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  • Writer's pictureAshley Ehman

Week 1 - What is Graphic Design, anyways?

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? I've finally started my MA in Graphic Design through Falmouth University and after a seven-hour visit to the Emergency Room to kick off the first day of class, I'm ready to dive in!


Lecture Reflection

As part of the coursework for this week, we were asked to explore and review a handful of case studies that centered around individual design practices. With each interview that I watched, there was one question that kept going through my mind: What is Graphic Design?

According to the Oxford dictionary, graphic design is "the art or skill of combining text and pictures in advertisements, magazines, or books." - yawn - Each designer interviewed had their own definition of what design was, which leads me to believe that design itself is what YOU make of it!

The definition of design that I most resonated with came from Sam Winston.

"Design is a verb, not a noun" (Winston, n.d.)

When he said this, I had to rewind the video. It was so simple, yet so profound. So many people are quick to assume that design is a thing, and rightly so. In many ways, it is. When you put together a poster design, the poster itself is a thing. However, with Sam's take on design, the focus shifts from the final product to the act of designing itself. It's an action, something you do. It can take many different shapes and skew off in any multitude of directions. Well done design lives and breathes as an extension of the designer.

The other aspects of Sam's definition of design that spoke to me were the idea that design is a question. It can be interpreted in a variety of ways, as well as answered differently from one designer to the next. I suppose that's why this week's theme lends itself to perspectives, isn't it? We all come from different areas of the globe, have different life experiences to pull upon, and our own cultural lens to view the world through. What we create can take on a life of its own through the inner-workings of our own lives.


Resource Reflection

As I dove even further into the course load for the week, I found myself running into the same variety of definitions when it came to what made a graphic design studio truly effective. Prior to reading, watching, and viewing the resources, my vision of a graphic studio would've been simplistic in nature. I imagined some sort of large table for planning and crafting. There would definitely be some sort of comfortable workspace area or lounge. To me, the studio very much evolved from a sort of store-front property. It would have a door with a bell that rang when you entered, and large glass windows at the front to see out onto the street in front of you. Beyond that, I saw individual workspaces, with the higher up people having offices with doors. They weren't always closed in my mind, but they were there if that level of privacy was wanted.

After properly investigating the resource materials, I realized a few things:

  1. There was definitely not one right way to set up a studio.

  2. There are three key things that influence a design studio.

  3. Humor is an unsung resource.

My first learning point was well illustrated in the contrast seen between the way Otl Aicher and Massimo Vignelli arranged their studios. Aicher opted for an open-door plan, quite literally. He had no doors! His studio's interior allowed for maximum collaboration as everyone knew what was going on in everyone else's work. This was said to keep the ideas flowing. Vignelli, on the other hand, opted for separate offices and cubicles. His design was clean and crisp. This seemed to allow individual designers to flourish in their spaces. It's not to say one system was better than the other, just that they came with their own sets of pros and cons.

My second realization came when the resources covered the idea that a studio is made up of three key components:

  • The Real Estate

  • The People

  • The Creativity

The real estate aspect was definitely the one I least expected. It made a lot of sense that studios were greatly influenced by their geographic location, but prior to this week, I hadn't put much thought into it. Paula Scher was a great example of this. She said on multiple occasions, if she wasn't in New York City, she would run out of ideas! The hustling energy, constant bombardment of advertisements, and various people that live there inspire her to create. As Massimo Vignelli puts it,

"Creativity makes the world better" (Indaba 2014).

The people aspect of things was easily the most familiar. People like being praised and knowing that their work is being appreciated. They create best when they're trusted in their position and left to their own devices, while still feeling supported. Naturally, talents such as these should come with a salary to match and work that's worth working on!

The third piece that goes into making a great studio was the creativity. This also ties into my last realization. Of course, a creative field would require creativity. However, I was surprised when humor was named the unsung resource in studio life. While not immediately realized, it makes sense! Humor can bring people together, it can relax, and it can inspire. Working in an environment that welcomes a bit of comedic relief helps everyone feel more welcome and less defensive.


Workshop Challenge


I came up with a lot of ideas for this challenge. I originally thought about doing an Andy Warhol-esque (think soup cans) quadriptych with Arizona Tea cans. They're a go-to drink for me, and I thought it would be fun to design different themed cans for each part of the prompt. I eventually gave up on this idea.

I then started considering doing something that visually represented the Loss meme format. As mentioned, I'm a bit of a meme connoisseur, and I thought that would be a clever nod to things.

Another idea I entertained was doing an eyeball broken into four parts. This was based on the cliche that eyes are the "windows to the soul." I figured that seeing my soul would be a great way to represent myself!

I eventually landed on this idea of pieces. The inspiration for this idea came from a strange place. As I was thinking about what I wanted to do for the challenge, I realized I had a hankering for lemonade. Unfortunately, I'm currently dealing with an ulcer, and lemonade is off the table. This brought the image of a lemon into my head. They're naturally segmented, with white gaps between the pieces of substance. One Aha! moment later and we were cooking with gas.


