Tag Archives: Design Theory

State of the Object

Piero Scaruffi invited me to participate in this panel discussion with Maria McVarish, Meredith Tromble, and Hunter Whitney on the UC Berkeley Extension campus in San Francisco on August 14, 2013.

Here is a link to the video: State of the Object

This is how Piero described the panel:

“Design is purpose-driven artistic creativity that links artistic and technological innovation. It is an integral component of how a society represents itself. It is particularly interesting to explore how designers relate to the left-brain knowledge worker of the Internet age. Moderated by author Piero Scaruffi—with individual presentations and a panel discussion by distinguished Bay Area practitioners in art and design—this event ranges across the contemporary art and design field to underscore the importance of creativity for business, technology and the way that people live.”

Roland Barthes’ Aesthetics of Everyday Life

A quote from Jessica Helfand, from her blog, Design Observer, February 2004.

“To me, the goal [of education] is to groom students whose comfort level with theory is such that they emerge from a degree-granting program able to articulate their own theories. Isn’t the point of a good education, [she asks] any good education — to ultimately think for oneself? In this view, it doesn’t really matter if the student reads Thorstein Veblen or Thornton Wilder. […] ‘Readings’ of such theorists as Roland Barthes […] Walter Benjamin […] Derrida and Debord […] are now so thoroughly picked-over that I suspect any substantive yield on new visual thinking is basically negligible. And for designers in general (and design students in particular) isn’t the goal, in the end, to actually say/do something that hasn’t been said/done before?”

Much can be said: the phrase “one’s own theory” indicates that Helfand hasn’t read Barthes very closely (in particular the “Death of the Author”). But there are other problems: Have educational institutions ever been devoted to the cultivation of originality?

Problems aside, the quotation illustrates a common, persistent and unfortunate approach to Barthes. He is labeled a “theorist”, implicitly rejecting theory as antithetical to pragmatic action; he is linked with writers whose work shares little in terms of orientation or content with his own; and he is rejected outright, a priori, as “picked over”. Helfand finds him useless for “yield on new visual thinking”. Is this an accurate, fair or useful assessment?

While Roland Barthes did write about visual culture, he certainly did not write for the specialized purpose of generating new visual thinking. Helfand is faulting apples for not being oranges.

Barthes wrote cultural criticism informed by the then emerging field of semiology. And his corpus evolved. He is quite specific in his observation that Mythologies, for example, was superceded by his later approach to cultural artifacts.


All this in mind, what should we do with Mythologies on its 50th anniversary? How should we read Roland Barthes? Who should read him?

I read Roland Barthes because he is helpful to me in a way that he can, I think, be helpful to all of us – designers and design writers, cultural critics, creators, and indeed everyone interested in living his or her life most fully. Barthes can help us develop an aesthetics of everyday life and this is particularly necessary right now.


An important shift occurred in the culture of capitalism over the last decade and a half or so; a shift from the hegemony of objects to the hegemony of brands. In our time, the most successful multi-national corporations are less concerned with manufacturing products than they are with manufacturing brands. We might call this the ephemeralization of capitalism. Baudrillard calls it the perfect crime.

A brand is the “core idea” of a corporation. It is not the ideology of a corporation (corporations generally share the same capitalist ideology). Rather, and as Roland Barthes might observe, a brand is the myth of a corporation.

In No Logo, Naomi Klein observed that companies now see themselves as “meaning brokers” rather than product producers (21). Building a brand means tending a meaning, a core idea, rather than tending a thing, a product. This is not to say that products have disappeared from our stores, only that products are less important in and of themselves than they were once perceived to be. Products today are carriers of brands. And as such they take their place alongside corporate messaging as it occurs in advertisements, on websites, in press releases and public statements of all kinds. The products or objects weigh no more or less heavily than these other bearers of corporate communication.

Thus we can observe a general decline in quality among mass produced objects of all kinds – quantity, in short, changes quality – alongside a concurrent turn toward unique or designer products. Capitalist production thrives on similarity, mass production, replication; while consumer culture thrives on the sense of a singular experience – even when that singular experience occurs en masse. Consumers are moved to purchase specific things. And in certain cases, consumers want products that bear the trace of a human maker; less a craftsman these days than a designer. As corporations cease to be manufacturers, they cease to be interested in their manufactured goods; yet consumers are drawn to objects that reveal their derivation, that bear their history on their surface as a quality, as complexity.

