“FUCKED UP THAT DESIGNERS CRYING THEMSELVES TO SLEEP EVERY NIGHT OVER THEIR HORRIBLE JOBS CHOOSE TO BELIEVE THEYRE NOT DESIGNING HARD ENOUGH RATHER THAN QUESTION THE WAY THEYRE BEING EXPLOITED” - neuroticarsehole
Up until the 1980s working in the field of graphic design was a complicated and labor-intensive job. As an example, making a publication took a whole team of people – each performing a specific task. First, for the designer to select typefaces and preview text he would have to contact a printer to get samples of different typefaces. Once the typeface was selected another person would type out the text to create a lead stamp of the text, while another would place the stamp in a frame to determine the position of the text on the page. If an image was needed for the publication another person would have to take the photograph using a film camera. All of the editing, developing and half-toning of the image for print would then require the labor of a few more persons. Every decision had to be taken carefully beforehand as making changes later in the chain of design would be a nightmare.
In the 1980s the personal computer was introduced, and shortly after design software like desktop publishing tools and photo editing tools were created. Software like QuarkXPress, Adobe PageMaker, and later Adobe InDesign suddenly allowed a single person to perform many different tasks on their own. The designer could now buy fonts in digital format, try them out in various sizes, type out the text, and place the text on a page with images all from the comfort of their chair. Designers were now enabled to design more complex layouts, prototype these layouts quicker, and overall design at a much easier and faster pace. The physical manual labor of graphic design was thus replaced by the semi-automated digital labor which continues to become ever more automated every day. A faster and easier design process is not the only thing the digital revolution brought to graphic design. The internet came shortly after the personal computer which, eventually, had an enormous influence on working in the field of graphic design as well as the learning process of becoming a graphic designer. As all of the tools of the designer were being replaced by digital software, the internet allowed people to more easily share these tools, further lowering the point of entry into the world of graphic design. Online education is now prominent, from simple YouTube videos that teaches users tips and tricks in common design software to fully fledged online classes on websites like SkillShare. Now, any amateur with a computer and an internet connection can enter the world of graphic design. The rise of the gig economy and the creation of online labor marketplaces such as Fiverr and UpWork have also given these amateurs a place to monetize their newly learned skills. Now if one needs a simple logo for their vegan food blog or some visual elements for a Twitch stream anyone can simply find a designer through an online marketplace and get the design delivered within a week for just a few euros. This, compounded with the rise of various graphic design generators like Brandmark and Logojoy, now allows clients to avoid waiting, dealing with designers, and spending the least amount of money. One can even acquire a generated graphic on the spot with the help of a generator. This is not to say that it will be of equal quality with a well thought out design from a well-educated and reputable designer. I would even go as far as to say that the amateur and the professional designer don't even operate in the same market, and likely don't have the same client base or scale of work. It is difficult for me to imagine the Guggenheim Museum commissioning someone on Fiverr to create a new identity for them for just a few hundred dollars. Taking all of this into account, it is clear that the rise of the amateur in conjunction with advances in automation and digital technology has ultimately affected the value of labor of traditional graphic design. What I mean by traditional graphic design is the idea of the graphic designer that communicates information or content he is given into a visually appealing and fitting form, whether it be publishing a book, making a poster or packaging for toys – a visual content generator, so to speak.
Whether or not traditionally educated graphic designers will be replaced by automated generators and amateurs in the gig economy and related hopes and fears is a topic that has been thoroughly discussed in the past few years and will therefore not be the main topic of this thesis. As an emerging graphic designer that is about to enter the professional world of design it is still a frightening thing to hear that your future profession is potentially about to become either obsolete, at least the role of human labor in design, or that it will be reduced to mindlessly creating visuals for underpaying clients. But what is the response to this phenomenon from the graphic design field? Are designers just doubling down on their superiority over generators and amateurs or are there designers or studios that are approaching graphic design from another angle? As a part of my design education at ArtEZ in Arnhem I have been introduced to interesting alternative approaches to traditional graphic design. In fact, the whole study is so centered around alternative approaches to graphic design that I often have a hard time explaining what I actually learn and create at school. I define alternative approach to graphic design as a design approach where the practice of the designer does not revolve around solution oriented visual generation for content that the designer is given by a client, as the traditional graphic designer does, but rather something contradictory to that like generating the content himself through research, combining his practice with another profession, or simply being problem-oriented rather than solution-oriented. However, there can also be a myriad of other things that studios do. Thus, is it possible to create an alternative approach to graphic design that provides a desirable and sustainable future? A future where the graphic designer does not live precariously trying to compete with generators and amateurs and is free to use his creativity and knowledge to autonomously initiate work that does not revolve around making money.
