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The Designer as…
Interview with Steven McCarthy

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The Designer as…
interview with Steven McCarthy by Maddalena Dalla Mura
October 13, 2013, via skype, St. Paul (Minnesota) – Udine (Italy)

Your book The Designer as Author, Producer, Activist, Entrepreneur, Curator, and Collaborator: New Models for Communicating was released this year (BIS Publisher). As the title suggests, it deals with different facets of the designer’s role. The main thread connecting all of these facets is design authorship. So let’s begin from this notion, and your interest in it.

Steven McCarthy: As you can tell by the book’s introduction, it is a topic I have been interested in for a long time, beginning with an exhibition I co-curated in 1995-1996, called Designer as Author: Voices and Visions, with my colleague at the time, Cristina de Almeida. The idea we had been talking about for a year or so concerned our observation of the confluence of activities like designing, writing, self-publishing, and of designers’  increasing engagement  with content and meaning. We therefore sent out a call for entries for a juried show. We were amazed at the reception: there were a lot of submissions, especially by people with big reputations and at the vanguard of that kind of engagement. In February 1996 the exhibition opened, just two months before the appearance, on the pages of Eye magazine, of Michael Rock’s influential article “The Designer as Author” – he mentioned our exhibit but just in passing, he didn’t even mention our names. Anyway, my personal interest in design authorship has been there for a long time. And I have myself continued to make work that is self-authored, where I define the topic and give it form; this kind of work often takes the form of books or other kinds of alternative narratives, like short videos, posters, web sites and so on. Some of these works are now in good museum, archive and library collections.

The first chapter in your book opens with the paragraph “Design authorship explained”. Why did you feel the need to explain an idea which is quite widespread nowadays?  

SM: Design authorship sometimes defies definition because of its multi-faceted aspects and that’s why I state in the book that it is not a style, nor a genre, but it is really a kind of engagement. It is an expansion of the designer’s voice from being an allegedly neutral or objective form-giver and problem solver – always client-oriented – to being more engaged with what his or her designs mean, with who they are for, why they are being made – the message, the audience, the context –, and to finally initiate their own work. In design authorship, there might not even be a client, there might purely be the designer’s message and voice which wants to get out there. But authorship can also regard client-oriented work when the designer personally engages in a project because s/he views the communication as a shared enterprise, and not just the client’s one-way message. So again, it is a complex thing and there are many definitions and no single correct one.

Is it important to advocate design authorship today, two decades or so after the idea of authorship as such emerged and spread? 

SM: Well, as you say, it was certainly in the mid-1990s that a critical mass developed about these issues, not least due to the introduction of desktop publishing, which, particularly thanks to the Macintosh, gave designers the integrative tool, where writing and designing and printing could all be manifested in the same device. The nice thing about the Macintosh was that in a single integrated platform you could write, edit, proof, design, illustrate, scan and do photography, as well as use a laser printer to make small additional prints for yourself. This is why in the book’s introduction I use the year 1984 as a convenient starting point of design authorship and I think it holds up, although you could find points earlier than that too. Of course you can see evidence of authorship that goes as far back as the nineteenth century – think of William Morris. In the 1990s, however, there were a number of projects, articles, exhibitions where people were talking about it and the phenomenon was noticed. What happened then was more self-awareness, critical mass, and a confluence of different publications and voices. After the intense debate and interest in the 1990s and in the 2000s, people moved on to other things. They were interested in interactive media, the web, flash-based animation, and social network gaining tools. But even there you can find evidence of authorship. So, to answer your question, my book attempts both to offer a historical bolstering of the theories around design authorship and to acknowledge and discuss design authorship as not tied to a medium or a process, as open-ended, flexible and more about an approach or an attitude.

In the introduction you also recall how the very first relationship you had with the idea of authorship happened when you were writing and preparing your thesis, for which you were required to find a topic, develop research, take photographs, and so on. Now that you are an educator, do you think design authorship as a concept and approach is particularly valuable in the field of education?

