Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

The Producers

“The Producers,” essay by Ellen Lupton, published in Ellen Lupton, Susan Yelavich, Donald Albrecht, and Mitch Owen, Inside Design Now: National Design Triennial, 2003. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. T-shirt by Geoff McFetridge.

“I’m rocking on your dime,” says the panda bear. The bear is sitting at a bar, a beer and a cigarette in front of him. His flat silhouette appears on a t-shirt by Geoff McFetridge, a young designer based in Los Angeles. McFetridge and his slouchy, working-class panda convey the attitude of an increasingly influential set of designers who want to shape the content and conditions of the work they do. “I’m rocking on your dime,” says the designer who sees the client as a source of capital for creating inventive work equipped with a cultural life.

Graphic design is, among the design professions, the area most at blame for visual waste and overload in modern society. Graphic design often serves as a lubricant for other disciplines (product design, architecture, fashion) and as the gloss and glitter of the media industries (publishing, film, television, the Internet). Typically, graphic designers provide the spit and polish but not the shoe.

Not so for some of the most interesting designers working today. They are writing books as well as designing them. They are creating products, furniture, garments, textiles, typefaces, databases, magazines, novels, music, critical essays, films, and videos. They have become producers, working to initiate ideas and make them happen.

The phrase “designer as author” appeared in the 1990s to describe new aspirations for the practice of graphic design. The word author suggests agency and creation, as opposed to the more passive functions of consulting, styling, and formatting. As an author, the designer could create books, exhibitions, posters, or publications whose outcome was not dictated by a client. Furthermore, a designer could develop a “signature style,” a uniquely recognizable visual penmanship.

In his 1996 essay “The Designer as Author,” Michael Rock described the contradictions as well as the freedoms suggested by authorship.1 The concept of the lone creator had long been attacked within literary studies. In 1968 the French theorist Roland Barthes had proclaimed the “death of the author,” the end of the writer as a singular, self-contained voice. Barthes described the circulation of signs, styles, and genres within the vast social system that constitutes literature. Meaning is made by readers as well as writers.2

In the early 1990s, Michael Rock became prominent within the graphic design field as a critic and educator. He founded the firm 2×4 with Susan Sellers and Georgie Stout in 1993, where he and his colleagues were able to fold ideas developed as writers, teachers, and students into an influential design practice. Many of the studio’s projects are based in research; the outcomes promote flexible use by clients and audiences. In place of forging a “signature style,” 2×4 works to uncover visual forms from popular culture or from a client’s own history. In Rock’s words, “Ultimately the author equals authority….We may have to imagine a time when we can ask, ‘What difference does it make who designed it?’…The primary concern of both the viewer and critic is not who made it, but rather what it does and how it does it.“3

While the author may be a solitary originator of content, the producer is part of a system of making. In the context of contemporary media, a producer is, typically, someone who puts together a team, builds a budget, and secures access to distribution networks. In music and television, a producer is in charge of the technical aspects of a project. A producer—whether functioning in an executive capacity or a technical one—belongs to a network of creative and economic collaborators.

The German critic Walter Benjamin attacked the traditional definition of authorship in his essay “The Author as Producer” (1934). He exclaimed that new forms of communication—film, radio, advertising, newspapers, the illustrated press—were melting down traditional artistic genres and corroding the borders between writing and reading. Benjamin wrote: “What we require of the photographer is the ability to give his picture the caption that wrenches it from modish commerce and gives it a revolutionary useful value. But we shall make this demand most emphatically when we—the writers—take up photography. Here, too, therefore, technical progress is for the author as producer the foundation of political progress.“4 Benjamin claimed that to bridge the divide between author and publisher, reader and writer, poet and popularizer, is a revolutionary act that challenges the social institutions of literature and art.

Benjamin celebrated the proletarian ring of production—as opposed to the bourgeois solititude implied by authorship. Within graphic design practice, production refers to the preparation of artwork for manufacture. Production is design’s blue-collar, hourly-wage base. It is the traditional domain of the paste-up artist, the film stripper, the hand-letterer, and the typesetter.

Graphic design emerged as a distinct discipline during the mid-twentieth century. In the old-fashioned model of the commercial arts, a printing company determined the look of a poster or advertisement and then physically produced it. The printing firm often set the type, laid it out on the page, and provided illustrations. As these services split apart, the designer became the provider of ideas and director of production.

The “desktop” revolution that began in the mid-1980s merged many production activities back into the process of design. Today, a designer sitting at a computer workstation can set copy, correct text, and retouch photographs, as well as create and manipulate sound, video, animations, and interfaces. The result is both a proletarianization of design and new access to creating and manipulating content. Such changes have enabled a small company such as HunterGatherer to produce print graphics, films, and Websites as well as designs for textiles, t-shirts, and furniture.

Independent entrepreneurs are now leaders of the typeface industry, once dominated by large manufacturers who could finance the creative development, tooling, manufacture, and distribution of fonts. House Industries aims to infuse digital typography with the qualities of hand-lettering and sign painting. The Hoefler Typefoundry creates fonts commissioned by clients or offered directly to designers via mail-order and the Internet. Paul Elliman creates typefaces that are exploratory and experimental rather than commercial.

