Jacob Lindgren: Graphic Design's Factory Settings
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The Gradient

Graphic Design’s Factory Settings

Are you sure you want to reset to factory settings?

“Design education not only teaches its technical and historical canon, or how to design, but more importantly teaches students how to be designers in society and in relation to capital,” writes designer Jacob Lindgren. “A school becomes a factory producing designers, one that, in keeping with the principles of ‘good design,’ turns them into efficient and interchangeable parts ready to hit the market.” In a new essay, Lindgren proposes models that may help us undo this factory setting of graphic design.


In his book of essays, The Shape of Things, Czech philosopher and media critic Vilém Flusser argues that factories are decreasingly places where goods are produced and increasingly places where new kinds of humans are produced. Flusser viewed factories as the primary vessels and sites for agendas of progress and ideology, ones that instead of manufacturing solely goods also produced new kinds of subjects, writing that “human history is the history of manufacturing and everything else is mere footnotes.”1 In an article titled “The Critical Crisis of Science,” Flusser describes a similar tautology: “Science has become automated and has transformed scientists into its own tools.”2 For Flusser, learning was analogous to manufacturing: both being processes which are based on acquiring, producing and passing on—or “turning”—information. “It becomes apparent that the factory is nothing but an applied school and the school nothing but a factory for the acquisition of information.”3

These insights shed light on design education today. Design education not only teaches its technical and historical canon, or how to design, but more importantly teaches students how to be designers in society and in relation to capital. A school becomes a factory producing designers, one that, in keeping with the principles of “good design,” turns them into efficient and interchangeable parts ready to hit the market. Like a spinning ouroboros —a snake swallowing its own tail—educational institutions pursue what the market requires (a response to capital’s demand for cheap, standardized, and predictable parts), molding future designers into interchangeable units. To what extent has this cycle, an entanglement of design and industry, come to be considered graphic design’s “factory settings”—a kind of default, inherent, and out of the box approach to how its practice, pedagogy, and history have formed and are enacted?

Graphic design is a practice inherently defined by its relationship to large-scale production and industry. It was closely intertwined with industrial production beginning with the Arts & Crafts movement—one of the earliest manifestations of the design academy, despite William Morris’ reservations on the matter—and its master-apprentice educational model. Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus—a studio-workshop model (currently celebrating its centenary)—soon followed with its foundational training. Building from the Deutscher Werkbund, an all-encompassing union of design and industry, the Bauhaus’s educational strategy attempted to unify craft with industrial production, its motto being “Art into Industry.”4 While the Bauhaus anticipated an industrial revolution capable of delivering visions of mass-produced design for social good, most artifacts produced by the school were handmade and given the finish of a machined good—designers imitated factories. The Bauhaus wasn’t inherently different in nature then the factories Flusser wrote about. In his talk “The Bauhaus Virus,” Mark Wigley posits that “the explicit agenda of Bauhaus [was] to design a new kind of human. It [was] not a place for the design of lamps and chairs—but people.”

The school changed locations throughout its existence, from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin, and directors—from Walter Gropius to Hannes Meyer to Mies van der Rohe—and closed in 1933 due to political pressure. The school’s instructors and students dispersed throughout the world and met varying fates: some would flee to the Soviet Union, Palestine, or to the US, while some would be killed. Despite insisting on being apolitical (with Gropius having said, “If we admit politics to the Bauhaus… it will collapse like a house of cards. I have already announced my intention to prevent any and all politics from entering the Bauhaus.”),5 both before and after its closing some of the Bauhaus’s biggest names would collaborate with the state. From 1928 to 1937 Herbert Bayer designed posters and publications for Nazi exhibitions and propaganda, including leaflets for the Hitler Youth, only ceasing to do so when one of his paintings was included in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich.6 Hannes Meyer and several former students worked on urban projects and taught in academies for the Soviet Union, including contributing to Joseph Stalin’s first five-year plan.7 Bauhaus-trained Arieh Sharon designed the White City in Tel Aviv—a project since described as aiding in the city’s controversial narrative surrounding the displacement and erasure of Jaffa, a city in part destroyed by 1,500 British soldiers in 1936.8 Architect Zvi Efrat’s film Scenes from the Most Beautiful Campus in Africa, screened as part of the Decolonizing the Campus symposium, part of bauhaus imaginista, explores Sharon’s involvement in the design of the University of Ife campus and its implications in the context of Lagos, Nigeria. Mies van der Rohe unsuccessfully attempted to collaborate on architecture projects with the Nazis, including signing a “motion of support for Hitler” in 1934 and joining the Reich Chamber of Culture.9 It was in part because of the Nazi’s denial to commission him projects, not solely their political pressure, that led van der Rohe to leave for the US in 1938. Today, the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation still considers itself “apolitical,” as first declared by Walter Gropius, having canceled a performance on its premises of an anti-right-wing band on these exact grounds.