In my research on this thesis I have drawn inspiration from a few corners of the theoretical field, but two sources have had the greatest impact on my research, namely Silvio Lorusso and his website Entreprecariat, as well as the 2015 book, Inventing The Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Snricek and Alex Williams.
Silvio Lorusso is a graphic designer, researcher and writer based in the Netherlands. He is the founder of the website Entreprecariat where he writes. The name of the website is also a term he coined to describe the precarious entrepreneurial position a lot of designers experience in the modern world. His writing on the modern precarious graphic designer was in a sense a starting point for my whole research. Silvio Lorusso’s writing draws a lot of its philosophy from the theories of Pierre Bordieu, thus giving his writing a great analysis on the world of graphic design from multiple angles.
While Inventing The Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Snricek and Alex Williams is not focused on graphic design, it has given me a greater overview of the struggles the modern day worker faces, how those struggles could get even worse, and what possible futures we could aim for. The book’s analysis on how neoliberalism rose up and changed the world and the mistakes in how the left has tried to challenge this change has been a great foundation for understanding the broader context of labor in the modern world. The vision of the future they propose, a world where everything is automated, members of society receive a universal basic income and the abolishment of traditional work ethic, is interesting to view in the context of graphic design where manual labor by humans has been valued for so long.
In the first chapter of my thesis I will look at some of the more prominent alternative approaches to design that I have encountered in the past few years, namely research-based or critical design, speculative design and the designer as phenomenon. I will discuss their approaches to design, how they came to be, why they are potentially good alternatives, and where they might fail.
From there I will zoom out from the design world and view design from the larger globalized context. Even if the alternative approaches mentioned in the first chapter will not “save” the field of graphic design, could there theoretically be an alternative approach or an evolution of graphic design that would allow a living future for its workers? Or are there bigger societal factors that may hinder that?
Finally, I will examine if the changes mentioned earlier are negative and what we could do to overcome or adapt to them by looking at a few cases of works done by designers as well as studios that have interesting practices that somehow embrace the technological advancements, the rise of the gig economy and democratization of design. While this thesis focuses on graphic design, I feel that a lot of these topics are also relevant to a broader spectrum of the working public. With labor in the field of graphic design being ever more automated and outsourced to amateurs, it makes me question what other approaches to design are possible? And are these changes only affecting the field of graphic design or do we need to reinvent our whole system to ensure a better future?
Research-Based-Critical-Speculation as Design
In the fall of 2014, I moved to the Netherlands to study fashion design at the ArtEZ Institute of Arts in Arnhem. After a year and a half of studying fashion I decided that it was not for me, so I applied to the graphic design department at the same school. I had taken a graphic design class during my time studying fashion and making posters, visual identities, and other visual content seemed like a fun thing to focus on full time. Shortly after joining the graphic design department I discovered that what I initially thought the focus of the course would be, was in fact only a side focus. Throughout my four years of studying graphic design, I have been introduced to many other ways of thinking about and practicing graphic design, and thus my study has mostly focused on these. There are three approaches to design that I have personally focused on, and that from my point of view seem more relevant in this day and age.
In 2006 Daniel van der Velden wrote an essay titled “Research and Destroy” where he analyzed the state of graphic design at the time. In it he questioned the value of design as the designer is increasingly threatened with becoming the proletariat of the creative industry, silently carrying out whatever the client dictates. However, the ‘important graphic design’ of the current time is not the one brought out by big clients or cultural institutions, like in the past, but rather the design that is generated by the designer himself, a commentary in the margins of visual culture. His conclusion is that he sees no other option but for the designer to use all the knowledge he has gained that might not be needed in traditional design and use it to self-initiate work. With the removal of the traditionally commissioned assignment, the designer must now use that freedom to redesign himself.1
Daniel van der Velden along with Vinca Kruk make up the Amsterdam based design duo Metahaven who can be regarded as one of the pioneers of research-based design, also often referred to as critical design. However, it is worth noting that other designers have operated on similar principles as Metahaven before them. As both of the terms, research-based design and critical design, are quite vague, not officially defined, and often used to describe the same school of design, I will stick to using research-based design.
