The Daily Heller: Not Such Strange Bedfellows

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This book CAPS LOCK: How Capitalism Took Hold of Graphic Design, and How to Escape From It (Valiz) by Ruben Pater will certainly change how you think about, and possibly practice, design. There is increasingly more self-examination about the effects and affects of design for commerce, politics and society. The role of citizen designer is one means of balancing the tension between the responsibility designers have to the global community. CAPS LOCK, as you’ll see in the partial table of contents below, critiques in easy-to-read prose how the economic prerequisites of capital and design clash and coexist. I asked Pater, a Netherlands-based graphic and advertising designer who authored The Politics of Design and runs the website Untold Stories, to discuss the dynamic between these two bedfellows—capitalism and design—that fill his 552-page must-read volume.

I contend that “modern” graphic design was born of advertising. Advertising was born of a need to sell products and make profit. Hence the relationship to capital and capitalism. Isn’t that A+B=C, otherwise known as the simple “nature” of the beast?
Exactly this question is the kind the book tries to answer. Was there such a thing as graphic design before the industrial revolution? Is advertising bad and graphic design good, as some designers suggest? Or are they two sides of the same coin? Is graphic design possible after/beyond capitalism? Or are we simply paralyzed in a system beyond our control? Can post-capitalist societies have a use for design?

There is no quick way to answer your question here, which is why the book is quite comprehensive. I would have to summarize my book, which is not the reason for your question, I assume. Perhaps you can specify your question?

I’ll try. CAPS LOCK is inherently an exhaustive critique of capitalism. Therefore it is a critique of graphic design as a tool or function of it. Are you making a blanket argument that graphic design is the propaganda mechanism of corporations, and the corporate system is inherently corrupt? So, by extension designers are in a uraeus loop?
Let me first unpack this question for reasons of clarity. In CAPS LOCK, I don’t present the link between graphic design and capitalism as exclusive. I think we can establish that there is a lot more to graphic design than being a tool of capitalism. Some of the most iconic (Western) design examples from the 1970s–1980s were made for noncommercial purposes—public transport, government services, education, etc. Emory Douglas is a graphic designer I admire who certainly wasn’t a tool of capitalism. The Russian Constructivist designers were anti-capitalist and influential to early modernist graphic design in Europe. There are plenty of examples of graphic design before capitalism existed; whether it’s the Trajan column, Garamond’s types, maps by the Aztecs, or African alphabets. I mention in the book a map found in Spain from 17,000 years ago, etched on a stone. It suffices to say that graphic design has its uses beyond serving capitalism, has existed before, and will exist as long as people need visual communication. We should note that in many regions of the world, there are no professional graphic designers at work. Does that mean the people there have no visual communication? Of course they do. As I say in the book: The majority of houses in the world aren’t designed by architects but by people themselves. The same is probably true for visual communication. Every form of society has information, services and products which need to be communicated visually.

About our predicament, we should be careful not to think in binary terms about the difficult situation we are in. Yes, we’ve lived in a capitalist system for centuries now, the impact of which is felt in all capillaries of society. On the other hand, as David Graeber has written, the economic system we have isn’t anywhere near pure capitalism. In a global free trade society, government should not interfere in business at all. So why do we have trade blocs, free economic zones, tax havens, farm subsidies, military interventions abroad, state-owned businesses, bailouts and government intervention in times of crisis (think COVID)? Pure capitalism would not last long as it would end in monopolies and crises that would destroy it, which is why we have the current nationalized protectionist form of capitalism today.

Graeber also shows us that we are not the selfish profit-seeking “homo economicus” that Adam Smith made us out to be; this is the argument that capitalism is simply human nature. We do things for each other all the time without asking anything in return—giving someone a ride, sharing food, helping someone to cross the street, helping family or neighbors, volunteering work. During the pandemic, many people have helped each other doing groceries and aiding those in risk groups. Design education is completely commodified, but you know as well that tutors often go out of their way helping students after hours, putting in extra time and effort out of sheer goodwill. Graeber demonstrates that we have a lot of elements that are communist, even anarchist, in our society that we don’t consider but we find very normal. Commodifying all aspects of society isn’t in our nature, and even though companies are trying hard, the culture of reciprocity and care is persistent.

