Graphic Authorship

by Michael Rock
1996

What does it mean to call for a graphic designer to be an author?

Authorship, in one form or another has been a popular term in graphic design circles, especially those circles that revolve around the edge of the profession, the design academies, and the murky territory that exists between design and art. The word has an important ring to it, and it connotes seductive ideas of origination and agency. But the question of how designers become authors is a difficult one and exactly who are the designer/authors and what authored design looks like depends entirely on how you end up defining the term and criterion you chose to determine entrance into the pantheon.

Authorship may suggest new approaches to the issue of design process in a profession traditionally associated more with the communication than the origination of messages. But theories of authorship may also serve as legitimizing strategies and authorial aspirations may actually end up reinforcing certain conservative notions of design production and subjectivity; ideas that run counter to recent critical attempts to overthrow the perception of design based on individual brilliance. The implications of such a redefinition deserves careful scrutiny. What does it really mean to call for a graphic designer to be an author?

In order to subject the problem of design authorship to close examination, it is necessary to first dispense with some definitions before moving on to more specific design examples and suggestions for possible theories of graphic authorship. It may also be useful to reexamine the preconceived qualities we attribute to this powerful figure, the author, and wonder how those attributes apply to a profession traditionally associated more with the communication than the origination of messages. Finally it is interesting to speculate about how theories of authorship can serve to legitimize marginalized activities like design and how authorial aspirations may actually end up reinforcing certain conservative notions of design production; notions that might actually contradict the stated goals of the budding designer/author.

What is an author?
The issue of the author has been an area of intense scrutiny over the last forty years. The meaning of the word itself has shifted significantly over history. The earliest definitions are not associated with writing per se, in fact the most inclusive is "the person who originates or gives existence to anything." But other usages clearly index the authoritarian -- even patriarchal -- connotations: the "father of all life," "any inventor, constructor or founder," "one who begets," and "a director, commander, or ruler."

Basically all literary theory, from Aristotle on, has in some form or another, been theory of authorship. But this paper is not a history of the author but a discussion of author as metaphor, so I start with recent history. Wimsatt and Beardsley's seminal text, The Intentional Fallacy (1946), drove one of the first wedges between the author and the text, dispelling the notion a reader could ever really "know" an author through his writing. The so-called death of the author, proposed most succinctly by Roland Barthes in 1968 , is closely linked to the birth of critical theory, especially theory based in reader response and interpretation rather than intentionality. Michel Foucault used the rhetorical question, "What is an author?" as the title of his influential essay of 1969 which, in response to Barthes, outlines the basic taxonomy and functions of the author and the problems associated with conventional ideas of authorship and origination.

Foucautian theory holds that the connection between the author and the text has transformed and that there exists a number of author-functions that shape the way readers approach a text. These stubbornly persistent functions are historically determined and culturally specific categories.

The earliest sacred texts were authorless, their origins lost in ancient history (e.g. the Vedas, the Gospels, etc.). In fact, the ancient, anonymous origin of the text served as a certain kind of authentication. The author's name was symbolic, never attributable to an individual. (The gospels of Luke, for instance, could be a diversity of texts gathered under the rubric of Luke.)

On the other hand scientific texts, at least through the renaissance, demanded an author's name as validation. Far from objective truth, science was based in personal invention and the authority of the scientist. By the eighteenth century, Foucault asserts, the situation had reversed; literature was authored and science became the product of anonymous objectivity. When authors came to be punished for their writing -- i.e. when a text could be transgressive -- the link between author and text was firmly established. Text came to be seen as a kind of private property, owned by the author, and a romantic criticism rose up that reinforced that relationship, searching for critical keys in the life and intention of the writer. With the rise of scientific method, on the other hand, scientific texts and mathematical proofs were no longer authored texts but were seen as discovered truths. The scientist revealed an extant phenomena, a fact anyone faced with the same conditions would discover. Therefore the scientist and the mathematician could claim to have been first to discover a paradigm, and lend their name to the phenomena, but never claim authorship over it. (For instance the astronomer that discovers a new star may name it but does not conjure it.)

Ownership of the text, and the authority granted to authors, at the expense of the creative reader, has fueled much of twentieth century obsession. Post-structuralist reading of authorship tends to critique the prestige attributed to the figure of the author and suggest or speculate about a time after his fall from grace. The focus shifts from the author's intention to the internal workings of the writing itself; not what it means but how it means. Barthes ends his essay supposing "the birth of the reader comes at the cost of the death of the author." Foucault imagines a time when we might question: "What difference does it make who is speaking?" All attempt to overthrow the notion that a text is a line of words that releases a single, theological meaning, the central message of an author/god and refocus critical attention on the activity of reading and readers.