Research-based design focuses, as the name implies, on incorporating research into the design process. This also means that a lot of research-based design projects are self-initiated and created purely out of the interests of the designer. The project then does not revolve purely around the visual aspect of it but rather the content, the research and how the designer uses the visual elements to sell his story. These projects are also often not bound by traditional graphic design mediums like books and posters but rather use a larger range of mediums like film, performances and videogames, to name a few. Though the visual aspect of the work is not its center point, Metahaven brought on a distinct visual language in their work which has been co-opted by many when making research-based design which is why one could view Metahaven as the pioneers of research-based design.
Speculative Design on the other hand is a more clearly defined approach. Speculative design was introduced by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby who form the studio Dunne and Raby, in 2013 with the release of their book Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming. The book originated from a list or a manifesto they created called A/B where they contrasted traditional design values with the forms of design they normally found themselves doing. The book then goes on to unpack the A/B list and how it can be used to generate speculative design. The A/B list is now viewed as a manifesto or guideline to approaching speculative design. Unlike Metahaven, Dunne and Raby are not graphic designers but as the A/B list is quite general and focuses on the design process rather than the medium, it can be adapted to fit most design fields.
The philosophy of speculative design goes against everything we traditionally associate design with. Instead of focusing on problem solving they urge the designer to be problem finding. Instead of changing the world to suit us we should change us to suit the world. Instead of designing to make us buy designers should design to make us think and so forth. The idea is then that by proposing questions on alternative realities and futures, no matter how ridiculous they might seem, the designer can spark a conversation that hopefully leads to a more desirable future.
The last approach to design I have been introduced to is the designer as phenomenon. This approach has been gradually evolving over the past twenty years, if not longer. In 1996 Michael Rock wrote the essay “The Designer as Author” where he looks at the rise of authorship within graphic design. Graphic designers had increasingly started to take the role of the author and creator of the message in the project rather than just the visual communications part that graphic designers tend to do. Since then designers have started to take on more and more roles that cover the whole spectrum of society. Designer as photographer, activist, dancer, and so forth. Unlike speculative and research-based design that were set out with a clear goal or manifesto, I would argue that the designer as approach is a natural evolution from the changes in mediums, types of works and technological advances in the field of graphic design. “The ambition of the designer always leads beyond his discipline and his official mandate, without this above-and-beyond having a diploma or even a name of its own. Still, it is remarkable that design, as an intrinsic activity, as an objective in itself, enjoys far less respect than the combination of design and one or more other specialisms. A pioneering designer does more than just design – and it is precisely this that gives design meaning. Willem Sandberg was a graphic designer, but he was also the director of the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum (for which he did his most famous work, in the combined role of designer and his own client). Wim Crouwel was a graphic designer, but also a model, a politician, stylist and later, also a museum director.”2 Nowadays, we have shifted from being more than just designers out of ambition to pioneer to being more than designers out of need. Even the designer and head of the graphic design department at ArtEZ, Thomas Castro, has stated that it is no longer enough to just be a graphic designer. The designer as designer is no longer needed.
Even though I listed these approaches as different entities, they are connected and share a lot of the same base. Even many designers use an interdisciplinary mix of them in their daily practice. They all aim for a better field of design where designers can work autonomously and output better work. But if these approaches are so good why haven’t they taken over the design world and changed the situation, especially considering that all of them are at least five years old if not older? While it is true that these approaches hold a lot of potential, I would argue that they are also flawed, which might hinder them from redefining what graphic design is.
