Design’s Lock

I enjoyed Ruben Pater’s Politics of Design. Pater has a knack for engagingly weaving ideas from a vast array of sources. Now I’m reading Caps Lock, his big book on Design and capitalism. It will be a welcome addition to the bibliography of my design criticism course.

There is, however, a detail that tickles one of my pet peeves. To be fair, it’s something that almost every design historian, critic, or teacher uses: the “designer as” formula. Pater employs it to structure the book around twelve different roles designers play.

That formula is problematic because it assumes the designer as an essentially stable and ahistorical identity. It says that Design is a constant inherent to the human condition.

It’s common to talk about Design as a universal method that was recently professionalized, but that is an idealized continuity that papers over all sorts of ruptures and struggles.

Saying that a scribe was a sort of designer is forgetting Design itself is the result and the agent of political change. Graphic design was successful partly because it wrestled managerial control of the printing process away from the printing shops, thereby weakening their bargaining strength.

Design as a profession was and is an instrument of capitalism, which is why it is so challenging to imagine Design outside of capitalism. Imposing Design as the default name and concept of radically different practices overlooks their specificity and political possibilities. It underlines the outdated notion of Design’s universality that Pater so effectively questions.

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