Designer as Author

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

Authorship, in one form or another, has been a popular term in graphic design circles, especially those at the edge of the profession, the design academies and the murky territories that exist between design and art. The word authorship has a ring of importance: it connotes seductive ideas of origination and agency. But the question of how designers become authors is a difficult one, and exactly who the designer/authors are and what authored design looks like depends entirely on how you define the term and the criteria you choose to grant entrance into the pantheon.

Authorship may suggest new approaches to understanding 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 deserve careful evaluation. What does it really mean to call for a graphic designer to be an author?

What is an author?

That question has been an area of intense scrutiny over the last forty years. The meaning of the word itself has shifted significantly over time. The earliest definitions are not associated with writing; in fact the most inclusive is a “person who originates or gives clearly index authoritarian — even patriarchal — connotations: “father of all life,” “any inventor, constructor or founder,” “one who begets,” and a “director, commander, or ruler.”

All literary theory, from Aristotle on, has in some form or another been theory of authorship. Since this is not a history of the author but a consideration of the author as metaphor, I’ll start with recent history. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s, seminal text, “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946), drove an early wedge between the author and the text, dispelling the notion that 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 in an essay of that title, 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.

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

Foucault posits that the earliest sacred texts were authorless, their origins lost in ancient history (the Vedas, the Gospels, etc.). The very anonymity of the text served as a certain kind of authentication. The author’s name was symbolic, rarely attributable to an individual. (The Gospel of Luke, for instance, is a diversity of texts gathered under the rubric of Luke, someone who may indeed have lived and written parts, but not the totality, of what we now think of as the complete work.)

Scientific texts, at least through the Renaissance, demanded an author’s name as validation. Far from objective truth, science was based in subjective invention and the authority of the scientist. This changed with the rise of the scientific method. Scientific discoveries and mathematical proofs were no longer in need of authors because they were perceived as discovered truths rather than authored ideas. The scientist revealed extant phenomena, facts anyone faced with the same conditions would discover. The scientist and the mathematician could claim to have been first to discover a paradigm, and lend their name to the phenomenon, but could never claim authorship over it. (The astronomer who discovers a new star may name it but does not conjure it.) Facts were universal and thus eternally preexisiting.

By the 18th century, Foucault suggests, 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.

The codification of ownership over a text is often dated to the adoption of the Statute of Anne (1709) by the British Parliament, generally considered the first real copyright act. The first line of the law is revealing: “Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing… Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors… to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families…” The statute secures the right to benefit financially from a work and for the author to preserve its textual integrity. That authorial right was deemed irrevocable. Text came to be seen as a form of private property. A romantic criticism arose that reinforced that relationship, searching for critical keys in the life and intention of the writer.

By laying a legal ground for ownership, the Statute of Anne defines who is, and isn’t, an author. It was a thoroughly modern problem. No one had owned the sacred texts. The very fact that the origins of sacred texts were lost in history, their authors either composites or anonymous, gave them their authority. The gospels in their purest form were public domain. Any work to be done, and any arguments to have, were interpretive. The authors referred to in the Statute were living, breathing — and apparently highly litigious — beings. The law granted them authority over the meaning and use of their own words.

Ownership of the text, and the authority granted to authors at the expense of the creative reader, fueled much of the 20th century’s obsession with authorship. Post-structuralist reading of authorship tends to critique the prestige attributed to the figure of the author and to suggest or speculate about a time after his fall from grace.

Postmodernity turns on what Fredric Jameson identified as a “fragmented and schizophrenic decentering and dispersion” of the subject. Decentered text — a text that is skewed from the direct line of communication from sender to receiver, severed from the authority of its origin, a free — floating element in a field of possible significations — figures heavily in 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,” is often misconstrued. Rather than working to incorporate theory into their methods of production, many selfproclaimed 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. (This technique went something like: “Theory is complicated, so my design is complicated.”) The rather dark implications of Barthes’ theory, note Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, were refashioned into a “romantic theory of self-expression.”

