The author is dead.
Long live the author.
Authorship in communication

In the 1960s and the 1970s art succeeds in getting rid of the same definition of the discipline, opening itself to contamination and intervention in many other fields, from technology to graphic design.
What is happening, in the same period, inside the world of graphic design?
The Swiss school modernism, based on rational principles is going to be cleared by the wave of American expressionism called Post Modern and by the movements Punk, NewWave and Decostruction.1 Trust in communication potentialities based on rational and strict dogmas, does no longer find a place in the reflexions of the late 60s, when, as said before, society starts speaking a new language. A simple communication based on grids, sans serif typography, formal simplification is not sufficient; the new designers don’t seem to remember the reason of the birth of ornament abjuration, they prefer to use new technologies to deglamourize design rational culture and to create a new one based on personal expression. But in the same period new branches of the discipline develop: together with sociologists, designers start studying corporate images, a complete coordination of business communication. We must not forget the introduction of digital press and most of all computer aided design that allow design and technologies to merge into a strong alliance.

The reflexion-question that has been more often faced since the1970s is that of authorship, this seems the only one to succeed in stimulating a literature in the field of graphic design together with that of legibility.
Two different trends that communication design can use as argumentation to support its own disciplinary validity. Always considered as handmaid of architecture, design finds its achievement and a widespread international acknowledgement.
The same reflexions on the nature of the author, stimulated by Roland Barthes’s text and later by those of Michel Foucault, lead visual communication to a response that is definitively opposed to the artistic one. (Barthes claims that the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author, while Foucault imagines a time when it will not be important to ask who the author is.)
While in the artistic field we assist to the dematerialization of the work, to the death of the author and the birth of a new attention to the role of the spectator, graphic design chooses to invent a new language, to fill the void left by the artist, to become author. Designers try to open the text significance to various interpretations, by formulating one by themselves through the manipulation of the signifier, hoping to encourage the participation of the reader in his search of meaning. Often the obtained result differs from that of the first avant-garde experimentations, as it submits meaning to the signifier: we don’t have a reading on two levels but they overlap, creating a summation that does not permit any type of reading apart from the expressive one. When questioned about the problem of the message loss of meaning, that the exasperation of a personal expression can bring in visual communication, Andy Altmann, of Why Not Associated, asserts that the reader, in sharing the designer’s aesthetic pleasure, will compensate for any difficulty in deciphering the text.2
We can see that from this point of view the rational principles that guided International Typographic Style (Emil Ruder asserts that form distracts from the message content) are not overcome but simply denied. As Michael Rock underlines perhaps after too many years as faceless facilitators, designers are ready to speak out, eager to discard the internal affairs of formalism and branch out in foreign affairs of external politics and content.3 Josef Müller-Brockmenn’s rationalist approach tries to include graphic design among scientific disciplines supporting a scientific-mathematical approach to discover an order and a form closer to a truth one cannot contradict; from this point of view the designer has to submit to the will of the system and to withhold interpretation.
Also Jan Tschichold asserts that the artists of the book have to hide their personality and put themselves as humble servers and not as masters of the text: In the book the responsible designer’s highest duty is to get rid of ambition and express himself.4
It is evident that this approach does not correspond to visual design needs where rational capacities are necessary but inadequate if not supported by a certain intuitive sensibility that is very close to the artistic one. The graphic work can never be the product of a neutral process, the designer always brings something extra: from personal taste to cultural sensibility, from social and political beliefs to aesthetic preferences. The reaction of the movements of the 1970s, but most of all of the 1980s, is to assert the legitimation of an individualism that for too long had been denied to designers. The new wavers are the first design personalities whose names are famous outside the design field. Neville Brody plans every single aspect of his book, proposes himself as a new author, with his own personal style and language: this attitude underlines that the graphic designer is not a simple communication channel but he is constituent element of the message meaning and that the designer can be a star as the artist and the writer. Especially in the 80s the popstarism phenomenon in communication helps the discipline to emerge as such, independent from the others; at the same time it goes against the tide with respect to the tendency to open to the spectator that is growing in other disciplines. A large part of this authorial graphic design does not disjoin from commercial aspects, on the contrary it answers to the client’s requests to create a mundane communication, a shouted and spectacular one. In the advertising field new strategies arise, in the show business where a product is not sold for its quality but for its fetishist aura; raising one’s voice is of primary importance respect to the message content. The types designed by Jonathan Barnbrook do not respect any traditional code but only one of his personal expressive styles; this important and eclectic figure in the present graphic panorama, succeeded in publishing a book titled The Barnbrook Bible. Barnbrook’s activity is defined as revolutionary and agit-prop even if he is often included in the commercial area and his personal language becomes the peculiar voice of many big companies. Barnbrook himself solves this contradiction by seeing his work as that of a saboteur of the commercial message: it is of no importance that his jerky language is hiding an advert, there is no sense in reading it any more.5 Individualism that seemed to be defeated for a new interest in collectivity, is still operating but without a monopoly in the artistic sector: Barnbrook is a popstar in the graphic field from which he continuously tries to evade, looking for cooperation with musicians, David Bowie, for example, or artists like Damien Hirst. The artist he chooses to work with is the leading member of the YBA, Young British Artists who mirror the cool Britain of the 1990s. I seize the opportunity to briefly describe an artistic group who follows this individualistic, almost entrepreneurial and surely auto-referential theory, to underline that not all art has given up the sacrality of the author. Hirst, together with Gary Hume, Tracy Amin, Marc Quinn and many others creates a bohemian art, aimed at provoking, that wants to oppose the conceptual and minimal art of the previous years and that mirrors the conservative culture of the moment, whose spirit of freedom and life was based on money.6 These artists’ purpose is to amaze and amuse, but most of all to use provocation as an end in itself, or in the market. Their works, so incorrect, are not only on the lips of the critics and experts but most of all on those of ordinary people impressed by the hazard to place a shark in formaldehyde or to create a human head made in real blood, and here it is, they are transformed into celebrities. An art that makes the public react thanks to its spectacular aspect but that doesn’t stir up any reflexion.

