Designer as Author


Designer as Author is an essay by Michael Rock. Throughout the semester, we’ll be reading “important” essays in the design discourse. You will not be quizzed on them (unless the discussions are totally tepid), but there will be discussions about the readings, and your ability to contribute to the discussion, and incorporate topics from the readings into critique and how you think about your work and that of your peers will factor into your grade. 

Why this essay?

The first assignment is meant to be an authorial exercise, so you should have some context for this in the field of design. It is also a good starting point to think about where you’d like to be on the spectrum from designer to artist, and if you even conceive of them as being on a spectrum. 

Okay...but,who is Michael Rock tho?

This is Michael Rock. Okay, bye, see you next week.

Just playin’. Michael Rock is a designer known for his work at the design firm called 2x4 (they have an office in NY btw). You may recognize some of their work:

(dynamic logo system for the Brooklyn Museum)

(logo and branding for Target’s Prologue brand)
(book design for Theaster Gates) (Type design for LACMA)

Designer as [x]

The main thing that you should take away from this essay is that it is important because it reframes the role of designer. Rather than simply being, a designer solving a problem for a client, the essay looks at the role of the designer as authorial, what that means and how it relates to other areas of theory that have thought about the idea of the “author” for a great deal longer. 

People had thought so little of what a designer should be, that this essay made people lose their shit, so to speak. It has had a great deal of influence in graphic design circles,  you can see its legacy in the “further reading” linked below, as well as in programs like SVA’s Designer as Entrepreneur. It might also just be a cute way of phrasing a somewhat complex/loaded set of ideas that people have just taken it and ran with it.

Questions You Should be Thinking About & Answering for Yourself as you Read This

  • What assumptions  have I made about the relationship between designer and client?
  • Is that relationship something that I’m comfortable with exploring as a professional designer of graphics?

Things Mentioned in the Essay

The Intentional Fallacy by Wimsatt & Beardsley︎
Death of the Author by Roland Barthes︎
What is an Author? by Michel Foucault︎

Further Reading/Viewing (if this stuff interests you)

Multiple Signatures ︎
A collection of essays (including Designer as Author) from Michael Rock

(I own this book if you’d like to borrow it or just look at it, just don’t eat Cheetos while you read it plz)

Fuck Content by Michael Rock(2009)︎
Another essay from Michael Rock, expanding on some ideas from Designer as Author

Designer as Producer by Ellen Lupton (1998)︎
Ellen Lupton examines another thing a designer “can be as” to examine other cultural connotations and implications. 

Designers and Dilettantes from DesignObserver (2007)︎
An essay that examines the “fallout” from the authorial shift in graphic design. It “builds” on Michael Rock’s essay as a starting point and uses it largely to examine Elliott Earls’s work.