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Room: The Written Keystones

8. Graphic designer as producer: taking charge of content and function

Théo Miller, The Witten Keystones (spread 8), offset, 210 mm x 297 mm, 2020.

Just 25 years ago, a city like Amsterdam was teeming with small-scale offset and screen printing studios, binders, typesetters and shared workshops. Today, this industry has more or less disappeared, leaving professionals to retreat behind their screens. The Palace of Typographic Masonry would like to be a meeting place where knowledge and ideas can be exchanged.

In her essay ‘Graphic designer as producer’, Ellen Lupton actually sees the condensed production process of the ‘desktop revolution’ as an opportunity to restore the social function of graphic design. Lupton (1963) works as a graphic designer, curator, writer, critic and lecturer. After graduating, she was offered the position of curator of the newly established Cooper Union Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography in 1992 – a role that enabled her to combine her interests in writing and designing. Inspired by the do-it-yourself movement, Lupton’s ability to merge visual and textual elements allowed her to successfully construct a visual history of graphic design with limited resources.

The adoption of these different roles in the design process is also the focus of ‘Graphic designer as producer’. In her essay, Lupton reminds us that the avant-garde movements of the 1910s and 20s already challenged individualised authorship as a romantic ideal by “(…) plunging into the worlds of mass media and mass production. Production is a concept embedded in the history of modernism”. Lupton bases her argument on Walter Benjamin’s 1934 text ‘The Author as Producer’ (1934), in which Benjamin claims that “to bridge the divide between author and publisher, author and reader, poet and populariser, is a revolutionary act, because it challenges the professional and economic categories upon which the institutions of ‘literature’ and ‘art’ are erected”.

Lupton states that if designers want to take charge of the content and social function of their work, they need to become ‘producers’: they “(…) must have the skills to begin directing content, by critically navigating the social, aesthetic, and technological systems across which communications flow”. And it is precisely this role that the desktop revolution of the mid-1980s has reintroduced in the design process.

After graduation, I bought a second-hand Macintosh Performa and an Apple StyleWriter and started my own practice. While awaiting commissions, I decided to design posters and demo packaging for my band, The Howtoplays. In addition, I teamed up with Harmen Liemburg (1966) to organise Jack evenings: interdisciplinary events that focused on the process of creation and production. We designed invitations, posters and information leaflets, which we printed at Kees Maas’s silkscreen workshop. Maas (Eindhoven, 1953) himself had initiated numerous silkscreen-related projects and designed a seemingly endless array of posters, in which he used silkscreen techniques in all sorts of innovative and inspiring ways. By the late 1990s, it had become very easy to print the film used to produce silkscreen stencils yourself, and new water-based inks had made the printing process decidedly cleaner and more manageable. As a result, the technique presented a viable alternative to the standard solutions offered by industry and regular design software.

In both a physical and abstract sense, the workshop is an ideal location for the convergence of life and work – a place where collaborative skills take shape and the designer becomes producer. In The Palace of Typographic Masonry, I pay attention to this phenomenon in ‘The Modest Master's Mesmerizing Screen Print Shop’. Examples of Kees Maas’s work are used to demonstrate different aspects of silk-screening while simultaneously celebrating the workshop as a meeting place. A mere 25 years ago, a city like Amsterdam still teemed with small-scale graphic industry (offset and silkscreen workshops, binders, typesetters, shared studios, etc.). Today, this industry has more or less disappeared – a result of scaling-up, environmental legislation, rent increases and digitalisation.