Caps Lock: How capitalism took hold of graphic design and how to escape from it

Out now from Valiz.

Design as a discipline emerges at the same time as industrial capitalism (in the 19th century). The first industrial design school were made to produce a consupmtion market.

Early art schools want to educate designers to produce for industry and generate consumers. Design as a product of industrial capitalism. Design solidifies in society with capitalism.

William and May Morris and the socialist league. Here was a designer who resisted the exploitation of capitalism. From the beginning designers have complained about their role in capitalism.

First Things First Manifesto, more recent: There is no such thing as ethical desing under capitalism.

This critique had been around for a long time, but nothing has really changed. Caps Lock: Designers can't escape. Is ethical design possible under capitalism?

The book is a series of different different looks at how designers relate to capitalism.

The designer as scribe

Rounded clay tablet on black ground with cuneiform signs.

Clay tablet recording beer given to workers, Mesopotamia, 3000 BC

The British Museum

It's tiny, people who made this document had to be very precise, there's layout and design going on. This isn't writing, it's counting. When you have societies and economies that are big enough, you need some kind of document to mediate social relations.

First stocks of the dutch East India company, 1622. Here we see the same characteristic we say today in money. Has to convey trust, look official.

Swedish Daler, the first european bank note. Graphic devices are being used here to avoid counterfiting, grahpic techiniques to convery trust. Again: Mediating economic relations.

How do you make sure land is a property that can be owned? How do you make sure property inheritances are worked out right? Conscription, taxation, last names, all need graphic documents.

Stock market information hasn't really changed since the 17th century, still displayed in these big tables. In large complex societoes we need these kind of abstract representation to make sense of things. But these big tables have also become the de facto languae of economics at large. The Excel spreadasheet is the same as the clay tablet.

William Playfair, Exports and imports to North America.

This is not a plea to stop using abstract forms. Trading desk is a graphic interface. Numbers flatten the social conditions and hide the material conditions behind them. In an abstracted economic system you can have homeless people and empty houses owned by banks in a way you couldn't in a smaller society.

Gapminder from Sweden: Family income in the world. You don't just see the number, but you see the actual people in this representation. Becomes much harder to kick somone out of their house based on a graphic representation like this.

The designer as worker

Designers agency as economic actors. They don't just make objects, they work, spend money, make money. A lot of design writing discusses the material aspects of design objects, but not how they are produced.

Dutch printing press in 1580: You couldn't go to university for design, it was a trade (Note: There was no capitalism then). Printing office from 1904: Now you get a division between factory workers and office workers (i.e. printers and designers).

In the typical design studio you have today there is no trace of production. The books get printed in China. You have someone like Jony Ive who has acess to design education. But he's never made an iPhone, they are made by Foxcon on the other side of the world, and the names of those workers don't appear on the phone. The Apple interns and produiction designers don't appear either. We still have this notion of the artisan solitary designer, even for giant global projects like this.

Anthony Burrill: Work Hand & Be Nice to People

There's a problem with over work in the industry. People pride themselves on working nights, leads to unhealthy working conditions, unhealthy relationship to competition.

The quick shall inherit the earth. The promise of the industrial revolution was that we'd have to do less work, but now all our lives are full of work. You need to check emails, update your Instagram etc. day and night.

Hunters and Gatherers work way less, a certain tribe in Namibia spends 15 hours a week finding food.

Disconnect between productivity and a typical workers compensation, 1948-2014: Co-development until about 1970 when liberal economics come in. Where is this work going: CEO compensation. We're working to line the pockets of a tiny group of billionaires.

Nike doesn't actually make shoes, they're made by subcontractors in Bangladesh. Nike still projects this image of being an ethical company. Exlploitative prcatices in Europe aren't gone, they're just elsewhere.

The point about domestic labour: Man is exploited in the factory because he exploits the wife at home. Work that you can't put on your resume.

The designer as futurist

Speculative design is a way to critique cpitalism. Speculative Everything (2013). After 2008, the author said speculative design was way for designers to be more than just sciliiary to industry. Why don't we imagine other scenarios that are a different kind of future.

Speculative design has an entertainment value: It has emancipatory potential, but we can also consume it as entertainment. Industry also takes advantage of it, see visualisations of asteroid mining by energy companies.

We have all kind of anticapitalist imaginaries in hollywoood disaster movies.

Fisher: Anti-capitalist fantasists perform our anti-capitalism for us. We see people like Shell Oil doing speculative design on a future in which they do the opposite of what they're doing now.

NIUN: Saudi Futures. We've had sutainable design for 20 years, but global emmissions haven't really gone down.

The designer as philanthropist

Social design. Papanek (1973): Design for the real world. Here's a guy who was adamant about designers moving away from industry and doing more socially useful work.

Philanthropy in itself is rich people helping people with less money. CZI Covid-19 is Zuckerberg's thing. Promises to get rid of all diseases by 2050. These tech companies try very hard not to pay any taxes. The silicon valley idea is that rich people are better than governments at solving problems. In Colonialism you have the idea that white people should bring culture, structure, culture to the colonies. you still get ideas like this: you get support but you have to be sober.

What Design Can Do: Refugee Challenge

Designers fom the global north designing for people from the south. These are power relations rooted in colonialism. Social design is becoming an industry in itself. (Red) is the idea of saving the world by buying products. Designers soak up a lot of money that's meant for actual aid.

Social design isn't inherently capitalist, see the Black Panthers free breakfast programme. Covid mutual aid projects.

Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.. Getting rid of capitalism isn't about choosing moral highground but survival of the species.

The designer as activist

Even activism is really easily appropriated, see Nike Black Lives Matter. Designers work collectively, why can't we unionise. Designers cultural workers union in England: Open source publishing.

Design as a commons

If we just make free fonts and free PDFs, multi-nationals will appropriate it and make money off it.