Mies van der Rohe, one of the most widely heralded exemplars of post-Bauhaus legacy, emigrated to the US’s Midwest and took on private commissions for corporations, property developers, and the wealthy elite. His crossing of the Atlantic was made especially possible by Philip Johnson, an American modernist architect and good friend of van der Rohe who secured him his first American commission.10 Johnson was publicly sympathetic to fascism and anti-semitism, and was an admitted Nazi—to the extent of being surveilled by the FBI after pursuing an armed, fascist uprising in the US after witnessing first hand and being inspired by fascists during World War II.11 The uprising failed, and despite his involvement with Nazi ideology both in Germany and the US and with all his co-conspirators in prison, Johnson enrolled as a student in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Afterwards he would go on to join the architecture department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, an institution conceptualized by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.).12 van der Rohe would eventually accept a position as the director at the School of Architecture at the Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago, originally named the New Bauhaus when founded by Lazlo Maholy-Nagy, a former Bauhaus professor. This new Bauhaus was conceived when the Association of Arts and Industries, an organization to whose purpose was to further the implementation of design in industry, expressed interest in establishing a school via a letter of invitation to appoint Walter Gropius as director, who instead recommended Maholy-Nagy. The school, still in operation after several shake-ups, now prides itself on being the birthplace of “design thinking,” or the linking of design “more closely to business innovation,” one of the motors behind contemporary design’s deployment in venture capital-injected, Silicon Valley initiatives.13 That the the marriage of design and business in the pursuit of profit and progress be labeled as something as ubiquitous as “thinking” is telling as to what extent design is entrenched in industry.

Originally housed in the mansion of Marshall Field, founder of the emblematic and successful department store of the same name, the New Bauhaus would eventually encounter financial turmoil and struggled to maintain its program afloat, including losing its funding from the Association of Arts and Industries. This prompted Maholy-Nagy to found his own school, the School of Design in Chicago.14 Also susceptible to economic difficulties like its predecessor, it was saved from demise when Walter P. Paepcke, president of the Container Corporation of America—an organization which would become a revered design icon—contributed personal donations and his fundraising efforts to keep its doors open, including money from the Rockefeller Foundation.15 Over the course of its existence a summer course was also held at a property near Somonauk, Illinois, made available by Paepcke. Amid further financial troubles in 1941, Moholy-Nagy was appointed to the Chicago mayor’s personal staff in order to design and employ camouflage to hide military personnel and equipment, including an eventual plan to attempt at hiding the entire city of Chicago.16 He embedded in and prototyped these ideas via the school’s curriculum, which Walter Gropius would eventually describe as a “certified school for camouflage personnel.”17 In 1943, Moholy-Nagy curated a “Camouflage Exhibition” at the School of Design featuring the school’s work. Like mussels on a ship’s hull, the Bauhaus clung to industry (in this case for the army)—crossing oceans on several occasions (both literally in its relocation and less tangibly in the export of its ideology globally) and surviving in its current state as a result of this bond. Despite its manifestos and intentions, the Bauhaus’s modernism would become the face not of socialism, communism, or Nazism, but of capitalism, with modernist design becoming a powerful tool in the belt of corporations.

