From a short talk presented at the AIGA FutureHistory conference (Chicago, October 16-17, 2004).
If we were to take a snapshot of writing and thinking about graphic
design in North America right now—and here I mean the kind of graphic
design “criticism,” “journalism” or “history” that we find in a wealth
of books, journals, magazines, edited collections, conference papers,
discussions and weblogs—I think we would find that there are several
recurrent themes that can, in some senses, be considered as
characteristic (if not quite definitive) of this outpouring; this
When designers and invested observers pause to reflect on the state
of this profession—or “practice,” as some would have it—the kind of
hand-wringing that ensues has much to do with an abiding sense that: (a)
graphic design is important, goddamn it; (b) as hard as “they” try,
“they” don’t understand who we are and what we do; and (c) if only our
importance was recognized by the wider world—for the right reasons, of
course—then everyone would somehow be better off. Alas, this insularity
is not so much imposed as self-inflicted.
Take Lorraine Wild’s sage observation, delivered in the context of debates over social responsibility in graphic design:
Criticism of the commercial abuse of design is always
problematic: if it comes from Stuart Ewen, it’s rejected because he’s an
academic; if it comes from Neville Brody, it doesn’t count because he’s
English; if it comes from Tibor Kalman, it’s invalid because he is
somehow tainted by his own commercial practice; if it comes from Dan
Friedman, well, “doesn’t he design furniture now?”; if it comes from
someone like me, it is written off because my practice is not commercial
Indeed, it was only 17 short years ago that Joe Duffy declared, in
the wake of his very public spat with Tibor Kalman at the AIGA
“Dangerous Ideas” conference, “I don’t care what Stuart Ewen says; he’s
not a designer.”  Even Philip Meggs sneered at this particular
messenger, neatly sidestepping whatever his actual message might have
been: Ewen’s was “a passionate talk with Marxist overtones. Personally,
he cut quite a capitalist image with four fancy rings and a lush
Italian-designer jacket.” 
As another example, take the topic of famous designers and the
writing of graphic design history. In 1991, and in concert with many
design writers who were intent on questioning largely unspoken cultural
and professional biases associated with gender, Martha Scotford 
tentatively ventured that there might be a canon, and that this
seemed to consist entirely of dead, white male designers. Further, she
suggested that this might be a problem for the teaching of graphic
design. Flash forward to a copy of Print from May/June 2004,
and we find an uncharacteristically testy Rick Poynor misrepresenting a
perfectly sound line of inquiry with gems such as this: “Barthes,
Foucault...and a platoon of feminist art historians are usually brought
in ... to demonstrate how deeply oppressive it is to know the names of
the people who designed the artifacts we use.”  (I challenge anyone,
Rick included, to find a single, employed art historian who has ever
suggested as much.)
Let’s assume for a moment that this was written on an off day or was
conjured up merely for rhetorical effect. Further, that it’s somehow
symptomatic of something akin to cabin fever: we, as designers and
design writers, have spent too long thinking about our own familiar
little world at uncomfortably close quarters, with every exit door
seemingly blocked, so much so that we’ve all gotten a bit unhappy.
On that note, and with one eye on brevity, I’d like to offer up
three ways of thinking about graphic design that rarely, if ever, appear
in this discourse. They’re theories—abstractions—rather than famous
people or important places or things designed. Hence my suggestion that
graphic design is immaterial. Not that it doesn’t matter; far from it.
Rather, the most important way we might think about it right now is as a
set of ideas and relations, a way of being in the world, as part of a
1. It’s not just what you know but who you know and where you come from.
Garry Stevens is an architectural engineer in Australia, and the author of a recent book called The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction.
What he did in this book is very interesting indeed. He took the vastly
useful ideas of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu  and then
applied them to the profession of architecture. Bourdieu had set out in
the 1950s and 1960s with a whole team of fieldworkers to discover how
class inequities were reproducing themselves in postwar France. He found
that a key mechanism was the exercise of taste, rather than mere
wealth, whether earned or inherited. (Stevens also does a great job of
making Bourdieu’s writing accessible.)
Class is fascinating because it is like the air we breathe:
absolutely in evidence but utterly taken for granted. It also works in
many subtle ways, all of the time. Each of us, at every moment, betrays
our "class belongingness" as we gravitate almost instinctively towards
similarly identified individuals through: learned body language; how one
holds one’s knife and fork (the way one says “one” instead of “you”);
clothes; attitude; accent; musical choices; knowledge about dead
languages and dead poets, etc. Stevens calls this “a set of internalized
dispositions that incline people to act and react in certain ways ...
the filter through which we interpret the social world ... and the
mechanism we use to regulate our actions in that world.”  So, class
has direct, concrete effects: on who we think we are, how we behave, and
how we expect to be treated.
