GRAPHIC DESIGN IN DIGITAL CAPITALIST SOCIETY: PROBLEMS AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
In his 'In the Flow' Boris Groys suggests that the supreme objective of humanity was always, from the very beginning of civilisation, the search of totality. Totality as universality, thereby a way out of particularity, the only possibility to stop being just a part and become a whole. (Groys, 2018)
Traditionally the role of immortalising unifier of society was a competence of religion and church. By the end of the XIX century, industrial revolution rendered humanity even more powerful than any gods our predecessors could imagine. The rise of computer era and the internet in particular was one of the most promising ways to consolidate civilisation and build a free society. However, by 2020, many media critics, such as Geert Lovink, agreed that eventually the internet turned into an ugly dystopian capitalism-driven machine that produces precarity and creative underclass. One of the specialities affected mostly was graphic design. (Lovink, 2019)
II. Background & Context
Traditionally being a field that separates conceptual part from production due to the complexity of technical processes, graphic design required dozens of specialities within itself. But with the emergence of desktop publishing, suddenly a huge range of production artists, from typesetters and colour separators to printers and photomechanical technicians, became outdated all at once. One ultimate tool replaced thousands of people.
Andrew Blauvelt in 'Tools, or Post-production for The Graphic Designer' writes that graphic design tools of the past were bearing a gatekeeping function, which was eliminated with an open access to digital instruments. In a long term, this easiness did not only demystified design practice, but increased general awareness of the activity as such, leading to the growth of interest towards design. More designers began to appear, including self-taught, as the border between being a newbie and a professional started to erode. In the first decade after the rise of computer era, the competition within a field of graphic design went up, while wages went down, the craft experienced a decline, and the market became flooded with amateur work. (Blauvelt, 2011)
In 'What Design Can't Do', Silvio Lorusso mentions that among the variety of trends proliferating within the internet, appropriation is one of the main. And if in the 1980s designers were already referring to works of the past, like Russian Constructivism, a decade ago focus had shifted to the 'design without designers', as Lorusso puts it. Tibor Kalman was one of the first to resort to vernacularity and find a fascination in everyday graphics. In the beginning it seemed like the contextual field of widely acknowledged design expands beyond the limits of established culture, allowing for a variety to bloom. But in the 2000s, with the development of internet culture, graphic design was eventually deprived of any reference points and became a chaotic mixture of all imaginable visual genres. (Lorusso, 2017)
As design became more accessible, Blauvelt notes, the people from outside the profession started to explore image making with a new passion, discovering processes and possibilities that were unthinkable before, especially for a non-designer. While an older generation of designers was experiencing a crisis of identity, the young ones began to shape a new market. The internet provided them with immense flow of references and platforms to publish works on, at the same time not allowing to choose a particular audience to target. The information started to circulate and spread faster than ever, creating what Blauvelt calls 'a feedback loop', when one design decision, being a reaction to the previously seen one, gives birth to another one, and often this appropriation has a purely visual, contextless nature. This constant stream of responses shaped a new post-critical space, a postmodern version of Dark Age. (Blauvelt, 2011)
By the mid 2000s, Graphic design became a part of popular culture. But not only this. Gradually it started to appear in contexts that previously didn't imply the use of it, turning into a common practice, from choosing a new Facebook cover to a more complex tasks, such as laying out a presentation in Keynote. Ian Bogost generally refers to this phenomenon as 'hyper-employment'. Neoliberal agenda demands an increased efficiency from every worker, full devotion that requires performing more tasks than your official job practice implies. Life is almost unimaginable now without managing your monthly schedule, promoting yourself on Behance, retouching photos for Instagram, writing texts. Lorusso indicates that a lot of these routine tasks initially were operated within a speciality of graphic design. He calls this aforementioned state a dilution and generalisation of graphic design, that, again, affects the professionals by rendering their skills less valuable. (Lorusso, 2017)
Yet computer technology kept evolving, and in the 2010s graphic designers faced another rival — automation. Geert Lovink in 'The Critical Theory of The Internet' describes the collapse of dotcoms after web 2.0 had consolidated into social networks. He suggests that it fuelled the development of blogs and the 'template culture', because the need of making a website from a scratch became outdated, as blogs were hosted by platforms with proprietary designs to choose from and customise. Bots were taking over the sphere of simple editing tasks, web-designers' work devaluated. Lovink assumes that the aspiration for open access and participatory culture turned the creators of customising soft into victims of free culture, unable to monetise their own labour. (Lovink, 2019)
Ironically Youtube keeps selling me a free Wix logo maker, while I am investigating the growth of precarity among creative class. Wix allows to choose from a palette of styles and references, providing a user with dozens of options, from Futurist-like bold titles to lettering. Typical client's ultimate dreams are coming true — now they can endlessly play around typefaces and colours themselves. No designer is needed anymore, and no designer could compete with a quickie printer capacity of a machine, as Lorraine Wild formulated.