Both historic and contemporary modes of design education are largely informed by this pipeline between their institutions and the commercial environment designers eventually find themselves working in, with graphic design securing its place as a tool almost exclusively for industry (as best evidenced in the advertising and standards manuals of the time, now reissued as holy tomes). The extent to which all these entanglements effect our thinking about and perception of design cannot be understated, and the Bauhaus plays a pivotal role—for example there is the statistical likelihood, as suggested by Mark Wigley, that you are reading this on a device that exists as a direct result of the Bauhaus. In 1981, Steve Jobs attended the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA), an organization founded by Container Corporation of America’s Paepcke and whose building was designed by Herbert Bayer as essentially a monument to the Bauhaus through its architecture, furniture, and signage. The IDCA’s first event in 1951 was titled “Design as a Function of Management,” in an attempt to garner support from the business community, and presently the organization collaborates with the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA)—regarded as the largest and premier organization for design professionals, with a particular focus on educational chapters throughout design schools—to realize its conferences. During that visit in 1981 Jobs became infatuated with the same design ideology embedded into the institute’s very fabric. When returning in 1983 to speak at the same conference in a talk titled “The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be,” Jobs proclaimed his subscription to the Bauhaus way of thinking: “What we’re going to do is make the products high-tech, and we’re going to package them cleanly so that you know they’re high-tech. We will fit them in a small package, and then we can make them beautiful and white, just like Braun does with its electronics.” Whether it’s through notions of progress, design tied to industry, streamlined forms and production methods, or the claim that a global, “International Style” is possible (and a good thing), the Bauhaus is present in much of the physical and intangible discourse surrounding design.

Much of contemporary design curriculum is still based on the Bauhaus model and its ramifications, including the many offshoots it influenced in Chicago, Basel, Zurich, Ulm, and elsewhere. This isn’t to suggest that everyone involved in the Bauhaus can be categorized under the same umbrella—far from the case, also considering the fact that much of the Bauhaus’s historiography excludes the contributions of its numerous women students, professors, and partners of men—but that what is considered to be the “Bauhaus model,” regardless of how close it actually adheres to the school’s ideology or actions, is the primary model in which contemporary programs are rooted. Here it is unimportant what the Bauhaus aimed to be, or the way it acted in practice, but instead what it came to symbolize—an image designed by the Bauhaus itself. “Whether these ideas were actually realized or even consistent is irrelevant here; they endure as what the Bauhaus has come to represent.”18 Even more encompassing than the Bauhaus’s model, but certainly as a result of it, design education and history are completely dominated by western principles and hegemony. Exceptions to the reach of both exist, but many design educators will recognize the fact that not much has fundamentally changed since graphic design education’s inception. Compounded by the dismantling of the university’s academic mandate via neoliberal austerity, graphic design education, like much of academia, is far removed from contemporary social, political, and economic urgencies. Assignments which bring client work into the school, or invite “practical and professional experience,” condition students even further. Having just completed the Bauhaus’s 100-year anniversary in 2019, what better time to examine its influence on graphic design education?

This persistent reinforcement of industry determining the orientation of design education, combined with the increasing cost of education and burden of student debt, puts designers (and schools) in a position to desire, seek out, and reproduce employable skills in their practice. In spite of this totalizing picture of design education, one wonders how things could be different. How might graphic design pedagogy be repositioned to critique rather than uphold the ideological structures of capital? With design education as the primary site where this ideology is replicated, it presents a ripe opportunity to rethink and refine these structures. What would it look like to identify and replace the current power structures and ideologies embedded in contemporary design practice and pedagogy? What tools are available to do so and who gets to decide how they are used? The past decade has seen an increase in attempts to answer this question, in part by following in the footsteps of the educational turn in the arts: the proliferation of biennials, books, and exhibitions on the topic of education within graphic design are evidence of this. A book I edited which is no exception, Extra-curricular, takes stock of many of these self-organized efforts in an attempt to decouple design pedagogy from its traditional institutional makeup. The contributed pieces cover examples of summer schools, workshops, curriculums, strategies, theories, fictions, unaccredited programs, and many other forms both concrete and speculative. The shared goal of these initiatives is to voice dissatisfaction towards, and propose alternatives to the inertia of, conventional graphic design pedagogy.