As an architectural engineer, it became startlingly obvious to
Stevens that there was a kind of class hierarchy at play within the
profession—one that held architects in far greater esteem than
engineers, for example. So, one of his key arguments in The Favored Circle
is that a select few architects become successful (and famous) not out
of sheer genius, or even dumb luck, but because of who they studied
with; by extension, those “lucky breaks”—college acceptance, contacts,
internships, first jobs, career advancement—depend to a significant
degree on class and taste. (Telling, too, that Stevens’s book was met
with a torrent of vitriol; after all, what he’d done was nothing short
of tasteless.) In this sense, “talent” can never be the only index of potential success.
How might this apply to the profession of graphic design? Well, for a
start, Milton Glaser has gone so far as to offer a notional “Art
Hierarchy” of roles: “the exact order varies a bit, but those at the top
are closest to God and inspire more respect.” Here it is in full:
ADVERTISING DESIGNER (ART DIRECTOR)
Glaser notes: “It’s true that many of the roles can be subsumed by
the phrase commercial artist, but if you describe yourself that way, you
go right to the bottom of the list.” 
It is of course an enormously tasteless game to play, but one could
begin to build a map of who, among today’s cadre of famous designers,
trained with or began their careers working for yesteryear’s famous
designers or famous design studios (quite aside from famous design
schools and their famous tutors). Suffice to say that Paula Scher did a
good job of dramatizing this very point with her wonderful satirical
cover for Print a few years back (Print Nov/Dec 1985).
In a sense, then—and I choose my words very carefully here—the
graphic design profession that each cohort of graphic design students
eyes with varying degrees of ambition, glee, and dread, is not a
meritocratic free-for-all. Whatever happens after school, be it fabulous
success or abject failure or, most likely, rather modest advancement,
has a great deal to do with their portfolios, but also where they come
from, who they are now, how well they fit in, and how quickly they learn
the unspoken rules of their chosen profession.
2. It’s not this or that but somewhere in the middle.
Around 50 years ago, during the salad days of the International Design
Conference in Aspen, a motorcycle-riding, Marxist academic from Columbia
delivered a speech called “The Designer: Man in the Middle.” 
I don’t want to dwell on the content of the piece so much as to
suggest that, whether designers have been paying attention or not, this
“middle” ground is a recurrent theme in social and cultural theory.
Bourdieu, for example, used the term “cultural intermediaries” to
analyze a group of workers—including graphic designers—that “comes into
its own in all the occupations involving presentation and representation
(sales, marketing, advertising, public relations, fashion, decoration
and so forth) and in all the institutions providing symbolic goods and
Designers, then, operate in the spaces between production and
consumption; between the spheres of work and leisure; we mediate between
the communication needs of our clients on the one hand and the
expectations of consuming audiences on the other. (I have argued in the
past that this audience is actually secondary: strictly speaking, the
first audience for designers is themselves and their peers, whether
through casual interactions at work or out of the workplace; through the
ongoing assembly of a fresh portfolio; or, through endless awards shows
and annuals. More on this in a moment.) This, I think, is a key issue
when figuring out how we as designers fit into the bigger picture.
Better still, it helps to explain why graphic design goes through
periodic convulsions regarding its goals, its purpose, its raison d’etre.
It wasn’t lost on Mills or Bourdieu that being in the middle creates
its own peculiar problems, or what Bourdieu elegantly calls an
“essential ambiguity.” While being a designer often strikes many people
as a fun, cool, hip way to earn a living (something like rock-and-roll
but with a relatively steady paycheck, in which one can comfortably
design a website for a business one minute and a protest T-shirt the
next, apparently without betraying the interests of either party), it is
also, in the cold light of day, a process of economic exchange. You
design an annual report for corporation X to our complete satisfaction,
and we’ll pay you the going rate (more or less). Every now and then
visible resistance to this rather harsh reality does surface; the two
incarnations of First Things First, 35 years apart, being only the most
obvious examples. Alas, they are perhaps the exceptions—glimpses into
the wish-life of graphic design—that actually prove the rule.
3. Graphic design is immaterial because graphic designers are, above all, consumers.
In the summer of 2004 (and, indeed, 2005) I spent a week in the amiable
company of forty or so other designers at Maine College of Art’s DesignInquiry,
seven days spent chatting and debating and designing with folks from
all over the place who had come together under the theme of “truth and
message.” Peter Hall did a great job of facilitating a discussion about
our role as designers. He had us begin with a set of readings that
included Michael Rock’s piece from Eye called “The Designer as
Author” , Rick Poynor’s “The Designer as Reporter” , Ellen
Lupton’s “The Producers”  and Susan Sontag’s “The World as India”
Without wanting to undermine Peter’s initiative, I do want to pause
for a moment to reflect on the way in which every piece is, naturally
enough, concerned with imagining an empowered (i.e., authoritative, even
autonomous) role for the graphic designer—whether it be as a
kind of journalist, author, producer or even translator. Call me a
contrarian or perverse (or flatter me entirely, and call it
dialectical), but I actually started thinking about concrete ways in
which designers are decidedly unempowered, such that they might
never be masters or mistresses of their own destinies—a body blow to
our biggest collective fantasy. Aside from issues of class and taste and
being piggy-in-the-middle—as I’ve already suggested—designers can
reasonably be understood not as producers at all, but as consumers.
