Forget design?

«Forget Photography» has a clever cover for a book that is a great read.1

Andrew Dewdney believes that the paradigm of photography can no longer explain what he calls the networked image. Photography can’t account for its central role in constructing capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

Dewdney proposes, in short, to forget photography. He does not want to erase the history of photography but to denaturalize photography as a critical and historical principle. It looks for alternative paradigms that can deal with the networked image – images generated by computers, images made to be used by computers, images produced and used by people but whose uses are not aesthetic, etc.

One of the central arguments of the book is that photography is dead. It survives as undead. It limits our ability to understand the present, forcing us to look at it through the lens of photography and art. On the cover, the two rectangles tagged “fruit” and “bowl” are a still life seen by an artificial intelligence system, a classic theme of art history recreated by an inhuman vision. The image perfectly illustrates this argument.

Even more: it leads to questions about design that go beyond the book’s scope.

I haven’t finished “Forget photography” yet. I read it in the ebook version. To illustrate this article, I searched the Internet for a photograph of a physical copy. In the search engine, almost all the results were digital images, rectangles without thickness or evidence of matter. A single result presents the book as a physical object, which I reproduce at the beginning of this text. However, the uniformity of the shading and the brightness of the spine’s fold point to a simulation. It is an image, not a photograph.

There are services on the Internet that automatically generate the image of a physical book from a cover. Students use them to figure out how the publications they design in my classes will look. Most graphic design is produced with the help of all kinds of algorithms. Programs like InDesign or Illustrator automate everything from optical alignment to managing line breaks in paragraphs.

Designers work in a medium where humans and machines merge. Is the cover image of Forget Photography the output of an AI system? Is it a design object without a designer? Or a designer simulating the design of a machine? It is hard to ascertain without reading the credits.

As a discipline, design is also plagued by the doubts enunciated in “Forget Photography.” It has become commonplace to lament the profusion of unregulated uses of the word “design.” Every month I read or hear a designer bemoaning the overabundance of design. This abundance resembles the profusion of images that increasingly eschew the paradigm of photography. It has the same causes.

Designers rarely express their disciplinary doubts in the same way that Dewdney articulates those of photography. Here’s an attempt: with design being almost automated and present everywhere in radically new ways, does it make sense to keep calling it “design”? Can design as a discipline explain or even enumerate this abundance of designs?

The answer to both questions may be no. However, it is harder to imagine alternative paradigms for design than for photography. In design, one cannot even resort to an alternative and broader concept such as the image. “Design” both names a professionalized subject area and, at least in the English language, the more general act of designing or conceiving.

The name “design” is a recent import into the Portuguese language. It does not even have a verbal equivalent. It is an object and a subject but not an action. The discipline is also relatively new. It was challenging to establish it. There have been numerous acts of resistance – printers who saw their activity threatened, those who refused to use an English word, etc. The idea that design is an eternal and inherently human activity ignores these resistances. Under the pretext of expanding the history of design, ruptures and transitions are forgotten. These can’t be erased, if the goal is to decolonize design and expose its capitalist roots.

If only for a moment, it is essential to forget design – to see a whole range of practices not as potential appendages of design but as alternative paradigms with their coherence, methods, politics, and identities.

Forget Design. Ask what the world or the present would be without design. Graphic design as a discipline has followed the opposite path. While designers complain about the unregulated use of the word Design, they apply it to increasingly remote artifacts. Everything becomes Design – an illuminated book, a papyrus, the ornamentation on a prehistoric spear.

In the name of disciplinary unity, the history of graphic design smoothes out discontinuities and ruptures. One of them, hidden in plain sight, separates the image from Graphic Design. The latter has become almost synonymous with typography and even more so with text. Design only accepts the image as a complement to the text. Or in the form of a corporate image – and “logo,” in its original sense, means “word.”

Design may no longer want anything to do with the image. It is concerned, above all, with the visuality of the text. An object with no text – a poster or a publication – is often rejected as design.

But there were occasions when the designer was also a producer of images. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy proposed the future of design as the fusion of typography and photography, which he called Typohoto. Letters and images would be pixels on the page. The design magazines and books of the mid-20th century were full of reflections on the image. From Moholy-Nagy to Josef Müller Brockmann to Herbert Spencer, all produced thoughts on the image, not only in the sense of content but as something made and worked on by designers.

A central preoccupation with function is design’s main difference from art. Design’s abandonment of the image signals resistance on the part of design from thinking about the functions of the image. One consequence is treating the image as external content rather than something whose primary functions can be decided by designers.

Layout as photo-montage in the Portuguese magazine Notícias Ilustrado. Images were taken for specific layouts, but could be reused as modules.

There was a time, during Modernism, when the image was a design object. In the 1920s and 1930s, some news magazines were printed using rotogravure, a technique where the entire page, including the text, was produced using photographic processes. Designers planned these publications as a photo montage. Photographers would take pictures with their final place and function in the composition in mind. The design process dictated the framing, the angle, the staging, and even the image cropping. Photography was not content. It was an integral part of the design process.

Today, designers treat the image as one more rectangle in the middle of text frame. There is a division of tasks: design takes care of the visuality of the text and the elements that interact with it; photography (or illustration) takes care of the image.

Dewdney criticizes this disciplinary entrenchment. His solution – to forget photography – makes it also possible to forget design. That does not mean to erase it but to become aware of it as an object subject to history and not a constant. The history of design should also be the history of how it radically changed as a concept. There is an effort to make histories of design concerned with presenting design as dependent on different technical, social, and formal contexts. However, the idea of design as a constant implies that, from these conditioning factors, the same design always emerges.

The rupture with the image has as its necessity the disciplinary definition of design. It is due in part to the need to isolate the history of design from the history of art and photography. Dewdney states that the survival of photography as a paradigm is also due to the university compartmentalization of the fields of knowledge. Design, art and photography maintain their autonomy in part to ensure the autonomy of the departments that study them. The rupture with the image contradicts the present idea of the omnipresence of design.


1. I’m reading «Forget Photography» because it was referenced in Revue Faire #41.

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