One of the most enlightening, empowering, and transformative experiences I had as a design fellow at the Walker Art Center was organizing last March with my colleagues and comrades to form the Walker Worker Union. Now over a year later, as I freelance away, waiting for my stimmy to drop, with no health insurance and an even more uncertain future ahead, I often contemplate what kinds of political and structural agencies and forms of coalition are available to graphic designers today.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about the slogan, “Labor is entitled to all it creates!” This slogan comes from the Ricardian socialist thought that states that labor is the source of all wealth and exchange value. How would you apply this slogan to graphic design, a service profession largely defined by the client-designer relationship, in which designers create something to hand over to someone else to generate profit with. What, then, is the labor entitled to in graphic design?
In a 1991 interview, Pierre Bernard, founder of the radical French design studio Grapus, perhaps pointed to an alternative vision: “…we didn’t behave like suppliers, slavishly following their instructions. Rather, we were like equal partners, working towards a common goal, which they had decided to share with us by offering us the job.” In the same vein as Grapus, me and many other designers are thinking about unionizing, worker-ownership, and how socialist values can be practiced in design.
How does our class position actually structure and limit our abilities to demand more for our labor? What does a labor-centric design practice look like? What can we learn from graphic design, printing, or typography history, and who are the people working today who can provide examples to how socialism can be practiced within the design community?
To get answers for some of these questions I sat down with Danielle Aubert, graphic designer and author of The Detroit Printing Co-op: The Politics of the Joy of Printing; Jack Henrie Fisher and Alan Smart, designers, researchers and co-founders of the publishing practice Other Forms; and Greg Mihalko designer and founder of the co-operative design studio Partner & Partners. We spoke about how they work toward expanding and deepening the criss-crossing paths of graphic design and labor organizing—Solidarity Forever!
All four of you engage in labor movements and leftist ideology with your design practices. How did that come to be?
Danielle Aubert: Graphic designers are the ultimate precariat, we’re just these free floating agents.
I was in New York for a while and then moved to Detroit. Detroit is a big union town and the Midwestern economy is pretty different from the East Coast. I started teaching at Wayne State and joined the faculty and academic staff union right away. Even though I was attached to this institution and I was represented as a worker and totally benefiting from all the healthcare and job security that came from it, I still identified more as a precarious laborer, or random studio owner.
A few years ago, I started researching The Detroit Printing Co-op and got pretty close with Lorraine Perlman, who was one of the founders. They were IWW members, and [the Co-op] has this slogan: “Abolish the wage system, abolish the state.” I was in the archives and just feeling like there was a lot of resonance between what they were doing between 1969 and 1972 and the present contemporary moment. When Trump came into power, I felt like I couldn’t just hang out in the archives anymore. I was radicalized by reading a lot of the stuff that Fredy Perlman wrote and learning about the structure [of the Co-op]. You do start to wonder, what’s your role? What can you do as a graphic designer? What do you do as a person? I just started to learn a lot more about political organizing.
Greg Mihalko: I actually grew up in a conservative area outside of Pittsburgh—it was hostile towards organized labor and the multiracial working class in general, which I only recognized, and then reacted to, after I left. After graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), I moved to New York and worked for a lot of agencies that had traditional, unambiguous boss figures. When Occupy Wall Street was happening, I was visiting the camp [at Zuccotti Park] and thinking, “Oh man, there’s gotta be another way to work.”
I started the studio in 2013, my brother joined shortly thereafter, and then we had one other partner; it was a traditional studio model, but there was never a lot of hierarchy to begin with. Early on, we were working in the back of Interference Archive, and also redid the JustSeeds website, whose co-op approach opened a whole new way of thinking for me. We had some changeover, but organically grew to a core five people. At a certain point we thought we should just all own the same amount of the company, and now Partner & Partners is a co-op.
