The Visuality of Television

Graphic design is used in a range of situations throughout television: titles and end credits for programmes, programme content (stills, captions, animated sequences etc.), on-screen promotion, channel identities as well as all graphic ‘props’ for programmes such as dramas or sitcoms, designing signs, newspapers, product packaging etc.

Graphic design and television have gone hand in hand from the very creation of the medium:

Contemporary descriptions of [John Logie] Baird’s 1926 experiments with television broadcasts reveal that he used a variety of graphic forms to test legibility, including type script. Graphics and television were thus linked from the point of inception.

Crook, 1986

However the biggest visual change to television graphics since colour, was the introduction of computer technology and the ability to manipulate television images in an electronic space, rather than just leaving them as purely photographic images reduplicating three-dimensional spaces. The first years of television saw a graphic style heavily influenced by that of cinema being the only existing medium with similarities to television (indeed many of ITV’s first regional franchises were owned by companies with interests in cinema such as Granada and ABC). However, although television gradually developed its own style, it was with televisions growing use of technology that it started to contrast strongly with that of cinema.

Cinema uses digital image technologies to simulate realities and extend the range of its illusionism. Television uses images as the raw material for a process of work, transmuting, combining, changing and layering them in a way that can only be described of as graphic. While cinema remains triumphantly photographic, television has found itself as a graphic medium.

Ellis, 2000

Brain Eley, Creative Director at Lambie-Nairn – a leading brand consultancy that has its roots in television graphic design – has been quoted as saying:

Sophisticated on-screen graphics have become part of the quotable culture, part of the language of television. They’ve gradually become established on the landscape of domestic TV and people now expect an incredibly high level of craft.

Davies, 1997

Perhaps where television graphics have been used to greatest effect is within news. In what can be a chaotic world where footage isn’t always the best quality (with an items relevance and newness of most importance), news graphics play an important role in striping stories down to the bare essentials. Wars become maps, economies become graphs, political arguments turn into graphical conflict, press releases are presented as an ordered list of bullet points, and these enable television to carry on more effectively the activity of speculation. Such graphics became so commonplace that they were the subject of their own kind of graphic satire – the most notable being The Day Today.