I know my book can be dystopian at times, and I don’t shy away from naming and blaming some parts of the design discipline. CAPS LOCK contains some hard truths, [which is] why I was expecting a lot of pushback from designers. Instead, it is surprising and heartwarming to see how many positive responses I have received, also from established graphic designers with corporate jobs that told me how they find it inspiring. I realize that many, or even most graphic designers, have always objected to the influence of marketing and aren’t in it to sell more products. People practice design because they want to make beautiful and meaningful things that can be seen in public space, for the joy and as a service to others. That gives me hope that there is the will in the design discipline to change the way we work.

What is impressive about CAPS LOCK is the range of activity that you ascribe to graphic design—indeed the wide lens you use to capture all aspects of the field. What is your motivation for writing this book?
In my book I explain that these roles are a way to navigate through the book, and allow different viewpoints on a very complex subject. Note that they are not roles or traits that I propose exist in all graphic design activity.

About my motivation. When I started in 2018, I wanted to write a sequel to The Politics of Design (BIS, 2016) about the relationship between design and economy, a part of “politics” that was notably absent from my first book. I just wasn’t certain it could be done. Like many suggest, I wasn’t sure if graphic design could exist outside of, or beyond, capitalism. Personally, I was motivated to find examples of how to change my own practice towards less harmful and exploitative ways. In my 20 years working as a designer I have been involved with virtually all of the activities I criticize in my book, and the book is a way of retracing those mistakes in search of learning from my experience. The book is therefore both informed by theory and by my experience working in graphic design.

When I started reading economic and political theory, I still had the idea that the book may never be realized, which is something I would have been OK with. I have learned that if you want a book to be sincere, you have to write it because you would want to read it yourself, and not from the expectation of others or based on market demand. Since I had no funding, this made things easier. I could afford not to be deterministic but truthfully interested in whatever outcome presented itself. I think a defining moment was when I interviewed the six collectives, which really inspired me to keep writing and finish it. I realize the book has shortcomings just like any other book, but I see it as my contribution to a conversation, not some grand statement, which others will hopefully take further.

How will this book be used as a teaching tool, and what is your missionary aspiration?
I have been a graphic design tutor for 10 years, and that experience has informed the way I research and write. I am interested how culture and ideology influence each other (John Berger, Slavoj Žižek, James C. Scott) and I prefer exploring the connection between things rather than focusing on things [themselves], as is the often the practice in design theory. In response to my first book, tutors have told me my accessible language and open narrative style makes my books useful for teaching. Each tutor can take something from my books using their own knowledge and field of reference, expanding on my work rather than feeling limited by it. With that in mind, this book was written so it could work as a teaching tool.

As for my own aspirations as a tutor, I don’t use my own books in my classes as I teach design courses and not theory courses. The references I bring into class are from outside of design, to avoid a feedback loop between professional design and design education. Assignments are centered around societal topics and grounded locally, but students are free to take it in any direction. Political persuasions are not assumed but discussed, as I believe the classroom should be a space of ideas. I try to follow Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), which I stumbled upon while writing CAPS LOCK. He proposes a teacher should act as a facilitator rather than a dictator, inviting critical thinking and discussion rather than preventing it.

If you refer to my “missionary aspiration” behind the book, I am pretty open about that in the introduction. I believe that coming up with ethical alternatives for extractive capitalism is not only our moral imperative, it is simply necessary for human survival. If we go on as if it were business as usual, our future is in peril. I remember the graphic design history books I had in design school all had the pretense of “neutrality” and “objectivity,” while in fact they all assumed that graphic design originated in Europe and capitalism is the only preferable economic system. It took me years to unlearn that and understand there are many worlds of design outside of the Western canon. So I prefer being upfront about my motivations, thus the reader knows what they are getting into. I believe readers are bright enough to make their own choices and read critically, as I hope they will do.