Paradox, in short, abounds. No matter how divorced corporations become from physical objects – from commodities and manufacturing facilities – they remain inexorably tied to them. Brands must be carried by products of some kind: and advertisements too are objects; even websites are things. The sensual, the physical, simply will not disappear. Things may lack the dense complexity that they once possessed but they will not go away. And of course design itself is another device for the marketers. Design manufactures complexity, creates density, intensity.

The conflict here is one between the abstract, ideal or mythic sphere, and the aesthetic. Corporations strive to enter the eternal and inevitable realm of myth, yet they remain tied to the contingent realm of the senses, the realm governed by aesthetics. Roland Barthes can help us understand and negotiate both sides of this equation, though I will focus on the aesthetic side.


Aesthetics has become a bad word in the academy today, and a misunderstood one. The word conjures aestheticism, the movement of art for art’s sake; and not just art, of life for art’s sake. Aesthetics also recalls an outmoded approach to art objects: a formalism that separates art objects from history, society, ideology, and psychology: a method that critics spent most of the twentieth century trying to reject.

Those critics were trying to reject the aesthetic nature – the formal, material, and sensual nature of art objects. And indeed formal analysis has all but disappeared in contemporary writing about aesthetic objects. It is completely absent from publications on graphic design. More forcefully stated, the objects themselves have disappeared from many contemporary approaches to culture.

This is unfortunate. Aesthetics is the science that tells us how things have meaning or value for us. The term derives from Greek words meaning both sense and sensation. An aesthetics of everyday life offers us a interested thick description of all the things and activities of our world; an epistemophilia broad enough to embrace all things; an evaluation of existence.

Such an evaluation should be as valuable to designers, and their bosses, as it is to consumers. Design and consumption are two sides of a coin. (Art making, the creation of representations of life, aspires ironically enough to a condition beyond both commerce and everyday life.) My proposal is neither that “everyone is a designer” nor that the “consumer is the creator”. Designers and consumers meet in a marketplace that is itself a contentious decentered community.

The notion of an aesthetics of everyday life has several histories. Michel Foucault’s late search for the use of pleasure and the care of the self; his description of the hermeneutics and technologies of the self. Henri Lefebvre’s Marxist sociology of the everyday, the last bastion of individual freedom: a social sphere that shrank faster than he could describe it. The Situationist’s abortive revolution in everyday life; their research into new behaviors, objects and urbanisms.

As often as similar notions have been proposed, they have gone nowhere. Indeed, the last 150 years have seen critics and creators of all kinds return again and again to the objects around which everyday life circulates only to propose, like de Certeau, a new description of those objects or of our relationship to them. The point, however, is not simply to describe our relationship to objects, but to change it.

Discourses proliferated around objects during the modern era: Husserl’s phenomenology; the Objectivist school of modern American poetry; the Marxist denunciation of the commodity form as spectral; the field of cybernetics.

Much if not in fact most modern art and literature can be read as an engagement with the problem of the object in industrial culture: the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, Suprematism, Der Stijl, the Bauhaus, Duchamp’s readymades, Surrealist found objects, Neo-dada, pop art, minimalism. What an anxiety fraught relationship. What a contentious 150 years.

Against this background of more or less continuous disturbance in our relationship with objects, certain moments stand out as moments of intensification, of deepening anxiety; moments when consumerism reached new heights: the late nineteenth century, the 1910s, and of course the 1950s. This last being the decade of modernization par excellance, the decade of modern objects, the decade of a convulsive shift in everyday life, particularly in France. Kristin Ross makes this point marvelously in her book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies.

Roland Barthes wrote his “mythologies” between 1953 and 1959 for a reason. These were years of rapid modernization. The ground was shifting beneath his feet and all around him, a new culture was lurching toward its Jerusalem: one of automobiles, durable electronics and appliances, washing machines and refrigerators; one of television and magazines illustrated with photographs in color.


Of course Barthes was not alone in his turn toward what we now call popular culture. Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall were doing something similar in England; as was Reyner Banham, from a completely different, celebratory perspective.

Barthes, Williams, and Hall, each in their way, gave form to a new phase of oppositional culture, a new kind of ideological criticism in the Marxist vein. Unopposed to popular culture they were opposed to its administrators. But this was an ambivalent opposition to some extent, at least in Barthes’ case. His Mythologies were often as creative, as nuanced in language and imagination, as they were critical. Criticism isn’t supposed to be fun.

In fact these writings waged war on several fronts. Intended to foster critical consciousness, to debunk the myths of ideological thinking, they also extended the territory of culture itself to include popular or low culture. And they can be read, like the writings of a latter day Balzac, as a description, occasionally even a loving description of that culture.

