Behind Material Literacy with Jenny Grigg

We chat with ABDA founding member Jenny Grigg about her studies in design, process and history. Jenny’s research for her PhD culminated in a physical book titled Material Literacy: The Significance of Materials in Graphic Design Ideation, A Practice-based Enquiry. This stunning edition details over 25 years of experience in the industry, Jenny’s processes and findings.

I decided to undertake a PhD in 2014 to understand graphic design, the profession that I had been engaged in for more than 25 years from a different perspective. As well as pursue an interest in design history, I wanted to articulate the complexities of the process of designing because, although well understood by design practitioners, the components of this particular type of knowledge are rarely experienced by others.

To do this I chose to reveal some of the unseen intricacies and negotiations that underlie the design process. My starting point was an archive of processual material that I have stored over the course of my practice. Ideas that I had tested and forgotten, particularly in the process of designing book covers, remained dormant in shaped pieces of paper, test prints, sketches and so on. My study of these items reactivated memories about the circumstances of the design, as well as how and why design decisions were made.

To broaden the scope of the project I also researched David Lancashire’s archive. Because David had disposed of most of his process materials I analysed David’s ideation by reverse engineering fully produced designs. So, one half of the thesis investigates my design ideation of book covers and the other half David’s ideation of a variety of artefacts selected from more than ninety boxes of his work in the RMIT Design Archives.

When research of the two cases was underway I focussed my interest on the significance of materials in graphic design ideation. How materials can ‘co-author’ a design process. I compared my explorations of paper qualities to conceive ideas in pre-production with David’s mechanical explorations of paper to design paper promotions using techniques such as embossing.

My choice of this topic also allowed me to address the misunderstanding that physical technologies had been superseded by digital technologies in the conception of designs. Only a few years ago it seemed that designs executed by digital technologies were at risk of becoming synonymous with design sophistication, regardless of the interpretive or communicative achievements of the design. To protect the future diversity of the discipline, particularly from my perspective as a design educator, in 2014 it was important to address this conversation.

One of the reasons book cover design remains compelling for many in the profession is that it warrants continual experimentation. Largely unaffected by technological changes, book cover design is an area of graphic design practice that attracts designers with a high capacity for invention and those who do not want their practice to be limited to the constraints of corporate work. Perhaps this is particularly the case for design for the commercial publication of literary fiction.

Recognising that each author’s voice is unique we aim to invent a new visual interpretation to represent the uniqueness of each of those voices. To manage this proposition, I developed a design method that enabled renewal within the standardised production parameters of the profession. The research enabled me to document how my practice evolved to be a continuum of materially led design enquiries. By exploring an author’s narrative through the allowances of a new material, I developed a strategy for invention. More often than not my materials were different types of paper. Tissue paper, Bond paper, cellophane. I was subliminally conscious of my use of the strategy however the research required its articulation.

The principle contribution of the study was the introduction of the concept of ‘material literacy’. The research makes a series of accounts of how David and I each seek certain conditions in which to design to stimulate imagination and encourage us to invent. Because of this the thesis argued that because graphic communications are contingent on material circumstances, materials— as do words and image types—provide a language that is available for infinite interpretation. The concept arose when I came up against the limitations of the existing terms such as ‘visual literacy’ and ‘material thinking’ and sought to explain more specifically how and why an understanding of materials is inherent to visual communication.


Material Literacy: The Significance of Materials in Graphic Design Ideation, A Practice-based Enquiry is shortlisted for The Stocksy United Best Designed Independent Book. To be announced at the ABDA Awards, May 31st 2019.