Twenty-one years ago, Ernst Bettler appeared for the first time on the pages of the second issue of Dot Dot Dot magazine. He was a fictional swiss designer character, concocted by Christopher Wilson from a collage of bits and parts nicked from graphic design’s canon – the Container Corporation of America, the Futurists, Muller-Brockmann, Vivarelli, etc.
A prank himself, Bettler was designed to be the ultimate politically motivated prankster. Subvertising was all the rage at the time, and several design books and magazines (such as Adbusters) picked Bettler’s story. Others cried foul, denouncing the entire thing as a hoax shortly after. Rick Poynor and Michael Bierut wondered what the purpose of the stunt was. Who was the target? Was it the current obsession with subvertising and political design? Was it design practices that used a rehashed Swiss Style?
I will argue otherwise. One of the great things about Dot Dot Dot magazine was its forays into areas located deep inside the disciplinary bounds of graphic design, central even, but never considered with such an eccentric but also profoundly earnest gaze.
One such area is the designer’s identity. During the 90s, there was much debate about it, ossified eventually around the catchphrase “the designer as author.”
From a much-needed reflection on the changing nature of the ways designers own or are responsible for their work, “the designer as author” veered into an expedient to pigeonhole every practice that deviates from the norm – everything that wasn’t clearly client or studio-based or didn’t conform with the classical formats (corporate identity, book, magazine, poster, etc.)
“The designer as author” turned into a formula. On the surface, it compares “designer” and another term – author, entrepreneur, advocate, mediator, artist, activist, etc. – apparently generating a complex identity. But, at the same time, it also underlines the designer as a fixed identity, an unexamined constant. In the end, it sets the designer identity as a form to be modified and applied to different contents, clients, or contexts.
Some of the better essays on Dot Dot Dot magazine revealed this central designer identity as a construction, a form, something that, looked at with enough intent, disintegrates into its parts. They did that because of their profound attention to form – not just graphic but literary, visual, and social form.
The prime example remains Ernst Bettler, the fictional designer built out of narrative scraps scavenged from graphic design’s historical and critical discourse. It was such a great yarn that even the critics who denounced it couldn’t resist telling it as if it were true before exposing it as a fraud. The appeal was not the false facts but how these were connected by a narrative that rang true because it was so familiar. In the end, all the lives of modernist designers are variations of the same trope. The designer identity is a construction, a form, a fiction. (The last thing Bettler said in his interview: “I never suffered from identity problems – I was too busy giving those to other people.”)
Writing years later about the case, Christopher Wilson seems to go in this direction when he insists his article is an obvious fiction, not a hoax, pointing that several details signal this. He doesn’t mention it, but Dot Dot Dot’s second issue was full of instances of humorous or fabricated discourse. A tongue-in-cheek fill-out-the-form generic design article, a piece about an art collective that graded galleries’ press releases as academic papers, and a scientific report generated by an algorithm. The editorial stated that “certain points” would be made resorting to fiction.
In retrospect, Bettler was a foundational example of design fiction or speculative design, a common trend nowadays. In the early 2000s, there was a wide belief that design discourse should be non-fictional, either as historical discourse, critical journalism, or sales pitch. Stretching or embellishing the truth was accepted but only between poorly defined limits – doing a parallel reading of Michael Bierut’s take on the Bettler case and his spirited defense of design discourse as bullshit is a fascinating exercise.