After years in the somewhat thankless position of the faceless facilitator, many designers were ready to speak 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. By the ’70s, design began to discard some of the scientistic approach that held sway for several decades. (As early as the ’20s, Trotsky was labeling formalist artists the “chemists of art.”) That approach was evident in the 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 critiques 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. Müller-Brockmann and a slew of fellow researchers like Kepes, Dondis and 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 Müller-Brockmann’s writing is his reliance on tropes of submission: the designer submits to the will of the system, forgoes personality and withholds interpretation.

In his introduction to Compendium for Literates, which attempts a highly formal dissection of writing, Karl Gerstner claims about the organization of his book that “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, contemporary designers were moving from authorless, scientific text — in which inviolable visual principles 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 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 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’ essay, “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 social revolution. To call for the overthrow of authority — in the form of the author — in favor of the reader — read: the masses — had real resonance in 1968. But to lose power you must have already worn the mantle, and so designers had a bit of a dilemma overthrowing a power they may never have possessed.

On the other hand, the figure of the author implies 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. The development of film theory in the 1950s serves as an interesting example.

Almost ten years before Barthes made his famous proclamation, film critic and budding director François Truffaut proposed “La politique des auteurs,” a polemical strategy to reconfigure a critical theory of the cinema. The problem facing the auteur theorists was how to create a theory that imagined the film, necessarily a work of broad collaboration, as a work of a single artist and thus a singular work of art. The solution was to develop a set of criteria that allowed a critic to decree certain directors auteurs. In order to establish the film as a work of art, auteur theory required 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 — held that 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 important, through choice of projects and cinematic treatment, demonstrate a consistent vision and evoke a palpable interior meaning through his work. Since the film director often had little control over the choice of the material — especially in the Hollywood studio system that assigned directors to projects — the signature way he treated a varying range of scripts and subjects was especially important in establishing a director’s auteur credentials. As Roger Ebert summed up the idea: “A film is not what it is about, it’s how it is about it.”

The interesting thing about the auteur theory was that, unlike literary critics, film theorists, like designers, had to construct the notion of the author. It was a legitimizing strategy, a method to raise what was considered low entertainment to the plateau of fine art. By crowning the director the author of the film, critics could elevate certain subjects to the status of high art. That elevation, in turn, would grant the director new freedoms in future projects. (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 palates.)

The parallel to design practice is useful. Like the film director, the art director or designer is often assigned his or her material and often works collaboratively in a role directing 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; any inner meaning must come through the aesthetic treatment as much as from the content.

If we apply the auteur criteria to graphic designers we find a body of work that may be elevated to auteur status. Technical proficiency could be fulfilled by any number of practitioners, but couple technical proficiency with a signature style and the field narrows. The list of names that meet those two criteria would be familiar, as that work is often published, awarded and praised. (And, of course, that selective republishing of certain work to the exclusion of other work 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 realm of deeper meaning the way a Bergman, Hitchcock or Welles does?

In these cases the graphic auteur must both seek projects that fit his or her vision and then tackle a project from a specific, recognizable critical perspective. For example, Jan van Toorn might be expected to approach a brief for a corporate annual report from a critical socioeconomic position.

But 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 of a 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 a director spends his whole career making variations on the same film.) Think of the almost fetishistic way 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 — a message that transcends stylistic elegance. (You have to ask yourself, “What’s the work about?”) Perhaps it’s an absence or presence of an overriding philosophy or individual spirit that diminishes some designed works and elevates others.

We may have been applying a modified graphic auteur theory for 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 — “I can’t say what it is but I know it when I see it” — is the Achilles heel 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 passé, its effect is still with us: to this day, when we think of film structure, the director is squarely in the middle.

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, a number of paradigms on which we could base our practice: the artist book, concrete poetry, political activism, publishing, illustration.

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 Spiekermann, 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 in this category split the activities into three recognizable and discrete actions: editing, writing and designing. Design remains the vehicle for their written thought even when they are acting as their own clients. (Kinross, for example, works as a historian and 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 a form-giver).