Postmodernity began to turn on a "fragmented and schizophrenic decentering and dispersion" of the subject, noted Fredric Jameson. That sense of a decentered text -- i.e. a text which is skewed from the direct line of communication from sender to receiver, severed from the authority of its origin, and existing as a free floating element in a field of possible significations -- figured heavily in recent constructions of a design based in reading and readers. But Katherine McCoy's prescient image of designers moving beyond problem solving and by "...authoring additional content and a self-conscious critique of the message ...adopting roles associated with art and literature" was as often as not misconstrued. Rather than working to incorporate theory into their methods of production, many self-proclaimed deconstructivist designers literally illustrated Barthes' image of a reader-based text -- "a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture" -- by scattering fragments of quotations across the surface of their "authored" posters and book covers.(The technique was something like "Theory is complicated so my design is complicated.") The rather dark implications of Barthes theory, note Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, were fashioned into "...a romantic theory of self-expression."

Perhaps after years in the somewhat thankless position of the faceless facilitator many designers were ready to start speaking out. Some designers may be eager to discard the internal affairs of formalism -- to borrow Paul de Man's metaphor -- and branch out to the foreign affairs of external politics and content. In that way, by the seventies, design began to discard the kind of some of the scientistic approach that held sway for several decades. (Even as early as the twenties Trotsky was labeling formalist artists the "chemists of art." ) That approach is evident in the rationalist design ideology that preached strict adherence to an eternal grid and a kind of rational approach to design. (Keep in mind that although this example is a staple of critques of modernism, in actuality the objectivists represented a small fragment of the design population at the time.)

Müller-Brockmann's evocation of the "aesthetic quality of mathematical thinking" is certainly the clearest, and most cited example of this approach. Brockmann and a slew of fellow researchers like Kepes, Dondis, Arnheim, worked to uncover preexisting order and form in the manner a scientist reveals a natural "truth." But what is most peculiar and revealing in Brockmann's writing is his reliance on tropes of submission; the designer submits to the will of the system, forgoes personality, withholds interpretation.

In his introduction to Compendium for Literates, which attempts a highly rational dissection of writing, Karl Gerstner describes the organization of his book claiming "all the components are atomic, i.e. in principle they are irreducible. In other words, they establish a principle."

The reaction to that drive for an irreducible theory of design is well documented. On the surface at least it would seem that contemporary designers were moving from authorless, scientific text -- in which inviolable visual principals were carefully revealed through extensive visual research -- toward a more textual position in which the designer could claim some level of ownership over the message. (This at the time that literary theory was trying to move away from that very position.) But some of the basic, institutional features of design practice have a way of getting tangled up in zealous attempts at self-expression. The idea of a decentered message does not necessarily sit well in a professional relationship in which the client is paying a designer to convey specific information or emotions. In addition, most design is done in some kind of collaborative setting, either within a client relationship or in the context of a design studio that utilizes the talents of numerous creative people, thus the origin of any particular idea is increasingly clouded. And the ever-present pressure of technology and electronic communication only further muddies the water.

Is there an auteur in the house?
It is not surprising to find that Barthes Death of the Author was written in Paris in 1968, the year students joined workers on the barricades in the general strikes and the year the western world flirted with real social revolution. To call for the overthrow of authority in the form of the author in favor of the reader -- read that masses -- had real resonance in 1968. But to lose power you must have already worn the mantle, thus designers had a bit of a dilemma overthrowing a power they may have never possessed.

The figure of the author implied a totalitarian control over creative activity and seemed an essential ingredient of high art. If the relative level of genius -- on the part of the author, painter, sculpture or composer -- was the ultimate measure of artistic achievement, activities that lacked a clear central authority figure were necessarily devalued. The development of film theory in the 1950s serves as an interesting example. Almost ten years before Barthes made his famous proclamation, film critic André Bazin and his protégé Francois Truffaut collaborated...

The figure of the author implied a total control over creative activity and seemed an essential ingredient of high art. If the relative level of genius was the ultimate measure of artistic achievement, activities that lacked a clear central authority figure were necessarily devalued.

