stapled booklet. There are not so many general signifiers of expertise we can rely on, though. In many cases, we need to take our time to get a better understanding of the subject matter so we can determine fitting signifiers of the concrete instance of expertise at hand. Our poster for the FHNW lecture series about the problems of the proclamation “Wir Sind So Frei!” (German for: “We are so free!”) could be an example of such a contextual signifier. We playfully explored the spatial and grammatical limits of “freely” rearranging the words which form the conference title. This way, the design itself visualises the debated problem and thereby references the critical thinking that recognises this issue and the enhanced self-reflective capabilities which the invited experts – most of which were from the philosophical domain – were known for. Determining such more contextual signifiers of expertise and incorporating them into the design are especially rewarding as they are also the ones that are the most convincing.

Once the interested are guided to the source of expertise they were looking for, it is time to create a communication that facilitates the transfer of knowledge. Expert knowledge is usually complicated enough on its own. Therefore, its communication needs to be as clear and easy to follow as possible, while not getting too boring and dull to look at. Unfortunately, we often witness how accessing knowledge is hindered by poor graphic design. There is an argument to be made that, especially in the scientific domain (and here most of all in natural sciences), the perceived complexity does not stem from the subject matter but from the terrible visual communication that makes the presented knowledge unnecessarily inaccessible. If the compositions are chaotic; gestalt principles are disregarded; visual hierarchies are unclear; every corner is plastered with visual clutter as if designing a layout is a game of Tetris; and so on; then the onlooker is occupied with making sense of the visual mess instead of learning about the subject which should have been communicated. Obviously, such design mistakes are often the result of layperson at work, so we do not want to judge their efforts too harshly.

The last thing we want to mention as something we have experienced as helpful when communicating expertise is to apply one of the most well-known writing techniques to the domain of visual communication, namely “Show Don’t Tell”. It is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through actions rather than through the author's description. So, instead of simply writing that the hero is brave, this technique would suggest demonstrating it by telling the story of how the hero faced the dragon while everyone else was running away. In our context, this technique basically says that one should not just claim expertise but prove it.

An der Grenze der Lesbarkeit, FHNW, 2016
Spread showing gradual steps towards unreadability through distortion
Spread showing different ways towards unreadability

In “An der Grenze der Lesbarkeit”, the knowledge of the borders of readability and the potential quality in design one can achieve by working at its fringes is not only described in written form but also demonstrated in numerous visualisations throughout the publication. Even before the onlooker opens one of the two books to read and learn about this topic, they can witness the expertise in action when looking at the cover design. The title got split into multiple syllables and playfully spread across the spines of both books. This work at the borders of readability effectively brings about an appealing cover design and thereby proves the expertise the reader can expect to learn from when reading the book. While this example shows how beneficial it is to not only claim but prove expertise, it also needs to be mentioned that on some occasions this is not possible. Sometimes the medium one is using for the communication simply does not allow to demonstrate the type of expertise one is dealing with.

To conclude, we can summarize our gained insights by reformulating them as the questions we have learned to ask ourselves whenever we need to communicate expertise: What exactly counts as expertise in this specific context and therefore needs to be communicated? How can we authentically signal said expertise to guide the interested to the source? How can we achieve the necessary visual clarity to make expert knowledge accessible without looking dull? And last but not least: How can we prove the expertise within the medium at hand rather than just putting some claims out there that potentially appear untrustworthy? Those are the key questions to find answers to when communicating expertise.

last updated: 05-07-21

A School’s History Reflected in Design

The Basel School of Design Campaigns 2019/2020

A piece of graphic design created by Nguyen Gobber

In 2019, the Visual Communication Institute of the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel commissioned the conception and design of a campaign. The goal was to generate more interest for both of the postgraduate programmes offered at the institute. One of them is the Master of Arts in Visual Communication and Iconic Research, which connects the practical knowledge and methodology of visual communication with the scientific domain by developing new approaches in image research. It is the only Swiss programme in the field of design that allows a further continuation of the students academic career within the context of a PhD programme. The other postgraduate programme is the International Master of Design UIC/HGK, mostly referred to as MDes. It is a collaboration between the Visual Communication Institute in Basel and the University of Illinois in Chicago. This gives students of MDes the unique opportunity to graduate with an internationally accredited Master of Design from UIC and the Swiss equivalent, a Master of Arts. Both of these programmes share the same heritage as they evolved from the renowned Basel School of Design. For that reason, the institute decided to choose the title “The Basel School of Design” for the campaign. This emphasises a very specific design tradition born in the late 1960s in Basel, which was also one of the main points of reference for the conception of the campaign design. So, what exactly is this design tradition?

