Drucker and humanistic design

How Graphesis might inform the way we make and experience visual media.

A masculine presenting person with dark hair faces a cork board covered in sheets of paper - some with text and some with visuals. The board is brimming with pinned papers, and the person looks towards it and a way from the camera seeming contemplative.

At the University of California, LA, Johanna Drucker works as a professor of Bibliographical Studies. She is also the author of Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production.1

I would never pretend to summarize Drucker’s multifaceted work. However, as a media enthusiast and an art historian I want to give a taste of how Graphesis might inform the way visual media is made and mediated. 

“Graphesis” means “the study of the visual production of knowledge.”

Drucker writes about the formalization of graphical languages. Her goal is to develop critical languages for graphics in “digital networked environments,” but she roams far beyond the digital. Graphesis serves us a history of images that refutes historical work that privileges “high art.” By drawing together a wide range of “visual work produced for the purposes of interpretation or analysis,” Drucker puts the graphics on our laptop screens in conversation with a Dunhuang star chart from c. 700 CE, a cosmological diagram from c. 1090 CE, and the Periodic Table. She recognizes that every visualization is an interpretation, and that images have a “rhetorical force.”

There are also calls to action.

Understanding human-computer interaction (HCI)

Drucker calls on her readers to humanize the digital and to disrupt traditional assumptions of HCI (human-computer interaction) design. She looks to the medieval codex as she queries principles on which we might attempt humanistic design.2

“Visual knowledge is as dependant on lived, embodied, specific knowledge as any other field of human endeavour, and integrates other sense data as part of cognition.”

Drucker, 51

She proposes a critical interface theory that recognizes a subject. Mechanistic HCI approaches to digital interfaces presume a “user” who will be constrained by built-in structures to a common experience, and that these structures should optimize the efficiency with which users can complete specific tasks. Subjects, though, have human subjectivity. There cannot be a single “user experience” because each subject and image has a point of view.3

“.. aesthetic dimensions and imaginative vision make interface a space of being and dwelling, not a realm of control panels and instruments only existing to be put at the service of something else.

Drucker, 152

Especially in multi-modal web environments (with multiple windows and scrollable visuals)  graphical structuring only “provides the provocations to cognition.”4

Drucker argues that, like late medieval codices, a humanistic interface supports subjective analysis and contemplation.

Neither the codex nor the humanistic digital interface is built to be simply consumed. Rather, it is constructed as space to be dwelled within and to study. 


  1. Drucker, Johanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  2. p. 139.
  3. p.148-9
  4. p.158