Authorship then can have different readings and lead to very different results. When authorial freedom coincides with the need of achievement of a not yet acknowledged professionalism, without any purpose of communication, a basic feature of both graphic and artistic work will be lost. This can occur in some projects called ‘artist’s book’, where one often finds also a low visual quality and absence of any applications, not even narrative. One does not want to condemn the whole genre but only those who use this product typology as a shield to defend projects that have nothing to say or express but
a personal satisfaction, as Poynor says, the private satisfaction of making random graphic marks.7 The experimental use Mark Z. Danielewski makes of the artist’s book is noteworthy indeed. The text House of Leaves joins an hazardous, non-linear narrative and an amazing graphic layout: it is exciting for the reader going through his book of more than six hundred pages, one has to turn it, interpret it, notice the type used, translate and decode it. Synopsis is almost impossible for the plot complexity, one could say it is a false second edition of Johnny Truant’s work, in the diary form but presented in a non chronological form. Danielewski stirs the reader to move, first physically and then with his thought, in reconstructing the story; he dictates the reading speed through the text layout, in closely typed pages or completely blank. Typography is crossed out, right or left aligned, upturned, upside down, proliferating or empty foot notes to fill in, in other languages and other alphabets, types climb the page in a surprisingly way. Literature, music, poetry and typographic composition alternate dismantling the figure of the author in thousand fragments, letting the reader, lost among hints, become a character. Visual form and literary content express one in the other all through the text, not hiding the author’s attention to their relationship. Danielewski is visual and verbal author in he same way, but at the same time he makes a book in which he deconstructs the figure of the author, opening to the reader’s interpretation without worrying.

Authorship as personal expression is completely opposed to that of the activist movement where the social message, even if always spontaneous and not commissioned, transmits a clear program. These projects have a voice of their own, a message, an intentionality that lacks the autoreferentiality typical of the artist’s book.

Groups like Act up, General Idea and Gran Fury propose graphic artefacts that are in function of a widespread distribution, often with the purpose of sensitizing the public to social interest issues, first of all AIDS. It is interesting to see how these groups, whose first production often consists of posters and billboards, are often analysed not as reference personalities for visual communication but are instead in an artistic current only for the fact that they do not belong to a commercial channel. (Part of the success of authorship in design wants to discredit the link, undisputed up to now, between visual communication and the commercial sector.)
Aids crisis, Vietnam war protest, the threat of nuclear war, the German Wall,
the sum of all these issues gives rise to a political and social activism that responds to the need of informing people and making them react. Act up, Aids Coalition to Unleash Power, undertakes a direct action to face the fast growing diffusion of Aids and it incorporates different groups, the most active of which, as for graphic production, is certainly Gran Fury. One of the first posters of the group consists of white typography on a black background, Silence = Death and a pink triangle, in memory of the gays deported in the concentration camps.
These posters are created to inform the population about the increasing problem, to replace the absent government campaigns and those of the pharmaceutical companies that undervalue the problem for easy personal profit. The graphic design reminds that of 1968, born in the universities, often lithographed or photocopied, the colours used are few, the typography always sans serif and tones alternate between goliardic and dramatic. In another example a blood handprint on a white background is only accompanied by the black typography One Aids death every half hour . The group General Idea designs a poster that will be put up on all the subways of New York by Public Art Found, inspired by the revision of the famous Love Sculpture by Robert Indiana, in Manhattan: the simple substitution of the word love with aids, always in red Egyptian font but on a blue and green background, speaks about the lack of attention for the epidemic and of the metropolis itself. These projects, aimed at drawing the readers’ attention, the passersby, highlight an issue whose undervaluation has caused a worldwide diffusion. They also give social visibility to the gay community that is already developing its own identity.
The authorship of these projects is plural, it is born from the collective work of a group of artists, this feature seems to clash with the meaning of the term authorship. The same problem occurs in the work of many English studios such as Tomato or Fuel.