Building of the Basel School of Design at Vogelsangstrasse, Source: Wikipedia

Back in 1968, Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder conceived a postgraduate programme at the Basel School of Design, the Weiterbildungsklasse für Grafik / Advanced Class for Graphic Design. This offered an intensive study of design principles and a very influential, form-related design methodology. The programme attracted students from all over the world and became an outstanding model for a modernist design education. The designs developed at the school were the results of a very process-oriented approach in which many variations are created and thoughtfully compared with each other. After sequentially improving said variations, the final design oftentimes featured a very clear formal expression of an underlying idea combined with a reduced colour scheme and matter-of-fact typography. This style in design, which is now referred to as “Swiss Style”, would become world-famous and so influential that iconic pieces of graphic design such as the wayfinding system of the New York Subway or the corporate design of Lufthansa are in many ways shaped by it. While this influential “Swiss Style” certainly was not solely created by a handful of people in a small Swiss town, many experts would still point to the Basel School of Design and the designers associated with the programme when asked about its birthplace.

First sketches with circles

The first designs developed for the campaign tried to play with the idea of those extensive variations typical in the design process taught at the Basel School of Design, by experimenting with one, if not the most, basic shape, a circle. Such a series of slight or more drastic formal variations was not only typical of the Basel School of Design back in the late 60s and 70s but is also one of the preserved traditions in today’s postgraduate programmes offered at the academy. The variations alone seemed a bit too arbitrary for the intended campaign design, which is why Prof. Michael Renner, who was involved from the commissioner’s side, proposed to create variations of visualisation for the idea of friction. While “friction” is still a bit of an abstract term to base the design on, it is certainly pointing towards some crucial aspects of the history and development of the Basel School of Design. While Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder taught design very much according to modernist standards, a later protagonist of the Basel School, Wolfgang Weingart, popularised a different take on graphic design, specifically in regards to typographic treatment. It was an incident of friction between an established approach and a new way, which would later be described as New Wave or Swiss Punk Typography. In many ways, Wolfgang Weingart broke with the preceding modernist understanding of design and implemented a postmodern approach. The idea of “good” (typographic) design shifted, while the strong focus on the formal qualities and a design process that involves an abundance of variations was maintained. Later, when Prof. Renner took over the direction he was involved in transforming the programme into an academic degree course, the Master of Arts in Visual Communication and Iconic Research. By doing so, he again caused an incident of friction as he transformed the form-focused programme into a more intellectual study of imagery with the ambition to use the methodology of the Basel School of Design as a tool for scientific research.

Poster for Gewerbemuseum Basel, 1963 by Emil Ruder, Source: eMuseum
Poster for Kunsthalle Basel, 1977 by Wolfgang Weingart, Source: eMuseum
Book “What Images Do”, co-published 2019 by Prof. Michael Renner, Source: HGK FHNW

In addition to referencing the variations-driven design process of the Basel School of Design, the theme of friction became relevant to the campaign design. Different notions of friction were defined as points of orientation, and multiple series of abstract, geometric illustrations were then developed to visualise the different facets of friction. While the output was rich in formal variations, the colours were reduced to greyscale to reflect the iconic style of the Basel School. 

Various illustrations of “friction”

The designs were then combined in a composition to be used as the key visual for the main component of the 2019s campaign, a foldable poster that was sent to different academic art and design institutes. The design features a rigid layout in which the various visualisations of friction were placed. On the back of the poster, information on the Basel School of Design and both of the postgraduate programmes were set within the same grid system. The foldable poster was printed with silver instead of grey, which led to a very specific visual quality that is unfortunately mostly lost in the digital reproduction of the prints. Apart from this centrepiece of the campaign, many further applications such as an animation, graphics for social media, and printed advertisements were designed. The effort proved to be worth it as the campaign successfully increased the number of applicants for that year. 

