What is ‘experimentation’?

Towards the end of the Research & Enquiry module you will need to start thinking about your methodology – this is the way that you conduct research, find ideas, interpret sources and images, and respond to your research findings. Part of your practical methodology is usually ‘experimentation’, but this is a difficult word to define. Peter Bil’ak has written an essay on Typotheque which queries the use of the term ‘experiment’ and tries to decipher its meaning for design practice.

Bil’ak writes that the term ‘experiment’ is used ‘to signify anything new, unconventional, defying easy categorization, or confounding expectations’. Importantly, this definition covers not only things that are new for the design world as a whole, but also in your own practice. Experimentation is about giving yourself new experiences; trying something that you haven’t tried before.

He also notes that ‘as a verb, ‘to experiment’ is often synonymous with the design process itself’. Your experiment is not just your outcome, but also your method. It is the way in which you find new ideas, as well as the way that those ideas are expressed in your outcome.

Most importantly, an ‘experimental’ design is valuable for what it teaches you (or your audience). For many designers, this means that the outcome of an experiment doesn’t need to look perfect, so long as it has taught you something valuable. As an MA student, you should be able to articulate the value of your experiments; to identify what you have learnt, with the aim of informing your future projects.



Is illustration too style-led?

Re-blogged from Josh Murr’s ‘Writing and Research‘ (with some minor amendments). Murr proposes that, unlike graphic design, which has eras and movements that can be defined according to a set of values and concepts, illustration is led primarily by style. Does that mean that illustration is, by nature, a superficial practice?

“Illustration and style are things which go hand in hand. In Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast’s book ‘Illustration – A Visual History’ they have categorised all the illustrations in the book into two main categories, Style and Form. They then go on to say, in the preface, that:

‘Style… is chronological insofar as most cultural styles, being markers of particular times and places, signal particular periods.’

Style has a lifespan which eventually dies out in place of the next. This is not a bad thing and the design world may become quite bland if it wasn’t the case, but I think the problem for Illustration is that it too style led, and this in turn impedes it’s development critically.

Luke Best (Peepshow Collective), editorial illustration for the FT book review
Luke Best (Peepshow Collective), editorial illustration for the FT book review

Style and limited growth I think are exemplified in the recent insurgence of illustration collectives such as Peepshow Collective and Puck Collective and illustration specific publishers such as Nobrow. Early on these were hailed as a great thing; celebrating illustration like never before and providing a platform for illustrators to come together and seek strength in numbers and to produce work of their own without being ‘tainted by commercial impurities’ (Chwast, 2008, p.9). On paper this sounds like a great thing; for a serious illustrator, creating personal work is a very important thing. But a short browse in the Nobrow shop and you will see that this wonderful opportunity is going to waste.

Illustrators are using the opportunity to produce entirely style led pieces of work. Short comics in a child-like hand drawn style are in abundance and every single one seems to be the same. The books made up of pretty image after pretty image with a simple joke thrown in here and there – the simple style isn’t a gateway to let the strong narrative, or deeper meaning shine through. It is purely a single facet, a layer of prettiness printed nicely on lovely paper.”

Chwast, Seymour (2008), Illustration: A Visual History, New York: Abrams.


Drawing Lives – Reportage At Work

This post is an example of how you might write an entry for your annotated bibliography:

In Drawing Lives (Midgeley, 2010), Julia Midgeley explores how drawing is still in active use as a way of recording the work of other professions. She describes, for example, the practice of artists’ in residence at archeological sites. Midgeley writes mostly from her perspective as a practitioner, making personal observations throughout. She makes particularly interesting observations about the relationship between artists and surgeons, noting that she has encountered a range of people working in hospitals who, formally or informally, draw the medical activities that take place around them. Archaeologists too, she notes, are drawers, as part of their role is to map the location of the artefacts that they find, before they are removed from the trenches. Midgeley makes distinctions between the “fly-on-the wall” drawings produced by reportage illustrators, illustrating archaeologists at work, and the “forensic” drawings produced by the archaeologists themselves.

