Questions of Authorship

The notion of the “graphic author” is one that is having a increasing impact on the theory and practice of graphic design. Highly respected design writer Rick Poynor was one of the first to coin the term. Here he sets up what we hope will be an ongoing debate by defining graphic authorship and what it means for the industry.

Illustration by Paul Davis
Illustration by Paul Davis

At the end of the 1980s, I had a conversation with Canadian designer Bruce Mau that led me to start thinking about design in a new way. What he wanted, he told me, was to achieve a sense of deep personal investment in his work. Mau wasn’t, of course, the only designer to feel like this. But he was unusually clear when it came to defining his own position and he was already proving his point with some piercingly smart projects for the New York publisher, Zone Books. He mentioned a famous essay by the German writer Walter Benjamin, examining the “author as producer”. The role he was aiming for, he said, neatly reversing the image, was the “producer as author”.

In the last decade, the idea of the “graphic author” has gathered momentum. There have been essays, debates and exhibitions, especially in the US. Many other designers were also proclaiming – if not always achieving – authorial ambitions. In 1995, the appearance of Mau’s name on the cover of the cult book S,M,L,XL, on equal terms with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, was a key moment. Recently, after a quiet spell, the authorship issue has flared up again, with the publication of Mau’s 624-page Life Style, backed up by appearances in London, and Fuel’s Fuel Three Thousand – featured in a recent Creative Review (October).

Much of this is admittedly fairly peripheral to everyday design and the term graphic authorship is still not widely used or understood. Even Fuel, authors in 1996 of Pure Fuel, claim not to have heard it until after that book came out. For others, the trend seems to offer only the opportunity to indulge in cheap sarcasm. “It is no longer good enough to be a plain vanilla designer,” complained Quentin Newark in Design Week. “There is an impulse among a handful of critics and designers to create a better class of designer: the designer as author.” For Newark, graphic authorship’s challenge apparently boils down to nothing more than a distasteful exercise in oneupmanship.

What is clearly needed at this point is a reappraisal of the possibilities and pitfalls of graphic authorship, starting with a definition of what it is. The first thing to note is that “doing” a design does not in itself make someone a graphic author. This needs stating because sometimes, particularly in some Japanese publications, “author” is used as a synonym for “person who made it”.

Nor is graphic authorship merely a fancy way of saying “self-expression”. All design work expresses the person who made it to some degree and all designs will involve an element of interpretation by the designer of material given by the client. Over the years, deciding exactly how much self-expression design should include has been the subject of endless debate and the profession has frequently acted to police itself. When a design becomes too personal and seems to leave its intended purpose behind, fellow designers are likely to pronounce that it is “art” not design.

Sometimes, too, the designer acts much like an editor, carrying out research, commissioning copywriters, shaping visual and textual contributions. However, this is most likely to happen in “soft” editorial areas such as brochures and annual reports. Such freedoms are much rarer in newspaper, magazine and book publishing. This is what made Mau’s successful struggle for editorial recognition so significant.

Early discussion of graphic authorship often focused on graphic style as a vehicle for a coded extra layer of private communication superimposed on the client’s basic message. Many designers developed highly visible signature styles, and some made no secret of their disenchantment with the messages they were asked to convey. But what, you might ask, made the designer’s vague desire for self-expression more important than the client’s content, banal or not? In retrospect, many of these experiments can be seen for what they were: signs of profound, underlying cultural and technological change, transitional pictures of the prevailing climate, but not the way forward. Few now argue that style alone, however inventive, can be the medium for an authorial vision.

Graphic authorship recognises the self-expressive aspect of the design process, but pushes it to a much higher level of intention. Someone writing a letter or planting flowers in a garden expresses him or herself; that doesn’t make the results literature or landscape architecture. Authorship is a more deliberate and self-conscious process. If they want to engage and enlighten others, graphic authors need – just like any author – to have pressing, original or penetrating observations to make about their experiences of the world and the conviction to express them in public. Their work needs to be about something and this cannot simply be a superficial reaction to subject matter given by a client. No one prescribes the content of a novel, a sequence of poems, or a piece of installation art. The motivation comes from an inner urge to make some form of personal statement.

This is a point that hasn’t been made strongly enough in discussions of graphic authorship. A designer may have the luck to find a long-term patron, who will offer conditions of unusual freedom and a continuous flow of projects on which to build a personal vision. Think of Reid Miles’ relationship with the Blue Note jazz label in the 1960s, or Vaughan Oliver’s with 4AD Records in the 1980s, or Mau’s 15-year “intellectual adventure” – as he put it – with Zone Books. Then again, you can work for years and never encounter such a client.