And here we are now, fifty years further down the road. A Popular Culture Association now holds annual meetings and publishes an academic journal, devoted to popular rather than high culture. It is an academic discourse as rigid and exclusive, as isolated as any other, simply inverted. This is of course sad and ironic for many reasons.

Already in 1965 – forty two years ago – in her essay, “One Culture and the New Sensibility”, Susan Sontag rejected the distinction between high and low culture as “shallow”. For Sontag, there was only one culture and it was culture. For Sontag, the assault on the citadel of culture – Barthes’ assault, Banham’s assault – had been completed: the new sensibility of the 1960s – the 1960s ! – would be pluralistic – high, low, scientific, and aesthetic – and keyed to a new understanding of pleasure, or it would not be (Against Interpretation, pgs. 297 and 302). Her writings, like Barthes’, have been intellectual bestsellers: Was she wrong? Or, if not, how did the Popular Culture Association miss her message?

Barthes of course never really intended to extend the definition of culture. For him, high or low, culture was culture and it remained culture. He was interested in extending the field of semiology into a means for the ideological analysis of both linguistic and non-linguistic sign systems.

In regard to non-linguistic systems, as he says in Elements of Semiology, “There exists a general category of language/ speech which embraces all the systems of signs; since there are no better ones, we shall keep the terms language and speech, even when they are applied to communications whose substance is not verbal.” (25) The fashion system, the food system; Baudrillard’s system of objects. A small corner of this initiative has recently been isolated from the whole and re-branded under the faddish name visual rhetoric. The rhetoricians, like the pop culturalists, would benefit from a return to sources, a reading of Roland Barthes.

“Semiology,” for Barthes, “is a science of forms… It may well be that on the plane of ‘life’, there is but a totality where structures and forms cannot be separated. But science has no use for the ineffable: it must speak about ‘life’ if it wants to transform it.” In the same passage, he goes on to say that “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot brings one back to it.” (Mythologies 111-112)

Barthes’ semiology is distinct from others in its love of the signifier, its love of forms, the things of the world. Barthes’ tremendous originality was to take semiology out of the archive and into the street; to turn away, if only for a little while, from the culture of representation, from art and literature, toward the realm of everyday life. Formalism foundered in the archive but found itself in the street; at least for Barthes, for a little while.

I am tempted to suggest that Barthes was interested in what I call culture beyond representation. I’ll suggest this only as a spur to further thought, a reminder of the work that remains to be done. For the era of representation is indeed over. We have entered a new age of icons, a space of sensual signs; a non-place of constant and energetic referral; where social space including actual spaces, from cityscapes, shopping malls, and highways to the internet, functions as a network for the expenditure of energy; mixing memory and desire in the production of intensity, pleasure, jouissance. If Roland Barthes was the Moses of this promised land, Jessica Helfand and her ilk have already become its Pharisees.


My proposal: Read Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, substituting the word object for the word text throughout. Then fold that reading back into Mythologies.

Imagine an aesthetic (if the word has not become too depreciated) based entirely (completely, radically, in every sense of the word) on the pleasure of the consumer, whoever he may be, to whatever class, whatever group he may belong, without respect to cultures or languages: the consequences would be huge, perhaps even harrowing (Brecht has sketched such an aesthetic of pleasure; of all his proposals, this is the one most frequently forgotten). (Pleasure of the Text 59)

Pleasure for Barthes takes two forms: the pleasure of cultural systems and the pleasure of what Bataille would call transgression, the disruption of that culture. The pleasure of transgression provokes what Barthes calls jouissance, which is often translated as “bliss” though ecstasy is more accurate.

The pleasure of culture is the pleasure of situating objects and experiences, everything really, within a system of understanding, a discursive order, which is to say within culture. Objects many be multivalent, saturated with culture; they may participate in several discourses at once, be polysemic. Cultural pleasures too may be ideological pleasures. But this is not the moment to repeat a critique of that kind of pleasure.

Ecstatic pleasure for Barthes disrupts stable systems of discourse; it tears objects from the fabric of the world, elevating them through the power of fascination, obsession, fetishism.

In the case of cultural pleasures, we are talking about the pleasures of communication, which is always to imply those of community, and beyond that of utility or functionality. Objects which announce and fulfill a function, communicate a message to a community of interpreters.

In the case of jouissance we are talking about singular pleasures. Those in which an object becomes dislodged from its functional milieu, shorn of its communicative value, isolated through a singular act of perception.

