Graphic Authorship

Essays by Michael Rock
4 885 words25 min read

What does it mean to call for a graphic designer to be an author? Authorship, in one form or another has been a popular term in graphic design circles, especially those circles that revolve around the edge of the profession, the design academies, and the murky territory that exists between design and art. The word has an important ring to it, and it connotes seductive ideas of origination and agency. But the question of how designers become authors is a difficult one and exactly who are the designer/authors and what authored design looks like depends entirely on how you end up defining the term and criterion you chose to determine entrance into the pantheon.

In order to subject the problem of design authorship to close examination, it is necessary to first dispense with some definitions before moving on to more specific design examples and suggestions for possible theories of graphic authorship. It may also be useful to reexamine the preconceived qualities we attribute to this powerful figure, the author, and wonder how those attributes apply to a profession traditionally associated more with the communication than the origination of messages. Finally it is interesting to speculate about how theories of authorship can serve to legitimize marginalized activities like design and how authorial aspirations may actually end up reinforcing certain conservative notions of design production; notions that might actually contradict the stated goals of the budding designer/author.

What is an author? The issue of the author has been an area of intense scrutiny over the last forty years. The meaning of the word itself has shifted significantly over history. The earliest definitions are not associated with writing per se, in fact the most inclusive is ‘the person who originates or gives existence to anything.’ But other usage clearly index the authoritarian — even patriarchal — connotations: the ‘father of all life,’ ‘any inventor, constructor or founder,’ ‘one who begets,’ and ‘a director, commander, or ruler.’ Wimsatt and Beardsley’s seminal text, The Intentional Fallacy (1946), drove one of the first wedges between the author and the text, dispelling the notion a reader could ever really ‘know’ an author through his writing. The so-called death of the author, proposed most succinctly by Roland Barthes in 19681, is closely linked to the birth of critical theory, especially theory based in reader response and interpretation rather than intentionality. Michel Foucault used the rhetorical question, ‘What is an author?’ as the title of his influential essay of 1969 which, in response to Barthes, outlines the basic taxonomy and functions of the author and the problems associated with conventional ideas of authorship and origination.2

Foucault demonstrated that historically the connection between the author and the text has changed. The earliest sacred texts were authorless, their origins lost in ancient history. In fact, the ancient, anonymous origin of the text served as a certain kind of authentication. On the other hand scientific texts, at least through the renaissance, demanded an author’s name as validation. By the eighteenth century, Foucault asserts, the situation had reversed; literature was authored and science became the product of anonymous objectivity. When authors came to be punished for their writing — i.e. when a text could be transgressive — the link between author and text was firmly established. Text came to be seen as a kind of private property, owned by the author, and a romantic criticism rose up that reinforced that relationship, searching for critical keys in the life and intention of the writer. With the rise of scientific method, on the other hand, scientific texts and mathematical proofs were no longer authored texts but were seen as discovered truths. The scientist revealed an extant phenomena, a fact anyone faced with the same conditions would discover. Therefore the scientist and the mathematician could claim to have been first to discover a paradigm, and lend their name to the phenomena, but never claim authorship over it.

Post-structuralist reading of authorship tends to critique the prestige attributed to the figure of the author and suggest or speculate about a time after his fall from grace. The focus shifts from the author’s intention to the internal workings of the writing itself; not what it means but how it means. Barthes ends his essay supposing ‘the birth of the reader comes at the cost of the death of the author."3 Foucault imagines a time when we might question: ‘What difference does it make who is speaking?"4 All attempt to overthrow the notion that a text is a line of words that releases a single, theological meaning, the central message of an author/god.

Postmodernity began to turn on a ‘fragmented and schizophrenic decentering and dispersion’ of the subject, noted Fredric Jameson. That sense of a decentered text - i.e. a text which is skewed from the direct line of communication from sender to receiver, severed from the authority of its origin, and existing as a free floating element in a field of possible significations - figured heavily in recent constructions of a design based in reading and readers. But Katherine McCoy’s prescient image of designers moving beyond problem solving and by ‘...authoring additional content and a self-conscious critique of the message ...adopting roles associated with art and literature"5 was as often as not misconstrued. Rather than working to incorporate theory into their methods of production, many self-proclaimed deconstructivist designers literally illustrated Barthes’ image of a reader-based text - ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture"6 - by scattering fragments of quotations across the surface of their ‘authored’ posters and book covers. The rather dark implications of Barthes theory, note Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, were fashioned into ‘...a romantic theory of self-expression."7