SM: Absolutely. I think authorship should be an integral part of design education. I usually have both my graduate and undergraduate students define their own topics, identify an area of inquiry they want to work on and investigate it, research it, give it a visual form. So when we have critiques it is not just about how the works look but it is about what they say, mean, why they say it, and who they are for. I think that this kind of assignment offers students the possibility of getting used to thinking more critically from an earlier age. It gives them more empathy. Even if in the future they will do just typical client-based work – which most of them will likely do – they’ll have an expanded tool kit and an enlarged voice. I think that voice can also contribute to issues involving ethics, morality, politics, society.

Aspects of authorship you discuss include the participation in and the curation of design exhibitions. Can you briefly explain how you view these activities as design authorship?

SM: Design is both a noun and a verb, the object or the subject. So on the one side you have the design as the object on show, the authored work, the manifestation of the voice of the individual designer. On the other side, or on another level if you wish, you have the designer-curator, who defines a brief around which items are collected, selected and exhibited. In that respect I define the curated exhibition as an act of meta-authorship. Curating itself is an act of authorship in the way that the projects are aggregated and displayed. The exhibition can be about authorship and as authorship. I argue that the curator’s role is at a higher, more abstract level where he or she creates a scenario, establishes a set of conditions, a theme. In that way an exhibit becomes more intellectual and expansive than the mere portfolio show. I think that the curatorial activity is fascinating in that it occupies these hybrid states of being, both about something but also of something, both subject and object.

In the chapter dedicated to curatorship – which is based on a previous article of yours, which appeared in 2006 in “visual:design:scholarship” – you describe the curated show as “the next scale of design-authorship”. You add that design curation – which signals “a maturation of design connoisseurship” – carries with it new hierarchies, while it also marks a democratization of design. Can you explain what you mean by democratization? In fact, in observing images from several shows and installations set up by graphic designers in the recent years, I sometimes have the feeling that it is more about hierarchies than democratization.    

SM: I see what you mean. I would agree with you that there can be an insider quality, an elite specialised subculture there. But let me try and answer by recalling a case from my own experience. The show that I co-curated, and for which I designed the installation, which received the greatest public acclaim was the one called Hip Art that’s Square. In English it is a sort of play on words: to be “hip” means to be “cool”, and to be “square” is to be “uncool” or a “nerd”. Hip Art that’s Square was an exhibition of album covers – sleeves for vinyl records –, going back to the 1930s and up through the 1990s. The collection was owned by a local collector, Richard Shelton – the husband of Kali Nikitas, who is the Chair of the Communication Arts department at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. We selected 300 covers, from among his collection of 18,000, to be in the show. As a curator and an academic, I tried to give some structure to the show, considering the importance of different album designers and illustrators. The show was held at the Goldstein Museum, a small design museum at the University of Minnesota. Typically, at an exhibition opening there are usually 60 to 80 people, a very successful show might have 120. Well, for Hip Art that’s Square we had 600 people there. It was huge. One of my graduate students created an interactive kiosk in the gallery, so on screen you had all the albums and you could select them and play a song from each one. It was a mix of artwork, music, space, and chronology but also a celebration of this art form which is now largely gone because we have moved on not just to CDs, but to MP3 files, where you just get a small little icon in the corner. We had a dj playing music and food and drink… The point I want to make is that there was a very diverse audience. The people who came out were old rock and rollers, guys who wear black leather, chains and ride Harley Davidson motorcycles and have grey beards, and it was a mix of young and old, of students and people who had no affiliation with the university, they just heard about the exhibit. And it got a lot of press, I was interviewed a number of times, it was on the radio, the TV, the web, so it was very accessible and popular.

So you mean that by curating an exhibition you can build or expand a community?