Jack Henrie Fisher: Alan and I were also in New York during Occupy Wall Street. We had been in a Marxist-Lacanian reading group in the Netherlands. The first thing that Alan and I produced together as Other Forms was a book related to squatting. The people who I considered my design peers in New York were totally different from the people who were my comrades, my ideological peers, and this was confusing. In general there’s confusion about the political agency and class position of the professional designer, because there are different genealogies of that. On the one hand we can trace our professional origins to printers who were often politically radical members of working class movements. On the other hand, we clearly come out of management, whose job it is to discipline the working class. To interrogate how our class position actually structures and limits our political agency, we started a reading group recently with some other graphic designers who are both curious and confused about what kind of political agencies are available to graphic designers.
Aubert: We jokingly call the reading group the Communist A*GA.
How have your politics affected the way you run your practices organizationally?
Alan Smart: There are important distinctions between the way you actually work, what your work is about, and who you do that work for and under what terms. You can be working for Pentagram as an on-the-books, salaried designer, but you’re working on a coffee table book on radical movements of the 1960s, or you could be an anarchist collective that does ads for Nike.
The Ricardian quote “Labor must own all it creates” makes me think that in the U.S. and in the world at large there’s this as-yet unresolved effort going on to figure out how class works right now. There’s this curious interest in the 19th century Romantic way to look at pre-industrial forms of “free labor,” which wasn’t serfs or peasants but wasn’t yet wage labor either. We are living in this awkward class position as architects, and designers, of being an independent freelancer, freeholder yeoman journeyman that is very much Petit Bourgeois. This is celebrated and valorized, both in the current neoliberal cultural discourse, and historically in the U.S. where there has always been a resistance to even admitting that there is a working class here at all.
Mihalko: Everyone thinks that democratic decision-making in a co-op design studio means that we all have to vote on whether we’re going to buy a typeface or not. That’s not what it really translates to. What it translates to is democratically deciding what we’re working on, what the content of that work is going to be, and whether or not we’re going to work on a specific project. Instead of two bosses making these decisions for the entire studio, everyone who works there is deciding together.
Being able to democratically decide where we’re going to move our office or take on projects can and should translate to other aspects of our political economy. If we form ourselves as a co-op or a union, I think that just helps us as people in the world. It definitely affects the way we work and the way we talk about how we’re doing that work. It’s worth showing that this way of working is possible, maybe you shouldn’t go work for a tyrant, and maybe you should demand that you’re treated better—as a designer and worker.
“Graphic designers are the ultimate precariat, we’re just these free floating agents.”—Danielle Aubert
Aubert: It took me a long time to figure out my own relationship to work. I started out in advertising in New York and did ads for Pantene and Cover Girl. You don’t have a lot of choices in the beginning–you need a job. I was much more oriented toward trying to find a decent boss I liked and respected.
After moving to Detroit, I was getting a lot of opportunities that my peers in New York had to wait years to get. I was doing things for contemporary art museums, doing catalogs and killing myself. I fetishized cultural projects and working with curators, but I was only making $18,000 a year. I left; I went to Wayne State and told myself I am just here to get my paycheck. Now I’m doing more research-based work. It does take some figuring out. Over time I got less interested in the studio and in the client work and more interested in being able to have autonomy and direct the projects I wanted to do through research.
Fisher: Other Forms doesn’t do much commission work anymore. We morphed into a publishing enterprise that takes place in all these independent art book fairs. We sell books, books that we edit and design. In some ways we’re in this petty bourgeois position of managing sales and pushing products. One thing I can say about our model, if it is a model, is that for different reasons, we do not subscribe to this kind of DIY “work your ass off” attitude that comes out of hardcore and characterizes a lot of independent art production. I’m not sure that we need to do that in order to become more independent. I’m not knocking it at all but I think it’s an ethic worth questioning.
How do you understand the role of power, autonomy and ownership in graphic design? What are some of the power dynamics contemporary graphic design unconsciously perpetuates?
