The Role of the (Graphic) Designer…

…in a metamodern structure of feeling

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The role that the designer plays in society has, for many years, been relatively fixed – a client passes information to a ‘professional creative’ who then formats the given content for a specific audience using their specific toolkit; be it a chair, a website or a book. However, around the turn of the millennium something changed, and ever since we have seen a continuous shifting in the way that many designers approach their work, a shift away from this earlier model. The social engagement that a crisis-ridden, metamodern society evokes has stimulated certain designers (and non-designers) to search for solutions to problems that are not being commissioned by the old clients and, crucially, through methods that are not traditionally labelled as ‘design’ approaches. The issue remains as to how we approach and define this change in order to move forward with it and the field of design as a whole.


In the preface to the first edition of his monolithic chronicle of graphic design, Philip B. Meggs writes that the “immediacy and ephemeral nature of graphic design, combined with its link with the social, political and economic life of its culture, enables it to more closely express the Zeitgeist of an epoch than many other forms of human expression.” It can indeed be said that the primary search of graphic designers has largely been that for visual forms which can convey concepts, store knowledge and clarify information for the present and future society. [1] This, then, explains why we find artefacts such as the scrolls of ancient Egypt in Meggs’s historical retrospective of the discipline. Graphic design has, over its formalisation as a practice, assumed its heritage in such technological revolutions as the invention of Papyrus, the creation of the alphabet, and Gutenberg’s printer, precisely because what we have now defined as the field’s primary endeavour was achieved through the use of these tools and machines.

Given the position of this article on a webzine dedicated to the subject, it would seem misplaced to provide any description of what metamodernism is in itself; however, I will say that we have seen, in the broadest sense, the principle and distinguishing act of metamodern (contemporary) man as that of engagement and reconstruction as opposed to the construction (see modernism) and deconstruction (see postmodernism) of frameworks past. [2] To give an analogy, if modernism was the absolute belief in the building of Babel, and postmodernism was the realisation that it cannot be built, metamodernism can be thought of as the engagement in building it with the knowledge that it is a flawed or unachievable task.

This renewed engagement has, I believe, fundamentally changed the societal role of the contemporary designer from Meggs’s description, and can be seen most evidently in the proliferation of a new type of project that has started to emerge across the field under the guise of the ‘design fiction’. This new venture has materialised, at least in part, through an increased movement towards de-specialisation and authorship (i.e. non-commissioned work) within the field, a development that has ultimately lead to an extension and acceptance of the idea of the ‘professional amateur’ as a legitimate occupation. If we take such an example from one young graphic designer, newly graduated from Zurich, we can see many aspects of the metamodern ‘structure of feeling’ coalesce into a new stream of work under these terms.

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Isabel Seiffert, in her own words, “works on commissioned and self initiated projects in the field of printed matter and the digital world.” A key piece in her portfolio, completed for her Master thesis, is titled Governance. Democracy. Delete. This project “attempts to contextualize the flurry of one-liner political debate about the new digital future” through a 600 page ‘Twitter compendium’ that is accompanied by chants, declarations, a flag, a website and various short films (including one that acts as a ‘Public Briefing’ on the issue delivered by a cat). [3]

The search for solutions and ‘new meaning’ in Seiffert’s work falls precisely within the lines of the metamodern framework in both it’s aims and it’s means; the ‘metaxy’ of the work, it’s oscillation between deconstruction and reconstruction, the proverbial pendulum swinging between humour and sincerity, realism and idealism is clear. The recognition and construction of a narrative, the antithesis of postmodern thought as we have seen, is as integral as the self effacing rhetoric used in it’s description. The admittance of the work as an “attempt”, so common a sight that it can go unnoticed, reflects this awareness of the flawed nature of the task but the willingness to try it anyway. The so-called ‘new seriousness’ which we have seen develop over the last decade allows for the construction of this completely new kind of project; this acknowledged vulnerability in the concept, the output and the creator is disregarded as unhelpful or unproductive in favour of what is an admittedly semi-serious offering of analyses and solutions.

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What is being described here is not only exemplary of how the metamodern structure of feeling has affected work in this field, but is also, in perhaps a more loose sense, an example of the creation of a ‘design fiction’. Dunne & Raby provided a useful explanation of this term as part of their project, the United Micro Kingdoms – in their words:

Design fictions are a mix of science, design and fiction. The term describes an emerging area of design that uses storytelling as an experimental device to question the world around us. Using a combination of concepts, objects and visuals, design fictions are propositions for how things could be done differently. Depending on the viewer’s perspective, these fictions can be understood as anything from a cautionary tale to a Utopian ideal. […] In conceiving the United Micro Kingdoms, Dunne & Raby have reinterpreted the car and associated transport systems, offering multiple perspectives on a fictional England. Situated between reality and fiction the exhibition speculates about potential scenarios and challenges our perceived notions about the way that products, services and systems are made and used. [4]

The consistency of this description with the metamodern framework is entirely unambiguous, it is the role of the designer who creates this type of work that is perhaps more worthy of exploration. To put it simply – is the designer who creates this work still a designer? The end results of both the UMK project and Governance. Democracy. Delete. are, indeed, visual – however, it is not the visual aspect that defines the essence of the endeavour; Meggs’s description only fits half of the task.