Perhaps after years in the somewhat thankless position of the faceless facilitator many designers were ready to start speaking out. Some designers may be eager to discard the internal affairs of formalism - to borrow Paul de Man’s metaphor - and branch out to the foreign affairs of external politics and content.8 In that way, by the seventies, design began to discard the kind of some of the scientific approach that held sway for several decades. (Even as early as the twenties Trotsky was labeling formalist artists the ‘chemists of art."9) That approach is evident in the rationalist design ideology that preached strict adherence to an eternal grid and a kind of rational approach to design. (Keep in mind that although this example is a staple of critiques of modernism, in actuality the rationalism represented a small fragment of the design population at the time.) Müller-Brockmann’s evocation of the ‘aesthetic quality of mathematical thinking"10 is certainly the clearest, and most cited example of this approach. Brockmann and a slew of fellow researchers like Kepes, Dondis, Arnheim, worked to uncover preexisting order and form in the manner a scientist reveals a natural ‘truth.’ But what is most interesting in Brockmann’s writing is his reliance on tropes of submission; the designer submits to the will of the system, forgoes personality, withholds interpretation.

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.) But some of the basic, institutional features of design practice have a way of getting tangled up in zealous attempts at self-expression. The idea of a decentered message does not necessarily sit well in a professional relationship in which the client is paying a designer to convey specific information or emotions. In addition, most design is done in some kind of collaborative setting, either within a client relationship or in the context of a design studio that utilizes the talents of numerous creative people, thus the origin of any particular idea is increasingly clouded. And the ever-present pressure of technology and electronic communication only further muddies the water.

Is there an auteur in the house? It is not surprising to find that Barthes Death of the Author was written in Paris in 1968, the year students joined workers on the barricades in the general strikes and the year the western world flirted with real social revolution. To call for the overthrow of authority in the form of the author in favor of the reader - read that masses - had real resonance in 1968. But to lose power you must have already worn the mantle, thus designers had a bit of a dilemma overthrowing a power they may have never possessed.

Almost ten earlier, Andre Bazin and his protégé François Truffaut had collaborated on La politique des auteurs, a polemical strategy developed to re-configure a critical theory of the cinema.11 The problem facing the auteur critics was how to create a theory that imagined the film, necessarily the work of broad collaboration, as a work of a single artist, thus a work of art. The solution was to develop a set of criteria that allowed a critic to decree certain directors as auteurs. In order to establish the film as a work of art, auteur theory held that the director — heretofore merely a third of the creative troika of director, writer and cinematographer - had the ultimate control of the entire project.

Auteur theory - especially as espoused by American critic Andrew Sarris12 - speculated directors must meet three essential criteria in order to pass into the sacred hall of the auteur. Sarris proposed that the director must demonstrate technical expertise, have a stylistic signature that is demonstrated over the course of several films, and most importantly, through choice of projects and cinematic treatment, demonstrate a consistency of vision and evoke a palpable interior meaning through his work. Since the film director often had little control of the material - especially in the Hollywood Studio system that assigned director to projects - the signature way he treated a varying range of scripts and subjects was especially important in establishing auteur credentials.


The interesting thing about the auteur theory was that unlike literature, film theorists, like designers, had to construct the notion of the author as a legitimizing strategy, as a method to raise what was considered low entertainment to the plateau of fine art. By labeling the director as the author of the film, the critics could elevate certain subjects to the status of high art. The parallel to design practice is quite striking. Like the film director, the art director or designer is often distanced from his or her material and often works collaboratively in a role which directs the activity of a number of other creative people. In addition, the designer works on a number of diverse projects over the course of a career, many of which have widely varying levels of creative potential, and any inner meaning must come through the aesthetic treatment as much as it does from the content.

If we apply the auteur criteria to graphic designers we yield a body of work that may be elevated to auteur status. For instance technical proficiency could be fulfilled by any number of practitioners, but couple technical proficiency with a signature style the field narrows. The list of names that could fill those two criteria would be familiar to any EYE reader, as that work is often published, awarded and praised. (And of course that selective republishing of certain work, and exclusion of other, constructs a unified and stylistically consistent oeuvre.) That list would probably include Fabien Baron, Tibor Kalman, David Carson, Neville Brody, Ed Fella, Anton Beeke, Pierre Bonnard, Gert Dumbar, Vaughan Oliver, Rick Valicenti, April Grieman, Jan van Toorn, Wolfgang Weingart, and many others. But great technique and style alone do not an auteur make. If we add the third requirement of interior meaning, how does that list fare? Are there graphic designers who by special treatment and choice of projects approach the issue of deeper meaning the way a Bergman, Hitchcock or Welles does?