Almost ten earlier, film critic and budding director François Truffaut had proposed La politique des auteurs, a polemical strategy developed to reconfigure a critical theory of the cinema. The problem facing the auteur critics was how to create a theory that imagined the film, necessarily the work of broad collaboration, as a work of a single artist, thus a work of art.

The solution was to develop a set of criteria that allowed a critic to decree certain directors as auteurs. In order to establish the film as a work of art, auteur theory held that the director -- heretofore merely a third of the creative troika of director, writer and cinematographer -- had the ultimate control of the entire project.

Auteur theory -- especially as espoused by American critic Andrew Sarris -- speculated directors must meet three essential criteria in order to pass into the sacred hall of the auteur. Sarris proposed that the director must demonstrate technical expertise, have a stylistic signature that is demonstrated over the course of several films, and most importantly, through choice of projects and cinematic treatment, demonstrate a consistency of vision and evoke a palpable interior meaning through his work. Since the film director often had little control of the material -- especially in the Hollywood Studio system that assigned director to projects -- the signature way he treated a varying range of scripts and subjects was especially important in establishing auteur credentials.

The interesting thing about the auteur theory was that unlike literature, film theorists, like designers, had to construct the notion of the author as a legitimizing strategy, as a method to raise what was considered low entertainment to the plateau of fine art. By coronating the director as the author of the film, the critics could elevate certain subjects to the status of high art. That elevation in turn would facilitate new freedoms granted to the director in future project. (Tantrums could be thrown in the name of artistic vision. "I'm an artist, dammit, not a butcher!" Expensive wines could be figured into overhead to satisfy rarefied palettes.)

The parallel to design practice is quite striking. Like the film director, the art director or designer is often distanced from his or her material and often works collaboratively in a role which directs the activity of a number of other creative people. In addition, the designer works on a number of diverse projects over the course of a career, many of which have widely varying levels of creative potential, and any inner meaning must come through the aesthetic treatment as much as it does from the content.

If we apply the auteur criteria to graphic designers we yield a body of work that may be elevated to auteur status. For instance technical proficiency could be fulfilled by any number of practitioners, but couple technical proficiency with a signature style the field narrows. The list of names that could fill those two criteria would be familiar, as that work is often published, awarded and praised. (And of course that selective republishing of certain work, and exclusion of other, constructs a unified and stylistically consistent oeuvre.) But great technique and style alone do not an auteur make. If we add the third requirement of interior meaning, how does that list fare? Are there graphic designers who by special treatment and choice of projects approach the issue of deeper meaning the way a Bergman, Hitchcock or Welles does?

In these cases the graphic auteur both seeks projects that fit his vision and approaches given project from a specific, recognizable critical perspective, e.g. Van Toorn will approach a brief for a corporate annual report from a socio-economic position. (Think of the way fashion photographer...

Of course, how do you compare a film poster with the film itself? The very scale of a cinematic project allows for a sweep of vision not possible in graphic design. Therefore, as the design single project lacks weight, graphic auteurs, almost by definition, have long, established bodies of work in which discernable patterns emerge. The auteur uses very specific client vehicles to attain a consistency of meaning. (Renoir observed that an artistic director spends his whole career remaking variations on the same film.) Think of the almost fetishistic way that a photographer like Helmut Newton returns to a particular vision of class and sexuality no matter what he is assigned to shoot.

Conversely, many great stylists don't seem to make the cut as it is difficult to discern a larger message in their work, i.e. a message that transcends the stylistic elegance. (You have to ask yourself, "What's the work about?") Perhaps its an absence or presence of an overriding philosophy or individual spirit that diminishes some designed work and elevates other.

We may have been applying a modified graphic auteur theory for many years without really paying attention. What has design history been if not a series of critical elevations and demotions as our attitudes about style and inner meaning evolve. In trying to describe interior meaning, Sarris finally resorts to "the intangible difference between one personality and another." That retreat to intangibility -- the "I can't say what it is but I know it when I see it" aspect -- is the Achilles tendon of the auteur theory which has long since fallen into disfavor in film criticism circles. It never dealt adequately with the collaborative nature of the cinema and the messy problems of movie making. But while the theory is passe, the effect of theory is still with us; the director is to this day squarely in the middle our perception of film structure.

The application of auteur theory may be too limited an engine for our current image of design authorship but there are a variety of other ways to frame the issue. There exists a number of paradigms on which we could base on practice; the artist book, concrete poetry, political activism, publishing, illustration, and others.

