Capitalism could not exist without the coins, banknotes, documents, information graphics, interfaces, branding, and advertising made by graphic designers. Even strategies such as social design and speculative design are easily appropriated to serve economic growth. It seems design is locked in a cycle of exploitation and extraction, furthering inequality and environmental collapse.
CAPS LOCK is a reference work that uses clear language and visual examples to show how graphic design and capitalism have come to be inextricably linked. The book features designed objects, but also examines how the professional practice of designers itself supports capitalism. Six radical graphic design collectives are featured that resist capitalist thinking in their own way, inspiring a more sustainable and less exploitative practice of graphic design.
A HISTORY OF DISSENT
Apathy befalls many graphic designers when trying to imagine a design practice outside of capitalism. A long line of designers have critiqued capitalism, from the First Things First manifesto in 1964 all the way back to William Morris (1834–1896). Through its anti-capitalist critique, graphic design has become more, not less entangled with capitalism. It seems that three centuries of this dominant economic system has paralyzed our ability to imagine alternatives. The feeling that no individual or collective can change anything until either dystopia n or utopian fantasies of total collapse or full transformation, respectively, are realized.
I spent the last three years trying to answer the question if ethical graphic design can exist under capitalism. The focus is on graphic designers, but this perspective could also extend to other disciplines. The search starts by finding the origins of the current economic system, and how design has come to be so intertwined with it. Thinkers from sociology, economics, social geography, critical theory, and anthropology are consulted for the theoretical foundations. Another reference point is my own twenty years of work experience as a graphic designer. I have worked in advertising, branding, infographic design, social design, speculative design, and critical design. I have made activist campaigns, annual reports for banks, and interfaces for consumer websites. I have worked under a boss, as a freelancer, I have run my own business, and have taught in design schools on several levels. From that experience I have been involved in many of the capitalist design practices mentioned in this book.
WHY THIS BOOK?
Capitalism has failed to deliver on its promise that it would create an economic system of freedom and prosperity for all. Originally capitalism came from the Enlightenment, in the pursuit of freeing the individual from the control of church, nobility, and family. The idea being that if all individuals would pursue their self-interest, this would best serve both them and society. In theory every person has the same opportunities under capitalism, but in practice, only a tiny portion of people own the wealth and the means of production, and the rest of us has to work for a wage.
After more than two centuries 2,000 billionaires have more wealth than the poorest 60 percent of the world population combined, and extractive industries have depleted the earth and are threatening the world’s ecosystems with imminent collapse. Income inequality has increased in most developed countries since 1990. Since 2014 extreme poverty has been rising with 688 million people going hungry on a regular basis. Even the more privileged workers in the wealthier countries suffer from higher burnout rates and depression to meet the high productivity benchmarks. Endless consumption by the wealthy has led to an interlocking system of design, production, consumption, and waste that is nearing a point of no return. Capitalism must be resisted because it ultimately threatens the survival of life itself.
Given the complexity of the relation between graphic design and capitalism, the topic cannot possibly be covered in one book. Instead of attempting a complete overview, each chapter takes a different perspective on the subject by focusing on the various roles of designers. Each role contains an historical outline, followed by practical examples. Together, the twelve roles present a cross-section of the political economy of graphic design that provides insights from different perspectives.
The first part explains how the work of graphic designers bolsters capitalism and economic relations. ‘The Designer as Scribe’ is about the predecessor of the typographer. The scribe or clerk was crucial in organizing complex economic societies by keeping financial records, designing coins, banknotes, stocks, and other graphic notations that instil trust in the financial system. ‘The Designer as Engineer’ is about the systematic ordering of markets using graphic documents such as forms, contracts, passports, infographics, and maps. A process of standardization that allowed international markets in capitalism to function. Brands, logos, advertising, corporate identities, and interfaces are discussed in ‘The Designer as Brander’ and ‘The Designer as Salesperson’. Further examples of contemporary work of graphic designers that each in its own way serves the commodification of all parts of society.
The second part explores how designers themselves are economic actors too. ‘The Designer as Worker’ and ‘The Designer as Entrepreneur’ take a closer look at wages, working hours, burnouts, unpaid internships, freelancing, exploitation, bosses, and the possible alternatives to these toxic work conditions. ‘The Designer as Amateur’ continues to question professionalism in design itself. Who can call themselves graphic designers? Who gets paid for design and who doesn’t? ‘The Design as Educator’ explores how education prepares designers for working in capitalist conditions, and some of the alternatives that challenge the view of design education as a factory that produces graphic design workers.
The third part dives into some of the strategies that have emerged from within design in response to capitalism. ‘The Designer as Hacker’ looks at how the hacker ethic can change the designer’s dependance on the tools and platforms made by large corporations. We also see how digital tools can intensify consumer manipulation. ‘The Designer as Futurist’ presents strategies by designers who want to improve society by thinking beyond what is feasible. Future design methods, such as speculative design, were intended to criticize consumerism, but have also had the reverse effect. ‘The Designer as Philanthropist’ is a response by designers who wish to use their skill to help others, for example social design. We find that even design with good intentions can also be neocolonial and turn out to amplify the powers of capitalism and keeping inequality in place. Finally, ’The Designer as Activist’ questions the rhetoric of activism in design, and suggests how a shift towards thinking of design as a commons may resolve some of the paradoxes that designers face.
The end of the book features six design collectives from around the world whose anti-capitalist practices challenge ideas of competition and exploitation. They have practiced anti-capitalist forms of graphic design for many years, and parallel to the theory this can help us understand what practical obstacles are up ahead. Brave New Alps from Italy, Common Knowledge from the UK, Cooperativa de Diseño from Argentina, Mídia NINJA from Brazil, Open Source Publishing from Belgium, and The Public from Canada. Their years of experience can provide insights and practical ideas for those who want to change their practice.
Thanks to all those involved in the making of this book. All images by Valiz publishers.
You can watch a free CAPS LOCK lecture online that I did for the DAE lecture series on May 27, 2021.Click here for Youtube link.
Another lecture about CAPS LOCK was done for Index, NYC on October 1, 2021.Click here for Vimeo link.
Here is the link to my lecture at Elisava in Barcelona, Catalunya on October 28.
The lecture I did for AIGA and Artbook can be viewed here.
You can read here the interview with Steven Heller for Print Mag.
WHERE TO FIND THE BOOK
- North America and Latin America via ARTBOOK.COM - D.A.P. / Distributed Art Publishers
- Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia via Perimeter Distribution
- The UK and Ireland via Anagram Books
- Europe via Idea Books
CAPS LOCK: How capitalism took hold of graphic design, and how to escape from it
August 2021, Valiz Publishers
18,4 x 11,7 cm (h x w)
552 pp. | English