Forensic drawing of a trench by the archeologist Julian Thomas.
The same trench, with Julian Thomas working on it, observed by reportage illustrator Julia Midgeley.

Midgeley, J. (2010), “Drawing Lives – Reportage at Work”, Studies in Material Thinking, Vol. 4.

Excellent blog on wayfinding and traffic typefaces

I have just discovered this excellent blog by type-designer Ralf Hermann who investigates typography for wayfinding, maps, and roadsigns. The site includes details of some very useful studies on legibility (particularly the legibility of signs viewed from a distance), and some fascinating studies on how we read maps and signage. He also has a section which addresses typography in general. Some highlights from the site include:

From Signs to Minds

Does a large x-height make a font more legible?

Hermann’s website is also a very good example of an academic blog, in that it has a variety of posts including quick posts which identify interesting examples that he has stumbled upon, like this urban calligraphy, summaries of other people’s research, historical investigations like this like this post on legibility for children, and reports from his trips to galleries and museums, like this trip to Jan Tschichold’s archives.


For those of you who are interested in maps (or wayfinding and information graphics in general), it’s worth viewing this TED Talk which Hermann has also posted on his blog:

Ideas for your first blog post

Are you short of ideas for your first blog post? Here are some things you might like to do…

  • Investigate a designer or illustrator, post some images of their work alongside commentary about the main achievements of their work.
  • Re-post an image that you have seen on Pinterest, along with your own short analysis.
  • Find an interview with a designer/illustrator who you admire. Post the most interesting quotes from that interview and write a little about what you have learned from them.
  • Experiment with new materials, and post the result of those experiments with some description of what you discovered, and how you might apply your new skills in the future.
  • Extract a quote from an article and analyse it.
  • Extract a quote from an article and show how it is applicable to a particular image.

In all cases, try to ask questions that can be addressed/answered in later posts. This will help you keep momentum on your research journey. some questions to ask could be…

  • How does this theory apply to my own work?
  • What other artists/designers work in this way, and how are their works similar/different?
  • Do other writers agree or disagree with this issue? Are there alternative perspectives?


This blog will accompany the Research & Enquiry module for Semester A 2017/18. It will gather posts from other blogs and websites, and thereby act as a guide for students as to the kind of content that should appear on your own blogs, while also keeping you informed about some of the discussions that surround your disciplines of graphic design and illustration.

As in your own blogs, posts are likely to include:

  • reflection and criticism of artists’ and designers’ own practical work
  • responses to current trends and practices
  • contextualisation of practice (linking theory and practice)
  • responses to reading
  • responses to recent events and technologies, from the perspective of art & design disciplines.

DDes Doctorate in Design

Are you considering further research or study after you have completed your MA? If so, there are two possible routes available: a PhD or a DDes. A PhD (doctor of philosophy) culminates in a written thesis, whereas a DDes (doctor of design) culminates in a thesis and practical project. The emphasis of the DDes is on creating practical work that has research value: that is, designed artefacts which reveal or demonstrate new insights into design practices, processes, or traditions. We have, for example, one DDes student who is currently engaged in developing a new visual language for use in online multi-cultural and multi-lingual environments, and another student who will be exploring how cursive script can be treated in kinetic typography.

The DDes is a more structured programme than a PhD. Like a PhD, the topic of each student’s research is defined by his/her interests. Unlike a PhD, it contains a structured learning path, with various activities designed to help students understand research methods. Students based locally can attend their private tutorials on campus at the University of Hertfordshire, and those based overseas or in other parts of the UK can choose to hold tutorials via Skype. All students have 2 or 3 individual tutors assigned according to their specialisms to supervise their research project. Students are typically able to request a particular supervisor, provided he/she has appropriate experience at doctoral supervision.

If you are interested, you can reach me at: b.k.1.brownie@herts.ac.uk