If designers want full authorial control, the most effective way is to instigate their own projects. Design, as the designer’s natural area of expertise, is most often the subject matter – from Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography to Paul Rand’s A Designer’s Art. More recent exponents are American husband-and-wife team Ellen Lupton and J Abbott Miller, authors of the influential visual essay collection Design Writing Research (1996). Design historian Robin Kinross, having spent many years researching, writing and editing his study of Anthony Froshaug, then proceeded to typeset, design, proofread and publish the two volumes himself in autumn 2000.

These are impressive projects. Yet it seems to me that the real test of graphic authorship’s viability and potential lies outside the self-referential domain of design. Could it be used to address the broad range of topics and audiences routinely handled by ordinary authorship? Might the techniques and devices of graphic design be borrowed to present ideas, impressions, arguments and analysis in brand new ways? Are there subjects that would benefit from breaking out of the traditional pattern, still firmly in place in mainstream publishing culture, that insists editors and writers define the agenda and says the visual person’s role is to support and illustrate?

Here, examples are harder to find. One under-sung pioneer, based in London, is David King, former art editorof the Sunday Times magazine. In the last 30 years, King has researched, edited, designed and sometimes written a remarkable series of politically engaged, photographic histories based on material in his world-class archive of Soviet photographs. Without a demanding subject matter like this, would-be graphic authors tend to fall back on their own resources. It’s obvious what King’s documentary books are about, although they certainly don’t lack depth, complexity or resonance. But what is Process; a Tomato Project about? Or Fuel Three Thousand? It’s hardly surprising that work this close to art’s territory seems to confound as many viewers as it engages. The constant danger with such projects is that designers mistake obscurity for profundity.

Fuel are painfully aware of the standard such work will need to attain to be convincing outside the design ghetto. They are similarly realistic in acknowledging there is a distinction between the work they make for clients and the work they make for themselves. This doesn’t mean their commercial design lacks commitment or interpretative intelligence; it just means they have found they have greater freedom to express their own peculiar vision, without compromise, in their self-initiated magazines, films and books.

This is likely to be a sticking point for designers who would love to believe – like Mau – that graphic authorship might be achievable within the framework of a client’s commission. In Life Style, Mau shows two diagrams comparing the typical trajectory of a book project, with design entering at the end after all the key decisions about content have been made, and his preferred model, with design involved from the start of the research process. S,M,L,XL appeared to vindicate the Mau method, but speaking about it at the time, one of his colleagues, Nigel Smith, was sceptical about his claims: “It’s not about Mau, it’s about Koolhaas. The author is the person who creates the text. You can’t claim authorship because you made the page pink.”

Listening to Mau at the ICA, during his recent visit, those words of caution came to mind. “The content – what is being said – is the trigger for form,” Mau writes in Life Style. “Our goal is to produce an environment of collaboration for the development and integration of content and form.” Few designers would take issue with this. It’s central, at least in theory, to almost all graphic design – but it isn’t graphic authorship. At the ICA, Mau readily confessed he was both ambitious and “lazy” (his word) and happy to allow his employees to run with the ball. This makes perfect sense in a busy studio; everybody does it – but, again, it isn’t graphic authorship. The term “designer as director”, coined by American critic Michael Rock, is a more accurate description of this way of working.

Do these intricacies really matter? Yes, because there is a chance here, with self-awareness and rigorous thinking, to open stimulating new channels of communication. Some of the last decade’s most adventurous graphic projects have come from people chipping away at limiting conventional definitions of graphic design. Graphic authorship makes a huge claim for itself and presents some tough critical challenges. It isn’t a panacea. It can take many different forms. The only way to begin to decide whether it is truly present in a graphic project is by undertaking a critical reading of the work itself – the kind of reading more usually given to literature, art, music, or architecture. This sharpens our sense of the possible, introduces points of comparison, highlights problems and establishes vital benchmarks.

Beneath it all, though, lies a straightforward proposition. Why shouldn’t someone with something urgent of their own to say, a subject to explore, a passionate point of view to transmit, choose to express these ideas by primarily graphic means? If you can see no reason why design shouldn’t be used for this purpose at least some of the time, then you understand what graphic authorship is about.

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Graphic Designer

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
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Integrated Designer

Centaur Media