The key skill here is not the designers’ competence in line drawing, nor the strengths of their aesthetic style, which will eventually come to deliver the visual outcome; but rather lies in their ability and their curiosity to search and interpret information in any context in order to make something of it, something new. When this skill is taken from the situation of a commission and is instead placed under the terms of a ‘self-initiated’ project, the role of the designer can be seen to change from that of a specialised practitioner, to that of a professional amateur (or to use the appropriate jargon, an ‘autonomous multidisciplinary creative’). This is not to say that such a professional is immediately amateurish in their design approach, but rather in the ‘extra-curricular’ activities that they become increasingly involved in, such as data collection and data analysis.

It has been a common sight over the last few decades to see large agencies, labelled as ‘Multidisciplinary’ and ‘Interdisciplinary’ (that is to say there are lots of specialised professionals working together under one roof). [5] However, through the new form of work described above, we can see that this multidisciplinary approach is, to some degree, slowly distilling in to the singular, autonomous practices that are becoming more and more common today. This new wave of designer has, to use Ruskin’s terms, successfully combined the ‘workman’ and the ‘thinker’. [6] An evolution which takes the discipline far beyond the primary search for ‘visual forms’ that has typified the field’s aim and its self assumed history for centuries past.

The word dilettantes derives from the latin “delectare, to delight” and is defined as “a dabbler in an art or a field of knowledge”, in these terms it can be thought of as somewhat synonymic with our phrase, the ‘professional amateur’. [7] Goethe, a 19th century polymath in his own right, allegedly emphasised the importance of this role in saying that “dilettantes greatly promoted the causes of science and technology because they knew how to combine play with seriousness.” [8]

The key to this ‘Dilettante’ frame of mind is the unmitigated curiosity, engagement and enthusiasm, spanning across a range of subject areas, that fuels their daily thoughts and activities. They are committed to this engagement not in order to pursue a professional career, or to receive recognition of any kind, but are instead bound by an inherent pleasure in the engagement itself. The dilettante does not pursue their interests for commercial gain and neither does the work mentioned here. This renewed unification of craft and curiosity denies the misplaced status that wealth has come to assume, that status as the workers exclusive source of pleasure; Seiffert’s book is indeed for sale but it is primarily an academic investigation, not a retail project.

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This ‘dilettante’ mindset can therefore be seen, through the work shown and the application of a metamodern framework, to be in some way, embodied in the contemporary, autonomous graphic designer. This attitude combined with the function of the designer as something of an unwitting documentarist, a role that is, as Meggs has shown, deeply rooted in the profession, begins to mould the designers function in to not only expressing the Zeitgeist as it has always done, but also typifying and even leading it as well.

In 2010 the esteemed commercial/autonomous, designer/artist, Martí Guixé proclaimed that “the ‘ex-designers’ are THE designers of our time.” In an interview for designboom he reasoned that “Designers provide solutions before they are asked for it”, and this is perhaps the most succinct expression of the point that I am trying to convey. [9] The social engagement that a crisis-ridden, metamodern society evokes has stimulated certain designers (and non-designers) to search for design solutions to problems that are not being commissioned by institutions and, crucially, through methods that are not traditionally labelled as ‘design’ approaches (such as the ‘design fictions’). However, before we rush to conclusions, we should remind ourselves that this shift is not in any way true across the entire sphere of any aspect of design. There still remain those who sit comfortably in the consumer-capitalist frame of reference, the passive functionaries of the mass/multi-media ‘machine’ and indeed, there will always be a demand and a need for designers of this creed.

It may therefore be more helpful to re-identify the engaged, professional amateur/designer under a new terminology (as Guixé has already done with this notion of the ‘ex-designer’) and, with this renewed identity, assume an alternate history – not one of alphabets, inks and ‘styles’ as Meggs did, but instead (or perhaps more usefully, in addition), one of polymaths, activists, theorists and dilettantes. To briefly assert my own view along with this conclusion, I believe that designers should feel empowered by this developing situation and should not feel afraid of creating a new terminology that proliferates this change. We should exploit our position in a profession which has inherent ties with all professions not only to express and record the zeitgeist, but to contribute to it outside of the ‘role of the documenter’ which has for so long held this ever-evolving craft a prisoner.