The general authorship rhetoric seems to include any work by a designer that is self-motivated; from artist books to political activism. But artist books easily fall within the realm and descriptive power of art criticism. Activist work may be neatly explicated using allusions to propaganda, graphic design, public relations and advertising.

Perhaps the graphic author is actually one who writes and publishes material about design. This category would include Josef Müller-Brockmann and Rudy Vanderlans, Paul Rand and Eric Speakerman, William Morris and Neville Brody, Robin Kinross and Ellen Lupton; rather strange bedfellows. The entrepreneurial arm of authorship affords the possibility of personal voice and wide distribution. The challenge is that most split the activities into three recognizable and discreet actions; editing, writing and designing. Even as their own clients, the design remains the vehicle for the written thought. (Kinross, for example, works as a historian then changes hats and becomes a typographer.) Rudy Vanderlans is perhaps the purest of the entrepreneurial authors. Emigre is a project in which the content is the form -- i.e. the formal exploration is as much the content of the magazine as the articles -- the three actions blur into one contiguous whole. Vanderlans expresses his message through the selection of material (as an editor), the content of the writing (as a writer) and the form of the pages and typography (as form giver).

Ellen Lupton and partner Abbott Miller are an interesting variation on this model. A project like The Bathroom,the Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste, an exhibition at the MIT List Gallery, seems to approach a kind of graphic authorship. The message of the exhibit is explicated equally through graphic/visual devices as well as text panels and descriptions. The design of the show evokes the design issues that are the content; it is clearly self reflexive.

Lupton and Miller's work is primarily critical, it forms and represents a reading of exterior social or historical phenomena and explicates that message for a specific audience. But there is a subset of work which is often overlooked by the design community, the illustrated book, which is almost entirely concerned with the generation of creative narrative. Books for children have been one of the most successful venues for the author/artist and bookshops are packed with the fruits of their labors. But many illustrators have used the book in wholly inventive ways and produced serious work. Illustrator/authors include Sue Coe, Art Spiegalman, Charles Burns, David McCaulley, Chris van Allesberg, Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and many others. In addition, the comic book and the graphic novel have generated a renewed interest both in artistic and critical circles. Works like Spiegalman's Maus and Coe's X and Porkopolis expand the form into new areas and suggest expanded possibilities.

Power ploys
If the ways a designer could be an author are complex and confused, the way designers have used the term and the value attributed to it are equally so. Any number of recent statements claim authorship as the panacea to the woes of the brow beaten designer. In an article in Emigre magazine, author Anne Burdick proposed that "...designers must consider themselves authors, not facilitators. This shift in perspective implies responsibility, voice, action... With voice comes a more personal connection and opportunity to explore individual options." A recent call-for-entries for a design exhibition entitled designer as author:voices and visions sought to identify "graphic designers who are engaged in work that transcends the traditional service-oriented commercial production, and who pursue projects that are personal, social or investigative in nature." [my italics] In the rejection of the role of the facilitator and in the call for transcendence, there is the implication that authored design holds some higher, purer purpose. The amplification of the personal voice compels designers to take possession of their texts and legitimizes design as an equal of the more traditionally privileged forms of authorship.

But if the proclivity of the contemporary designer is to open reading and free textual interpretation -- as a litany of contemporary theorists have convinced us -- that desire is thwarted by oppositional theories of authorship. The cult of the author narrows interpretation and replaces the author at center of the work. Foucault noted that the figure of the author is not a particularly liberating one. By transferring the authority of the text back to the author, by focusing on voice, presence becomes a limiting factor, containing and categorizing the work. The author as origin, authority and ultimate owner of the text guards against the free will of the reader. The figure of the author reconfirms the traditional idea of the genius creator, and the esteem or status of the man always frames the work and imbues it with some mythical value.

While some claims for authorship may be as simple as a renewed sense of responsibility, at times they seem to be ploys for property rights, attempts to finally exercise some kind of agency where there has traditionally been none. Ultimately the author = authority. The longing for graphic authorship may be the longing for a kind of legitimacy, or a kind of power, that has so long eluded the obedient designer. But do we get anywhere by celebrating the designer as some central character? Isn't that what fueled the last fifty years of design history? If we really want to move beyond the designer-as-hero model of history, we may have to imagine a time when we can ask "What difference does it make who designed it?"

