Graphic Design and the Research Excellence Framework

Banner image for Graphic Design and REF CHEAD event

This event was reviewed recently by Steve Rigley in Eye Magazine. Read the review here. See the original post about the symposium here.

Graphic Design and the Research Excellence Framework

If you know where to look, graphic design research is thriving (Walker 2014), and in these places, we can glimpse how graphic design contributes to new forms of knowledge and understanding. However, when it comes to institutional mechanisms for measuring research, graphic design is, with a few exceptions, yet to flourish. A report that followed the 2014 UK Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) concluded ‘the intellectual and theoretical underpinning’ of graphic design submissions was ‘generically weak’ and showed little sign of improvement since the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.

So, in advance of REF2021, this symposium will address two questions: 1) How do we foster graphic design research and make it visible within established academic contexts? 2) What can the disciplinary knowledge practices of graphic design research offer established academic contexts?

The objective is to bring senior academics, researchers and graphic design academics together with the ambition to identify the specific challenges facing graphic design research in an academic context and propose ways for its flourishing.


James Corazzo (Sheffield Hallam University)


Situating Graphic Design

Professor Anne Boddington (Kingston University)
What is the role of Graphic Design in the world, what does Graphic Design do and what might this imply for Graphic Design research? This presentation will explore the agency and impact of Graphic Design – its ‘power to act’, how this is reflected or influences the curriculum? Does a shifting, contested nomenclature within the field reflect genuine change or an incremental evolution in the forms of practise and practice, and are these apparent in the ways in which we are learning, teaching, researching and communicating between students and teachers, between Graphic Design’s ‘communities of practice’ and other parts of the academy and its multiple audiences, users and beneficiaries. This may all appear a long way from the perceived structures of Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 or 2027, but the Research Excellence Framework, the Teaching Excellence Framework and the emergent Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) provide clues, not only within their internal structures and regulatory frameworks, but also within their potential relationships to one another and how each might be usefully harnessed as opportunities for development and dialogue rather than as imposed audits that constrain or ‘kill creativity’. The embodied skills and distinctive qualities of design in all fields is to seek out and develop interest, to see not only what has already been made tangible, visible or understandable, but to identify, create or adapt voids, to harness difference and to construct alternative perspectives on the world we think we know and attempting to see through, beyond and around. The presentation aims to create opportunities, spaces and places for conversations and explore the challenges for Graphic Design Education for future generations.


Research time for Graphic Design

James Corazzo (Sheffield Hallam University)

Steve Rigley (Glasgow School of Art)

Dr Robert Harland (Loughborough University)

After nearly five decades of graphic design being taught as a degree subject, and more than two decades in the university sector in the UK, why is the largest subject in art and design struggling to establish a research culture? We have scoured the Research Excellence Framework 2014 (REF2014) submission data to better understand the substance of research submitted to REF2014 in the name of graphic design. The results of this two-year project reveal a lack of definition and confusion in a paltry submission. The findings are challenging not only for a community of graphic design educators in higher education, but also for the management structures that have been welcoming of increased student numbers in graphic design but reluctant to reinvest the proceeds and nourish a research culture in graphic design. This calls not only for change in graphic design culture to improve its research standing, but also for change in higher education management attitudes towards graphic design scholarship.


Producing Knowledge with Billboards

Dr Rebecca Ross (Central Saint Martins)

This presentation approaches recent debates regarding graphic design and research through the lens of my own project. London is Changing, was staged online and on large-scale networked digital billboards in Central London during 2015. It engaged the participation of more than 5,000 Londoners in a discussion about the future of the city. Reflection on the significance and outcomes of London is Changing, in particular why it is so difficult to frame as research, provides the basis for a broader reconsideration of the definition and valuation of graphic design research. One key question is whether it is productive for graphic design, a discipline that can arguably be defined by its experimental approach to publishing, to focus on conventional or externally prescribed forms of scholarly publishing in attempting to strengthen its position as a field of research?


Observations on ghosts, marshmallow men, fur balls – and graphic design research
Paul Bailey (London College of Communication)

In an attempt to assign a bodily mass to the practice of graphic design, Andrew Blauvelt referred to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (of Ghostbusters fame), for its ‘bloated, not so nimble and maybe even menacing’ disposition. Stuart Bailey tells us that ‘graphic design only exists when other subjects exist first’ and proposes we consider it a ‘ghost’ discipline ‘… both a grey area and a meeting point—a contradiction in terms—or a node made visible only by plotting it through the lines of connections’. This presentation is an exercise in observation upon the manifold perspectives, metaphors, definitions and contradictions that are prevalent in the drive to advance, mature, or perhaps simply grasp, the requirements and potential of graphic design, and its place as/in/through research.


Finding the doorway to Narnia: A research journey and other stories

Dr Alison Barnes (London College of Communication)

It’s easy to suggest many reasons why graphic design research struggles to achieve visibility or credence within Higher Education and the REF. In academic terms the subject of graphic design is youthful, with few journals of note; it is primarily situated in a vocational context within a service industry that is overwhelmingly driven by consumerism; undergraduate employability rates and NSS scores drive the management of many institutions; our weekly teaching hours are relatively high; and, for many, the perception is that ‘Research’ is not part of the ‘real’ job. It is no wonder that the odds seem stacked against us.

Yet, as we all know, there is much more to graphic design than the superficial ‘eye candy’ books held in the graphic design sections of our libraries. However, perhaps what we are often unsure of is how to frame graphic design within a ‘Research’ context. Being able to play a game by the right rules or speak the right language is critical if we are to be taken seriously. Drawing on my own experience of teaching and practice-led research this paper suggests ways in which graphic design research might become more visible in academic contexts and how we might contribute to research territories beyond those of our own subject.