My own political persuasion has shifted during the three years of writing from democratic socialist towards anarchism, and I currently align myself with some anarchist ideas (but not all). That is not part of the book, though. I don’t propose any ideology as an answer to our current crises, as that would be misguided. Ideologies such as capitalism, socialism, communism and anarchism (or any other –isms) are ideas or conceptual frameworks, not blueprints, and as such ideas should be discussed and adapted while in practice, and not imposed. The latter is what has led to enough bloodshed and suffering in previous decades.

I was born into a Postwar American dreamscape. It has been chipped away at for decades. Now with the threat of “It Can Happen Here” having briefly happened, I wonder whether graphic designers can really do much to thwart the alt-right and their oligarchical supporters other than to make a better looking banner. From your book, I don’t get this sense, but do you ever feel discouragement?
In my book I don’t discuss the threat of the extreme right, but it is a worry which I share deeply. People are faced with crises and uncertainty and they need someone to blame. It is clear that the extreme right is doing a better job than the left in presenting attractive narratives that mobilize people. It is always easier to appeal to people’s anger than it is to ask for their solidarity. The fascists just say everything should be blamed on a certain skin color or religious or political conviction. They create a visual “enemy-image,” which people can direct their anger towards. People are subliminally strongly motivated by these kind of visual distinctions, as they are hardwired in our brains for survival purposes. The left, on the other hand, has to explain that these crises come from centuries of capitalism and unbridled economic growth, in which we are all somehow complicit. This is much harder to communicate, especially because many of the people I know are part of the richest 20% of the world (as is almost everyone who lives in Northern Europe, or in the U.S.). Extreme poverty remains mostly out of sight in the Global South, if you consider for example that 40% of the world population has no access to internet, and 80% of the world population has never flown in an airplane. Sometimes we forget those disparities.

Graphic design is more than designing better-looking banners. Most of the work I do for activist organizations is not visual but writing better copy, and thinking about different communication strategies. (If people are on WhatsApp, why would stickers or street posters work?) A lot of communication from the left tends to be elitist with a lot of jargon, and refers to writers from the 19th century. There is nothing wrong with academic language, but it is inadequate for community organizing or appealing to your neighbors. I went to a housing protest a few weeks ago and a kid from the neighborhood asked me what “gentrification” meant, as it was on my sign. He was from exactly the street which the protest was about, so now I know not to use that word anymore in such a space. You shouldn’t have to explain a sign. This is how I keep learning to adjust language and understand how we can talk differently about politics. I often think about the Trump hat design versus the identity Pentagram [made] for Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the U.S. elections. Effective graphic design is not about making something look more beautiful or professional, it is about understanding who you are speaking to, and to show you are interested in what they want without trying to con them. That is exactly why I think graphic designers and journalists are needed.

From the moment business and manufacturing was branded, scribes, aka graphic designers (printers, layout persons, ad people, whatever), became complicit in what you call the “infinite loop of creation and destruction.” Can you explain this reference?
“Creative destruction” is a term popularized by economist Joseph Schumpeter, who described it as the “process of industrial mutation that continuously revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” It is a helpful phrase to explain how capitalism can keep going despite its recurring crises (although Marx was convinced those crises would eventually destroy capitalism). It survived because when it runs out of existing ways to expand capital, it just finds new ones. It destroys neighborhoods through gentrification, destroys more natural resources, exploiting more of our waking hours for work, monetizing more aspects of our daily lives (such as Airbnb-ing our spare room instead of lending it to friends), destroying our common or shared resources through a process of privatization.

To bring it back to graphic design, when I was working for design studios I mostly worked on corporate identities. Over my 20-year career, I must have designed dozens of identities, almost none of which are used today. All of the companies simply merged or were rebranded at some point. I remember redesigning a logo for a big telco in the Netherlands, which just had rebranded itself a few years ago, and realizing how wasteful this exercise was. The old logo was fine; there was no reason to redesign the brand other than to make the company “appear new,” even though neither the products nor the company had changed one bit. Every print designer has seen this, seeing thousands of old letterheads thrown in dumpsters, replacing signing, wasting resources … and for what? Such graphic design neither serves a public good, nor provides a service to products or the customer. It is simply there so capital can grow.