Of course, how do you compare a film poster with the film itself? The very scale of a cinematic project allows for a sweep of vision not possible in graphic design. Therefore, as the design single project lacks weight, graphic auteurs, almost by definition, have long, established bodies of work in which discernible patterns emerge. Who are the graphic auteurs? Perhaps Pierre Bernard, Jan van Toorn, maybe, Oliver, Beecke, and Fella. There is a sense of getting at a bigger idea, a deeper quality to their work; a sense aided considerably in the case of Bernard and van Toorn by their political affiliation, and in Oliver by long association with a record company that produces a consistent genre of music that allows for a range of experimentation. The auteur uses very specific client vehicles to attain a consistency of meaning. (Think of the almost fetishistic way that a photographer like Helmut Newton returns to a particular vision of class and sexuality no matter what he is assigned to shoot.) So Bernard, for instance, evokes an image of class struggle, capitalism brutality and social dysfunction; and Oliver examines dark issues of religion, decay and the human body. Renoir observed that an artistic director spends his whole career remaking variations on the same film.

Conversely, great stylists like Carson and Baron don’t seem to make the cut as it is difficult to discern a larger message in their work, i.e. a message that transcends the stylistic elegance of the typography in Baron’s case or the clever use of the computer in Carson’s. (You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s their work about?") Valicenti and Brody seem to try to inject inner meaning into their work - for example Valicenti’s self-published AIDS advertising and Brody’s attachment to post-linguistic alphabet systems - but their work seems to remain impervious to any such intrusion. Perhaps its an absence or presence of an overriding philosophy or individual spirit that diminishes some designed work and elevates other.

We may have been applying a modified graphic auteur theory for many years without really paying attention. What has design history been if not a series of critical elevations and demotions as our attitudes about style and inner meaning evolve. In trying to describe interior meaning, Sarris finally resorts to ‘the intangible difference between one personality and another."13 That retreat to intangibility - the ‘I can’t say what it is but I know it when I see it’ aspect - is the Achilles’ tendon of the auteur theory which has long since fallen into disfavor in film criticism circles. It never dealt adequately with the collaborative nature of the cinema and the messy problems of movie making. But while the theory is passé, the effect of theory is still with us; the director is to this day squarely in the middle our perception of film structure.

Here the author outlines other approaches to graphic authors.

The application of auteur theory may be too limited an engine for our current image of design authorship but there are a variety of other ways to frame the issue. There exists a number of paradigms on which we could base on practice; the artist book, concrete poetry, political activism, publishing, illustration, and others.

Could a theory of poetics be a functional model? Use is one of the major sticking points in trying to view designed work as poetic; traditionally the poem or artwork is a self-contained artifact while design refers to some exterior function or overt intention. ‘Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine...’ Wimsatt and Beardsley remarked, ‘...Poetry succeeds because all or most of what is said or implied is relevant; what is irrelevant has been excluded like lumps from pudding and ‘bugs’ from machinery. In this respect poetry differs from practical messages which are successful if an only if we correctly infer the intention.’ 14

That poetic/practical opposition proposes two examples; the artist book on one hand and activist design on the other. The artist book offers a form of design authorship in which function has been fully exorcised. The artist book, in general, is concrete, self-referential and allows for a range a visual experiments that include text and image without the burden of mundane commercial tasks. The artist book has a long tradition that through the historical avant garde, the situationists, Fluxus and experimental publishing in the sixties and seventies. The list of artists that have experimented with the book form covers an eclectic mix of designers and authors (Dieter Rot, Janet Zweig, Tom Philips, Kevin Osborne, Warren Lehrer, Tom Ockerse, Johanna Drucker) as well as visual artists (Robert Morris, Renee Green, Barbara Kruger, Mary Kelly, Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke, Ron Jones).

Dieter Rot has produced a monumental and consistent body of books which explores, in a self-reflexive way, the nature of books. Lehrer has focused on production processes, like printing and binding, and aspects of dialogue and narrative. He has recently produced a new group of graphic portraits, distributed in the form of trade paperback, that are perhaps the most ambitious attempt at wide distribution. Artist book work uses word, image, structure and material to tell a story or to invoke an emotion and may be the purest form of graphic authorship. But the odd thing about the genre is that many of the most skilled designers have avoided it, and much of the work produced under the rubric is of substandard graphic quality (not in production value which is often necessarily low, but in simple terms of typography or composition.) The singularity of the artist book, the low technical quality, and the whole issue of uselessness may alienate the professional graphic designer from the book artist.