With an idea in my mind, I began looking at other designers and sources of information, with the hopes that these would inform my design.

Preston M Smith

Preston Smith has a definite creative streak within him. While he's a full-time painter, at one point in his life he acted professionally, toured with a ska band, and even published two novels. One of his biggest accomplishments to date was having his art displayed at President Obama's inauguration in 2009. For this project, he was tasked with painting 12 different images of the president. The art he produces nowadays is wildly colorful and abstract. One piece, in particular, stuck out to me while I was looking over his portfolio, and that was his "Hodgepodge Quadriptych." I liked the way it incorporated different shapes, as it seemed to me that most quadriptychs were done in a rectangular or square manner. I also like that each section seemed to have its own design and color scheme, but when they were brought together, they still acted as one cohesive piece.

Patricia M. Taylor Holz

Holz is a freelance artist and painter in Northern Virginia. She has an extensive creative past, referencing experience in set design, photography, fibers, dance, and more. Her Fine Arts background paved the way for her current career as a painter. While a lot of her work focuses on realistic subjects, like birds, cars, and horses, the piece that drew me in was her quadriptych titled, "God's Eye." Just like Preston's piece, Holz's quadriptych also acts well as individual pieces but is stronger when all four segments are together. The viewer's eye is directed toward the middle of the four, as they create a diamond shape, with gold paint highlighting the center.

Robert Burnier

Of the three, Burnier struck me as most like myself. While he earned an MFA in drawing and painting in 2016, he actually started off in school for Computer Science! Currently living in Chicago, Burnier has created a number of installations that have been exhibited in Chicago, New York, and Miami, as well as many other places. Despite his more impressive works being large-scale pieces, I was intrigued by his approach to the quadriptych. Titled "Alia, Unu Alian, and Alia", Burnier's piece is comprised of four different folded pieces of aluminum. That's it. Not much explanation is available on it, but with it being featured in a soon-to-be-launched digital museum, I'm hoping I'll receive some clarity at some point.


What looks like gibberish to most served as my blueprint. I had my pieces segmented and worked through deciding what each one should have within it to represent its respective quadrant/question. I sketched out which pieces would have illustrated additions on them, and what they would be. I didn't put a whole lot of detail into my sketch because I function best inside my own head best (except when I'm overthinking. Thanks, Anxiety.) In addition, I wanted the actual pieces to be made out of real photos of the objects I chose, in order to juxtapose the little sketches I eventually add to the piece.

Prompt, Final Execution, and Thoughts

Who are you?

Great question. For starters, my name is Ashley. I’m an Aries, Sphynx momma (Her name is Judge Nudie), and avid circus arts lover! I hula-hoop, take Lyra classes, and play with fire.

When it comes to design, I definitely came into things in a roundabout way. I started my undergraduate career on a Software Engineering track. In my junior year of college (Is it called junior year in Europe?), I realized I hated my coursework and changed my major and minor a week into classes. I ended up graduating with a degree in Information Technology and Professional Writing a year later, with a spattering of design classes mixed in. I didn’t formally get any sort of design recognition, since I was attending a private university, and didn’t want to add more time to my schooling because of money.

I love, love, LOVE designs that have strong typography, so that’s definitely an influence for me. Surprisingly enough, not a lot of my designs actually incorporate type, so that’s something I’m looking forward to working on throughout this MA program.

Outside of design, I like to travel, consider myself to be a bit of a “Meme Queen”, and I take care of animals on the side! If you ever need a dose of cute animals, hit me up!

What is it that you do?

I currently create social media graphics for a healthy eating company based here in the United States. This includes Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest imagery. I also have experience designing for emails and have made a handful of logos. I work for myself, on a freelance basis, and while I’m definitely your stereotypical “starving artist” I NEVER regret leaving my cushy office job for this life of freedom.

Below is a 3D design that I did for a final school project. Can you recognize what it is? This project was pivotal to me because I had never worked in 3D rendering software. The feedback from my professor was amazing. It was at this moment in my schooling that I realized I might actually have a knack for this! Without his push, I don’t know that I would have continued on this path.

Where are you?

In case you didn’t catch it earlier, I’m based in the United States. I live in Madison, Wisconsin currently. Wisconsin is near the border to Canada and shares its shores with the Great Lakes. This definitely has an impact on how I work. Unfortunately, Wisconsin is on track to being one of the top states when it comes to COVID-19 cases. Because of this, I’m working entirely from home. This has been a hard transition for me, as I thrive in the buzzing coffee shop environment. In addition, the United States has been extremely polarized politically. Without much detail, I’m an avid supporter of all human rights, so I’m faced with disappointment in my country on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.

It’s not all bad though, I swear! Madison itself is an extremely welcoming community and serves as a liberal bubble in the Midwest. Pre-COVID, this city always had something to offer. We have so many music venues of varying sizes, so the music scene is here was amazing. There’s also a strong arts and culture community, so I was constantly learning new things. I’m looking forward to things getting back to “normal”....eventually.

Why design?