Perhaps, in the end, authorship is just not a very convincing metaphor with which to describe the activity we understand as design. There are few examples of work which are clearly the product of design authors and not designer/authors and the few clear examples tend to be the exceptions to the rule.

I propose three alternative models for design that, rather than glorify the act and sanctify the practice, attempt to describe the activity as it exists and as it could evolve.
Designer as translator
Designer as performer
Designer as director

The first model, designer as translator is based on the assumption that the act of design is essentially the clarification of material or the remodeling of content from one form to another. The ultimate goal is the expression of a content rendered in a form that reaches a new audience. (I am drawn to this metaphor by Ezra Pound's translations of Asian Character poetry. Pound translated not only the literality of the character but the visual component of the poem as well. Thus the original is rendered as a raw material reshaped into the conventions of Western poetry. The translation becomes a second art.)

Translation is neither scientific, nor ahistorical. Every translation reflects both the character of the original and the spirit of the contemporary as well as the individuality of the translator. (A 1850 translation of the Odessey will be radically different from a 1950 one.)

In certain works of design, the designer remolds the raw material of given content, rendering it legible to a new audience. Like the poetic translator, the designer not only transforms the literal meaning of the elements but must translate the spirit as well. For example Bruce Mau's design of a book version of the Chris Marker's film La Jette attempts to translate the original material from one form to another. Mau is certainly not the author of the work but the translator of form and spirit. The designer is the intermediary.

The performer metaphor is based on the traditional performing arts of theater and music. The actor is not the author of the script, the musician not the composer of the score, but without actor or musician, the art cannot be realized. The actor is the physical expression of the work. Every work could have an infinite number of physical expressions. Every performance recontextualizes the original work. (Here imagine the range of interpretations the plays of Shakespeare.) Each performer brings a certain reading to the work. (No two actors play the same role the same way.)

In this model, the designer transforms and expresses content through graphic devices. The score or script is enhanced and made whole by the performance. And so the designer becomes the physical manifestation of the content; not author but performer; the one who gives life to, who speaks, the content; who contextualizes the content and brings it into the frame of the present.

Examples abound, from early dada, Situationist, and Fluxus experiments to more recent typographic scores like Warren Lehrer's performance typography or experimental typography from Edward Fella or David Carson. The most notable example is perhaps Quenten Fiore's performance of McCluhan. It was Fiore's graphic treatment as much as McCluhan's words that made The Media is the Massage a world wide phenomena. (Other examples include any number of "graphic interpretations" such as Alan Hori's reinvention of Beatrice Warde's Crystal Goblet essay, or Scott Makela improvisation on Tucker Viemiseters lecture both originally printed in Michael Bierut's publication ReThinking Design.)

The third model is the designer as director and is a direct function of bigness. This model is possible only in projects of a scale large enough to imagine a meaning which is manufactured by the arrangement of elements. It is only in large scale installations, advertising campaigns, mass distribution magazines and very large books that we see evidence of such a paradigm.

In such large projects, the designer orchestrates masses of materials to shape meaning from given content. Working like a film director, overseeing a script, a series of performances, a photographers, artists, and a production crews, the meaning of the work is a product of the entire production. Large scale, mass distribution campaigns like those for Nike or Coca-Cola, are examples of the approach. Curatorial projects such as Sean Perkin's catalogue Experience which creates an exhibition of other design projects is another example of the model.

But perhaps the clearest paradigm is Irma Boom's project for SHV corporation. Working in conjunction with an archivist for over five years, Boom shaped a narrative out of a undifferentiated lump of raw data. The meaning and narrative of the book is not a product of the words but almost exclusively the function of the sequence of the pages and the cropping of the images. It is a case of the designer creating meaning almost exclusively through the devices of design. The scale of the book allows for thematic development, contradiction and coincidence.

The value of these models is they accept the multivalent activity of design without resorting to totalizing description. The problem with authorship is that it encourages both a-historical and a-cultural readings of design. It grants too much agency, too much control to the lone artist/genius and discourages interpretation by validating a "right" reading of a work.

On the other hand, work is made by someone. And the difference between the way different subjects approach situations, the way different writers or designers make sense of their worlds, is at the heart of a certain criticism. The challenge is to accept the multiplicity of methods that comprise design language. In the end authorship is only a device to compel designers to rethink process and expand their methods.

If we really need to coin a phrase that describe an activity that encompasses imaging, editing, narration, chronicling, performing, translating, organizing and directing, I'll conclude with a suggestion:

designer=designer.