SM: Yes. And graphic designers – think of Jon Sueda or Zak Kyes, whose work you are also familiar with – are using curation to aggregate, to establish a point of view, to take things public; it is a kind of social networking that is analogue and spatial rather than virtual. Curation is a form of creating communities: you have the community of people in the show but you also have the community of the people attending the show, the public. It is a sort of extension of authorship into these other realms: spatial, architectural, public, analogue. If you look at competitions or exhibits that are just about purely client-oriented work, and where it is all about the surface, the polish, and not the substance, and you compare them with shows like, for example, Adversary, collated by Kenneth FitzGerald, then you can perceive how these alternative forms and venues are good for design because they expand our domain. I don’t mean to sound like an imperialist but I think designers want and should have a bigger voice, a place at the table that architects and artists and writers have enjoyed for centuries. Designers deserve the same kind of intellectual respect and cultural legitimacy that others have. And I think curation is helping to achieve that. Also, as I mentioned, the public of shows is varied: it is like concentric circles where the inner most circles will be the peers and the designers who are like-minded, who support and advocate for a certain kind of work; then you will have professors and lecturers, showing that exhibitions also have an educational role for students and the academic community; then you will have people who are not necessarily involved with design or authorship but who want to be inspired, want to have provocations which make them more engaged with their work, with their day jobs, with working at a corporation or doing design for very ordinary things, websites, books, etc.; and finally you have the general public.

Do you think there is something really specific about a graphic designer curating a show? I mean, what is the difference if the curator for a poster show, or for an exhibition of record sleeves, is a designer rather than a musician or a collector or an art curator? What is the hook that brings together designing and curating in a specific way? 

SM: Well, I would say that it is the marriage of the concept of the exhibition with the installation. So the physical and the spatial forms that the exhibition takes on become part of its instantiation. Its tangible being in the gallery is both a combination of the artefacts on display with how they are displayed, and how they are propagated through catalogues, websites, and other kinds of means designed for extending the show from the white cube or box of the gallery to the world. As you know, one of the criticisms usually made about design exhibits is that a gallery decontextualizes design, and design should instead be in a home or shop on the street or in an office environment. There is a sort of paradox: putting things in the gallery is a process of both decontextualization and recontextualization. I touch on this a bit in the review I wrote for Eye magazine of the Graphic Design: Now In Production exhibition at the Walker Art Center. In the article I write that the installation was beautiful but it felt clinical, as if things had been removed from the messy real world and put in a very clean environment with lighting and the museum guard standing there, people speaking in hushed voices because they treat the gallery as a church or a library. It was funny to witness that. In a way it is the ‘observer effect’ where the active observation changes the thing being observed, so that if you look at a poster in a gallery instead of on the street or in some other context it effects the meaning and perception of it. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, just that you have to acknowledge it.

Last summer in Bolzano, an art gallery, ar/ge kunst, organized an exhibition of posters from the Occupy movement. These were posters which had been created by designers from all around the world and made available on the web from the website. However I found myself asking the meaning of such a show. Multiple levels of mediation were at work here: that of the posters and that of the art gallery displaying the posters, not to mention the web. The poster show, however, seemed to be of interest to the public…

SM: In North America so much space is privately owned, or is so highly regulated as to what you can do with it, that if you just took your protest posters and put them around on buildings  you would be arrested and charged with either defacing or vandalism. It seems Europe is much more open as to where you can post things; the Netherlands being a good example, where there is a very active posting culture and they have kiosks all over cities where you can put your posters. So that is part of the problem and one of the reasons why other things have emerged like stickers, stencils, and graffiti, the latter being, however, more often vandalism than communication… Another thing that comes to mind and that supports what I was saying above, is that if you have an exhibition in a gallery you certainly might reach a certain audience, but then the exhibition might also be furthered by the catalogue or the review and articles on it… So in a way the exhibit or the artefacts within the exhibit are simply catalysts for further discussion of the issues. So that is legitimate. This might be a secondary or tertiary effect, but still better than nothing.

As concerns the spatial dimension, which you mentioned before, and the environment of the exhibition, I sometimes have the feeling that the engagement of graphic designers is limited. Instead it seems they are focused on displaying their works – usually printed matter – and on making their voice or role apparent. The white box still prevails, although one notices that there is an interest in ‘support structures’ off the wall. But what about the exhibition environment as a polymorphic medium for communicating in and by itself? Again, what is the real difference between designers curating a show or an installation and art curators doing so?  

