JDC Spring-2003 v5 - Non Juried Article -Switch-Hitters?

Issue 5
Spring 2003


Jen Bracy

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona



Research on the two halves of the human brain shows that people may be more verbal and mathematic or more visual and creative, depending on which hemisphere dominates. Students of the discipline of Graphic Design, one that is often misunderstood and hard to define, use both halves of their brain to complete their task. There has been an unending debate over whether or not graphic design is art, and it is perhaps the holistic nature of the discipline that adds to the difficulty of defining graphic design. Graphic designers sit on the fence, and are quite unique in this way, defying the very evolution that has lead humans to favor one side of the brain over the other.

Research on the human brain shows that the two halves or hemispheres, while both capable of complex thinking, function in different ways. The left brain is considered analytic in approach while the right is described as holistic or global. These differences control how an individual learns and processes information, and one half may dominate the other. For example, a left-brained person prefers to learn in a step-by-step sequential format, while a right-brained person prefers to learn the general concept and then go on to specifics. Here is an overview of these parallel ways of functioning:

Left Brain Right Brain
verbal visual, tactual, kinesthetic
mathematical creative
responds to word meaning responds to word pitch, feeling
intellectual intuitive
sequential holistic
processes info linearly processes info in chunks
responds to logic responds to emotion
objective subjective
plans ahead spontaneous
propositional imaginative
recalls people's names recalls people's faces
analytic relational
speaks w/ few gestures gestures when speaking
punctual less punctual
prefers formal study setting prefers music/sound while studying
introspective extroverted
likes structure, predictability likes open-endedness, surprises
wants to read about it first wants to experience it first

According to Betty Edwards' (1979) well-known textbook Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain , a creative person is one who can process information available to all of us in new and different ways. An artist uses intuition to observe data and transform it into new creations.

But what about a graphic designer? Depending on whom you ask, graphic design is defined in many different ways. According to designer Clement Mok (Chronicle Books, 1998) , "It's not rocket science. It's social science -- the science of understanding people's needs and their unique relationship with art, literature, history, music, work, philosophy, community, technology, and psychology. The act of design is structuring and creating that balance." Others maintain that graphic designers make order out of chaos; that we are researchers, analysts, and organizers as well as artists. It is this cross-disciplinary nature of design that supports the use of both sides of the brain, and that also perhaps adds to the discipline's identity confusion.

To much of the world outside the profession graphic design is a mysterious, artful thing without clearly tangible results. I wish I had a dime for every time someone misrepresented, or simply misunderstood, what it is that I do. "Is that like architecture?" I've heard; or "Oh, I wish I could draw!" The age-old battle of 'Is design art?' will never be won, either way. However, one way graphic design is significantly different than art is that the designer must put the message in a language recognized and understood by the intended audience. Do we really know how our audience will process information? That is, do their dominant right brains lead them to desire the big picture all at once? Or will their left brains prefer step-by-step, linear messages? It seems to me that graphic design, both as it's created and received, is a perfect balance between the two hemispheres. Most of us start out when we're young as more artistic or more mathematical, and drift into a profession where we sit right on the fence.

My discovery of this thesis, as with many, began with my students. As a young professor in my first full-time position I found myself seriously lacking in pedagogical knowledge. I wondered if my teaching methods were reaching all the different types of learners in my classroom. So, in order to get to know my students better, I assigned a poster project that explored left brain/right brain activities. The thrust of this beginning graphic design course was developing concepts, making thumbnails, implementing the final design on the computer-the basic design process. As the students looked closely at their habits and chose one or several personal characteristics to focus on, we all learned more about each other and about ourselves. What I learned was that many students had begun in other majors-often math or computer science students who felt they weren't using their creativity, or fine art students who felt they needed more structure. Graphic design may be the one profession that truly straddles the two halves of the brain.

Perhaps it is more accurate to speak in terms of a continual switching from one half of the brain to the other. "Herbert Bayer always claimed that he was primarily an artist," and that there was little difference between art and design. "If you look at Bayer's painting and compare it to a work such as his World Geographic Atlas of 1954, the differences in subjectivity allowed in his rationalized painting and the absence of it in the atlas attest to a different attitude taken by Bayer in his art than in his design" ( Wild, 1987 ). The ability to move from subjective to objective practice, and to transmit both types of communication to a viewer, involves shifting from the subjective right brain to the objective left brain, and back again.

Katherine McCoy (Chronicle Books, 1998) has stated that "The challenge is for the graphic designer to turn data into information and information into messages of meaning." For over 150 years or so, scientists have known that the function of language and language-related capabilities is mainly located in the left brain. Among many other skills, graphic designers must be able to listen well, record verbal communication about the problem at hand, and determine what verbal information should be foregrounded in a specific work. Their duties also include choosing colors, forms, and images that evoke emotional responses, and specifying papers which add to the overall visual and tactual experience. It is the successful partnering of verbal and visual that creates messages of meaning.

Another common misconception is that design is entirely performed 'with computers.' But whether you subscribe to the computer-as-tool or computer-as-medium school of thought (another debate without an end), it is undeniable that the analytical, sequential left brain dominates in this arena. A designer may begin with multitudes of concept sketches that are beautiful in their own right, but when he or she sits down at a computer to implement a design, the software dictates a knowledge of the step-by-step procedures needed. As the number of 'undos' increases, so can our spontaneous experiments, but some degree of logic and linear thinking is required to have mastered the program in the first place. So, what are the implications of this discovery? Well, according to scientists, the left and right brain modes of processing information tend to interfere with one another, preventing maximal performance. This may be a rationale for the evolutionary development of asymmetry in the human brain-as a means of keeping the two modes of processing in two different hemispheres ( Levy, 1974 ). So the next time someone asks me what I do as a graphic designer, perhaps I'll answer, "I use my whole brain!"


Edwards, B. (1979) . Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain . Los Angeles: J.P Tarcher, Inc.

McCoy, K. (1998) . Everything Reverberates , Thoughts on Design. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Levy, J. (1974) . Psychobiological Implications of Bilateral Asymmetry. Hemisphere Function in the Human Brain , S.J. Dimond and J.G. Beaumont, ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Wild, L. (1987) . Art and design: Lovers or just good friends? AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 5, p. 2.