My studio used to be called ¡ü16.øäk! This literal word-form emerged from an idea built around personal identity as a conglomerate (the characters and symbols refer to several languages I had learned growing up) but the larger idea was, in a way, rooted in an old-fashioned orientation that a graphic designer was a servant to a message, not the author. In a way, an orientation that placed the designer between sender and receiver, a semiotic pivot-point that held that the designer should be the carrier, the interpreter, or translator of a message, not the author—each time somehow magically morphing into just what that sender needed to be and create the appropriate projection. Remember? We were problem-solvers, and each new problem required, indeed deserved, a new and appropriate solution. Such was our ambition!
Within this frame of thinking, I would place this conglomerate as a credit in my early work, still quite taken with the idea of anonymity, and therefore, the imagined humility, of that act—despite having invested my very soul in the work itself. In the years since, I have been loathe to add my name or signature to work, sometimes hiding or obscuring it when requested to do so, or developing extensions of the idea of such a mark into, in my perception, idiosyncratic form. It’s odd because some years later, when colleagues started remarking that I had truly discovered a voice of my own, I was both pleased and terrified at the same time. Had I really done so? Was this a good thing given those old orientations? Was I, if becoming ‘recognizable’, perhaps being lazy? Perhaps overusing ‘signature’ forms or approaches? I think I still struggle with this question of mine versus theirs, and confront this regularly in both my own work and in my role as an educator working with students. But perhaps this is an unnecessary struggle?
Our field has long since addressed the obvious and contradictory dilemma of designer as author, and for good reason. In many ways, I think this idea of humility for many designers, in seeing themselves as servants, is precisely what has always kept us on the sidelines of more broad-based cultural recognition—compared to, for example, architects and artists, whose authorship has never been in question, indeed, it is arguably the centerpiece of those practices. Some of us, in graphic design, have argued that the promise and presence of a larger body of critical writing focused on our field could form an antidote to this state of affairs, which is fine, but I would posit that graphic designers need to balance their traditional humility with a touch of well-deserved arrogance. We are no longer so-called (and derisively mentioned), commercial artists, therefore somehow forfeiting the right to authorship because work is commissioned, nor should we necessarily hide behind self-published or self-commissioned work as a way to claim authorship as a whole. Indeed, we compete with each other for new work precisely within this orientation, that we are different from them.
A student of mine once put it very well, if you give twenty designers a brief, you will receive twenty different solutions. And would we want it any other way? We are individuals, we have our own voices and there is no arrogance in such a claim, indeed, in claiming authorship we can also be humble in that we accept responsibility for what we create, and stand by it as experts, as devotees, as impassioned creators of form. I’ve written elsewhere that as graphic designers, “we too long for some recognition of our idiosyncrasy, our individual being in the world. We seek undiscovered paths amidst established and well-trodden byways, we seek to send our voices through messages that are not necessarily our own. This can be a frustrating existence, especially when one is refuted by the pressures of the world, of convention, of precedent, of the same.”1
All that being said, and having just quoted myself, I must say that I am still enamored with the idea of the invisible designer, the humble typesetter that remains unseen in a flawlessly set paragraph, the love and devotion, the very human care we give to our work that perhaps might not be appreciated or even perceived. Such are the contradictions of idiosyncrasy, I suppose. It should also be said that, despite my best intentions, ¡ü16.øäk! eventually gave way to Typografika for practical reasons, it was rather a challenge for people to write checks out to that word. Not that there were that many. I do miss it however, I mean, just try saying it. It is quite fun.
1From an essay commissioned by Atelier La Casse for their publication, Oripeau. Nantes, France. March, 2018.