Front side of the poster for the 2019's campaign
Back side of the poster for the 2019's campaign
A piece of graphic design created by Nguyen Gobber
Advertisement designed for It’s Nice That
Instagram post SUPSI
Instagram post HGK FHNW
Instagram post ECAL
Instagram post DHBW

For the 2020s edition of the Basel School of Design campaign, the theme of variation was revisited. This time, however, the second theme was the question of visual identity instead of friction, which shifted the focus from a reflection of the historical development of the institute towards its current state. Interestingly, the Visual Communication Institute which is the academic successor of the original Basel School of Design does not have its own visual identity. There is only a corporate design of the FHNW University of Applied Sciences and Arts, of which the Visual Communication Institute is a part. This loss of an independent visual appearance coincides with a broadening of visual styles that are taught and produced at the academy. The key visual reflects this circumstance in a playful way, by showing a rich pool of plausible but also absurd logos. 

Early sketches for the 2020s campaign
Logo variations of “The Basel School of Design / Visual Communication Institute”

The logos are again shown as parts of a series of variations and put together to create the key visual. This time, however, the strict layout and rigid grid were abandoned to create another visual reference to the wild proliferation of styles and design approaches that are now visible at the academy. The reduced colour scheme of only black and white as well as the strict typographic layout on the back side of the poster remained so that the hint towards the roots of the Visual Communication Institute is still given. Just as the year before, many further design applications apart from the poster were produced. Altogether, the 2020s iteration formed a successful continuation of the series of annual campaigns for the Basel School of Design.

Front side of the poster for the 2020's campaign
A piece of graphic design created by Nguyen Gobber
Animation for Instagram

last updated: 23-04-21

Metaphorical Thinking in Poster Design

How a Cognitive Theory Brings About Better Graphic Design

A piece of graphic design created by Nguyen Gobber

Metaphorical thinking or metaphorical concepts are most prominently discussed in the context of political communication. Most often, when you hear about framing an issue in a certain way for political profit, this framing is done with the help of a conceptual metaphor. Depending on your political point of view, you might either describe taxes as a financial burden or a contribution that you give back to the community that helped you grow. Speaking of a “burden” frames taxes as something that is first and foremost (extra) weight you are forced to carry, something that immobilises you to a certain degree. It is the way you talk about something that restricts your freedom, whereas the metaphorical framing of “contribution” shifts the perspective and makes paying taxes appear like a virtue. Either the virtue of helping those in need or the expression of gratitude to the community that allows one to prosper by “giving something back, now that one can do so”. One metaphorical frame is that of carrying weight, the other one is that of keeping a fair balance. It is important to recognise that metaphor is not understood as a mere figure of speech but as a way of conceptualising things. It is not that we are just saying “burden” or “contribution” instead of “tax”. What makes those metaphors so powerful is that they are providing complete conceptual systems that guide our way of thinking about an issue, in this case, taxes. “Burden” might be just one expression, but it activates a whole set of corresponding ideas that include aspects like “weight”, the feeling of being “dragged down” and hindered to “move forward” in the “journey” of life. Thinking of taxes as a burden frames them as negative and something that should be “taken off of our shoulders”. Clever politicians and PR consultants know the power of conceptual metaphors like these very well. They use them in more or less noticeable ways to influence their audience’s opinions. Once you know about these conceptual metaphors, you start noticing them everywhere. Just think about prominent terms and expressions used in today’s political debates. I am sure you have heard of “waves of refugees”, “war on terror”, “climate change”, or others.

Typical illustration of “tax burden”, illustrator unknown

In cognitive sciences, there is the so-called conceptual metaphor theory which tries to explain these kinds of thinking. The theory was first popularised in the late 1980s and has been further developed ever since. In its foundational book “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, the essence of metaphorical thinking is boiled down to “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 5.). Even though the focus was put on political communication so far, the given definition of metaphorical concepts makes it clear that we should be able to find them in other contexts as well. One of the most interesting contexts to look for conceptual metaphors is the domain of graphic design. In numerous cases, understanding the design or at least some parts of it in terms of something else has led to unexpected and truly original designs.