Self-organized educational initiatives move closer to alternative pedagogies for graphic design while also serving as sites for rethinking the practice as one closer to a mode of inquiry then an effect of industry. Regardless of the varied approaches, the common thread between these efforts is the drive to disturb existing educational structures by building underneath, on top of, or adjacent to them. Self-organized models shift traditional school environments towards acting less like nonplaces—structures built in a way to prevent participants from imprinting upon them with their own marks, histories, and identities—and more like reflections of the needs and desires of whose who learn inside of them. One difficulty encountered in most self-organized efforts is the extent to which alternative models ever can truly exist outside of the reach of the institutions they often counter, and is up for debate. The same institutions holding power are unlikely to facilitate the kind of restructuring required to change their ways, given that their investments are at risk. Typically, self-organized learning and educational models occupy blurry areas within and to varying extents outside of these institutions. It’s not always possible, or plausible, to exist outside of or sever ties with existing structures, and sometimes working in this arena requires modeling the very institutions needing un-doing. Creating and prototyping these models at scale, instead of through outright denial or dismissal of them, is a way of conducting critique around and attempting to enact change within the larger structures they imitate. Akin to the way architects prepare for a building’s construction, small-scale models present opportunities to test out sites of possibility, stress, and tensions before a structure’s realization.

An example of this modeling, quite literally, is Spinning Triangles: Ignition of a School of Design—a project by Savvy Contemporary (in addition to an extensive list of organizers, contributors, and collaborators) that aims to “challenge and act against the inherent, neocolonial power structures in design practices, theory and teaching” by re-staging the founding moment of the Bauhaus in an attempt to create an “un-school” in its image.19 The result is, among other things, the Wohnmaschine—a traveling model Bauhaus that serves as a platform and library and counterpoint to the full-size Bauhaus. Existing in its image, at scale, the model acts as a lens through which participants can examine the ways in which the Bauhaus’s legacy manifests, decidedly not only in the geopolitical west but elsewhere. The mobile school’s first stop was Kinasha, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a location that the project cites as being entangled with notions of industry, productivity, and progress similarly inherent in the Bauhaus model and which our smartphone-modernity relies (via resource extraction). With a backdrop of failed but “still active modernist masterplans,” the project is inclusionary of design discourse, practices, and narratives from the global South—ones which have been systemically excluded (or appropriated). The holes in the Earth’s surface dug to extract the resources needed for phones—in competition with the holes in the atmosphere as perhaps the biggest collectively designed object in the last 100 years—must be considered as a facet of the design processes which call into existence the designed object itself. For this reason design is inherently political, regardless of how it is practiced, as evidenced in its ability to condition and affect materials, politics, bodies, and ultimately the planet. It’s worth re-examining this inherent relation to politics through the lens of the Bauhaus’s hegemony on design education and historiography, or any factor dictating how material conditions are shaped (let alone one that strives to be “apolitical,” a form of being political). By spinning triangles, a go-to choice in Bauhaus and modernist visual language, new forms emerge—wheels on which models can twist and turn in new directions. “Through the gesture of spinning the triangle, flipping the hourglass; i.e. setting a seemingly stable, hierarchised form into motion, speeding it up, changing its outline, dizzying its content, challenging its conception of present, past and future… For this to happen, we spin triangles, and flip the hourglass, we reverse geographies and turn import-export relations upside down.”20