Ellen Lupton and her partner J. Abbott Miller are an interesting variation on this model. “The Bathroom, the Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste,” an exhibition at MIT and a book, seems to approach a kind of graphic authorship. The message is explicated equally through graphic/visual devices as well as text panels and descriptions. The design of the exhibition and the book evoke design issues that are also 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 often overlooked by the design community, the illustrated book, that 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. Many illustrators have used the book in wholly inventive ways and produced serious work. Illustrator/authors include Sue Coe, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, David Macaulay, Chris Van Allsburg, 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. Spiegelman’s Maus and Coe’s X and Porkopolis suggest expanded possibilities.

Power ploys

If the ways a designer can be an author are myriad, complex and often confusing, 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 browbeaten designer. In an article in Emigre, 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 titled “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.” In the rejection of the role of the facilitator and in the call for transcendence lies 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, as a chorus of contemporary theorists have convinced us, the proclivity of the contemporary designer is toward open reading and free textual interpretation, that desire is thwarted by oppositional theories of authorship. The cult of the author narrows interpretation and places the author at the 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 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 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 traditionally there has been none. 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-ashero 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 not a very convincing metaphor for the activity we understand as design. There are a few examples of work that is clearly the product of design authors and not designer/authors, and these tend to be exceptions to the rule.

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

Designer as translator

This is based on the assumption that the act of design is, in essence, the clarification of material or the remodeling of content from one form to another. The ultimate goal is the expression of a given content rendered in a form that reaches a new audience. I am drawn to this metaphor by Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese character poetry. Pound translated not only the meaning of the characters 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: An 1850s translation of the Odyssey will be radically different from a 1950s translation.

In certain works, the designer remolds the raw material of given content, rendering it legible to a new audience. Like the poetic translator, the designer transforms not only the literal meaning of the elements but the spirit, too. For example, Bruce Mau’s design of a book version of Chris Marker’s 1962 film, “La Jetée,” 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.

Designer as performer

The performer metaphor is based on theater and music. The actor is not the author of the script, the musician is 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 has an infinite number of physical expressions. Every performance re-contextualizes the original work. (Imagine the range of interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays.) Each performer brings a certain reading to the work. No two actors play the same role in 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 likewise becomes the physical manifestation of the content, not author but performer, the one who gives life to, who speaks the content, contextualizing it and bringing 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 Quentin Fiore’s performance of McLuhan. It was Fiore’s graphic treatment as much as McLuhan’s words that made The Medium is the Massage a worldwide phenomena. (Other examples include any number of “graphic interpretations,” such as Allen Hori’s reinvention of Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet essay, or P. Scott Makela’s improvisation on Tucker Viemeister’s lecture, both originally printed in Michael Bierut’s Rethinking Design.)

Designer as director

This model is a function of bigness. Meaning is manufactured by the arrangement of elements, so there must be many elements at play. Only in large-scale installations, advertising campaigns, mass-distribution magazines and very large books do we see evidence of this paradigm.

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

One of the clearest examples is Irma Boom’s project for SHV Corporation. Working in conjunction with an archivist for more than five years, Boom created narrative from a mass of data, a case of the designer creating meaning almost exclusively via the devices of design: the narrative is not a product of words but almost exclusively of the sequence of pages and the cropping of images. The scale of the book allows for thematic development, contradiction, and coincidence.

The value of these models is that they accept the multivalent activity of design without resorting to totalizing description. The problem with the authorship paradigm alone is that it encourages both ahistorical and acultural 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 writers or designers approach situations and make sense of the world is at the heart of a certain criticism. The challenge is to accept the multiplicity of methods that comprise design language. Authorship is only one device to compel designers to rethink process and expand their methods.

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

designer = designer.

This article is an adaptation of Graphic Authorship (1996) for publication in Multiple Signatures: On Designers, Authors, Readers and Users (Spring 2013)

© Michael Rock