 


IMAGES (from top):

Isabel Seiffert, Governance. Democracy. Delete. (2013) [images 1 & 2]
Dunne & Raby, United Micro Kingdoms (2012/13)
Isabel Seiffert, Not The End Of Print (2014)

 

REFERENCES

[1]: Philip B. Meggs, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design (2006): ix

[2]: This method of categorisation through principle ‘acts’ comes from Richard Sennett’s notion that adulthood and identity “comes to be defined as a set of acts that a person can perform rather than a set of attributes.” | Richard Sennett, The Uses of Disorder (1970): 99

[3]: Isabel Seiffert, (2014): http://isabel-seiffert.net/

[4]: Dune & Raby, (2014): http://www.unitedmicrokingdoms.org/exhibition/

[5]: For an exemplary case see Pentagrams description of their working method. | Pentagram, (2014): http://www.pentagram.com/work/#/all/all/newest/

[6]: “[…]We are always in these days endeavouring to separate the two; we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense.” | John Ruskin, The Nature of the Gothic, (1853): 24

[7]: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2014): dilettante

[8]: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Anton Zijderveld, The Abstract Society (1970): 164

[9]: Martí Guixé, (2010): http://www.designboom.com/interviews/marti-guixe-interview/

There are 2 comments

  1. William May

    As the role of the designer expands, pay doesn’t seem to follow. Should we be social media managers, print designers, brand identity designers, web designers and still expect the same pay as when we were just print designers? How is there even time to push boundaries when its difficult enough to live with a typical graphic designer salary?

    1. Jack Clarke

      Hello William, sorry it’s taken so long but I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can, sorry if it’s a bit scattered:

      One of the reasons that money doesn’t seem to follow this new kind of designer might be that the ‘dilettante’ role has no real place in a society where the specialisation of labour is such a key component in the pay process. Perhaps this is why ‘ex-designers’ such as Martí Guixé, or ‘post-internet artists’ such as LuckyPDF have to have their work framed in an ‘arts’ context so often. Despite employing a lot of ‘design’ in their (often critical or analytical) work, they have to – willingly or unwillingly – be guided into the role of ‘The Artist’ in order to specialise both their practice and their outcomes and so make their work intelligible, and therefore sellable, to the market.

      What you have written in your question: “Should we be social media managers (1), print designers (2), brand identity designers (3), web designers (4) and still expect the same pay as when we were just print designers?…” expresses this specialised, market-place understanding of the field.

      In all honesty, and this is something I didn’t write about before, new ‘problem solving’ technologies do have a lot to answer for; the crafts you list that are traditionally linked to Graphic Design (typesetting, book-binding, web-design etc) are easier to tackle now for the general public than ever thanks to cheaper pay-on-demand services, cheaper computer programs and cheaper computers.

      But, in addition to this, there are also a vast number of wider, global crises facing us as a species (not just designers!) and what this forces us – as people trained in the field of ‘design’ – to do is, as we have seen, move into different sectors – most notably, different sectors of our heads.

      And when one moves into these ‘critical’ sectors of their head they combine within themselves the ‘workman’ and the ‘thinker’, their craft and their curiosity – the work that is generated as a result takes on a character that cannot be readily specialised. The common choice is then either to specialise ones practice into that of an ‘artist’ (as Guixe often does) or the more ambiguous ‘visual researcher’… however, in these ‘problem finding’ fields you are no longer selling your work as a social media manager or a print designer, you are selling your thoughts. This I think is the crux of the issue, the unique ‘selling-point’ for the new designer is not your craft – not even really your ‘approach’ – but your thoughts, your ‘field of research/study/interest’, and your written/visual/objectified manifestations of these thoughts.

      You shouldn’t expect the same pay as when your were a print designer or/and a web designer etc because you should no longer conceive of yourself as a collection of these different specialisations. The ex-designer is as much an anthropologist as he/she is an image-maker.

      Your last question sounds like an area of research that you should make some work about. Why is it difficult to live as a graphic designer? Is it to do with the field of graphic design, or is it to do with rent prices? How do you get involved in that? There may not be time to ‘push boundaries’ on a graphic designers wage, but if you do not seek to rectify this issue how will it be fixed?

      This is where the ‘ex-designer’ starts, a sense of responsibility or ‘engagement’ and the consequent shift in values and focus away from ‘the financial’ towards a gratification found through a synthesis of ‘art’ and ‘life’, ‘research’ and ‘work’ and the subsequent execution of ‘personal projects’.

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