In occupying the precarious middle ground along with every other
cultural intermediary, graphic designers are obliged to cultivate an
acute attunement to everything that is new in the world. As designers we
depend, in a very real sense, on exposing ourselves to the very latest
styles, movies, books, gadgets (say hello to iPod), music—the very
freshest morsels that the cultural zeitgeist can serve up. Only then can
we produce design work that isn’t stale. The problem, though, is that
once everyone else gets his or her hands on it, it ain’t fresh no more;
so off we move again. Back to that “essential ambiguity”: we want the
“prestige and cultural capital” of being in the design club, but our job
is also to share are the groovy ideas and things we find, “popularizing
and making them more accessible to wider audiences.”  Herein lies
the rub: the last thing we want is to be associated with the Joneses,
for all their embarrassingly outré suburbanism. So, we have to keep
ahead; the further ahead the better. Where once we read Wired or RayGun, we now read RES or This Is a Magazine—at
least until the hoards catch up and clue in; we bought Radiohead’s (or
Honey Barbara’s) first album when it came out and played it all day long
in the studio, but now they’re just too popular. I’m sure some readers
have rather more hip examples to offer, which is precisely my point.
I have tried to sketch out in the most rudimentary fashion some
notions that I hope will help to challenge some of our most cherished
assumptions and aspirations about graphic design’s role in the world. My
aim has not been to trample them in the dirt, but to suggest that the
process of making them achievable must involve a more thorough
interrogation of the kinds of values and ideals that can sometimes blind
us to our own fallibility. The three objections I have raised are
derived from a very particular source: a rich vein of cultural and
social theory that may provide answers but is certainly not the only
port of call. Whatever we do, we (graphic designers, educators, design
writers) must get acclimatized to looking beyond our own backyard to
develop an enriched understanding of graphic design in its least
material forms; beyond its existence as a set of artifacts and
 The material I plowed through in order to arrive at these conclusions can be viewed here: www.mattsoar.org/SoarBiblio.html.
 Wild, L. (1994). “On overcoming modernism.” Bierut, M., et al (Eds.), Looking Closer: Critical writings on graphic design, New York: Allworth Press, pp. 55-61.
 “Tibor Kalman vs. Joe Duffy.” (1990). Print, Mar/Apr, 68-75, 158-161.
 Meggs, P. (1990). “Is the sleepwalking giant waking up?” Print, Jan/Feb., p. 115.
 Scotford, M. (1997). “Is there a canon of graphic design history?” Heller, S. & M. Finamore (Eds.), Design culture: An anthology of writing from the AIGA journal of graphic design. New York: Allworth Press, pp. 218-227.
 Poynor, R. (2004). “Optic Nerve: Singular sensations.” Print, May/June, p. 34.
 Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. (R. Nice, trans.). London: Routledge & Keegan Paul.
 Stevens, G. (1998). The Favored Circle: The social foundations of architectural distinction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
 Glaser, M. (2000). Art Is Work: Graphic design, interiors, objects and illustration. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.
 Mills, C. W. (1963). “Man in the Middle: The designer.” Horowitz, I. L. (Ed.) Power, Politics, and People: The collected essays of C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Rock, M. (2002). “The Designer as Author.” Bierut, M. et al (Eds.) Looking Closer 4: Critical writings on graphic design. New York: Allworth Press, pp. 237-244.
 Poynor, R. (2001). Obey the Giant: Life in the image world. August/Birkhauser.
 Lupton, E. (2003). “The Producers.” Lupton, E., et al (Eds.) Inside Design Now: National design triennial. Princeton Architectural Press.
 Featherstone, M. (1991). Consumer Culture and Ppostmodernism. London: Sage.
Drucker, J. (1998). “Johanna Drucker on Design Theory.” Heller, S., & E. Pettit (Eds.) Design Dialogues. New York: Allworth Press, pp. 138-143.
Soar, M. (2002a). “The First Things First manifesto and the question of
culture jamming: Towards a cultural economy of graphic design and
advertising.” Cultural Studies 16(4).
Soar, M. (2002b). “Graphic design / Graphic dissent: Towards a cultural
economy of an insular profession.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,
University of Massachusetts Amherst.
When do general interests become special? Caplan examines a loaded term and the designer's business in advancing a client's special interests.
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