Both kinds of pleasure can of course be latent in the same object; though some objects may be constructed in such a way as to tend to provoke one or the other type of appreciation.

This framework of interpretation is at once absent from design discourse and crucial to it. The discourses of design are dominated by the utilitarian ideologies of functionality and communicative clarity. Ironically, they know nothing of the pleasure of their objects.

Barthes describes pleasure most succinctly in the preface to Sade/ Fourier/ Loyola. Let’s substitute the words designer, object, and design for the words author, text, and writing.

Nothing is more depressing than to imagine the object as an intellectual object (for reflection, analysis, comparison, mirroring, etc.). The object is an object of pleasure. The bliss [or ecstasy] of the object is often only stylistic: … expressive felicities… At times the pleasure of the object is achieved more deeply…: whenever the object transmigrates into our life, whenever another design (the Other’s design) succeeds in designing fragments of our own daily lives, in short, whenever a co-existence occurs. The index of the pleasure of the object, then, is when we are able to live with the designer. (See Roland Barthes, Sade/ Fourier/ Loyola 7-9)

For Barthes, living with an object of design is not a question of representation. “It is a matter of bringing into our daily life the fragments of the unintelligible that emanate from a object we admire (admire precisely because it hangs together well)… Our daily life then becomes a theater whose scenery is our own social habitat…”

Barthes had proclaimed the death of the author only a few years previously, but here he clarifies his meaning.

“The pleasure of the object also includes the amicable return of the designer. Of course the designer who returns is not the one identified by our institutions…; he is not even the biographical hero. The designer who leaves his object and comes into our life has no unity; he is a mere plural of ‘charms’, the site of a few tenuous details, yet the source of vivid novelistic glimmerings, a discontinuous chant of amiabilities, in which we nevertheless read death more certainly than in the epic of fate; he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body.”

The “novelistic glimmerings” Barthes mentions in the most difficult portion of this passage are “biographemes”: traces of a subjectivity that cannot be reduced to a singular subject. These traces include stylistic markers as well as everything else that might signal the presence of a designer’s guiding hand in the creation of an object.

Design discourse in our time urgently needs concepts such as these. The design fields are fields in which authorship is difficult to determine: designers work at the behest of clients, whose ideas they serve; and, within their firms, designers follow the dictates of creative directors and art directors, or are themselves creative directors or art directors.

For twenty years now, design journalist Rick Poynor has attempted to promulgate an interpretation of design as Art based on an outmoded model of Fine Art, a model in which the designer is viewed as a creator in the Romantic vein. Like Helfand, Poynor should read some Roland Barthes.

To return to our discussion: the pleasures of the object are manifold: they are cultural and anti-cultural, social and individual, communicative and beyond comprehension. Barthes describes the pleasures of the Eiffel Tower – to take only this one example from his work – as “polyphonic.”(The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 17) The Tower, he says, “attracts meaning”, but remains “ineluctable, because it means everything”; it is an “infinite cipher.” (The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 4-5) But it is not only a sign, it is an object of interaction, indeed a field of multiple engagements, of many uses. The bliss of the Tower is the “bliss [or ecstasy] of sensation.” (The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 11) “What is significance? It is meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced?” (Pleasure of the Text 61)

The object effects the uneasy commingling of abstract and sensual value; of sense and sensation. Some objects do this more so than others do. Yet the theory of pleasure does not propose an hierarchy of objects based on the pleasures they afford: more is not always better. The task set before the designer is to determine the degree of pleasure an object might most appropriately offer.

Barthes discusses the pleasure and personality of the object is his myth on toys. “Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature. Many are now molded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.”( Mythologies 53-55.)

Wooden toys on the other hand are more directly natural and therefore maintain a child’s contact with trees, tables, and the floor. Most importantly, wooden toys change with time, they “live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand. […] Henceforth, toys are chemical in substance and colour; their very material introduces one to a coenasethesis of use, not pleasure.”

This reading of toys clarifies Barthes’ suggestion that “our daily life [will become] a theater whose scenery is our own social habitat.” Enjoying an object, indulging ourselves in its pleasures, is a means of enfolding or entangling ourselves in the life of our objects and of enfolding our objects in our own life. The fold or tangle here is a theater, a circuit for the exchange, referral and deferral of energies.