Ellen Lupton and Abbot Miller are surely authorial, the first to act in support of the importance of writing for graphic designers, not to replace the figure of the writer, but as an instrument to improve their profession.
They both cooperate for the achievement of the figure of design critic, they write for various magazines as Emigre, Eye and Print, they follow the publication of many texts as curators and art directors.
Bruce Mau is another exponent of this authorial design current, he asserts that a new approach is necessary in design: collaboration between the client and the designer could enrich both simultaneously. However he does not know whether this means the death of design or the achievement of the designer-author or author-designer or all these three hypothesis at the same time. His authorship is not only putting aesthetic choices before content, but he is interested in a collaboration with other figures working in the visual message production of meaning: Mau works with clients that involve him in projects when they are first conceived, not only in the final part of visual translation of content, but since the beginning. If authorship has been an important element for the achievement of the graphic design as an autonomous discipline, now the moment has come to move beyond, to open to collaboration with other professional figures and then share authorship with the public. As an alternative to the figure of the design as author, Ellen Lupton proposes that of the designer as ‘producer’, the one Mau has followed in his career. In this model the designer finds opportunities to keep the technological means of production under control and share this control with the reading public: Lupton compares the designer to a producer who puts together the different figures’ abilities in a project whose authorship is shared.
Giovanni Anceschi’s theory of film directing is not far from this vision: the designer must be able to lead the user, must plan an event capable to stimulate all sensorial registers.8
Also Robert Massin loves putting side by side the mise en page with the mise en scene : If we want to consider the page of a book as a scenic place, then, let’s go to the theatre: we have reached the third dimension; it is more a question of volumes than of surfaces; but we have to think that spatial problems here will find solutions not far from those within the graphic designer’s reach.(…)
If, in this work, I wanted to go out of the narrow frame of the book to assimilate the mise en page with the mise en espace, and if, at the same time, I made of the graphic designer an architect, a set designer, a film director, a composer, it is because, in my opinion, there are no boundaries between these different disciplines, and those who practise them, must constantly be listening to the world, if they are interested in changing their procedures, and take advantage of every change to enrich their creations.(…)
Undoubtedly we have to surprise the reader with what he expects;
but we can also shock him.9
After having established as discipline, graphic design can at last open to the others: the problem of architecture leadership is all Italian, it seems that in our country the evolution of the disciplinary hierarchy did not occur. Since the 1960s thanks to schools such as Bauhaus first and the Ulm school later, architecture supremacy on the other applied arts has left room to an equal interest for all of them, from urbanism to graphic design, from industrial design to interior design equal to art and architecture. The claim of autonomy of these so called minor arts allows a higher professionalization of the single figures.

Article 4 of the Carta del progetto grafico dell’Aiap, Italian Association of design and visual communication, states:
As in the 1930s one perceived that architecture had a leading role among design disciplines, and in the 1960s industrial design assumed a role of conceptual coordination, in the transition from production to consumption, in the 1990s it is graphic design to hold a strategic position inside design culture.
Nowadays we assist to a new overturning: interdisciplinary boundaries are not so clear, they blur, interpenetrate, exchange methodologies, materials and knowledge.10
The new challenge for visual communication language is to embrace a multiplicity of methods, artistic and commercial, individual and collective.
As Michael Rock asserts:
While theories of graphic authorship may change the way work is made, the primary concern of both the viewer and the critic will be always directed to its content and communicative potential.11

As thumbnail: General Idea, AIDS (A Project for the Public Art Fund, Inc.), 1989, 4, 500 posters placed in the New York subway system, one card in every second carriage. Courtesy of the artists Via www.afterall.org

  1. Cfr. Dario Russo, Free Graphics.
    La grafica fuori dalle regole nell’era digitale
    ,
    Lupetti Editore, Milano 2006.
  2. Cfr. Rick Poynor, The designer as author,
    “Blueprint”, May 1991.
  3. Cfr. Michael Rock, The designer as author,
    in “Eye”, n. 20, Spring 1996.
  4. Jan Tschichold, The Form of the Book,
    Hartley & Marks, Canada 1997.
  5. Cfr. Rick Poynor, The designer as author, art.cit.
  6. Cfr. Gregor Muir, Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, Aurum Press, London 2009.
  7. Rick Poynor, Authorship in No More Rules. Graphic Design and Postmodernism, Laurence King Publishing, London 2003.
  8. Giovanni Anceschi, Il campo della sinestesia: conduttori e commutatori, in “Il Verri”,
    n. 27, feb. 2005.
  9. Robert Massin, La mise en pages, Hoëbeke, Dijon 1991.
  10. Cfr. Giovanni Anceschi, Confini: design e arte in AA. VV., Catalogue of the exhibition Made in IUAV, 14 settembre – 2 novembre 2008, XI Biennale di architettura, Arsenale Novissimo, Dindi Editore, Udine 2008.
  11. Cfr. Michael Rock, The designer as author, art. cit.