The cycle of creation and destruction I witnessed during my work as a designer also alludes to the book title: CAPS LOCK, or capitals lock, which is where the abbreviation of the keyboard button comes from. Designers find themselves locked in this cycle of creation and destruction so capital can keep growing. I found that a very dispiriting but important realization. NFTs and the metaverse offer a peek into what could become the new wave of creative destruction, where we will have to mine more lithium and build more servers, destroying mountains and forests so we indulge in new digital consumer experiences.

Designers were also called the white knights of industry. This implies a progressive leaning. Can there be progressive capitalism?
I am not familiar with this saying, but it’s clear that design attracts many people because of its artistic side. Henceforth, most designers tend to prioritize more socially sensitive values, such as quality of life, beauty, and well-being of the public good over amassing personal wealth. However, those values aren’t the same as progressive, which is being open to new ideas (as opposed to conservatism).

Capitalism is naturally progressive in the sense that risk-taking and being open to new ideas is necessary in the marketplace to beat competitors. A company needs to “progress” or it will be either taken over or go under. We see this in the Silicon Valley ideology, which is particularly proud of being progressive but at the same time deeply anti-socialist (Elon Musk, who busts unions, or even libertarian-fascist Peter Thiel, who advocates for an übermensch race of leaders). So the “white knight,” as someone that acts on selfless motivations that serve the public good, is not at all the same as being progressive.

If your question is about a more social capitalism, that existed. During Franklin D. Roosevelt there was a “socialist capitalism” in the U.S. with The New Deal. In Postwar Europe (1945–1970), there was free education, free healthcare, decent public services and wages that actually paid the rent. Although that “golden age of capitalism” was possible because of low oil prices through imperialist pressure, the unpaid work by women, the underpaying of people of color, and a way to counter the threat of communism, it would be a much preferred improvement over the current state of capitalism. That period was arguably the best period for graphic design, which received plenty of public funding and allowed relative freedom outside/beyond market conditions.

There are many designers as propagandists. How does this designation apply to your argument? And are there nuances we should know about?
Public relations and advertising used to be called propaganda. You are probably familiar with the book by Edward Bernays from 1928 with the same title, someone who is often regarded as the founder for modern day PR. What I find interesting about the distinction between advertising and propaganda is that they are not so different at closer inspection, and mostly reveal the ruling ideology. An example from my own experience: a colleague of mine, who is a designer and a tutor, asked her design students to create protest signs for the climate march, the biggest annual climate event in the Netherlands. She did not dictate what the signs should communicate; students were free to interpret the assignment. Subsequently parents complained that students were being indoctrinated by this assignment. My colleague pointed out that the same school does an assignment for one of the biggest Dutch banks, which is known for funding fossil fuel companies and the arms industry, but that wasn’t considered indoctrination or propaganda. It appears we live in a society where making promotion for banks is considered “neutral,” and making signs for the climate is considered “propaganda.

This begs the question what values are assumed as ubiquitous, and how designers navigate ethics. My personal view on the matter, as my first book discusses, is that all visual communication is biased because it is always made from a certain viewpoint, invariably influenced by the person who creates it and the persons who funds it. My students can hold any view they want (with respect to others, obviously), as long as they recognize “not having a view” simply isn’t possible. We should revisit this assumed position of the designer as a neutral conveyor of information, which is a remnant of the 20th century design engineer philosophy them stems from Eurocentric modernism. Leaving neutrality behind can open up space to discuss the responsibility of the designer as a mediator of communication, rather than denying that responsibility altogether.