Our search for the pleasure of objects is not intended to create a new law for the creation of objects – a modernist dictate as to how and why objects must be created or used. Rather, it intends to return us to the enjoyment of objects – to their idiosyncrasies, their manifold densities, intensities, and destinies – and thereby to encourage our aesthetic enjoyment of everyday life. (57)

In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes asks: “What relation can there be between the pleasure of the [object] and [its institutions]?” And answers: “Very slight. The theory of the [object] postulates [ecstasy], but it has little institutional future: what it establishes, its precise accomplishment, its assumption, is a practice … not a science, a method, a research, a pedagogy; on these very principles, this theory can produce only theoreticians or practitioners, not specialists.” (60-1)

Specialists – Jessica Helfand, Rick Poynor, the Popular Culture Association, Visual Rhetoriticians et alia – will always miss the pleasure of objects and misunderstand Roland Barthes. Luckily, they’ve left the fun for the rest of us.

The Design that is not One: Engendering Design Discourse

The design that was not one: engendering design discourse

This is an exercise in applied theory: a test, an experiment. I’m asking a relatively simple question: To what extent might feminist theory be helpful in understanding graphic design practice?

The title of this paper derives from – parodies? – Luce Irigaray’s famous essay “This Sex Which Is Not One,” first published in French in the 1970s.

The text of my abstract on the other hand proposed an engagement with Hélène Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine, a notion most famously elaborated in her manifesto “The Laugh of the Medusa”, first published in French in 1975.

These two pieces are not so distant from one another that we cannot attempt to read them together, to commingle them.

Why these two? Why only these two? Might we not have set out from other classic texts of feminist theory? Are these two necessarily the most fecund for our purposes simply because they are among the most famous?

In avoiding these questions, I will admit a certain naiveté on my part, a certain ignorance and inexperience with feminism. These are not the faults of a dogmatist, nor those of a specialist. I am speaking today as an amateur, a non-specialist. Thus there may be questions that I might raise that I cannot hope to answer, issues related to the topic of feminist design that I cannot address and about which I can only speculate.

This ignorance will be peculiar in that the materials under consideration are themselves so well known. Yet it is also appropriate to them. I am not speaking as a “master” of these pieces.

This caveat in mind, let’s return to my textual sources. They date from the 1970s, which we might now look back upon as an “heroic” era of feminist struggle, not the only heroic era, surely, but one among them.

That we may look back suggests a certain distance from that era, and perhaps from its concerns and struggles. This distance is part of our topic today. To what extent were the struggles of that era the struggles of a different generation? As always, we must be attentive to this historical difference. If the struggles that produced these texts were the struggles of a different generation, how might the texts still be generative for us, for our concerns, for generating design discourse today?

If, on the one hand, yesterday’s problems still remain problems today, why should we return to yesterday’s (theoretical) solutions? On the other, if yesterday’s solutions really were solutions, if they did effect change in their day, what might we make of them today? Are these texts artifacts from a by-gone age, like armaments kept in a museum, or might they still have something to teach us, something that we haven’t yet heard?

Our task then: the re-inscription of a certain theory of writing as a theory of design, attentive to the status of that re-inscription as repetition or redirection.

Female/ Feminine/ Feminist

Toward this end I propose a schematic historical account of women in graphic design and graphic design writing, a theoretical exposition of Hélène Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine and of Luce Irigaray’s notion of the “sex that is not one”, and a discussion of feminist design as it has been presented by one design writer in particular, Maud Lavin. A presentation in three parts then.

My paper bears a subtitle: “Engendering design discourse”. This phrase is programmatic, the articulation of a purpose, but it may also serve as a first premise. Gendering and engendering are not at all the same thing. In what follows I appeal to feminist theory to substantiate the claim that these two terms are in fact mutually exclusive. To the extent that one is interested in gendered discourse one is not interested in engendering discourse. One irony of écriture féminine is that it defines an open field rather than a closed one.

Insofar as design is celebrated as the authoritative creation of a singularly heroic creator, whether male or female, and promoted as a singularly successful vehicle of clear communication, it is representative of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition.

More significantly still, I think, by reading graphic design through écriture féminine, I propose a means of subverting the dominant discursive (I won’t say critical) approach to graphic design in our time – subverting the ideology of communicative clarity – and thereby shifting critical debate about graphic design and its place in contemporary culture. Put plainly, the dominant discursive approach to graphic design in our time stipulates that graphic design objects be understood primarily as circumscribed by a communicative function. This ideology is, of course, an extension of the phallogocentric tradition that écriture féminine, among other strategies of poststructuralist cultural creation and critique, subverts. As a theoretical model for the creation and interpretation of design objects, écriture féminine encourages us to view graphic design objects as inherently open, multiple, and heterogeneous, rooted in physical materiality but signifying much more than can be summarized in the “messages” they communicate.