Poster for Filmpodium Zurich by Ralph Schraivogel
Poster Campaign “Curls” for Rowenta by Publicis
Poster for S AM by Claudiabasel

What would happen, for example, if we would conceptualise the poster as a city map? Ralph Schraivogel showed us when he created the poster design “Woody Allen” for Filmpodium Zürich. As Woody Allen was the topic of the advertised event, the reference for his poster design was not just any city but New York City, or more precisely Manhattan. The typography was set along streets, which makes them appear to be street names, while the images were positioned as if they were buildings or possibly parks of the imagined city map. In a campaign designed for Roventa’s new curling iron, the designers of Publicis developed another metaphorical design concept that led to a very creative result. The campaign’s title “Curls” (original title in German is “Locken”) already gives away the point of reference for this original design solution. Instead of coming up with a graphic composition at all, the designers decided to conceptualise the printed matter itself as curly hair for this campaign. Another example to prove the creative potential of metaphorical thinking is given by the visual identity and corresponding poster series for S AM, Swiss Museum of Architecture, designed by Claudiabasel. The typographic composition was set according to the logic of architecture. This means that the most fundamental text got put at the bottom and, with decreasing importance, the remaining text material was built on top of it, just as every building starts with a fundament and ends with the lightest and smallest components on at the very top.

The book “Designing in Metaphors”

As one can see, being aware of the conceptual metaphor theory helps tremendously to identify and describe these kinds of designs. It is safe to assume, though, that in many cases the designers were not aware of the cognitive phenomena that was structuring their ideas. However, what would happen, if one was consciously using the insights of the conceptual metaphor theory to create design concepts? For now, we have just begun to explore its fundamental principle, but the theory has much more to offer and explore in the context of graphic design. The book “Designing in Metaphors” (original title in German is “Gestalten in Metaphern”) offers a deeper insight into this topic and even provides a foolproof method to come up with your own fitting metaphorical design concepts. While it is not possible to squeeze all of the book’s content into these few paragraphs, it might be interesting to present a few results of the design method taught in the book. As proofs of concept, different poster designs were developed for the publication, some of which visualised an early version of the method itself.

Various sketches based on the theme “Step by Step”

One of these designs focussed on the very definition of a method. Depending on the source you are referring to, the phrasing might change, but essentially, a method can be defined as a series of steps to take in order to reach the desired goal. “Proceeding step by step” became the motive of one of the poster designs created with the help of the book’s method. The typographic composition functions as a visual interpretation of “taking steps”. As the final poster design shows, the numbers 1 to 5, which represents the steps taken, do not only lead forward but also upward to an “elevated” result.

Poster design “Step by Step” from “Designing in Metaphors”

Another motive produced with the book’s method was “lighting up” which is a theme often used in representations of coming up with or understanding a (good) idea. Just think about the glowing light bulb used to illustrate just that in children’s cartoons or expressions like “having a bright idea” or “an illuminating talk”. In the context of the poster design, the motive “lighting up” obviously refers to coming up with a metaphorical design concept.

Various sketches based on the theme “Lighting Up”

Many sketches tried to visualise this motive by creating compositions in which a dense, dark structure in one or multiple areas of the format opens up and transitions into white space. In many occasions, this coincided with a playful treatment of contrasts within the poster design. The final design does not only feature lines that represent light rays but also a composition in which said lines are positioned with increasing density from bottom to top. This effectively produces a brightness gradient that dominates the poster design as a whole. In addition to these graphical elements and their composition, the poster was printed on fluorescent paper as a further reference to the motive of “lighting up”.

Poster design “Lighting Up” from “Designing in Metaphors”

Both, the posters of fellow graphic designers mentioned earlier as well as those discussed just before, should showcase the benefits of working with fitting metaphorical design concepts. For sure, the visual interpretation is always bound to the skills of the designer. However, using the method proposed in the book “Designing in Metaphors” or otherwise coming up with an underlying metaphorical concept for the design greatly improves the results as the metaphor guides many of the design decisions. Furthermore, it certainly helps to prevent one of the biggest, and unfortunately quite frequent, problems in contemporary graphic design: The total lack of any kind of underlying idea, which results in arbitrary, decorative graphics, of which the only point of reference were current trends.

