Sara Spielman



Critically Examining Communications Design and the Value of its Applications



This is a reflection on the communications design discipline, critically examining the value of its applications to humans at micro and macro levels. It is a self-referential analysis addressing contributions, ethical considerations, dualities, and contradictions that exist in the discipline. This study incorporated multiple individuals’ perspectives through a methodology of conducting personal interviews and reviewing related perspectives in published literature. Conclusions made regarding the value of communications design work include: its contribution of providing order, clarity, creation of an experience, and expression of the human condition. Ultimate objectives of the thesis include contributing critical thought to practices of the discipline and garnering insight for producing meaningful communications design work.


When focusing on the technicalities, functioning, and artistic processes involved in the day-to-day of producing communications design work and artwork, it is easy to lose perspective of the larger purpose of these efforts. The pressure involved in producing something from intangible mental processes and ideations-part of the inherent nature of producing creative work-can easily divert an individual’s perspective and a design community’s perspective from the broader purpose of the work. In reflecting on the lasting contributions of such efforts, the question arises why humans spend time and resources creating artwork and visually designing in the first place. Artwork and visual design do not always have an obvious functional or quantitative value. In comparison to pursuits such as curing diseases, constructing roadways, building homes for the underserved, and developing food resources, visual design and art can seem frivolous. It can be argued that visual design is a part of these industries, yet not easily argued that it is a critical aspect. One can read the content in a current events publication, a medical journal, or public health announcement whether it is in Arial or Times New Roman, Futura or Garamond.

Moreover, when reflecting on the realities of the contemporary world as whole, such as the meager living conditions of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war; lead-contaminated water affecting residents of the city of Flint, Michigan; pedestrian death rates; and the prevalence of mass shootings in the United States, one has to contemplate the investment of resources put into visual design that could be put towards other pursuits.

In considering these dilemmas, one reaches questions such as: How does a designer or artist combine a skill in creating visually appealing work with broader, serious concerns? Should one be investing one’s time into constructing homes for the homeless instead? Or gaining knowledge and skill in the medical field instead, a field which is expected to have occupational shortages of both physicians and nurses in the coming years? Or, is there a value in creating beautiful things, some of which may not have a clear function, or which may appear only to have a small societal contribution, but are enjoyable nonetheless? Considering this complexity, how does an individual and a society make ethical decisions regarding some of these contradicting choices?

Further, the work created by art and design communities, communities commonly characterized by a level of privilege that is often taken for granted, can be affected by jargonistic language, desire to impress, and designers limiting themselves to projects that carry a perceived status within the design community. Though not necessarily the fault of the designer, social and economic forces have their impacts. Addressing these issues presents a way of thinking that aims at ultimately identifying a realistic, effective balance that joins communications designers’ talents and skills with real human concerns, on both small and large scales, in order to maximize designers’ impact and significance. In addition, it contributes uniquely to the discipline by taking a realistic, yet non-polarizing approach that acknowledges the esthetic nature of the graphic design profession without abandoning it, while acknowledging the form, function, and the various values that they provide. The thesis also presents a perspective acknowledging graphic designers’ inherent roles as service providers that use their unique skill sets to create and improve communications as part of a team that is comprised of other subject matter experts. It explores the relation of design and human concerns to one another, including the broader contributions of art and design. It examines and analyzes these issues with a goal of creating dialogue and gaining perspective that ultimately facilitates designers’ abilities to create valuable, meaningful work…


A Human Information Interaction Project:

Examining Clothing Textiles, Quality, + Purchasing Behaviors

The objective of the project was to use the analysis of the information gathered to improve choices about clothing purchases and decrease clothing waste.


For this project, I examined the nuances involved in clothing purchases and their lifespan, particularly as they related to textile quality. I collected various data pieces such as the lifespan of various clothing articles, satisfaction with the items, and frequency of wear. I gathered information on the cost of the clothing items, physical quality, and observation of its overall appearance and condition. Other information used included the final phase of the life of the article of clothing, such as decisions between consignment, charity donation, or textile recycling.

In a review of related literature, I focused on three scholarly articles related to fast-fashion, quality, consumer psychology, and environmental impacts of the textile industry.

In regards to quality, I investigated factors such as stitching, different variants of fabric, dyes, and the type of labor put into manufacturing the clothing. I also investigated changes in the article of clothing after wearing it and laundering it, such as color fading, holes, fraying, or seams loosening. I additionally gathered information from online reviews of the clothing, such as comments about quality and other customers’ choices to keep or return the item.

I also gathered information on colors, cut, proportions, hemline lengths, sleeve lengths, neckline lengths, and my perception of clothing item appearance. Additionally, I included information that related to cultural influences on clothing purchases, such as location on the West Coast or East Coast of the United States and immediate social groups.