Before we begin our theoretical exposition we should recall the history of women in graphic design, however schematically.

Fortunately, this task has already been undertaken on several occasions by feminist design historians. Maud Lavin, for example, produced a portfolio of women in design in the mid-1990s that we will return to. Already at that time, a decade ago, Lavin could report that women outnumbered men in graphic design. This fact is obscured to some extent in the standard design history books due to their focus on highly influential or iconic works – masterpieces in the traditional and problematic sense of this term. I suggest however that the history of women in graphic design is only partially obscured by the traditional approach of history books as one can in fact find numerous women designers among those celebrated for work produced during the past thirty years, since the 1970s in particular when women entered the design fields, among other fields, en masse.

It would be foolish to attempt an exhaustive list of prominent women in graphic design but it would be similarly foolish to deny that a number of women should be considered among the most significant leaders in the field at the present time. Paula Scher, April Greiman, Katherine McCoy, Lorraine Wild, and Ellen Lupton are only a few of those who spring immediately to mind.

Another measure of the presence of women in graphic design can be read in the contents of the “Looking Closer” series of volumes collecting recent and “classic” writings about graphic design. The series is edited by a small group of primarily male designers, all closely linked to the New York based American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and Allworth Press. Five volumes have appeared thus far. Volume three collects ninety years of “classic” design writings from 1893 to the 1980s. Of the fifty seven chapters, five including contributions by women: less than 10%. Volume two, by contrast, collects writings from the mid-1990s and sixteen of its forty-three contributors were women; almost 40%; a phenomenal increase.

Yet one might nevertheless wonder why – if women were more numerous than men in the field by the mid-1990s – this number was not higher. And one might offer several generous but facile reasons for this. Many of those women might have been relatively new to the field and still too junior and therefore too busy to spend time writing about it. Or women might have been too busy balancing their responsibilities as workers, wives, and mothers to have free time to write. Maybe they were busy simply doing other things. After all, why write? None of these answers is quite satisfying.

I maintain unequivocally that there is such a thing as marked writing; that, until now, far more extensively and repressively than is ever suspected or admitted, writing has been run by a libidinal and cultural – hence political, typically masculine – economy.         Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 249

Put forcefully, and speaking to the main point of this paper, writing might fundamentally be a masculine activity, particularly writing in and for the public sphere. Cixous proposed écriture féminine as a diagnosis of this situation and as a solution to it.

Cixous’ argument is not only that men dominate the libidinal, cultural, and political economy in which writing – including writing about design – appears, but that that economy is fundamentally a masculine, phallogocentric economy.

To conclude our historical survey, we might observe that women are visibly present in contemporary graphic design practice but that they have not yet been spoken for.



The first paragraph of The Laugh of the Medusa

I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement. The future must no longer be determined by the past. (Cixous 245)

The Laugh of the Medusa is a manifesto for écriture féminine and as such it contains a fair amount of polemic. Some of Cixous’ claims fly in the face of good philosophy more so even than she intends. She intends to dismantle nothing less than the entirety of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition, but her polemic occasionally reverts to the kind of essentialist thinking that is her primary foe. I would rather not get bogged down accounting for these faults of militant rhetoric. The essential point is that Cixous’ thought challenges the binary thinking that is the basis of Western civilization, and indeed of many other civilizations as well. Cixous’ project, in other words, continues a tradition of radical cultural critique, a tradition she shares with many male and female writers.

The phallogocentric tradition can be summarized through a series of binary oppositions that form its core values. The terms on the left are praised, those on the right denigrated.

mind / body
sacred / profane
logos / pathos
communication / ambiguity
idea / instance
presence / absence
activity / passivity
sun / moon
culture / nature
day / night
father / mother
head / heart
intelligible / palpable
function / form
center / margin
man / woman
masculine / feminine
phallus / vagina
heterosexual / non-heterosexual
white / black
speaking / writing
high / low
masterpiece / minor work
homogeneity / heterogeneity
unity / diversity
singular / plural
art / design

Cixous’ work is feminist to the extent that it extends this critique to areas of specific concern to women.

Cixous’ challenges these oppositions not simply by proposing to shift the emphasis from one term to the other, though this does occasionally occur. Rather, she undermines oppositional thinking in general by proposing medial terms and writing in such a way as to undermine any certain emphasis on one pole or another of the binary opposition.

