Two things about capitalism: graphic design is totally bound up with it; and it really has to end.
You won’t hear much debate about this first point, only a dizzying range of views about how capitalism and design relate. One diagnoses design as commodity culture full-stop, while another celebrates it as an engine of innovation. Yet another sees it as a basic human capacity to solve problems, which only became entangled with capital during the Industrial Revolution. Sorting through these shorthand theories can be tricky since the topic is rarely addressed on its own. More often, these ideas show up in discussions around consumerism, ethics, and design for social good. But today, a more thorough picture of the relationship between graphic design and capitalism is starting to develop, thanks in large part to an urgent sense among some designers that capitalism itself can’t go on.
Their motives can be traced to the stark vulnerabilities exposed by the last financial crisis. Following a wave of bank collapses and bailouts, then years of recession-level job insecurity, stagnant growth, and widening disparities of wealth, past enthusiasm for the design’s role in a new tech-driven economy has given way to a sober vision of the future measured in gig working and degrees centigrade. With less hope to be placed in computers, designers have been finding it out in the streets, drawing energy from waves of opposition that encompass inflection points ranging from the 2011 “movements of the squares” to last year’s protests around the murder of George Floyd. And this doesn’t even take into account the ever-present climate crisis. In the spirit of these struggles, a pressing need to reckon with design’s own racist, patriarchal, and colonial legacies has led many to search outside the field for critical perspectives on racial capitalism, the gendered division of labor, and economic drivers of dispossession. The fruits of this research are showing up everywhere — from talks on Black, Indigenous, and queer design, to essays on pedagogy and books like MMS’s Natural Enemies of Books — A Messy History of Women in Printing and Typography. Where these paths converge, it becomes clear how deeply graphic design’s story is embedded in the ongoing story of capitalism.
A more thorough picture of the relationship between graphic design and capitalism is starting to develop, thanks in large part to an urgent sense among some designers that capitalism itself can’t go on.
This is the thesis of Ruben Pater’s CAPS LOCK: How Capitalism Took Hold of Design, and How to Escape From It. At once a retelling of design history, an updated analysis of the field, and a crash course in political economy, Pater’s book draws on key insights and debates of the moment to give one of the first full-length accounts of the relationship between graphic design and capitalism. Much like his previous book, The Politics of Design, CAPS LOCK is interested in surfacing a variety of perspectives and sparking visual connections, rather than delivering over any final words. In chapters organized around the social roles of graphic designers — from salesperson and entrepreneur to educator and activist — it explores just how diverse design’s involvements with capitalism have always been, while showing that behind this diversity hums a crisis-prone global system that dangerously tethers human existence to competitive profit-making and insatiable growth.
The usual heroes and star objects of design history appear mostly in the margins of this account. At the foreground instead are the social forces that enlist the work of designers to support private property, cope with chronic overproduction, or burnish spotless images for companies that, you know, definitely don’t exploit workers, defraud borrowers, or fuel climate change. One of the key lessons of Pater’s materialist history is how much of it happens behind designers’ backs and beyond their control. In his chapter on “The Designer as Brander,” which begins with a devastating look at slaveholders’ marks, Pater draws attention to the example of Milton Glaser’s iconic “I <3 NY” logo. Layered over the context of a mid-1970s fiscal crisis, he describes how the design supplied cover for the city’s harmful campaign to roll back social services, expand racist policing, and displace poorer residents to make way for wealthy newcomers. If, as Pater concludes, “even the work of socially engaged designers with good intentions [like Glaser] can be used to drive gentrification,” this means we need to focus on something other than intentions if we are to make sense of design’s history — and the potential for ethical and political action within it.
Even before Ken Garland’s famed call for a “reversal of priorities” in his 1964 “First Things First” manifesto, designers often emphasized the distinction between purely commercial work and work done for other social or artistic ends. But a recent cohort of writers has questioned whether one is necessarily more “capitalist” than the other or just positioned differently in the division of labor. J. Dakota Brown, for instance, has linked design’s “dream of autonomy” from commercial ends to the rise of automation in printing trades from the late 1800s onward. While manual work like typesetting became increasingly mechanized and routinized in the course of fierce competition for profits, graphic design took shape around those creative and managerial tasks that resisted such rationalization. This position allowed design’s image of itself to float partly free of capital’s restrictive demands, yet it always depended on the fact that those demands would be met elsewhere. And when profitability staggers — as it arguably has in recent decades — design faces sharpened pressures that clash with its self-styled independence. For Sylvio Lorusso, this manifests vividly today in the figure he calls the “entreprecariat,” the designer who is supposed to passionately pursue self-made success while teetering on the edge of employment.
Pater’s chapters on “The Designer as Worker” and “The Designer as Entrepreneur” try to make sense of this situation while dismantling any notion that passion always pays out. “Some designers are lucky to enjoy a pleasant studio atmosphere, nice clients, and the occasional creative brief into which they can sink their teeth, but the reality is most graphic design work is a daily grind of marketing and communications maintenance,” he writes. For most, high tuition costs, cutthroat internships, unpaid pitches, and un-billable hours are better seen as vectors of exploitation than rungs on a professional ladder, and for Pater, growing uncertainties about where that ladder leads reinforce the point. Surveying a landscape of competitive gig-working platforms like Fivrr and user-friendly means for nonprofessionals to achieve adequate results sans designer, he concludes the writing is on the wall: “The question is not if design will remain a viable profession in post-industrial societies, but for how long.”
Throughout his book, Pater grapples with a popular meme that declares “there is no ethical design under capitalism.” In its favor, he lays bare how efforts to design ethically are qualified by this coercive social system that good deeds never quite fix. Even political protest, he shows, can be tolerated by capital or even turned into “causewashing” by brands eager to strike an activist pose. But if the above sounds a bit gloomy, Pater is remarkably optimistic when it comes to opportunities for resistance. Each of CAPS LOCK’s chapters ends with hopeful advice and speculation on ways design can proceed more ethically and less immediately under capital’s control. The wealth of ideas here are inspired by politically engaged collectives like Cooperativa de Diseño in Buenos Aires and The Public in Toronto, which feature alongside four others in extended interviews that make up the book’s last section. Together, they speak to the potential of less hierarchical working relationships, freer access to the tools and products of design, and deeper connections with communities in struggle.
CAPS LOCK reminds us we can’t design our way out of the present. In fact, its insights add up to suggest it might be easier to imagine the end of capitalism without design.
Pater’s suggestions are valuable clues for designers who want to make working life move livable in a capitalist system. But his anticapitalist outlook also has something to say about the limits of design-centered politics. “Capitalism is a system that ultimately threatens life itself,” he writes near the end of his book. “There is no way around it…. We have to get rid of capitalism.” In light of that necessity, CAPS LOCK reminds us we can’t design our way out of the present. In fact, the book’s insights add up to suggest that it might be easier to imagine the end of capitalism without design. In a world built not around wages and profits, but around freely associated individuals fulfilling social needs, what place would there be for fine-tuning images for countless, nearly identical products competing for market share? What would hold the unsteady idea of design together, absent material pressures to promote the profession and assure one’s status within it? The more important question for designers, however, is one shared with other service workers and the more marginally employed, whose common precarity and separation can present barriers to collective action. Only on the other side of that social question can we know what might flourish in design’s place.