Research-based design which focuses on criticality, comes with the obvious question of what it is critical towards, as the vague name does not suggest anything more than simply being critical. What exactly is it critical of in graphic design? The subject? Society? The field? Or perhaps nothing at all. "Critical graphic design is a vague and subjective term. The meaning of the word “critical” in relation to graphic design remains unclear, resulting in an overuse and misuse in design magazines, books and websites.”3 This often leads to truly critical and good work being only accessible and viewed within museums and higher academia. Speculative design on the other hand struggles more with accessibility in the sense of being understood by the public or general audience which it is aiming to spark a conversation with. An example of this is a work titled Tear Gun by the European-based Taiwanese designer Yi Fei Chen. The work questions how we can turn our emotional energy into something physical with a machine, in this case a gun that collects your tears and then allows you to shoot them. This work caught a lot of attention as it was previewed at the graduation exhibition of the Design Academy in Eindhoven in 2016. It spread to most design media outlets and within days there were videos showcasing it all over Facebook. And as happens with many things that end up on Facebook, they become grossly misinterpreted and turned into memes. For a while, my Facebook and Reddit feeds were riddled with memes of this work. While it had the potential to spark a lot of interesting conversations, for the mass population it turned into nothing more than a strange meme-able fiction. Thus, limiting the space to museums, academia, and design expositions for these works to be viewed and understood also limits the conversation that was intended to be created from it. If the critical or speculative designer wants to spark a conversation with the world in the aim of finding a more desirable future, they need to include more people in the conversation than merely the elite of the design world. As Francisco Laranjo states in his essay Critical Everything, “But if it is to be accountable for its substance, quality and effect on society, then the bar for critical and speculative designers must be substantially raised.”4
The “designer as” phenomenon has in some sense the most reasonable approach to the changing landscape within design and society as it allows the designers to adapt their profession to whatever profession is for example relevant or profitable at the time. However, I see it more as a solution to a symptom rather than a cure for the cause as this approach does not challenge the notion of why traditional graphic design labor is no longer desirable and instead focuses on diluting the designer to fit into a wider set of economic opportunities.
1. Daniel van der Velden, "Research and Destroy." Index Grafik.
July 27, 2016, Accessed May 10, 2018,
2. Daniel van der Velden, "Research and Destroy." Index Grafik.
July 27, 2016, Accessed May 10, 2018,
3. Francisco Laranjo, "Critical Graphic Design: Critical of What?"
Design Observer, April 16, 2014, Accessed March 03, 2018,
What Happened to the Future?
If we zoom out for a bit and assume that the approaches to design mentioned in the first chapter are not here to stay, but rather, are a reflection of a trend of the time, could we assume that their failure in building a better field for graphic design boils down purely to their own flaws? Could we potentially design the perfect approach to graphic design?
In 1935, Bertrand Russell published a collection of essays titled In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays. In the first essay, In Praise of Idleness, Russells argues that labor needs to be restructured and equally distributed between everyone to create a better society." If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody, and no unemployment--assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization.”5 Almost 90 years later, the average worker works longer than ever, and income inequality has never been higher. With the current proportions of designers being unemployed or stuck in a precarious situation of the entrepreneural gig economy, one must question what happened to the future Russells envisioned, which seemed so possible with all of the technological advancements that have evolved since the essay was written?
A big part of why we are not where Russells imagined us to be at this point in time comes down to transformations in the dominant political and economic philosophy. In those 90 years since Russels published his essay the political and economic ideology of Neoliberalism has gone from merely an idea discussed in Western thinktanks to a globally dominant ideology that is now woven into every web of our reality. Today it is widely believed that the best way for goods to be produced and distributed is by rational individuals through the free market. State regulations and nationalized industries are by contrast dismissed as inefficient and holding back the productivity of the free market. The free market is almost seen as a natural, unstoppable force and trying to interrupt it or control it by regulations would be like trying to control nature. However, what is often mistaken as a force of nature is actually the ideology of Neoliberalism. Neoliberalism sets the agenda for what is realistic, possible and needed.6 This spills over into the world of art and design. Where monetary value and the accumulation of capital are prioritized and valued over everything else, the task of redesigning the graphic design field to make a more sustainable and viable future for the designer becomes more complicated and challenging than only finding an interesting or different approach to design.