Where masculine writing, in her model, is logical, argumentative, discursive, certain of itself, clear and unambiguous, écriture feminine or writing in the feminine is on the other hand at once potentially the opposite of these things and, for this reason, capable of undermining the very duality itself. Ecriture féminine is an anti-logos weapon (Cixous 250)

Whereas masculine writing is a writing of the mind, écriture féminine is writing with the body (Cixous 251). As such it is radically heterogeneous and plural. It is plural at least in part because the mind is part of the body. As every body is distinct, every instance of this writing reflects the radical uniqueness of each body. Masculine writing aspires to the denial of the material instance of its enunciation. Writing in the feminine aspires to include that materiality along with its message.

Writing in the feminine must be understand on the model of a both / and proposition – as both material and communication – and as such as a means to inspect the process of communication itself (Cixous 254).

Similarly, writing in the feminine should be considered bisexual in the sense that it is based upon the non-exclusion of difference and of the multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire (Cixous 254). Writing in the feminine affirms desire beyond the phallic signifier, beyond the genital, beyond the fetish, beyond the singular form.

Here we are proximate to Irigaray’s notion of “This Sex Which Is Not One”.

Woman does not have a sex. She has at least two of them, but they cannot be identified as ones … her sexuality, always at least double, is in fact plural. Plural as culture now wishes to be plural?             Luce Irigary, This Sex Which Is Not One, 103

The labia are twofold and do not themselves exhaust or complete the organs of a woman’s pleasure. A woman has sex organs just about everywhere. She experiences pleasure almost everywhere (Irigaray 103). A woman, in Irigaray’s description, is much like Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a desiring machine: a networked conduit for the desire of the other.

All of this in mind, I think écriture feminine offers us a helpful model for thinking about graphic design. Graphic design objects are always already plural. They communicate information by giving visual pleasure. They are the material form of ideas. They always send mixed messages. They are writing with the body. Graphic design gives multiple forms of pleasure: the pleasure of the thought, the pleasure of the instance, the pleasure of allusion, for graphic design objects generally signal or point to something beyond themselves. Graphic design cannot be understood as representational, to be evaluated in isolation from the networks of information and event which support it. Indeed to appreciate design as a pure formal construct, as if it were Fine Art, is to misunderstand and under-appreciate that design. In this sense, and again as in écriture féminine, graphic design is always available for the desire of the other. It aspires to be meaningful for you rather than in itself.

I will not attempt an exhaustive survey of these similarities…



Maud Lavin’s “Portfolio: Women and Design” in her book Clean New World presents the work of several female designers who are, she claims, “known for their self-generated work and / or authorial voices”(109). She cites a survey conducted by Martha Scotford to substantiate the notion that “women designers are more likely to use design for personal, political, or social agendas,” but allows that “pressures of time and money make most design practices client-service dominated… [while] only a small subset of designers [male or female]… make ‘personal, political, or social agendas’ a high priority”(109).

These statements beg at least two key questions: Just what exactly does Maud Lavin mean by the word “design”? And what ideology or hierarchy of cultural values is at work in her portfolio of women in design?

Before we answer these questions, we should admit that Lavin’s piece probably wasn’t intended to bear the cultural freight that I’m granting it. Though published in hardcover by The MIT Press, and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it is really only a loose collection of anecdotal statements from a more or less randomly gathered group of female designers from the 1990s. Only the almost total absence of genuinely critical writing about graphic design elevates it to a status worthy of our current attention. By taking it more seriously than it was meant to be taken I am liable to be considered a bully beating a straw-man.

Graphic design, for Lavin, seems to refer to any creative endeavor which combines words and images. Elsewhere in her writing she subscribes to a more traditional definition of design but in her treatment of women and design she loosens that definition substantially. And I’m not sure we can be satisfied with this loose definition of design. The main problem it poses is also bound up with the ideology at work in Lavin’s list. She explicitly praises “self-generated” work with an “authorial voice”, particularly work that prioritizes “personal, political, or social agendas”. These are her values. Martha Scotfeld’s survey findings were thus pleasantly convenient. Women designers make these kinds of works more often than men do, so the survey says.

Author-ity is a cultural construction.

Lavin complicates the notion of authorial voice later in her piece. “Since virtually all [design] work is for a client,” she says, “… the concept of a lone creator so popular in the art world rarely applies.” Thus her notion of “authorial voice”, which accounts for the unique stamp of a particular design sensibility even when the design might have been produced by a team of designers and at the behest of a client (110). This approach is similar to Roland Barthes’ statements about authorship in his famous essay “The Death of the Author.”