SM: You are right, since those of us who curate tend to co-opt the fine art of exhibition, the gallery, the “do not touch” sign, the lighting, the opening reception, which are all fine art exhibition conventions. I agree that curatorial practices that can question convention and move farther away from the fine arts models would be desirable. But I have seen other things: like a recurring local poster show in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul called Poster Offensive where they showed the posters and you could buy and walk away with them. They were sold in multiple additions so that they were not only on the wall but they were also merchandise you could purchase, and there was a station for silk screening so you could come to the show and silkscreen and then walk away with something. Another example is the Soul Design exhibition, which I also discuss in my book, and where I think there were a thousand prints by each designer in the show so that even though it was still in a gallery it departed from the usual conventions, and was simultaneously precious and populous: you could take the object away with you.

This, too, is something that is not new. At least since the 1960s, artists and curators have critiqued and challenged the conventions of art exhibitions, of making exhibits and of art institutions – and these stories have been well researched and discussed in recent decades, with the flourishing of curatorial studies. Graphic designers who want to engage in the exhibition context or in curation should probably explore that. This is something Jon Sueda did with some of his students in 2011, with the programme he developed at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, on the occasion of the “Wide White Space” exhibit he curated there. A recommendation in that direction was also expressed in 2012, by Andrew Blauvelt, in his article “Exhibitionary A”, which was included in the catalogue of the exhibition “Zak Kyes Working With…” 

SM: You are right. If you look back to the 1960s and 1970s you can find examples of artists challenging the conventions of the modern art exhibition. I believe, however, that if a lot of contemporary designers are not so aware of this, it is also due to the fact that in some ways design and art have grown even further apart, and some of the grounding or shared vocabulary has, for better or for worse, become separate. As a student I studied fine arts and got a degree in drawing and sculpture. I had five different art history classes, from pre-Colombian and central south American art to Renaissance to contemporary, and so I was well versed in all of that. My design students, however, now usually only need to take one art history class; they are just not as aware of the possibilities or histories.

Many of today’s graphic designers who are involved in exhibiting and curating activities are people who usually collaborate with art and cultural institutions; thus, dealing with the exhibitionary context is somewhat part of their daily practice. Beside the courses you took, have you had any similar or like experiences?

SM: Actually, yes. In my formative years, before graduate school, I worked for two years as a preparator at an art museum. I prepared work for display in exhibitions. I wasn’t the curator, I was just the guy building the pedestals, painting the gallery and doing the labels, lighting, framing, etc. It was a technical job and I learned a lot from it. I was 22 or 23 years old. After graduate school, I worked for three years as an exhibit coordinator at Stanford University where I did my MFA. There I designed exhibits and publications for the rare books section of the library. Of course a library is a different context than a gallery, and the viewing proximity of the artefacts on display is also different. When you are displaying a book or manuscript or graphic artefact and you need a very close viewing proximity, it changes the way the exhibit needs to be laid out, it changes the relationship between the artefact and the viewer. Also many rare objects cannot be exposed to a great deal of light and with old books you must be careful how they are treated and handled. So it was a different experience and I think it helped to inform my practice and to get me thinking about these things. Hence,I have had experience in both an art museum and a library.

One last question. Do you think that curating exhibitions is most important when the theme or focus is design practice, or could it be more interesting and engaging for designers to use exhibitions or design exhibitions to deal with other kinds of topics, not just specifically design related topics or practice?

SM: I will give you an example of a project I do with my graduate level students. I have the students work with a collection and have them bring in at least twelve items – more is possible but twelve is the minimum – of any kind: they could be toys, books, jewellery, animals, whatever they can physically aggregate. I then have them look at the physical structure of the objects, both individually and together. We talk about group theory – which comes from mathematics – and chronologies and structures within the groups. The students propose possible arrangements for three-dimensional displays but also consider the objects as actors in other media: books, videos, digital interactions, and so on. The most interesting results are those in which the collection goes beyond a simple display of things and the student is able to make something conceptually or formally novel or have a commentary on an issue. By asking them to form collections I push them into a curatorial activity. Of course, collecting in and of itself is not, however, curating. There is a difference. Many curations do consist of collections, but just because you have a series in a collection, doesn’t mean you have a sequence.

spreads from Steven McCarthy' book The Designer as...

spreads from Steven McCarthy’ book The Designer as…