Aubert: I was just elected president of our union at Wayne State and there’s a clear admin, there’s the dean, there’s the provost, the board of governors who are on the other side. And that’s where you come up against power. But when you’re a freelancer, you end up having 85 bosses. There’s no one locus of power I can withhold my labor from to assert autonomy.
Mihalko: It all comes down to, who’s paying for the work we do? If we are supplying these services or forms to a client, it implies that there’s some demander demanding that this work needs to be done. Who has power and who reproduces that power? Who has the capital to pay for this stuff to happen? What do we do as laborers to challenge that or pervert that in a way to gain more autonomy and power?
Smart: Thinking about design in the neoliberal economy, I remember when I was an undergraduate, there was this idea that architecture should connect more with business and “tech”—so, more business.
Some faculty from the Stanford business school who wanted to do this new tech entrepreneurship program came to visit and toured the studios where the students were all excited, and bought-in and hanging out all night not sleeping because it’s just so much fun. They were like, “Wow, this is really great. We want to have this studio model for our business program because you seem totally over-identified with the work here! They’re getting to design something and they’re working all night and digging the lifestyle. You can pay people in stock options, because they believe that their work is who they are.”
How do design history and labor history criss-cross?
Aubert: Design history and labor criss-cross with printing. The International Typographical Union was a major labor union, and one of the first unions to admit women—but it is also important to remember that they were conservative. There’s anecdotes of them in Detroit, blocking the printing of the black power newspaper Inner City Voice. J. Dakota Brown, who’s done a lot of research on the International Typographical Union, has made arguments about the field of graphic design’s transition in the ’80s. There’s a few key things that happened: In 1983, Philip Meggs’ History of Graphic Design was published, which gives some solidity to the field. Then in ’84 Apple IIE comes out and you get advanced graphical interface capabilities. In ’86, ITU dissolved. Typesetters and old relationships to labor go away and then all that work becomes the purview of the graphic designer, who’s doing it all on a computer. Labor becomes immaterial and abstract.
Fisher: It’s remarkable when you do read the Philip Meggs canonical accounts of graphic design history, that the labor component is left out. Labor gets systematically subtracted from design narratives. The contemporary graphic designer’s relationship to historic labor is sort of fuzzy. The antecedent is not exactly the kind of printer-laborer who was in the ITU. In many cases the ”designer” was inaugurated as a profession in order to break deadlocks between management and labor.
For example, formerly, ITU worker-printers controlled the point of production. If they went on strike, newspapers couldn’t be printed, nothing could be printed. So the workers had tremendous power over things that produce knowledge. They had a kind of strategic importance and power that we no longer have. Does a position like this—control over the point of production—exist in contemporary design media? It doesn’t seem to…
“Labor gets systematically subtracted from design narratives.”—Jack Henrie Fisher
Mihalko: What that means in my opinion is that the graphic designer is the last thing that’s considered. Like, “Oh, we’ve got to get a graphic designer to put this all stuff together. How much money do we have? Well, we don’t have that much money at all, but let’s just find someone that can do it quickly and not pay them a lot.”
Aubert: Problem is that if you don’t do it, they’ll just find someone else.
Smart: Designers are screwed from the get go. Similarly, architects in a Western sense were invented as a category in the Renaissance as an effort to break the power of the stonemasons guilds. So the role of the architect or a designer was this kind of bourgeois intellectual who is not a master mason but still holds a lot of power and decisions.
How might a labor-centric design process affect creative output? Could it materially result in anything that looks different?
Mihalko: As a solo graphic designer or a freelancer, you feel the gaze of the outside design world pressuring you to make things that fit a certain mold that people imagine as cool right now. The fact that we [at Partner & Partners] all work on things together produces this confidence and lack of pressure in that regard.
Smart: There’s also the secret rule that everybody knows but nobody says: under capitalism, the watch word is always “new,” never “different.” We’re always looking for new sources of newness, but what it needs to be in the end is different. I would wonder how different it can be before it stops being recognizable? Both in terms of what you make and in terms of yourself and your practice and your subjectivity. When do you actually escape from the “new” thing and become the actual revolution, where it’s no longer graphic designing, where it’s no longer any of this and it’s something else.