To my mind, Lavin’s admission that virtually all design work is client-driven undermines her interest in and emphasis on “self-generated” or personal design work. Why, in short, focus so much attention on self-generated or personal work if that work represents only an almost very small portion of the design that is produced?

Lavin’s complication of the notion of authorial voice also challenges this focus on personal work. Why focus on personal work if the very notion of authorship is inappropriate to the work under consideration?

Barbara Kruger is among the most problematic figures included in Lavin’s portfolio, so we can take her inclusion and her work as an example.

Is Barbara Kruger a designer? She works with images and texts. But her work is rarely client-driven, particularly in the strong sense of this phrase, which claims that the work must communicate a client-generated message to an intended target audience. Kruger’s work poses banal pseudo-philosophical questions in a flat and potentially ironic manner intended as a pastiche of media culture. Her project reached its apotheosis, I think, when “I am because I shop” was printed on shopping bags, her activism effortlessly integrated into the spectacle. So much for cultural critique, for political or social messaging.

Is the work personal? Not really, not in the expressive sense of this term. But does it have a strong “authorial voice”? Yes, in that Kruger developed an highly characteristic, high impact but low fi style. Anyone, in other words, could make a Kruger by aping her style.

Art in service is not art at all.

All of this in mind, I am personally more comfortable calling Barbara Kruger an artist, or better yet a “postartist”, than calling her a designer, feminist or otherwise. Her art is, of course and in its way, art in the service of an idea. And art in service, according to Kant, is not art at all.

Yet graphic design is almost always in service to something. It is by nature client driven. Its purpose is to convey a client message to an intended target audience. Kantian categories don’t seem to apply.

Perhaps Kruger is a designer after all. But if so, she is an a-typical one and not particular good (because her work is almost completely opaque). All of this suggests that, to the extent that design critics, like Maud Lavin, focus their attention on self-generated or personal work, they are not really focused on design.

What then of feminist design? Feminist design, I think, must be understood as graphic design done for a client who might be described as motivated by feminist concerns. Undoubtedly such design exists, some of it good, some bad.

The crucial question however is whether or not a feminist designer effect can social change by working for a client whose project is itself anti-feminist. If this were in fact possible, design would indeed be a powerful social weapon.

Many factors inhibit such a fantasy from becoming reality. What might, for example, bring such a situation about? Why would an anti-feminist client hire a feminist designer in the first place? If such an occurrence did come to pass, then we might also assume that the client might already be predisposed toward listening to that designer and thus perhaps also to changing the nature of the project. The scenario is pretty far fetched. Clients hire designers they like and trust and designers thrive when working with clients who respect them. The designer-client bond is a communal one.

The confusion surrounding all of these terms – designer, client, community – and around the very nature of design itself – as a specifically material form of communication – suggests that design writing has a long way to go before it understands its object and purpose, in particular as these relate to the history of art.

Put bluntly, the question of feminist design is probably the wrong question to ask about design. By wrong I mean that it is not the most significant question that we might ask and, worse, that it is a misleading question. It is a question that prioritizes the personal, when design is by nature communal, that prioritizes the political – the ideational and the ideological – when design is explicitly material.

The question of feminist design is thus in many ways the opposite of that of écriture féminine. It seeks to reduce design history to another episode in the history of representations, a history that has closed and that for many reasons has been superceded by design itself. The question of feminist design seeks masterpieces, enduring works among the ephemera of design culture. It seeks to replace the gynophobia of the phallogocentric tradition with an equally hegemonic gynophilia.

If their goal is to reverse the existing order, even if that were possible, history would simply repeat itself and return to phallocratrism, where neither women’s sex, their imaginary, nor their language can exist.            Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 106.

Insofar as design is celebrated as the authoritative creation of a singularly heroic creator, whether male or female, and promoted as a singularly successful vehicle of clear communication, it is representative of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition.

Fortunately, this celebration has very little to do with design practice. Design practice is, like écriture féminine, always already plural, always already open, always already communal, always already heterogeneous in content and context.

Writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.             Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 249

We might replace the word “writing” in this quotation with the word design. Design is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.

Along these lines and retrospectively, we might reread the history of graphic design as the history of a repressed material culture, a community under erasure, an unconscious history of our culture. Such a history of graphic design has yet to be written. If we continue to fetishize the personal, the political, and the masterwork, it won’t be.

Select Bibliography

Maud Lavin, “Portfolio: Women and Design” in Lavin, Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001).

Jean-François Lyotard, Postmodern Fables (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms: An Anthology (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press; New York: Schoken Books, 1980). Cited by author and page number.