The Designer as Producer

Essay from Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton, Graphic Design: Now in Production, Walker Art Center, 2012

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The slogan “designer as author” has enlivened debates about the future of graphic design since the early 1990s. Behind this phrase is the will to help designers to initiate content, to work in an entrepreneurial way rather than simply reacting to problems and tasks placed before them by clients. The word author suggests agency, intention, and creation, as opposed to the more passive functions of consulting, styling, and formatting. Authorship is a provocative model for rethinking the role of the graphic designer at the start of the mil-lennium; it hinges, however, on a nostalgic ideal of the writer or artist as a singular point of origin.  The avant-garde movements of the 1910s and 1920s critiqued the ideal of authorship as a process of dredging unique forms from the depths of the interior self. Artists and intellectuals challenged roman-tic definitions of art by plunging into the worlds of mass media and mass production.

As an alternative to “designer as author,” I propose “designer as producer.” Production is a concept embedded in the history of modernism. Avant-garde artists and designers treated the techniques of manufacture not as neutral, transparent means to an end but as devices equipped with cultural meaning and aesthetic char-acter. In 1934, the German critic Walter Benjamin wrote “The Author as Producer,” a text that attacked the conventional view of authorship as a purely literary enter-prise. He exclaimed that new forms of communication—film, radio, advertising, newspapers, the illustrated press—were melting down traditional artistic genres and corroding the borders between writing and reading, authoring and editing.

Benjamin was a Marxist, committed to the notion that the technologies of manu-facture should be owned by the workers who operate them. In Marxist terminology, the “means of production” are the heart of human culture and should be collectively owned. Benjamin claimed that writing (and other arts) are grounded in the mate-rial structures of society, from the educational institutions that foster literacy to the publishing networks that manufacture and distribute texts. In detailing an agenda for a politically engaged literary practice, Benjamin demanded that artists must not merely adopt political “content,” but must revolutionize the means through which their work is produced and distributed.

Benjamin attacked the model of the writer as an “expert” in the field of literary form, equipped only to craft words into texts and not to question the physical  life of the work. The producer must ask, Where will the work be read? Who will read it? How will it be manufactured? What other texts and pictures will surround it? Benjamin argued that artists and photographers must not view their task as solely visual, lest they become mere suppliers of form to the existing apparatus of bourgeois publishing: “What we require of the photographer is the ability to give his picture the caption that wrenches it from modish commerce and gives it a revolutionary use-ful value. But we shall make this demand most emphatically when we—the writers—take up photography. Here, too, therefore, technical progress is for the author as producer the foundation of political progress.”

Benjamin claimed that to bridge the divide between author and publisher, author and reader, poet and popularizer is a revolutionary act, because it challenges the professional and economic categories upon which the institutions of “literature” and “art” are erected.

Benjamin’s Marxist emphasis has a tragic edge when viewed from the vantage point of today. By the time he wrote “The Author as Producer,” abstract art was already at variance with Stalin’s state-enforced endorsement of social realism. Benjamin applauded Dada and Surrealism for challenging the institutions of art, and yet such experimental forms were forbidden in the Soviet state he so admired. Benjamin’s theory of the author as producer remains relevant today, however, even if one proposes more modest challenges to the existing structures of media and publishing, opening new paths of access to the means of manufacture and dissemination.

In the 1920s, Benjamin met Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian Constructivist whose work as a photographer, typographer, artist, and writer made him a prominent figure at the Bauhaus. Benjamin’s 1928 collection of essays, One-Way Street, reflects on experimental typography and the proliferation of such commercial media as the pamphlet, poster, and advertise-ment, which were upending the classi-cal book as literature’s sacred vessel. Benjamin wrote: “Printing, having found in the book a refuge in which to lead an au-tonomous existence, is pitilessly dragged out onto the street by advertisements and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos. This is the hard schooling of its new form.” Describing the rela-tion of authorship to technology, Benjamin predicted that the writer will begin to com-pose his work with a typewriter instead of a pen when “the precision of typographic forms has entered directly into the con-ception of his books. One might suppose that new systems with more variable typefaces might then be needed.”

Such “new systems” are, of course, ubiquitous today in the form of software for word processing and desktop publishing. These tools have altered the tasks of graphic designers, enlarging their pow-ers as well as burdening them with more kinds of work to do. Such is the rub of de-specialization. Benjamin celebrated the proletarian ring of the word “production,” and the word carries those connotations forward into the current period. Within the professional context of graphic design, “production” is linked to the preparation of “artwork” for mechanical reproduction, rather than to the intellectual realm of “design.” Production belongs to the physical activity of the base, the factory floor: it is the traditional domain of the paste-up artist, the stripper, the letterer, the typesetter. The “desktop” revolution that began in the mid-1980s brought these roles back into the process of design. The proletarianization of design offers designers a new crack at materialism, a chance to reengage the physical aspects of our work. Whereas the term “author,” like “designer,” suggests the cerebral workings of the mind, production privileges the activity of the body. Production is rooted in the material world. It values things over ideas, making over imagining, practice over theory.

When Benjamin called for authors to become producers, he did not mean for them to become factory workers alienated from the form and purpose of the manu-factured thing. The challenge for design-ers today is to help become the masters, not the slaves, of technology. There exist opportunities to seize control—intellectu-ally and economically—of the means of production, and to share that control with the reading public, empowering them to become producers as well as consumers of meaning. As Benjamin phrased it in 1934, the goal is to turn “readers or specta-tors into collaborators.” His words resonate in current models of practice that view the reader as a participant in the construction of meaning.

Originally published in The Education of a Graphic Designer, ed. Steven Heller (New York: Allworth Press, 1998), 159–162.