If the difference between poetry and practical messages is that in the latter is successful ‘if an only if we correctly infer the intention’ activist design would be labeled as absolutely practical. But activist work is also self-motivated and self-authored under a clear political agenda. Proactive work has a voice and a message but in its overt intentionality lacks the self referential quality of the artist book. Authored activism would include the output of Gran Fury, Bureau, Women’s Action Coalition, General Idea, Act Up, Class Action, Guerrilla Girls, and many others. But several problems cloud the situation, not the least being the issue of collaboration. Whose voice is speaking? Not an individual but some kind of unified community. Is this work open for interpretation or is the point the brutal transmission of a specific message? The rise of activist authorship has complicated the whole idea of authorship as some kind of free self-expression.


Perhaps the graphic author is actually one who writes and publishes material about design. This category would include Josef Müller-Brockmann and Rudy Vanderlans, Paul Rand and Eric Spiekermann, William Morris and Neville Brody, Robin Kinross and Ellen Lupton; rather strange bedfellows. The entrepreneurial arm of authorship affords the possibility of personal voice and wide distribution. The challenge is that most split the activities into three recognizable and discreet actions; editing, writing and designing. Even as their own clients, the design remains the vehicle for the written thought. (Kinross, for example, works as a historian then changes hats and becomes a typographer.) Rudy Vanderlans is the purest of the entrepreneurial authors. Emigre is a project in which the content is deeply embedded in the form - i.e. the formal exploration is as much the content of the magazine as the articles - the three actions blur into one contiguous whole. Vanderlans expresses his message through the selection of material (as an editor), the content of the writing (as a writer) and the form of the pages and typography (as form giver).

Ellen Lupton and partner Abbott Miller are an interesting variation on this model. The partners almost single-handedly constructed the new critical approach to graphic design coupled with an exploratory design practice. A project like The Bathroom, the Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste, an exhibition at the MIT List Gallery, seems to approach a kind of graphic authorship almost unheard of before them. The message of the exhibit is explicated equally through graphic/visual devices as well as text panels and descriptions. The design of the show evokes the design issues that are the content; it is clearly self reflexive. (The exhibition catalogue, on the other hand, does not reflect that same level of graphic authorship. Lupton and Miller seem to slip back into the more familiar and distinct roles of author and designer producing a richly illustrated manuscript.) But much of their other work demands to be reckoned with on both the visual and the verbal plane. Lupton and Miller construct their ideas using all their high skill as writer/designers.

Lupton and Miller’s work is primarily critical, it forms and represents a reading of exterior social or historical phenomena and explicates that message for a specific audience. But there is a subset of work which is often overlooked by the hard-core design community, the illustrated book, which is almost entirely concerned with the generation of creative narrative. Books for children have been one of the most successful venues for the author/artist and book shops are packed with the fruits of their labors. But many illustrators have used the book in wholly inventive ways and produced serious work. Illustrator/authors include Sue Coe, Art Spiegalman, Charles Burns, David McCaulley, Chris van Allesberg, Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and many others. In addition, the comic book and the graphic novel have generated a renewed interest both in artistic and critical circles. Works like Speigelman’s Maus and Coe’s X and Porkopolis expand the form into new areas and suggest expanded possibilities.

Other models that may indicate a level of graphic authorship include projects of such a scale that the designer is called upon, as a major collaborator, to make sense out of a sea of various materials and to construct narrative. Bruce Mau’s work with Rem Koolhaas on the gigantic S,M,L,XL and Irma Boom’s five year commission from a powerful Dutch corporation to create an unspecified commemorative work of unspecified form, scale or content are two examples. In such unwieldy projects, the designer - working like a film director on the unfolding cinematic structure of the work - assumes a primary position in the shaping of the material. Bigness itself has a particular theology. The character of the project is a function of the organization and the interior structure of the work. Once the project gets big enough, it takes on a life of its own; like the biggest buildings, the biggest books say, in Koolhaas’ words, ‘fuck context."15

The final category includes designers who choose to use the medium and devices of professional graphic design to create functionless or self referential statements and compositions. Examples include April Grieman’s special issue of Design Quarterly, a single full scale image of her own pixilated body with personal text full of dreams, visions, aphorisms and ironic mundanities; Dan Friedman and Jeffrey Deitch’s books Post Human and Artificial Nature in which image choice and juxtaposition expound on the meaning of image choice and juxtaposition; and any number of intricate and enigmatic projects from the likes of Tom Bonnaro and Alan Hori, (e.g. Hori’s graphic interpretation of a Beatrice Ward essay in a recent Mohawk paper sample book.) This work eschew the parameters of a client relationship while retaining the forms dictated by the needs of commerce; books, posters, exhibits, etc. This work operates in a space between a service oriented mode and some level of free expression. In the case of Hori’s paper sample project, the client pays for a graphic work to embellish a corporate project. The designer lends his avant garde credentials to the corporation.