I additionally documented my perception of the brand and other psychological information possibly affecting purchasing choices, such as sales, time constraints, and the presence of other customers in a store. I also documented effects experienced while wearing the clothing, such as ease of wear and general feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

I used a photo diary of clothing examples, documenting details such as single or double stitching, fabric composition such as the percentage of synthetic fabric and natural fabric, and wear-and-tear. I compared similar items side-by-side visually and analyzed information about cost, fabric, stitching, overall appearance of quality, and first impressions of the item versus subsequent impressions. I also identified the countries in which the clothing was manufactured and the reputation of the ethics of the clothing company’s labor practices.

At What Point Does Perfectionism Become Maladaptive?

Excerpts from a design writing project.


Perfectionism is a characteristic that some people appear to be born with, influencing the way they navigate through various aspects of their lives. It is often characterized by a high level of attention to detail, thoroughness, along with high standards for themselves, their work, and sometimes for others.

In the right situation or right occupational setting, these qualities tend to lend themselves well to carefully crafted, thorough work. Spending a significant amount of time on any task typically results in an acquisition of a thorough knowledge of the process and methodology required for successful completion of the task.

However, after a point, perfectionistic tendencies seem to have, paradoxically, the opposite outcomes desired. A desire to continually perfect something, or a feeling that a piece of work is not yet completed, or not just right, often leads leaving a project in a constant intermediate, unfinished state. Often it can lead to indecision between choices, with no choice ever seeming quite good enough. For example, one can find that after many hours of contemplating the best combination of text and photography for a poster, one finds themselves having made little progress. Often after many iterations and many hours of debating, redoing, and looking at alternatives, one can find oneself at the point at which they started, with their original choice, or their first instinct, apparently having lost a significant amount of time and mental effort by attempting various choices.

With some, the perfectionism can lend itself to problems with others, when their standards for others are so high that working collaboratively with or for this perfectionist becomes so cumbersome in order to meet their standards that it interferes with the social dynamic of a working relationship. Often the perfectionist does not realize that others do not have the same standards or ideas about what quality work is, not realizing how difficult they seem to others.

Perfectionism can manifest itself in daily choices such as choosing an airline seat, the words one chooses when writing an essay, making purchases, or selecting the best combination of fabric and color for a new couch.

Often it is only when a narrow time constraint is imposed, or when it has down to the last minute to complete something, that the perfectionist is able to produce something or make a choice, out of a lack of time to continue thinking over choices and continuing to make modifications.

It has been said that lateness, ironically, is also often a characteristic of perfectionism, as a perfectionist can have difficulty switching from one task to another, in an effort to complete one task as well as possible, finding it challenging to stop the project at hand, to stop making one more modification, resulting in using extra time from what should have been be dedicated to the next activity.

One often learns that they are a perfectionist after having it pointed out to them, enabling the perfectionist to seem themselves from a perspective they did not previously have. When a perfectionist comes across another perfectionist, typically one can recognize the other as such. They may notice similar thought patterns, certain preferences, ways of organizing a desk, the way a notebook and pen is perfectly aligned on a desk before a meeting, the way a collection of books is precisely aligned, or the way the individual repositions a tack to ensure it is set precisely in the corner of the paper.

On one hand, this high quantity of time spent on an activity or project can have beneficial consequences to the individual. For example, for designers, a constant practice of examining multitudes of combinations of hues, values, and tones with just small incremental differences in the process of choosing a color palette can result in a strong ability to identify or create appealing, unique contrasts between colors.

However, after an apparent threshold of time spent on the task and various reiteration, one seems to reach a point where the modifications no longer create progress or improvement, and often may even result in an undoing of progress. Ultimately, the question for perfectionists comes down to: at what point does this desire to improve something, complete it thoroughly, and make it "perfect" become maladaptive? Perhaps rather than completely abandon their tendencies, which in some regards are to their benefit, perfectionists need to be cognizant of their propensity for excessiveness and establish guidelines for themselves. For a perfectionist to use their natural inclinations to their benefit, without being paralyzed or held back by them, it seems that they must learn how to recognize, after various failures and successes, the point at which they need to stop modifying, contemplating, or analyzing something. When something feels, say, 90 percent finished, perhaps they should stop there, because the perceived differences that will result from the continued work will not be noticeable, often not even to the perfectionist themselves after stepping away from the task. Perhaps perfectionists who may be learning that their inclinations can cause more harm than good need to train themselves to be a little less particular and a little less perfect, for the sake of completing a project, making choices, and moving on.