I am particularly interested in your views on the efficacy of designers as entrepreneurs, particularly since I co-founded an MFA program devoted to supporting this. Entrepreneurship leans towards capitalism but some ventures are decidedly for the public good. How does this fit into your scheme?
Yes, I am aware of your work on this of course, and I mention the book Becoming a Design Entrepreneur (2016) you co-wrote with Lita Talarico. I start the chapter by explaining how being entrepreneurial (in Dutch, ondernemen, from French entreprendre, literally to “undertake”) isn’t capitalist or even necessarily an economic activity. It is simply a person taking initiative. Currently I am involved in several horizontally organized activist groups, where amazingly complex creative actions are undertaken by individuals without any capitalist or monetary incentive. People taking initiative and doing things on their own account is what drives a lot of social activity, and isn’t capitalist per se. In Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide (2001), Johana Drucker and Emily McVarish write how the medieval journeyman already possessed similar entrepreneurial qualities as the present-day freelance designer: a craftsman taking initiative to try out working for themselves.

It is very different if we are entrepreneurs by choice, or if we are forced to do so. The problem with entrepreneurism started after the 1970s, with the advent of neoliberalism. Authors such as Oli Mould, Silvio Lorusso, Guy Standing, Richard Sennett and many others have written extensively on how our relation with work began to shift from work that was characterized by stability and reliable compensation to precarious work—unstable, self-initiated, low-paid, unreliable. In The Netherlands, even delivery riders and cleaners are now entrepreneurs; even though they are paid below minimum wage they have to do their own taxes, look for clients, and have to be waiting by their phones looking for gigs. Not because they want to, but because loosened labor regulations have allowed loopholes for companies to cut labor costs. A metal worker I know had an accident on the job (he works at the steel mill, not exactly a safe work environment) and the company refused to pay his medical bills because he is a freelancer.

In other words, entrepreneurism has become the mantra under which new levels of exploitation of work have taken place, and companies can evade their responsibilities for their employees. It is even sold to us as a promise that everyone can become wealthy and famous overnight, like the influencers, crypto bros and Silicon Valley execs celebrated in the media. The truth of course, is that people like Elon Musk and Donald Trump became wealthy because their families were wealthy, or out of sheer luck (Musk made his fortune with PayPal, which he didn’t invent). The problem is that the story of entrepreneurism has pitted designers against each other, many of whom would rather work together than compete for bottom prices. That is harmful for a designer’s compensation ( will always be cheaper) and creates anxiety, depression and burnouts. Because if we haven’t “made it” by the age of 25, we have only ourselves to blame.

My problem isn’t with entrepreneurship itself, it’s that the narrative frames work as an individual activity with an individual responsibility to success, when in fact all work is collective in nature. Try making a book without any help from writers, printers, photographers, or type designers. The problem is the narrative of entrepreneurship has created toxic working conditions. If we can start to view design work as the collective activity as it is, and share both reward and responsibility, it improves the situation of all designers, not just the lucky few.

At first we conceived the designer as entrepreneur as a means to free designers from the strictures of service design—of the vicissitudes of a client’s control. I thought idealistically, naively, or both, that putting conception and production in independent hands would alter the designer’s fundamental role as a servant of capitalism. And I admit that many who’ve passed through the program have contributed to change. But for others it is another gateway into the capitalist system (e.g., when a potentially successful venture is swallowed up by a larger entity to squelch competition, etc.). Are the toxic conditions of which you speak simply inevitable?
I completely agree with the first point of your question. One thing that frustrates designers is having so little control over the processes they are part of. Graphic designers aren’t highly valued on the corporate ladder, and often get the short end of the stick. Becoming a freelancer or starting your own projects is a way to get around that chokehold, and also the most important reason I started to work for myself and initiate my own projects.

When it comes to toxic working conditions, that can happen both on the studio floor (I’ve had my share), or as a freelancer being forced to work for ridiculous low fees, or not being paid at all (I’ve also been there myself). That is not something that can be changed easily, and is only possible if designers start to organize. Freelance designers have a very bad bargaining position, and the inevitable automation and outsourcing of low-level design work won’t make things better in the near future. I mention Vloerwerk in my book, an Amsterdam-based solidarity network. They started when one freelancer didn’t get paid by a client. As a single person without money for legal representation, there is no way to get that invoice paid. However, they organized a group of people to picket at the client’s office and make a lot of noise. Soon enough the bill was paid, and now they do many cases a month helping workers and freelancers in labor conflicts. Unions may have a bad rep, but the numbers game works. If you are with a group, it is easier to put pressure on clients or bosses and work towards improving the situation for the many. Designers organizing collectively can help to stop unpaid internships, say not to unpaid spec work, arrange better freelance fees, and garner more respect for designers in general.