This modeling happens inside, outside, detached from, or contingent on the larger models it wishes to affect. Take the Parallel School, another example, which aims to act as an open environment for art and design self-education by creating a nonproprietary network for interested individuals to create their own versions, or schools. These schools are itinerant and dispersed, not tied to one geographic location, and with a changing roster of participants. Since 2009, the Parallel School has setup in Cali, Lausanne, Leipzig, Brno, São Paulo, Glasgow, Berlin, Paris, London, and Moscow. In Extra-Curricular, several participants of the Berlin and Brno meetings wrote “LETTER TO THE ACADEMY,” a text in which they explain their approach (“…the basic situation in which people get together to share their ideas and interests, discuss and teach each other and themselves”), express their concerns (“dear Academy: What spaces do you offer? How are they structured? Can the students take over?”), and provide motivations (“we need the common, the occupied, the appropriated, and the lesser governed spaces. We need to be aware of the spaces we fulfill and to build our own environments and organizations that serve our purposes”) for organizing themselves.21 While differing from iteration to iteration, the central idea behind the project was to experiment with an autonomous environment comprised of shared learning, knowledge, and resources. Participants in the Berlin school debated whether it made more sense to consider the school “diagonal,”22 based on the many points in which it intersected with established institutions. Whether via using the spaces, resources, and networks of an institution or the fact that most participants had either attended or were still connected to an institution, it became clear that Parallel School could never completely circumvent the structures it was critiquing. An absolute separatist approach then appears unlikely—critique and change can also take place at varying angles, from diagonal to parallel.

This line of inquiry—to what extent is it possible to be outside of the systems and institutions that enclose us—isn’t new, and was perhaps most clearly captured in one of the first films ever recorded: Workers Leaving Thee Lumière Factory. The film was produced by Louis Lumière, part owner of the industrial workplace which features as backdrop. It’s been noted that, true to the film’s title, the workers clearly leave the factory, but to what extent are they forced to take it along with them? In what ways does the factory manage to extend into and inform our lives, ones supposedly outside of it? In the post-Fordist system of economic and knowledge production that we inhabit is there even a gate through which to exit, or have the factory’s walls been extended beyond our view? It’s now hardly necessary for the factory to physically enclose us. With regards to graphic design—now largely immaterial labor—the proliferation of adjunct teaching positions, precarious (freelance) work, and a general culture of commodification of the self as entrepreneur (or entreprecariat) make the structures and apparatus through which power manifests ones no longer limited to existing within the “factory walls.” (“The real school, the real Bauhaus, is not inside the building, but outside.”)23 In this way, and in keeping with the school’s desire to flatten hierarchies, the Bauhaus students who dispersed throughout the world ended up being its biggest teachers, and design practice and historiography largely carries their teachings inherent in every interaction.

It’s as if design education is reproducing the film, playing it in reverse, and repeating. Workers leave the school-as-factory through the front gates, simply conditioned to re-enter, or re-produce its teachings, upon practice. Here Michel Foucault’s “grid of intelligibility”—the idea that there is an underlying fabric on which society is controlled, maneuvered, and power is imposed—begins to resemble the Modernist obsession with grids. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reminds us of the limitations of these grids: “[But] if these lines of making sense of something are laid down in a certain way, then you are able to do only those things with that something which are possible within and by arrangement of those lines.”24 Upon further inspection—perhaps by reading in between the (gridded) lines—the supposedly transgressive, experimental ideology ascribed to Modernist design begins to more closely resemble a simple service to global capital. What would happen if this cycle were to be broken, if we shed our imposed grids? As with most questions surrounding power and its redistribution, there remains much uncertainty as to what could fill this void. A danger inherent in self-organized approaches is the unintentional reinforcing of the very same power mechanisms they attempt to counter. With the flattening of hierarchies and circumvention of regulating bodies, economies of free time, social and cultural capital, and unpaid labor all become alternative currencies which can take unaccountable and unsustainable forms. Self-organized forms of education can reaffirm the very same neoliberal tendencies in education they intend to critique by relieving the institution of its responsibility to provide for its students and faculty. For this reason it’s important for these initiatives to be speculative and world-building in nature, but also to be rooted in and cognizant of the conditions that structure their range of possibilities.