Fisher: Forms are social, right? In graphic design, form can reveal things about how it was made. That’s something that I’m interested in, trying to show things that are constitutively hidden. I’m really very curious about what collective forms are possible, too. When you are actually doing the printing yourself, different kinds of forms appear as possible than when there’s this division of labor.
Aubert: The Detroit Printing Co-op never expressly called themselves anarchists, but that is basically what they were. So when I was working on that project, I was asking what that looks like. Does the work that they make look different from other stuff? The answer is, not really. Their own subjectivity comes through. There are some concrete things, like the type of paper that they used to print was often just remaindered paper stock or whatever they had access to. The ink is inconsistent. In early Black & Red publications, Fredy Perlman would often write a note in the front explaining what was involved in the production, and that “no wage labor was involved.” Everyone worked of their own free will.
I have gotten pretty cynical about the political potential of form—in grad school we would use Times New Roman and Arial, which are democratically accessible fonts. But it just gets appropriated by Urban Outfitters or whatever within 10 minutes of you putting it out. There’s a way in which form communicates class and reinforces class; whether we want it to or not, these sort of political forms just become another way to circulate and support these systems. I did a lot of stuff with DSA for a few years, and you know, when you’re doing something for UAW auto workers, it is not the moment to be pulling out some fancy font. Just use some Trade Gothic and make it big and red, you know what I mean?
Mihalko: Does it say what it needs to say? Can people read the thing? Especially for DSA or other organizing spaces, [the typeface is] just not that important. It’s more about: Does the project succeed and function in the way that we would hope?
How do we tackle aesthetic taste? Since taste is an instrument of stratification, it inherently creates inequality: You can’t have “good taste” without “bad taste.” Are there ways to talk about that more openly?
Aubert: Taste is interesting and also complicated. “Graphic designer” is such a huge category of workers, you know? So if we’re talking about graphic designers with MFAs, or even BFAs, it’s a very limited social group. The French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu talks about the mixing of styles, and mixing of tastes—how, to him, one signifier of class is just being at ease with bad taste.
Graphic designers do a lot of this thing of mixing tastes; there’s a mode sometimes where they do this “ugly,” bad taste thing as a way to subvert the systems. But Bourdieu says that’s actually super-conservative—it’s actually playing into systems of capital. Bourdieu says this: “Nothing could be less subversive than controlled transgressions of legitimate culture.”
Fisher: Bordieu says something in Distinction that I don’t know is true of graphic design, but is true more generally of petty bourgeois culture: people who are not truly part of the ruling class acquire taste in order to imagine that they belong to the ruling class, and that”s what culture actually is. But they will never really truly understand real culture. So it will always be a bad copy.
How do you convince clients and find clients who let you work on projects that let you stay true to ideas of labor as an undergirding?
Mihalko: We’ve been in existence for seven years. There’s a handful of people that we work with that pay the bills. The large majority are institutions and organizations that share a kind of value and way of looking at the world. You externalize the kind of work that you want to continue to get, and then it just starts to happen a little bit easier. Clients end up talking about you with other clients and friends and it just snowballs. It’s hard, but really try to commit yourself to not working on something that you know sucks and is not going to benefit the world that you want to live in. Don’t reproduce yourself in a way that’s perpetuating something that you don’t agree with.
“Don’t reproduce yourself in a way that’s perpetuating something that you don’t agree with.”—Greg Mihalko
Aubert: When I was doing more active freelance work, I didn’t always have that ability to turn stuff down or be particular. Once you do start to get more of an ability to do that, take it. I keep saying this adrienne marie brown quote—she’s very quotable—”What we pay attention to grows.” It takes some effort. But I do think there}s a point where you can tip it. You get to a point in your life where you can be doing more of the things you want to do. And then people start to see it.
