Unlocking Parallel Practices
in Graphic Design.

Thesis Overview
Explore Gallery
Interactive Zine

Emma Shipley, MFA Thesis
ArtCenter College of Design
Spring 2023

An overview of the background, research, and execution for the project →

The term vernacular refers to the native dialect of a place. It is considered a mode of expression as opposed to formal speech. But, at its core, it is a form of language. If we extrapolate that to graphic design, vernacular becomes a form of design language. And, like language, it is often specifically tied to the place in which it exists and the individuals who reside there. In the world of graphic design, the concept of the vernacular has been long-debated. It is polarizing, particularly as it has come to represent the work that exists outside of the orthodoxy—or work created by practitioners without formal training in graphic design. It is either romanticized or ridiculed, becoming a way to distinguish who is part of our world and who is not.

We find vernacular influences throughout graphic design history, more often than not appearing at times of great technological change. A fierce dialogue around the vernacular erupted in the early 1990s with the introduction of the personal computer. The field of graphic design was changing, and many jobs would soon be lost to automation. In response, the use of vernacular source material skyrocketed. For some, it took on a romanticized view of the past, of simpler times—hand painted signage, intricate illustrations, and ornamentation. A reaction to the impending shift towards digital tools and technologies. For others, it was a rejection of high culture—of the corporatization and capitalization of traditional design work. Throughout, the designer was often positioned above the so-called vernacular practitioner.

Designer and educator Ellen Lupton was part of the conversation in the ‘90s and a vocal critic of the nonchalant use of the vernacular without regard to its origins. In my conversation with her in November, she argued, “One of the dangers of the term ‘vernacular’ is the ‘us versus them’ formulation that arises—us as the ‘professional designers’ and [those] who aren’t. This establishes a very small core against which infinite other kinds of practices might be excluded.”

My personal interest in vernacular design coincided with the start of my graduate education in Los Angeles. In school, I was assimilating into the academy of graphic design, learning how to implement structure and organization. But, as I underwent this rapid transition into the orthodoxy of the field, I was struck by the contrast between my studies and my physical environment outside of school walls. Los Angeles is a playground for vernacular design—a vibrant mix of styles and cultures—representing the chronicles of the city. I fell in love with the eclectic strip mall signage and the colorful storytelling of murals. In conversations with industry professionals and my classmates alike, I found that I was not alone in this growing desire for inspiration outside of normative graphic design.

Today, we are yet again undergoing a period of massive technological change, and the global pandemic has accelerated the shift from physical to digital. In the era of Zoom, so much of our work lives on the screen—our projects starting and ending with a digitized slide deck. A refreshed brand of corporate modernism has championed the user experience, creating an endless stream of products that are crisp, clean, and considered. Although the resulting work is beautiful, there is little room for spontaneity, constraining the creative process and removing the opportunity to learn from mistakes. Additionally, we are watching the innovation and advancement of Artificial Intelligence unfold before our eyes—each week presents a new discovery, a new tool, a new technology.

Perhaps in reaction, my thesis research began to explore the ways in which vernacular methods might inform my graphic design process. I started with extensive documentation of the signage that surrounded me, mapping out and photographing countless examples in my neighborhood of Highland Park. Additionally, I recruited my cohort and family for a series of analog experiments, all which required creating under constraints. The results were illuminating, shining light on the struggle of the designer. So many of us desire to create good work—perfect work—and in doing so we are crippled, prevented from making freely without judgment or scrutiny. It is no surprise, then, that so many of us are drawn to the vernacular designs of our environment.

Louise Sandhaus, designer and educator, commented on the energy that comes from vernacular works. “There is the sense that the creator got caught in a space of making something where they were not worried if it belonged to the moment or looked appropriate. Instead of pulling something off the shelf that looks ‘proper’ or like graphic design, they just made it the way they wanted.”

It was here that my thesis exploration began to shift towards a deeper examination of my own process: how can I, a designer, balance the structure of my education with the spontaneity that comes from the outside world? What might happen if I embrace iterative practice above perfection, releasing myself from the confines of an unachievable goal? How can I turn towards new technologies as a tool for discovery and growth instead of fearing them? When I expand my practice beyond the bounds of what has traditionally been considered “right,” what might I find?

As I continue to grapple with these questions, I am embracing the tension presented by this contrast between cleanliness and chaos, exploring what can be produced from this dichotomy. Through my studies, I’ve played with different methodologies to push myself. Starting with the word “gridlock,” set simply in Helvetica, I iterated extensively, producing over 500 different variations of the design. The results were not all beautiful—some were not “good” at all—but it challenged me to close my screen and create without the pressure of producing a polished final result.

Additionally, I began to explore the ways in which I could lean towards new tech like artificial intelligence, especially as it relates to the vernacular designs I had come to love. Using Dall-E and MidJourney, I input both image and written prompt to see how the machines might interpret vernacular signage in Los Angeles. Interestingly enough, my experimentation led me towards a new vernacular—that of the machine. Although these tools are rapidly advancing, they still have the potential to make mistakes. Currently, the machines are incapable of reproducing language accurately on a regular basis. The resulting interpretations are both comical and uncanny—close enough to the real thing that, when mixed amongst the real signage, blend right in. What was most interesting was how the tools advanced over the course of my six-week study. The more I used them the more precise they became, and their overall portrayal of vernacular signage in Los Angeles was eerily accurate.

While both of these studies were more reflective of my own process, I was still interested in representing the impact that traditional design can have on the built world. My thesis installation aims to present this in a spatial way. To do so, I stripped the existing typography and color from a series of storefronts in my neighborhood, replacing them with a uniform identity— typeset simply in black and white Helvetica. As the user interacts with the piece, moving along the street, the eclectic facades shine through, showcasing what is lost when we try to impose our own aesthetic values within a space.

My goal with this project is not to upend all structure and organization within our work but instead to encourage dialogue between designers around embracing imperfect exploration as a healthy tool. We can build upon the rigorous foundations which shape graphic design while breaking free from stifling rigidity in our practice. Vernacular design and traditional design—while seemingly adversarial—can exist together within our field, allowing us to embrace change rather than reject it.