The Designer as Author mini-movement

in Design

I usually tell people I work as a “designer.” Even though most of my work experiences have been more like consulting for R&D; even though “designer” means graphic designer to most people; it’s still the most convenient description of what I do.

I’m also an “author.” The qualification is more ambiguous in this case because I’m an unpublished author. Still, I do put out comics on a regular basis and recently took time off to write two books. So let’s at least say I’m an aspiring author. (In this usage of “author” I do not include people who author books on design.)

With those two ideas in mind, you can imagine the surprise I had when I learned of the idea of a “designer as author.”

I first stumbled upon it when I found myself on the SVA webpage for their Designer as Author MFA program. They describe it as:

…an alternative to traditional masters’ programs that emphasize form over content. Our students are encouraged to create their own content using new media and develop a thesis aimed directly for a marketplace of goods and ideas.

I will go into the details of the program later. For now, just note that it’s geared towards graphic designers who want to be authors/entrepreneurs.

Then I googled “designer as author” and found an article on Typotheque on Graphic Authorship. In the article, Michael Rock uses critical theory (Barthes + Foucault) and design history to question whether a designer should be an author, or in indeed an auteur. An interesting read but it offers possibilities with no clear conclusion.

More searches unveiled two articles on Eye Magazine. The first, “Portrait of the designer as the author” was a bit of a miss. It painted a picture of designers wanting to attain famous author status. The second article, an interview with Bruce Mau, was more enlightening. He says:

[Techniques of the author include] a direct engagement with the world. One of the principal differences between design (as it’s classically defined) and authorship is the degree to which you deal directly with substance. Mostly, design applies to previously filtered material.

And as someone who’s worked in research, this quote of his was also salient:

…we all live in this context, and we all work against this background. In order to have any sense of how things are evolving, we need to understand the evolutionary nature of the context.

We have, at this point, moved from talking about graphic designers to a broader idea of Designer. Bruce Mau’s company, for example, claims: “We create massive change. We invent cultural possibility. We design positive innovation, we ignite audacious action.” (This means their projects include architecture, landscaping, industrial design, book-writing, branding and, of course, graphic design.)

As a designer myself, Mau’s idea of design authorship appeals to me because I want my working life to be more than just making pretty things.

By Jason Li

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