Greg: We’re actually doing work for other co-ops which is encouraging. It also feels like we are beginning to reproduce the co-op as a social form, and living out a small utopian dream economy. We are in this mode right now where we’re working with a lot of organizations like DSA, or a new drivers cooperative rideshare that’s starting in New York. It’s an interesting mode for some of these places where, yes, you’re designing an identity and a whole system for them, but then also you’re on the team of their organization in a way where you’re supporting them and along for the ride. There’s this constant engagement and it just makes us better designers. We end up feeling like, “Oh. We didn’t actually think about that. Let’s do it this way.”
How can graphic design be more receptive to alternative models of ownership and class-consciousness?
Mihalko: Design schools and design publications should present it more as a valid alternative and not a rarefied, exception to the rule. We also shouldn’t be talking about the work that other major studios produce as the best examples of design right now. If you continue to prop up these examples of design—how they were produced and who they’re produced for—it has an effect on how and what people think is possible. We’ve been conditioned by education and publications and awards to hold up versions of design or types of design that don’t consider class or social value.
Aubert: Everything’s become more stratified and more difficult, you know? So I think people are kind of having more class consciousness and trying to figure all this out.
Fisher: An important way is to actually understand how complicit graphic designers are intuitively with the interests of capital. Polemically within the discipline, there are a lot of narratives that get espoused about the capacity of graphic design to make social change. To imagine graphic design itself as actually outside of the class struggle is a flawed position. Just remembering how conditioned design is by its subordinate position in relation to capital is really important.
What are your thoughts on the gig economy and its effects on design labor?
Smart: The gig economy as an idea is a part of this larger liberal effort to get rid of the industrial labor model. We should be thinking about the way it offloads the cost of production onto the workers who are trying to escape the industrial labor model, and how they then “escape” into this even worse or even more fraudulent other thing. There’s a promise of: “You’re free. You’re an independent worker.” I am like, “Am I actually? No, I’m not, I want health care and I want to be sure I get paid.”
Aubert: We’ve been doing gig economy type stuff since we’ve had our own computers. Boots Riley often gives this example of the longshoremen on the West Coast being a really hard group to organize in the 1930s. People were like, “You can’t organize them as laborers because they’re all independent,” but then they were organized and now they’re a really strong union. I think about that with graphic designers. Can you organize graphic designers as a group? I think it’s hard but, you know, people out there are trying to organize the gig economy workers.
Someone in the DSA gave me this advice: organize at work, start with where you work [if you’re working in-house]. I’ve been in touch with a lot of people who are trying to form a union. It’s hard but it’s a good move to start to do that. If you’re freelancing, decide to not exploit other people’s labor. Simply don’t hire unpaid interns or make people work for exposure.
What are other practices or projects you’ve seen that you find inspiring in this vein?
Mihalko: I would say, Justseeds and Interference Archive are constant sources of inspiration for us. And honestly, Danielle, The Detroit Printing Co-Op, when we were reading that as a studio, it cracked open a lot of things that we should be thinking about alongside the intellectualized decisions that we made.
Aubert: Detroit based group called the Talking Dolls. There’s also Design Action Collective. One of the most interesting models is not graphic design, but there’s a group called Detroit Will Breathe. How they self-organized and tactically brought change, negotiated with the mayor and the police was really inspiring. I think sometimes we have to look for models outside of graphic design.
Fisher: I remember seeing a work presentation that Richard Hollis gave in the Netherlands. Something that was remarkable to me about Richard was that as he was talking about projects and about his graphic design and rehearsing some anecdotes, his political commitments just naturally, almost accidentally, showed through. He worked with different unions and for Pluto Press, and there was a definite left wing theme in the content of his work then. This was in contrast to some of the other graphic design presentations we saw that day in which certain Dutch designers ended up theorizing their own practice of graphic design as something with this inherent agency that could intervene in larger political issues, that the form of their design had a sort of political agency. Whereas with Hollis, the political commitment was something separate. He just happened to be left-wing, his graphic design didn’t give him special political powers.