Francis Tseng illustrated this idea simply but concisely in his work, The Founder from 2017. The Founder is a dystopian business simulator where the player starts as a nameless entrepreneur that has just founded a startup. The player starts alone in his house but can soon start hiring people to work for him, expanding into new locations and industries and lobbying for changes in legislation to make his start up more profitable. The game also captures many of the classic start up elements like underpaying and overworking employees in exchange for meaningless perks like coffee and beer. The goal of the game is to keep a stable 12% increase in profit every year to keep the shareholders happy. Many players, like myself, start the game by attempting to make a humane and profitable workspace but quickly run into the realization that this is impossible within the existing structure. I ended up firing a lot of my good staff when they started to cost too much and lobbied aggressively to lower the minimum wage so I could hire even cheaper staff. The Founder shows perfectly that no matter how ambitious or creative you are, you are always forced to create capital, either for yourself or for your shareholders. The only way for the player to win is to not play at all.
The way that I see the problem that the design world currently faces is that the approaches I discussed in the first chapter, and potentially all other approaches to graphic design, are inherently new and underdeveloped. As such, the invisible force of the market that dictates what is possible and needed, has not really found a value for these approaches(yet). This is not to say that there is no value in alternative approaches to design, or even the output of these approaches. I would argue that it is exactly the opposite, as these approaches provide priceless cultural and social value. However, cultural and social value are difficult to measure and calculate. “Things that cannot be calculated, or at least cannot be measured in the foreseeable future, will have more difficulty in finding their way to the marketplace.”7 This means that designers that do not rely on the traditional model of working for clients that pay them, ultimately struggle to make a living. Many of these designers instead rely on art and design funding from the government or collaborations with cultural institutions such as museums that allow them to explore and create their autonomous work. With increasing austerity measures in the Western world in recent years, due to the neoliberal agenda, these grants and work opportunities are even harder to come by especially for young and recently graduated designers.
One could then conclude that no matter how much restructuring we do within graphic design, whether that be in how we work, who we work for or where we work, we can never achieve a sustainable and desirable future within the neoliberal structure exists as it does today.
5. Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness: And Other Essays (London: Routledge, 2004), p.8.
6. Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams, Inventing the Future Postcapitalism and a World without Work (London: Verso, 2016), p.51
7. Pascal Gielen, The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude: Global Art, Memory and Post-Fordism, Valiz, 2015 p.11.
An Enemy Worth Loving?
There is no denying that the field of graphic design has changed immensely with technological innovations and the democratization of design as mentioned in the introduction. There are no signs of deceleration of technological innovations and of the exploitation of labor in the modern gig economy, so one might ask what can a designer do now? Some designers have, instead of trying to reinvent the field of graphic design, opted instead to harness the powers of these changes. I will therefore look into a few interesting works as well as studios that have in one way or another incorporated the technological advancement, the gig economy and democratization into their work.
A good example of a recent artwork that leans into these technological advancements is the work New Now from 2016 by Jonas Lund. He trained a neural network on his previous work and optimized it to be successful at art fairs. The result is a series of digital paintings but also an artistic extension of Lund in the form of an AI. The AI can therefore continue creating as he would and predict his future work.
Another possible approach that could be taken would be to harness the power of the amateur to do parts of our work that are time consuming, boring in order to expand on aspects of our work that normally couldn’t be done. An example of this could be Stefán Stefánsson's graduation work from the Rietveld Academy titled The Ghostwriting Files. His work explores the importance of authenticity within artworks through text, music, and design collected through services like Fiverr. He used several ghostwriters to write a big portion of the texts for him, giving him time to focus on the curation, design and overall concepts of the work.
Another change that I have not mentioned yet, but that I feel is worth mentioning now, is the rise of monoculture regarding what tools are used to make graphic design. Today a single company, Adobe, essentially has a monopoly on software used for design. Thus, the entity owning the tools has the power. While many people think that the software they use is a transparent blank canvas that has no influence on the design outcome, the truth suggest the contrary. Defaults like margins, font sizes, line heights and so on are often overlooked by many but have a vital role in the outcome of the design. In other words, the defaults by default directly affect the outcome. The same could be said with the default tools that software has to offer directly limits the creative frame that the designer must operate within. Eventually the designer does not even consider options for design that are not offered by the software, resulting in a lacking visual culture where everyone creates similar things. What if InDesign, the industry standard publishing software, would suddenly offer tools to design in 3D and incorporate animations? This might seem pointless to many, but I would not doubt that visual culture would change significantly as a result of it.