Like these font producers, Charles S. Anderson creates raw material for use by other designers. CSA Archives is a collection of digital illustrations and photographs. Anderson conceives his enterprise as a direct challenge to the huge stock houses that dominate the business and sell clichéd, leftover images at prices that undercut independent photographers and illustrators. Many of his images poke fun at the depictions of wholesome “professionals” that fill standard stock catalogs.

Dave Eggers has built a unique practice out of the convergence of design, production, and authorship. A self-described “hack designer and Macintosh temp,” Eggers founded the journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, in 1998, at age 28. He used his basic production skills to publish the journal himself. McSweeney’s quickly drew attention from the literary world, in part because of its brazenly bookish design. Resisting the corporate control of bookstores, Eggers makes McSweeney’s publications available only online or through independent booksellers, not through large chains.

Although his early work included menial forms of production, Eggers is now an editor, publisher, and author—a producer in the executive sense. In 2000 Simon & Schuster published the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, about how Eggers, at age 22, lost his parents and became the guardian of his eight-year-old brother, Toph. Designed by Eggers, the book became a bestseller.5 As Eggers proves, the author isn’t dead, he has just learned how to set type. The book isn’t dead, either, despite frequent warnings of its imminent demise. The 1,376-page tome S, M, L, XL, coauthored by architect Rem Koolhaas and graphic designer Bruce Mau in 1996, spurred the publication of other big books, including Mau’s own Life Style (626 pages) and John Maeda’s Maeda@Media (480 pages). An editor of design and architecture books was quoted in the New York Times about how contemporary architects are rushing to publish their own big volumes. “We get lots of fat-book proposals,” he said. Technology allows architects—for better or worse—to control the design, editing, and writing of their own books. “And they understand the book as a physical object, one that should take up a great deal of space.“6

Perhaps the biggest book of 2002 is A New Kind of Science, by Stephen Wolfram. The book, more than 1,200 pages long, provides a new theory of nature that aims to rewrite nearly every field of scientific study.7 Wolfram executed his research on a computer in his home office, using a software program (Mathematica) of his own design. Wolfram chose to present his research in a single printed volume, edited and designed by his own private company, Wolfram Media. He thus rejected the academic protocol of submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals in favor of what might be called “vanity publishing” were it not for the importance of what he has created.

Wolfram insists that no conventional publisher could have adequately produced his huge book, which is filled with detailed computer-generated illustrations. Furthermore, the magnitude of his ideas demands presentation in a single bound volume—a book holding the key to life itself. Dribbling out his research in a series of separate articles would have lacked the impact of one sweeping text, the culmination of ten years of work. This scientist has become author and entrepreneur, an academic outsider who has made his research into products for his own use and distribution.

Although Wolfram’s New Kind of Science is the work of a single author, it nonetheless represents the labors of many people—graphic designers, font designers, layout assistants, proofreaders, program testers, and a manufacturing manager—but, curiously enough, no editor.8 Traditionally, an editor mediates between intellectual authorship and material production. Indeed, many publishing houses refuse to let authors meddle with the physical realization of their works. In the book designs of J. Abbott Miller, Lorraine Wild, and Bruce Mau, the graphic designer becomes an editor, actively shaping the organization, content, and even the basic conception of a book.

Graphic designers also have become editors of magazines. Miller edits and art directs the journal 2wice; Joseph Holtzman is editor, art director, and publisher of the quarterly nest. Holtzman, who sees himself first as an interior designer, brings the skewed perspective of an outsider to the medium of print. Working with an almost amateur sense of typography and layout, he brings the decorative intensity of a room to his strange and elaborate pages.

The Internet has allowed people of all manner of obsession and prior training to try on the roles of editor and publisher. Although the pornography business survived the collapse of the dot-com bubble better than literary magazines did, the Web remains a place where serious content can be developed and distributed. At Picture Projects, Alison Cornyn and Sue Johnson produce Websites that document issues such as abuse and overpopulation in the U.S. penal system, using clean, elegant interfaces to weave together visual and verbal content. Futurefarmers, founded by Amy Franceschini, reflects on issues of ecology and community by building interactive landscapes inhabited by candy-colored animated characters—Hello Kitty meets the rain forest.

Mike Mills is a graphic designer who has become a filmmaker. Mills directs television commercials for corporations such as Nike, Volkswagen, and The Gap as well as independent films and music videos. As pointed out in the pop culture journal Surface, Geoff McFetridge’s slogan “I’m rocking on your dime” describes Mills’s attitude toward the film business. He sees real opportunities for creativity in mass-media work, and, furthermore, such projects help him pursue his own independent films.9

Whereas the term author, like designer, suggests the cerebral workings of the mind, producer privileges the activity of the body. Production values things over ideas, making over imagining, practice over theory. Graphic designers today have opportunities to bring these spheres together, to actively mediate between form and content. By understanding the tools of physical production, they are achieving greater intellectual and economic control of their work.