Discussing Ellen Lupton’s Designer as Producer and Andrew Blauvelt’s Tool (or Post-Production for the Graphic Designer).Keyslider.otf
In an ongoing variety on the topic of authorship and production within Graphic Design, including Walter Benjamin’s 1934 essay 'The Author as Producer'1 and Micheal Rock’s 'The Designer as Author'2, Ellen Lupton coins the phrase and title of an essay of her own 'The Designer as Producer'.3 Reflecting on Lupton’s aforementioned essay, she frames the significance of production within Graphic Design, in her current age (1998) of desktop publishing. She sees it as the mission of the Graphic Design student’s educator, to help them become masters, and not slaves, of technology and the modern means of production. Empowering the students to become producers as well as consumers of meaning. 14 years later this essay was combined in support of an exhibition in the Walker Art Centre called Graphic Design: Now In Production, which amongst others, featured Micheal Rock’s essay from 2009 'Fuck Content'4, as a pointing reflection on the interpretation of his The Designer as Author, and Andrew Blauvelt’s essay from 2011 'Tool (or Post-Production for the Graphic Designer)'5; the latter which I will discuss here in relation to Lupton’s aforestated essay.
Andrew Blauvelt, reacts more specifically than Lupton, on the ways desktop publishing has transformed the practice of the graphic designer. He starts his essay cunningly, quoting a Ed Fella describing a collage of tools on the work-surface of a typical designer circa 1975, saying “The only thing left is the coffee”.6 Throughout his essay he spans a variety of analyses on how the territory of the designer has expanded into the field of production, spanning multiple processes formerly executed by specialised professionals.
Both essays seem to agree on the newly formed expectations and responsibilities of the designer as producer, and the impact the means of production can have on the design’s / designer’s message. However, Lupton admits that within the professional context of graphic design, ‘production’ is still liked to the preparation of work for mechanical reproduction, an activity of the body rather than, like ‘design’, belonging to the intellectual realm of the mind. She goes on encouraging educators to enhance student’s verbal literacy, without forcing them to become writers; to infuse the act of making with the act of thinking; and to familiarise students with the tools and the ways used to spread information and ideas in contemporary life. She closes her essay eloquently saying: “For the designer to become a producer, she must have the skills to begin directing content, by critically navigating the social, aesthetic, and technological systems across which communications flow.”3
Blauvelt, more than a decade later, initially takes a more critical standpoint to production having entered the practice of graphic design, compared to Lupton’s start-of-a-new-era optimism. He states that the designer is not properly prepared for the skills that were formally outsourced, that they now have control over and are expected to operate. He quotes Lorain Wild, who as Lupton, wrote in 1998, a decade after the personal computer was introduced to Graphic Design. She put the paradox of the situation at hand to words: “(…) many designers believe that our futures depend on our ability to deliver conceptual solutions; but, ironically, digital technology has driven production back into the office, requiring constant attention. Design practice today requires the intellectual power of a think tank and the turnaround capacity of a quickie-printer.”7
Compared to the single spread Lupton’s initial essay takes up in the exhibition’s catalog, Blauvelt, with five spreads has much more space to elaborate and question the topic of production within Graphic Design. He describes how the value of the designer was questioned, because what the designer used to produce their work, could now be done with anyone with a computer. The value of traditional skill had also shifted because of the efficiency of these means of production, in combination with its widespread availably of them to a larger public. So as an effect, the impression was that the answer to this loss of value of graphic design practice, was not to be found in production (since ‘everyone was capable of it’), but rather in the realm of conception (where a select group could be ‘taught to be capable’ of it), to distinguish themselves. But Blauvelt goes on to highlight an important part of what I came to see as a misconception of this way of distinguishing between the ‘designer’ and ‘anyone with a computer’: “This path was chosen despite the fact that the computer could not immediately demystify the more intangible aspects of design work: the craft of typography, the form-making skills honed in years of education and practice, the passion and devotion to an activity that many likened to an artistic pursuit, or the problem-solving skills, communication strategies, and ideation techniques learned typically through experience. Despite these important distinctions between novices and professionals, the field pursued a trajectory that emphasized its more verbal (as opposed to visual) and businesslike (rather than artistlike) attributes.”5
This focus on the conceptual skills of the graphic designer, to be able to distinguish themselves from the mass of online-amateurs has, as a logical effect, also been adopted by academies that teach in Graphic Design. However, incidentally or sometimes even purposefully, this philosophy often devalues and even overlooks the formal, visual and material aspects of design. Steering students away from discovering and most of all, mastering what the academy considers the more ‘decorative’, ‘trendy’ and ‘superficial’ characteristics of design. These aesthetic properties of design, are what in my opinion give strength to the message they carry. If you don’t bold a powerful statement, you automatically weaken its potential to be perceived as strong. I believe that this content and concept focused curriculum, creates a huge loss of potential quality in the work of graphic design students. Graphic designers have even begun calling themselves ‘researchers’, who are generating content, often stumbling into topics to which entire Bachelor- and Master educations of Science are dedicated to. How have we missed that we have started behaving like ‘anyone with a computer’ ourselves? Only in terms of content.
In conclusion, I wonder why it is that when we got handed this new tool, which enabled us to revolutionise graphic design — literally without the outstretch of an arm (or chance of lead-poisoning) — we chose exactly not to focus on translating, reinventing and remastering for example the craft of typography and layout. Instead we turned, seemingly with our tails between our legs, to value the creation concepts and content. With the assumption in mind that the designers who preceded the computer, would still master that same typographical craft while working on the computer. We fail to realise that now we have almost, reached a generation of design students who grew up during the given presence of a computer, who will never in their education, practice an analog craftsmanship such as letter-pressing. However, it is not craftsmanship I believe that should’ve been devalued by the designer, only the medium has lost value because it can be done more efficiently. So, I think it is time to discover: What is and can be our digital craftsmanship?
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’, address delivered at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, Paris, 27 April, 1934. Reproduced in Reflections, translated by Edmund Jephcott, published exclusively in the United States and Canada by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., and used by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. An alternative translation appears in Understanding Brecht, New Left Books, 1977.↩
Micheal Rock, ‘The Designer as Author’, First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5 1996. http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/the-designer-as-author↩
Ellen Lupton, ‘The Designer as Producer’, published in The Education of a Graphic Designer, ed. Steven Heller (New York: Allworth Press, 1998), 159-62. Reprinted in Graphic Design: Now in Production, ed. Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2012), p. 12-13.↩
Michael Rock, ‘Fuck Content’, written in 2009, Published in Graphic Design: Now in Production, ed. Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2012), p.14-15. Reproduced in Multiple Signatures: On Designers, Authors, Readers and Users (New York: Rizzoli International, 2013)↩
Andrew Blauvelt, ‘Tool (or Post-Production for the Graphic Designer)’, written in 2011, published in Graphic Design: Now in Production, ed. Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2012), p. 22-31.↩
Lorraine Wild, ‘The Macrame of Resistance’, Emigre 47 (Summer 1998), p.15. ↩