This brings me to my final example. I was lucky to have the opportunity to do my internship at a collective of designers, writers and programmers called Open Source Publishing or OSP. OSP emerged out of the Brussels based art collective Constant when a group of people within Constant wanted to explore making graphic design with only free and open source software. Having the software open source means that the user is free to peek under the hood and see the inner workings of the software, I.e. see the source code of the software. Open source software licenses also allow the user to freely modify and distribute these modifications as they want. By only using open source software, from the operating system to the image editor, OSP rejects, or is simply not aware of, all of the visual and technical standards that Adobe inflicts on the field. This also allows OSP more freedom in how they use their tools, and if a tool does not operate how they want it to, they will simply modify it to fit their needs. If a tool they want to use does not exist, they will simply make it themselves and share it freely with other designers. All of their work is also licensed under an open source license which allows anyone to use and modify their designs. This further extends to the democratization of design as not only are all of the tools open and freely available but also the works, which can then be reused and remixed by anyone.
Even though these examples show that the recent economic and technological changes can be used to create interesting work or studio practices I would argue that it is not a sustainable approach in the sense that most of them can’t be adopted by everyone. Jonas Lund could make an AI based on himself that produces work for him and brings him income. If every designer would do that the market would flood with these types of work and no one would consider them valuable, under our current economic system. To really create a sustainable future for all designers, society needs to be reorganized in a way where the fruits of design labor is valued, an where the monetary value is not the only value that people strive for.
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue in their book Inventing the Future that the only way to achieve such a future is for the left to redesign their tactics to conquer global capitalism and neoliberalism. They argue that the left has, since the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, been focusing on the wrong tactic which they call folk politics. Folk politics as they define it aim to bring politics down to a human level, focusing on reacting to change through protest, occupation, marching and various other forms of direct action. While these measures can be effective at times, they are no longer as effective as they used to be. Millions have protested the Iraqi war, occupied Wall Street and protested a lack of action regarding climate change without a significant impact. In contrast, the political right has managed, through careful planning over almost hundred years, to strategically push the neoliberal agenda into every nook and cranny of society. The left therefore needs to adapt the tactics of the right by embracing long term goals over immediate actions as the current future is not working out for most of the population on earth. Instead of resisting automation through unions in the hopes of keeping our jobs we should embrace automation in hopes of abolishing work, as capitalism already lacks the ability to successfully employ all members of society. For those jobs that cannot be automated we should focus on redistributing them to ensure a higher employment rate and a shorter work week for all. Instead of tearing down the welfare state we should focus on creating a universal basic income system where every member of society is able to live unexploited. This would ensure a future where everyone, including designers, could live a free life and be able to create whatever they want, without being limited to creating for profitability. Until that world exists, the free autonomous graphic designer cannot exist.
Through this thesis, I have discussed the most prominent alternative approaches in graphic design – critical design, speculative design and the designer as phenomena. Research based- and speculative design have created interesting ways for us to think about design, while the designer as phenomena has introduced a lot of new ways to combine designs with other fields in the aim of establishing a richer field of design. However, while they all provide a fresh starting point for a better field of design, they also all have their shortcomings. Some of these shortcomings are from their own errors but ultimately it stems from a difficult economic and social structure. With the domination of neoliberalism within global capitalism where profit and accumulating capital is the start and endpoint, any approach to design that isn’t optimized for maximum profit has a hard time surviving.
Looking at individual works that, instead of trying to reinvent the field of graphic design, use the power of the technological advancements, the gig economy and democratization of design to further their work and practice we can see that it is a possible strategy for a select few, but as with the alternative approaches to design, the approaches to design proposed in these works cannot alone provide a sustainable future.
There is a spectrum of desirable futures for graphic design, and many of them are already being shaped by the alternative approaches mentioned earlier. But instead of trying to reinvent the field of graphic design endlessly we should rather aim to dismantle the system to secure a more fruitful future. A future where design is valued for more than its monetary value. A future where the designer can freely unleash all his potential to create whatever his heart desires. A future where the graphic designer can exist.
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