About the persistent story of the entrepreneur who becomes wealthy and famous overnight, this is a toxicity we should address as a cultural phenomenon within the design discipline, and deal with accordingly. Aggie Toppins has written about the myth of the “cult of hero worship,” the star designer in the history books that was in reality aided by assistants, interns and other anonymous labor that remains unacknowledged. Sasha Constanza-Chock proposes in Design Justice (2000) a shift in our design culture from competition to care. I found that very inspiring. That means not boasting to students and colleagues about how hard you have been working, and that working nights is “cool” or “necessary,” and how it is important to win awards, which leads to perpetuating unhealthy working conditions. Perhaps we, as designers, can be more mindful that work is collective and it is not a matter of winning or losing, but getting together, making things and creating ideas you couldn’t have done yourself. I think if graphic design can be a bit more humble and caring inward, and display the pride and professionalism more outwardly, it would make for a much more pleasant work environment.

How does design as a profession escape from capitalism (or any –ism, for that matter)? Where are the keys to the prison?
I do use the word “escape” in the subtitle, but not in an escapist sense. In the book I don’t propose it is possible to retreat or escape from the power structures in society altogether. The word escape is a response to the prevailing cynicism in graphic design that there is no outside or beyond capitalism, and therefore little can be done except voting every four years and complaining on social media (using CAPS LOCK mode if necessary). The word escape is also deliberately chosen to complete the keyboard analogy with the title.

So what are the “keys,” you ask? A lot of “engaged” or “activist” designers suggests that design is both the problem and the solution, that we can simply design our way out of crises. Geo-engineering, speculative design and social design are proposed as design methods to tackle “wicked problems.” Speculative design has even been heralded as a way to end capitalism, while in fact it has led to new ways to commodify the future. In my opinion design is credited with too much power, and is often overpromised as a way to solve issues that are socio-economic at heart. I think it is dangerous to make such promises.

What to do, then? From my own experience I firmly believe that politics do not only happen in parliament far away, but happen all the time, everywhere, between everyone. “The personal is political,” as the feminist cry goes. We have more power than we often think, whether as consumers, producers and social actors. Retaking control of our agency as citizens, designers or otherwise, is the first step towards influencing larger processes. That doesn’t mean we don’t need parliamentary politics; I do vote and encourage people to influence institutions, but that alone is not enough, if we don’t change the way we relate to others. It is not enough to have an intern make an anti-capitalist poster if you’re not paying them. This is not just a personal conviction, but this also became clear from the interviews, where the six collectives create local economies (Brave New Alps), establish tight bonds within their community (The Public) or start media collectives that end up being small societies with their own currency and collective houses (Mídia NINJA). The political power of these collectives isn’t in the aesthetics of their work, but in how they are socially organized.

How have your revelations influenced your own design work?
During the writing of the book I also started to do this in my own practice. Now I only work with local printers and producers, I don’t fly to conferences or lectures, I focus on projects in my neighborhood, in my workshops I focus on local issues rather than “global” ones, and if I work with people I pay them well (the proceeds of the book are shared with all image makers that have contributed). Instead of pushing my own authorship, I prefer giving the stage to young makers so they have a chance to make some money and show their talents.

My latest project is setting up a collective activist media/printing workshop/publishing house/meeting space in Amsterdam, together with extinction rebellion and the anarchist union. The extreme rent prices in Amsterdam make it almost impossible to have permanent spaces devoted to noncommercial purposes, and such a cooperatively organized space would really give a boost to young activist designers and artists looking for places to work. With our own means of production in-house we wouldn’t rely on bulk printers that use toxic inks. It has not been easy to organize a space like that with that many people, but it has already led me to get to know more like-minded people and forge bonds. Sharing that kind of wealth with others is not something you can buy or speculate on, it can only be built slowly and carefully, and that realization has been the most rewarding outcome of this book.