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The latest chapter in the history of designers who self-publish

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Like many book authors, I have mixed feelings about working with publishers. It’s wonderful to be published, of course, particularly at the start, but once the book has been produced and printed and (if you are lucky) given a routine amount of publicity, it’s out there on its own. This is all that most publishers can afford, especially today. The only thing that will change this bare-bones support is an immediate hit or the prospect of one, and few books published in any category, including design, are massive hits. All authors suffer the same anxiety when visiting bookstores to see whether their publications are on the shelves. Discovering that they’re in stock brings a moment of pleasure and relief; a glaring void where a cherished project should be causes dismay.

And then there is the question of the author’s cut. Authors have always been bemused (make that infuriated) to find that, despite having come up with the idea and put in months or years of work, their share of the proceeds is so small. Not long ago, a major publisher told me that the imprint would love to publish a book I had proposed, but I would need to find external funding myself—that was the new policy. In art and design publishing, the desire to minimize financial risk is not uncommon now.

Is it any wonder that the idea of digitally enabled self-publishing has taken off? The decision to go it alone used to be called “vanity publishing,” and no serious author would venture anywhere near the outfits offering this service—their books would never get reviewed or noticed. Self-publishing 21st-century style remains an open invitation to fall flat on your face, yet the term has acquired an entirely positive ring; it’s a bold and even defiant act of self-determination and self-belief. Self-publishing by blog led the way, and now direct-to-Kindle, book-length self-publishing is producing success stories, which the media love to report.

Designers have always been natural self-publishers. Who is better placed to experiment with publishing than a group with a professional command of the production process? In Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton’s exhibition “Graphic Design: Now in Production,” which opened last year in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center and moved to New York’s Cooper-Hewitt in May, self-publishing is a key theme, and the accompanying book is a richly detailed and thoughtful exploration of the phenomenon, offering us the chance to take stock of what has been accomplished so far in this area and where we might be going. Almost inevitably, the curator-editors’ focus on the present leads to overstatement. Though there may be more self-publishing by designers now because there are many more designers and opportunities, I’m not sure their motivations are fundamentally dissimilar to those of self-publishing designers going back 20, 30, or even 60 years. Graphic designers have been sending me and every other design journalist self-published items for as long as I have been writing about graphic design.

It would be easy to fill the rest of this column with earlier case studies. In the 1990s, I undertook academic research into Herbert Spencer’s journal Typographica, which ran for 32 issues from 1949 to 1967. A British printer, Lund Humphries, rather than a magazine company, published the title. It was initiated by Spencer and remained entirely under his control; he was editor, writer, designer, and highly versatile and well-connected collaborator—everything that the most ambitious and multitalented M.F.A. grad now aspires to be. This research led me to explore comparable, designer-led publications such as Typography, Alphabet and Image, Image, and Motif, all of them published by a printer, the Shenval Press. (I recently posted an essay about Motif on Design Observer.)

In book publishing, the British typographer Robin Kinross started Hyphen Press in 1980, more than 30 years ago. (He was asked to contribute to “Graphic Design: Now in Production” but chose not to take part and is a regrettable absence.) The Norwegian-born Swiss designer Lars Müller, who is included, founded his self-named publishing house in Baden in 1983. Both enterprises are flourishing. In the U.S., Rudy VanderLans’s Emigre (1983–2005) remains one of the great self-initiated design publications of the past 30 years. For anyone who followed the magazine in the heyday of its international influence, it’s curious to see how it has now been cordoned off from other self-publishing activity in design since 2000, as though it were somehow intrinsically different. Yet Emigre was a beacon, and it continues to offer a model of highly motivated independent practice supported by firm entrepreneurial foundations.

In the afterword to The Electric Information Age Book—the product of a partnership between Project Projects and Princeton Architectural Press—Blauvelt compares Emigre to Dot Dot Dot, the now defunct magazine launched in 2000 by Stuart Bailey with Peter Bil’ak, who left after a time. Blauvelt describes DDD as “a different discursive space for design, one that encourages a network of designers to write not only about design but also about other subjects.” I have reservations about Dot Dot Dot. I was an initial admirer who eventually lost patience with its self-indulgence and air of superiority. At its zenith, though, it had plenty of moments of originality and cleverness. It was certainly influential, and the designers who admired it (again we are talking grad school) tended to produce work that shared its style and spirit—a kind of studied, quirky, dressed-down look that it is still very much with us.

Despite its editorial eclecticism (though many of the writers weren’t designers), DDD didn’t attempt to reach a broad design audience, let alone a wider public. It played most convincingly in the small art-gallery and performance scene where Bailey liked to frame his publishing activities, rather preciously, as a form of art. Given these limitations, I’m surprised that Lupton and Blauvelt, both experienced midcareer curators who know a lot about outreach, give DDD quite as much credence as they do.

The most persuasive self-publishing projects by designers have tended to be concerned with design, for the obvious reason that designers are experts, not dabblers, in the subject. Lupton and Blauvelt, both educated as designers, write about design. All of the self-published projects I have mentioned, apart from the more eclectic DDD, focus on design. Other notable contemporary do-it-yourselfers are Occasional Papers, publishers of a new essay collection, Graphic Design: History in the Writing (1983–2011); and Unit Editions, whose latest volume, Kwadraat-Bladen, documents graphic experiments published by the Dutch designer Pieter Brattinga from the 1950s to the 1970s. The French company B42, self-publisher of Back Cover magazine, broadens its list of design books and translations slightly with a series of books (also available in English) about skateboarding.

Only Fuel Publishing, founded in 2005 by the London design studio of the same name, has made a sustained and, so far, successful attempt to establish itself as a publisher of books about popular culture rather than design. Even so, Fuel’s recent survey of a British supermarket’s much-loved modernist 1960s packaging suggests an underlying reluctance of designer-publishers to stray too far from their familiar habitats.

It makes sense for designers to act as their own publishers. As Rollo Press, a printing and self-publishing website in Zurich, affirms, loosely paraphrasing William Morris: “To own the means of production is the only way to gain back pleasure in work, and this, in return, is considered as a prerequisite for the production of (applied) art and beauty.” It’s entirely understandable that designers want to avoid being shut inside a compartment labeled “design and nothing but design,” though I can’t see the cliquish and introspective DDD model as the way forward. As I have noted before, there are two sides to this expansion of opportunities. The tools of self-publishing are available to everyone, and this is why they are radical and empowering. Could it be, though, that what’s needed now is for more authors coming from other areas of expertise, outside design, to embrace the possibilities of graphic design as a way of composing and disseminating their writing and ideas? Not for the first time, it strikes me that the permeable boundaries many designers love to celebrate entail some deep risks—will the profession still be needed?—as well as exciting possibilities for designers of vision to achieve wider kinds of engagement.

For more design criticism, check out the essay collection Looking Closer 5: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, available at