It took me a while, but I finally landed on design. What initially drew me to the discipline was the variety of work that a designer can face. I’m a naturally curious person, so I love doing and learning different things. I’ve worn many hats over the years, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with app/website mockup, logo design, 3D environment creation, print, typography, hand-lettering, and wedding invitation suites.

For me, design mirrors the freedom I want in my day-to-day life. I’m allowed to take risks, it’s work that can be done remotely, and I can easily get lost in a design project for hours at a time. Design trends are always changing, so it keeps me on my toes. As design pushes its own boundaries, I do too! I suppose that’s why I took the plunge and applied to this program.

Explanation of Piece

First, I started with a circular design because it represents the roundabout way I came into the design field. I broke it into pieces because there are many different parts that go into making me. They all play important parts in balancing and supporting my other pieces, so that’s why I divided things into slices. The extra illustrations are meant to symbolize how many aspects of my life are still a work in progress, and things are always changing. I used a notebook pad for a background because I’m very much in the planning phase of who I want to become. The perfect item for planning? A notebook!

The upper left quadrant represents me as an individual. I incorporated Lyra, which is a big part of my life. In addition, by showing the gripping arm, I symbolism my strength, both physical and mental. I suffer from anxiety and depression, which is why this quadrant is also complemented with tones of black in its color scheme. Sometimes things get really dark for me, but I find the light again. The other piece is fire. This is to represent my fire flowing hobby. Where other people stay away from flames, I welcome and play with them. This also symbolizes the light that breaks through my dark days, as well as represents my zodiac sign, Aries. Aries is a cardinal fire sign, which explains the use of the flames, as well as the position of this segment.

The upper right quadrant symbolizes the most influential moments on my path towards becoming a designer. The sphere is being used to show the art of making 3D objects. My first instance of encouragement within the design field was in a 3D Design class during undergrad, which got me thinking about it as a serious career option. The feedback I received from my professor was astounding, and I began to become more confident in my skills. The other segment is a piece of a clock. I used to work in a stereotypical office job, providing design services for various departments in the building. This job was soul-crushing. My decision to leave that position, without another job in place, was what got me thrown into the world of freelance, and I’m never looking back.

The lower left quadrant is where I am geographically and what influences how I work. As mentioned, my area is considered a hotspot for COVID-19, and I’ve actually tested positive! This keeps me home, away from others, and out of my favorite workspaces. Learning to be productive at home has been a real struggle, so this definitely impacts my work. The other segment is a piece of cheese. This is an homage to my state, Wisconsin, which is known as the Dairy State in the United States.

The lower right is why I chose design. For me, design gets my gears moving. It’s like a well-oiled machine; if you don’t take care of it, things will rust and not work correctly. Design is something I have to constantly work at, much like keeping gears in motion. It is also a way for me to grow and flourish, which is where the flower comes in. If I continue to nurture this passion, it will bloom.

Workshop Challenge Reflection

When it comes to the piece itself, I'm very happy with the final result. I feel that it does an excellent job capturing the different aspects of my life that make me who I am today. The one thing I would do differently if I had more time would be to use my own photography for all of the segments. I think that would do well to add another layer of personality to the design.

If I were given the opportunity to showcase my work from this week, I imagine it to be a large installation. The circular part would be roughly the same height as me, which would be about 6 feet in diameter. It would either be displayed on the floor, allowing people to lay on it, or it would be on a large piece of canvas, so that people may stand near it. The area would be well-lit and open. As a basis for my inspiration, I think it would be cool to have viewers act as the Vitruvian man on my piece, spreading out across it.



Abstract: The Art of Design, (2019). [TV series episode] Netflix, 29 September 2019.

ARTHUR DIGITAL MUSEUM. 2020. “Robert Burnier - Alia, Unu Alian, Alia (Quadriptych), 2014.” Arthur [online]. Available at: [accessed 4 Dec 2020].

BURNIER, Robert. 2020. “Sculpture : Robert Burnier.” [online]. Available at: [accessed 4 Dec 2020].

HOLZ, Patricia. 2020. “Patricia M. Taylor Holz at the 14th Annual WLAST.” [online]. Available at: [accessed 5 Dec 2020].

Indaba, Design. 2014. In Studio With: Massimo Vignelli [video clip]. Available at: [accessed 18 November 2020].

NEVILLE, Morgan. 2019. Abstract: The Art of Design 6 [TV series episode]. Netflix, September 29, 2019.

Price, J. Yates, D. (2015). Communication Design: Insights from the Creative Industries. London: Bloomsbury.

ROME, Tom Kington. 2019. “Vitruvian Man Must Stay in His Vault.”, 9 Oct [online]. Available at: [accessed 18 Nov 2020].

Shaughnessy, A. and Brook, T. (2009). Studio Culture: The Secret Life of the Graphic Design Studio. London: Unit Editions.

SMITH, Preston. 2020. “About The Artist.” [online]. Available at: [accessed 3 Dec 2020].

Winston, Sam. (n.d.). Interview with Sam Winston. [online] Available at: [Accessed Sep. 2020].

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