Power ploys If the ways a designer could be an author are complex and confused, the way designers have used the term and the value attributed to it are equally so. Any number of recent statements claim authorship as the panacea to the woes of the brow beaten designer. In an article in Emigre magazine, author Anne Burdick proposed that ‘...designers must consider themselves authors, not facilitators. This shift in perspective implies responsibility, voice, action... With voice comes a more personal connection and opportunity to explore individual options."16 A recent call-for-entries for a design exhibition entitled designer as author: voices and visions sought to identify ‘graphic designers who are engaged in work that transcends the traditional service-oriented commercial production, and who pursue projects that are personal, social or investigative in nature."17 In the rejection of the role of the facilitator and in the call for transcendence, there is the implication that authored design holds some higher, purer purpose. The amplification of the personal voice compels designers to take possession of their texts and legitimizes design as an equal of the more traditionally privileged forms of authorship.

But if the proclivity of the contemporary designer is to open reading and free textual interpretation - as a litany of contemporary theorists have convinced us — that desire is thwarted by oppositional theories of authorship. The cult of the author narrows interpretation and replaces the author at center of the work. Foucault noted that the figure of the author is not a particularly liberating one. By transferring the authority of the text back to the author, by focusing on voice, presence becomes a limiting factor, containing and categorizing the work. The author as origin, authority and ultimate owner of the text guards against the free will of the reader. The figure of the author reconfirms the traditional idea of the genius creator, and the esteem or status of the man always frames the work and imbues it with some mythical value.

While some claims for authorship may be as simple as a renewed sense of responsibility, at times they seem to be ploys for property rights, attempts to finally exercise some kind of agency where there has traditionally been none. Ultimately the author = authority. The longing for graphic authorship may be the longing for a kind of legitimacy, or a kind of power, that has so long eluded the obedient designer. But do we get anywhere by celebrating the designer as some central character? Isn’t that what fueled the last fifty years of design history? If we really want to move beyond the designer-as-hero model of history, we may have to imagine a time when we can ask ‘What difference does it make who designed it?"

On the other hand, work is made by someone. And the difference between the way different subjects approach situations, the way different writers make sense of their worlds, is at the heart of a certain kind of criticism. (All those calls for the death of the author are, after all, written by famous authors.) It may be that the real challenge is to accept the multiplicity of methods that comprise design language. Perhaps we have to expand the modes of practice and elaborate our historical frame to include all forms of graphic discourse. We must move beyond the limiting questions of what is and isn’t design, when is the movement design becomes art, when modern ends and post- begins. In the end authorship is a device to rethink process and expand design methods. While theories of graphic authorship may change the way work is made, critics must still question what it does and how it does it, not where it comes from.

1 Roland Barthes. Translated by Stephen Heath. The Death of the Author from Image-Music-Text. (New York: Hill and Wang)
2 Michel Foucault, What is an Author from Textual Strategies. J. Harari, ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979)
3 Barthes, p.145
4 Foucault, p.160.
5 Katherine McCoy. ‘The New Discourse’ in Design Quarterly (rest tk)
6 Barthes, p.145
7 Ellen Lupton and J.Abbott Miller. ‘Deconstruction and Graphic Design: History meets Theory’ in Visible Language No.28.4, Andrew Blauvelt, ed.
8 Paul de Man. ‘Semiology and Rhetoric’ from Textual Strategies. J. Harari, ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979)
9 Leon Trotsky translated by Rose Strumsky. ‘The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism’ from Literature and Revolution (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1960)
10 Josef Müller-Brockmann. Grid Systems in Graphic Design (Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1981)
11 see Andre Bazin. What is Cinema?
12 see Andrew Sarris. The Primal Screen.
13 Andrew Sarris. ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.’ from Film Culture Reader, P.Adams Sitney, ed. (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970)
14 W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley. ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ from Critical Theory since Plato, Hazard Adams, ed. (New York: HBJ, 1971)
15 Rem Koolhaas exhibition at MoMA.
16 Anne Burdick. ‘The State of Design History’ from Emigre No.17
17 ‘Re:Quest for Entries,’ designer as author: voices and visions exhibition