Blauvelt asks rhetorically, what is the added value of designers, if a content they used to produce can now be made by anyone, even a computer? Although the computer couldn't immediately demystify less tangible aspects of a designer's work, such as a craft of typography, taste for balance, harmony, composition, and the very shape-making skills, design community made up a new story about the value of the profession, lead by an instinct of self-preservation. Instead of concentrating on visual surfaces, designers turned their gazes to theory and writing — highly intellectualised outlook on design. (Blauvelt, 2011)
Yet Lorusso mentions that this new role remained a domain of elite art-schools and proliferated primarily on premises of universities, which increased the gap between real world practitioners and design institute graduates. Thereby the intellectual realm of a designer's work could only be acknowledged by other designers. It also implies that client should be educated enough to recognise the conceptual value of a product, which is, in fact, unlikely. This is how thousands of designers end up doing a 'bullshit job', a term coined by anthropologist David Graeber, to sustain themselves, while trying to solve an ambitious problem to keep being 'real designers'. In this vicious circle design schools become 'precarity factories', as Lorusso names them, and a real need for a conceptual discussion is only maintained throughout the process of education. (Lorusso, 2017)
III. Case study & Analysis
The situation looks incredibly pessimistic. What is the role of a designer in the world where every year a new tool is being introduced to take another traditional competence away from a designer? Are there any decent alternatives? Or from now on a designer is forced to work in a call centre in order to secretly practice meaningful and intellectually fulfilling graphic design at night?
Silvio Lorusso made an attempt to answer this question in his essay 'What Design Can't Do'. He appropriates Hakim Bey’s concept of temporary autonomous élites and applies it to design schools, envisioning them as think tanks — places to redefine the idea of work and develop structures of more efficient and satisfied society. (Lorusso, 2017)
This is not the only proposal. Tools that once deprived designers from their workplaces can become allies instead of enemies. The most obvious one is automation. Blauvelt refers to the work of Philip M. Parker, a business professor, as a positive example. Parker had managed to automate the process of online research, writing, and layout, to end up with more than 100,000 books produced with a help of neural networks. Designers could possibly do the same, leaving a job that can be automated to machines and taking a role of curators instead. Appropriation and selection over creation may prove a better decision in a world of remixing, reinterpreting, rebooting, and recycling. (Blauvelt, 2011)
Another niche yet to be explored is the creation of tools. Template culture devaluated the individual work of a designer, but allowed designers to produce templates and the scenarios of customisation. Computer, as Blauvelt wrote, is a meta-tool that gives one an ability to make other tools. For a designer, it means an ability to help other people design easier. Jurg Lehni designed Scriptographer, a program that translates digital vectors to more analog devices. Casey Reas and Ben Fry created Processing, an open source programming language that many other designers have used to create visualizations. (Blauvelt, 2011)
The hierarchy within the sphere of content-production needs reinterpretation as well. Geert Lovink indicates the new tendency of eradicating a border between labour and game, the process that gave birth to a very special form of exploitation. Online-platforms represent themselves as leisure facilities. However, they convert the attention of the viewers into a commodity. A group of developers from YouTube earn millions of dollars by simply embedding advertisement in users' videos, while paying almost nothing to the content authors. Thereby a professional practitioner from a creative industry finds her or himself in a more vulnerable position than a user for who the production of a content is a recreational activity. (Lovink, 2019)
Although the very system has to be revised, some designers make use of their audience and involve it into production, taking a position of an orchestrator of frameworks, enabling design to happen instead of making it. Studio Moniker specialises on interactive design and researches the social effects of technology. They ran a few user-experience-based projects. For instance, 'Place a Stone' — a participatory memorial for the World War II victims in Amsterdam. Visitors are invited to place stones themselves to help write the names of thirty-two victims. Or a scarf for Unmade, a pattern of which can be distorted by a website visitor by moving a pointer. (Studio Moniker, 2016)
However, the creators of content, even the participatory one, are still doomed to take a precarious position of creative underclass without a rethought system of monetisation. Geert Lovink analysed the existent situation in his essay 'The Meme Design Principles' and stated that authors should strive for a more egalitarian ways to reward their work. For now content can only be monetised through direct and deliberate donations, while the main money current keeps flowing to pockets of corporations that only distribute content without creating it. Lovink insists on building a new model of business communication, based on peer-to-peer scheme, that will allow people who do a real job start getting a fair compensation. (Lovink, 2016) According to Lorusso, graphic designers, performing a think tank role, may become the ones to come up with these alternative systems. (Lorusso, 2017)
The 1990s hopes for a better world of free content and liberated opinions are long ago left behind. Digital escapism proved itself a questionable strategy. The disappointment about the internet and computer culture became a commonly admitted fact, Lovink states. (Lovink, 2016) Yet, as a meta-tool, the internet can be transformed into anything, interpreted and employed in the way users choose. Instead of paranoid neo-luddist fantasies of dystopian future in a civilisation ruled by machines and corporations, with people relegated to inferior consumers and impoverished workers, a new paradigm can be adopted — the one of turning the disadvantages of technology into an allied force. And there already are clusters that cultivate alternative paths. Which, in its turn, fuels the collective hope and offers prospects of Groys' totality and unity utopia, long-awaited for from the very cradle of civilisation.