What should be done? At the very least a closer examination of graphic design’s factory settings—both the widely unchallenged, inherited models it has come to consider “default” in addition to its reluctance to step outside of (or sever from) its relationship to industry, to the factory. This reset—or reprogramming, or uninstallation—should challenge graphic design practice and education to be untethered from their one-way relationships to power and knowledge and might occur in parallel or “diagonal” to existing structures. It might be a newly imagined curriculum that places emphasis on feminism, decoloniality, access to tools, anti-capitalism, ecological sustainability, queer praxis, or other positionalities that have been marginalized or erased by conventional design pedagogy and history. It shouldn’t, and more importantly cannot, happen with existing design conventions entrenched in “design thinking,” or new technologies and streamlined solutions, but instead through a model for graphic design education which questions its hard-coded relationship to capital. If the contemporary definition and standardized practice of design and design education are over a century old, might it be a good idea to reexamine both in an age where ecological disaster, immaterial and precarious labor, post-factual politics (often times with design an implicit actor), and geopolitical conflict are among the world’s defining challenges? Self-organized education presents one tool, among many, which can be used to think through and act on these challenges. In order to do so we need to leave the factory, potentially by building our own school-as-exit. If we can’t leave, or decide to stay, we need to repurpose its machinery and organize ourselves appropriately.

This isn’t to suggest that the result should be apolitical, or that it would simply suffice to get rid of the undesirable facets embedded into graphic design practice and historiography. On the contrary—design should become decidedly and admittedly political (no more “leaving politics out of design”). Rather, in what way can these same motivations, material articulations, and intentions—ones informed by industry and existing to service capital at the expense of destroying bodies and the planet—be reverse engineered and reconfigured for completely different ends, such as the above-mentioned ones? To end where we began: Vilém Flusser described the factory’s mode of production as “turning,” in that manufacturing is “turning what is available in the environment to one’s own advantage, turning it into something manufactured, turning it over to use and thus turning it to account.”25 A long-standing mystery surrounding the Workings Leaving the Factory film is where exactly the workers are headed as they exit through the factory’s front gates. (“To a meeting? To the barricades? Or simply home?”).26 If the school is a factory, and the educational turn allows us to examine the conditions of our own manufacturing, or our “turning” as Flusser puts it—as we exit, where should we turn?

FOOTNOTES

1Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things, (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), 44.

2“The Critical Crisis of Science,’” in the review Revista Brasileira de Filosofia (Brazilian Review of Philosophy) in 1964.

3Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things, (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), 49.

4Walter Gropius, “Bauhaus Manifesto and Program” (1919). http://mariabuszek.com/ mariabuszek/kcai/ConstrBau/Readings/GropBau19.pdf

5KarlHeinz Hüter, Das Bauhaus in Weimar, Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 1976, 11.

6Nicholas Fox Weber, “Deadly Style: Bauhaus’s Nazi Connection,” New York Times, December 23, 2009.

6Daniel Talesnik, “The Itinerant Red Bauhaus, or the Third Emigration,” ABE Journal, online since October 5, 2017, connection on 12 July 2019.

7Sharon Rotbard, White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa by  (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015).

8Tom Dyckhoff, “Mies and the Nazis,” The Guardian, November 30, 2002 (accessed January 10, 2019).

9Marc Wortman, “Famed Architect Philip Johnson’s Hidden Nazi Past,” Vanity Fair, April, 2016.

10Ibid.

11Ibid.

12IIT Institute of Design, “The New Bauhaus,” id.iit.edu (accessed January 10, 2019).

13Moholy-Nagy Foundation, “Institute of Design: A Brief History by Hattula Moholy-Nagy, moholy-nagy.org.

14Julie Jones, “Putting the European Avant-garde to Work for Capitalism,” Société Française de Photographie, 2009.

15Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Moholy-Nagy: Experiment in Totality, 1969.

16Ibid.

17Dexter Sinister, “Towards a Critical Faculty, Dexter Sinister” (pdf), dextersinister.org

18Savvy Contemporary SPINNING TRIANGLES: Ignition of a School of Design, savvy-contemporary.com, 2019.

19Ibid.

20Parallel School Berlin, “LETTER TO THE ACADEMY,” in Extra-curricular, ed. Jacob Lindgren (Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2018), 17.

21Parallel School Berlin, Workshop Journal (pdf), October 5, 2013.

22‘The Perversions of the Bauhaus’s talk by Mark Wigley during the “How political is the Bauhaus?” symposium at HKW.

23“More on Power/Knowledge,” The Spivak Reader (London: Routledge, 1996), 143, 151.

24Flusser, The Shape of Things, 44.

25Klaus Gronenborn’s synopsis of Harun Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory.

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