When It’s Not the Right Time for Flowers

Art Direction of the Next Generation Campaign 2018

A piece of graphic design created by Nguyen Gobber

Every year the FHNW Academy of Art and Design commissions the “Next Generation” campaign, a year-long series of advertisements for their study programmes, graduates, and various informational events. For each iteration, a new central motif gets chosen. It is the basis for a visually coherent campaign design that needs to be conceived and implemented. In 2018, the annual briefing included keywords such as “encounter”, “exchange”, “network”, and “collaboration” to describe the intended theme of the campaign. Diana Pfammatter was invited to shoot a series of photographs that should become a central visual element of the campaign. She decided to take further keywords as points of orientation for her image series. The words chosen ranged from “authentic”, “self-confident”, “no party, but fun exchange” to “young”, “contemporary”, and “diverse”. With the help of scenographer Hannah Weinberger, a space was created to which students of the graduation year were invited. They should bring flowers and plants to exchange with each other and use the occasion to celebrate with drinks and music. However, the event should first and foremost serve as an ideal setting for Pfammatter to shoot her intended series of photographs.

After the photographs were produced, the task of art directing and designing the campaign was handed over, which meant that critical steps that are usually undertaken in accordance with the designers were already made. The result was a briefing and a series of photographs that were certainly good on their own but did not align and posed a challenge for the design of the campaign. Different people involved in the project pointed at aspects that they found contradicting. Just to name a few of these aspects: The photographs appeared rather clean and staged, which did not fit with the intended authenticity. The intended diversity in the depicted gathering was not achieved as mostly young white women were shown. The gathering itself should not appear as a party, even though it actually was one, which ended up being obvious in most of the photographs. And at last, the decision to incorporate flowers into the party setting led to the impression that the depicted students were celebrating their graduation. While this would perfectly fit for the campaign during the time of graduations, it seemed rather off-topic for other contexts such as information events or open days.

Challenged with the given request of the client on the one side and the image material on the other, a design solution was needed. The first concrete idea was to use a different typeface than Unica77, which is the corporate typeface of the academy, to create a contrast to the photographs. Unica77 is a wonderful typeface on its own, but it has a very clean, modernist aesthetic, which would push the campaign design even further in the opposite direction of “authentic”, “contemporary”, and “diverse”. A few typefaces were sketched to broaden the aesthetic qualities within the campaign design and specifically include more rough and peculiar visuals. This way, the campaign should reflect more strongly the diversity of artistic positions coming together and therefore also turn out to be more authentic.

Typeface sketch I
Typeface sketch II
Some early sketches of the posters

In the face of the approaching deadlines, it simply turned out to be an unattainable goal to properly draw multiple or even just one fitting typeface for the campaign. So this initial approach was dropped in favour of another idea, namely to focus on a composition with a strong typographical arrangement. The photographs should not solely be the main part of the campaign but only one of several components that form together the campaign design. The images and typographical elements were superimposed, nested and interwoven within each other. This way the composition as a whole became a metaphor for the idea of “encounter” and “exchange” as different visual elements were “coming together”.

The campaign exhibited at grafikSCHWEIZ18 in Zurich, 2018

In addition, a new wording was defined to adapt the campaign design for all the different occasions in which it would be used throughout the year. Instead of writing “NEXT” on all different applications, as it has been done in the previous year, the words “OPEN”, “INFO”, and “APPLY” were used for the corresponding occasion. This idea turned out to be particularly helpful in differentiating the various events because it allowed keeping the visual identity consistent. For that reason, this approach was continued in the following years by the other annually changing art directors.

Posters with the wording “NEXT”, “INFO”, and “OPEN”

All things considered, the main challenge of the Next Generation campaign 2018 was the realignment of the key components of the campaign which became necessary due to the late involvement of the designer and therefore the lack of proper art direction from the get-go. However, the partial gap between the goals defined in the initial briefing and the image material that had to be incorporated into the campaign could get resolved by the carefully designed compositions. A closer look into this project reveals that effective art direction is critically facilitated or even made possible at all if the responsible figures are involved at the earliest possible point in time. Despite the challenging circumstances, though, the campaign turned out to reach its goals and attract the attention and interest of the relevant audience.

last updated: 28-06-21

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Gestaltung als Streit

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Vom «Napalm-Mädchen» und Visual Framing

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