A short essay on who and how the author is in graphic design.KONTO
In many ways and degrees I consider a designer an author of their work, and work in collaboration with others, whoever those may be. However, I also consider Roland Barthes to be right to some degree; he claims the author is dead 1, metaphorically speaking. In my opinion they are not exactly dead, but merely not the almighty, close-minded figure they were before. Although at the time Barthes made this claim, literary authors on the one hand were following his idea and on the other hand designers were adhering to quite the opposite point of view, and finally started claiming authorship over their work. Micheal Rock said the following, in his 1996 essay Graphic Authorship2.
“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)”
Examples of these two positions, the authorless one designers previously took in versus the textual position they were moving towards resembles the stances of the two famous designers, Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn, in their famous debate Het Debat 3. In this debate it becomes clear that Crouwel rather takes an authorless stance in his work, considering himself the neutral party between project and public, where van Toorn is quite the opposite and considers the designer to be a subjective party that contributes to the message he is designing. Van Toorn’s opinion is most apparent in one of his famous posters for the van Abben Museum in Eindhoven, where he displays social commentary on the money spent on the displayed works of the exposition, and on the money going around in the art world in general.
In my opinion Jan van Toorn shows a great deal more authorship in his work, but that doesn’t mean – however he may consider himself – I don’t consider Wim Crowel is the author of his own work. Van Toorn’s authorship is simply more authoritarian, and present on more levels, including thematically and visually, whereas Crowel’s authorship might only be present visually.
“Our colleagues know on which side I present myself, I believe that as a designer I should never position myself between the sender and the receiver and I try to get the message across as straightforward as possible.” 3
But what if the viewer contributes to your work, and actually helps it bring the work to its final product? Who is the author then? That is the case with Conditional Design’s work Book Nodes & Edges 4 in which books are displayed on cones and evenly spread out in a grid on the floor. Each time a customer takes and buys one of the books, the cone is removed and a line is drawn to connect the purchased books with each other, creating triangles. The triangle must not contain any remaining books and additional lines are drawn in a created triangle, pointing towards the just-purchased book.
When all the books were sold, the piece was finished, but who exactly made it?
In my opinion this is a perfect example of the designer being the author in the beginning and in the end, because they created the concept and the viewer simply participated as needed. Of course the work wouldn’t work without the interaction of an outsider, but the initial idea and eventual outcome is still their work.
So, I’ve asked myself these questions: ‘[how to know] who is the author?’ and ‘how is the author?‘
I see thinking (the development of a concept / idea) and producing (designing) as criteria for being an author, although not necessarily combined. In a client-designer relationship the client can be the thinker and the designer the producer (however when the designer also justifies their design with an idea, they are simultaneously thinker and producer). Thinking and producing play a different role in autonomous design work, where you could consider the designer at a higher level of authorship because the idea originates from them and their needs to create / to give commentary or any other reason anyone would create anything.
Thinking and producing are terms that can be branched out into smaller subsections, that all play an important role on their own in defining an author. Under thinking I consider criticism, whether it be social, design related or self-reflective, also interior meaning or general themes laying in the message of the work, so in general I see thinking as your written or communicated message through work. Whereas producing speaks for itself a little more; I consider the producing of all the final visual aspects – tasks such as editing and designing – under the umbrella term producing. Executing one of each of the two criteria would make you a co-author and would imply someone else was involved to do the other part of the two. While I am of the opinion that executing both acts makes you the author of a work.
In conclusion I think a designer is always to some degree the author of their work. Even when the viewer plays a role in the execution of the design by participating, because you as a designer have conceptualised their behaviour in advance. Also even when you only do part of the job – working for clients without adding conceptual input – an autonomous designer would do. In the end I consider true authorship to be a balanced blend of the thinking and producing of your own work.
Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, 1967 ↩
Micheal Rock, Graphic Authorship, Typotech, 2004, originally published Eye, No. 20 (Spring 1996), pp. 44-53 ↩
Frederike Huygen, Dingenus van de Vrie, Sybrand Zijlstra, Het Debat, Discussies Tussen Wim Crouwel En Jan Van Toorn, 1972 - 1986, Zoo Producties (Eindhoven, 2008) ↩
Studio Moniker / Conditional Design, Book Nodes & Edges, at Mediamatic Fabriek, Amsterdam, 17 May, 2013. ↩