Can Graphic Designers Change Society?
Yes, but no. First of all, wether you’re a graphic designer or not, you are part of a class and a milieu specific to your socialization. »Graphic Designers« are not a class, let alone a homogenous milieu, so it’s weird to summarize the entirety (or an elite few) of graphic designers as a political actor. Most of the graphic designers involved in discussions about political agency through »design practice« seem to be academics working mostly in the art and culture industry, many of them teaching at universities. That makes said discussions not only the concern of an elite few, they’re also pointing at the understandable bourgeois desire to integrate collective political praxis into individual design practice without having to face the hardships of class struggle.
The proximity of academic, »cool« graphic designers to the field of art sometimes seems to generate a sort of envy of the figure of the artist and its alleged autonomy and self-sufficiency, its almost mythical entrepreneurial heroism. The longing for social self-efficacy is relatable and shared by innumerable humans under capitalism. Here, it sees its realization in the utopian core of the artist figure. This very desire, if not mobilized by collective efforts of class struggle, can only lead to individualist approaches to politics – an oxymoron – and must thus become apolitical.
It is a worthwhile experiment to change the agent in the question and see if it still makes sense: Can hairdressers change society? Can cashiers and carpenters change society? Again, yes and no. Carpenters (and hairdressers, maybe even some cashiers) are – in some countries – organized in labor unions and can amass considerable influence on labor rights and wages. In this form of collective effort, these workers can »change society« to a certain, reformist extent.
»As cashiers«, they can do their work carefully and efficiently, they can provide the emotional labor – this is where the term really unfolds – of always being friendly and patient with customers, no matter how nerve wrecking their shift is. »As cashiers« they couldn’t gain control over the money that goes through their hands daily without having to face the termination of their employment. Any attempt at hijacking capital through »cashier practice« would turn the cashiers into robbers, punishable by law. Or, take bus drivers: they move people (employed and unemployed workers of all kinds) through infrastructure, between points of (re-)production and regeneration. If they go on strike, they considerably clog the machine for a brief moment. This is their specific resistant potential as bus drivers. They face considerable counter-pressure in doing so and some might develop a grim pride and identification with driving a bus. But with this identification comes a split: they are now bus-drivers and not something else, their proletarization is being turned into a positive identity. They can integrate their subjection into their subjectivity and cope with reality instead of turning against it and with it, identity.
Change the agent in question again: Graphic designers trying to »hijack« their commissions with subversive gestures produce sarcastic, ironic work at best. This can be enjoyable and funny, it is just not political and ultimately a sign of utter powerlessness.
»As graphic designers« we can develop a high grade of visual literacy, deep knowledge of visual craft, become technically proficient and, to quote the faux-Marxist design studio Experimental Jetset, »turn language into objects«. Interesting and fulfilling work for some, absolutely. But this alone doesn’t generate political agency. Also, to use a more recent example, the fonts used for the rebranding of the CIA do not magically »uphold imperialism«, the CIA does that, that’s what it’s there for. Anything they use will be put in service of their ends and to morally condemn the specific means – in this case, rather boringly, a tiny firm blindly selling their assets to a subcontractor of the CIA – is a great distraction from the work necessary to confront the ends to these means. The same goes for moralist and superficial attacks on all too »capitalist aesthetics«: The point is to change the relations of (re-)production, not the style of an otherwise uncritically accepted commodity.
The liberal drive to make »meaningful« little designs (and thus become meaningful little designers) is effectively stopping graphic designers from actually criticizing or even attacking the established order. We have this idea of the designer as the independent »possessive individual«, whose abilities are their private property, for which they owe nothing to society. An »independent« designer is an inherently antisocial one, to put it bluntly. And the same goes for artists. I claim that most young design students and their lauded teachers – especially if they have never worked outside of art-related or academic contexts – usually don’t understand at all what they’re up against, when they become vocal against capitalism. Being either against or disappointed by working in the commercial graphic design industry, they often fall into the trap of simply producing cryptic, avant-gardist or ascetic work and decorating it with bits of theory that they haven’t understood either. This is not to polemically say that they are stupid or laughable, to the contrary, they need the helping hands of critical solidarity in order to work through the liberal anticommunism inherent to their heroic, entrepreneurial perspective and ornamental theory. The style of their work is not the point of this critique.
Of course, Graphic Design is a central means used in shaping the symbolic order of the capitalist world. But graphic designers are not the ones who make the strategic decisions, they are not the ones owning the software they work and produce value with (cloud-based, subscription-model digital infrastructure exists purely for that reason) nor do they wield any considerable power over who they work for. This is folklore worthy of any insufferable TED talk. Any attempt at »choosing one’s clients« necessitates a strong economic base to fall back on – most just can’t afford to choose. Graphic designers organized as workers – and especially the »cool« ones would have to learn to see themselves as workers first – could amass and wield labor power and lead the negotiations of the conditions of their work. If radical enough, they could even halt the production of advertisements, packaging, newspapers and magazines through collective strikes in solidarity and coordination with striking print, production and logistics workers. This would put capital in trouble. I have never heard of any considerable strike of graphic designers specifically. Although, one must not forget that many contemporary trade unions themselves often have no interest in attacking capitalism as such, let alone fundamentally question the nature of their work. Furthermore, graphic designers, since the advent of desktop publishing, have mostly become intermediary workers, caught between intellectual and virtual production, often overseeing physical production, to which I would paradoxically also count programming. The workers in the latter field often appear as mere externals in need of proper creative management to produce the desired commodities. If they don’t give us brilliant designers the very thing we imagined, they don’t deserve our sympathy and need to do better. And if we, in turn, can’t give our clients the thing we promised them, we usually shift the blame towards production or the client. We’re »creatives« after all, opaque, spontaneous, gas-like and sensitive, how come everyone always misunderstands us?
The »creative industry« relies precisely on ideologies of creativity and entrepreneurialism. The individualist, desparate pursuit of the next great idea to serve capital and one’s own upward mobility is fundamentally at odds with solidarity. The lower echelon workers know by heart that this creative pursuit is a charade, that they have no other option than to sell their labor power. Many become cynical because that is a logical reaction to the realization of their situation.
If we – »as graphic designers« – want to find out how to »change society«, we must first realize the potential for change lies outside of the »practice« of graphic design. Whoever makes the claim to be a graphic designer – identity is a drug, I know – overlooks that they merely work as one and that their identification is ideology: a rationalization of what they are doing/have to do, so they can live with it. We must understand our position in the class matrix as workers in order to gain any sort of collective, emancipatory, transformative power and act in solidarity with other subjects of capital – this is what it means to become political. We must overcome our countertransformative urge to integrate political signifiers into our portfolios as assets, to just make meaningful graphic design, to just become meaningful graphic designers. We must engage in communist struggle if we want to preserve the remaining conditions for life, both human and non-human. This is not about how good or bad we design commodities, it’s about turning against the subjection of everything from life to death under the commodity form.