Johannesburg (SA), Lisbon (PT)
September 2001

Designers are authors

As a writer and editor, I design texts and editorial structure. 
There are quite a few similarities between writing and designing - both are deeply editorial activities, which means that in both cases the writer or designer has to make essential decisions about the structure of content: they have to turn disparate data into meaningful information… 

So I ask myself (as an editor and critic and analyst of design… and as a reader so to speak):

Catelijne van Middelkoop

I like to read things…

I like to see what things are, how they are, what they mean…
Images can speak, as texts do. One can hear them, read them…

The city is a text and we, city dwellers, learn to read it from a very young age. 

Designers are important co-authors and co-editors of this text - they are amongst those who provide the 'words' it is written in, and in every design they make, they edit the visual culture that constitutes its 'source text'.

Just as writers can do with words and texts, designers can be authors of images - of visual stories. They write in a visual language…

The author of visual languages uses recognizable cultural icons, much as a writer would use a verbal commonplace or a cliché. 

Michael Graves, Team Disney Building (Burbank, California), 1991
foto: Mary Ann Sullivan

Like the writer, a designer communicates by organizing meaningful relationships between otherwise disparate elements.

To ground a statement firmly in today's visual cultures, the author of visual languages writes with images as one would write with sentences, or sometimes, mere words…

James Victore

Designers have uploaded images to become icons. Now they start using this iconic visual language for a re-write.

The re-interpretation can become a form of cultural critique, using culture's own most popular icons. Living off their recognisibility, as it were, like a parasite lives off a tree …

Through this strategy of ‘culture jamming’, images that have become as legible as sentences, are made even more manifest.

Playing with the formal aspects of things, or with the standard iconographies of desire, can be a quite adequate way of commenting on them…

anonymous culture jammer

Caricatures, parodies, pastiches and mockeries have been around since people started cave painting. Critique is voiced by re-writing existing messages. ‘Jamming’ the initial message, a new one is formulated, with enhanced meaning.

Our visual culture is a continuous re-write in progress - the boundaries between ‘original’ and ‘copy’ are rather blurred to begin with. 

The re-writer and editor of cultural icons asks: 
Who was there first, anyway?

There are no ‘pure’ signs, only interpretations. In a visual culture images are as free as words (or should be); does Calvin Klein own the word "be"? Does Nike own the word "do"?


Designers today are representatives of a ‘post-multimedia generation’ which sees all media as pertaining to the same communications environment. The words and images that constitute that environment are as natural to them as crop to a farmer: they have sowed, now they harvest.

We, inhabitants of the media environment, spend much of our waking hours - and of our dreams - interpreting the signs that surround us, that bombard us.

Design is not just about juxtaposing icons in ways that - so to speak - disarm them, but about manipulating the meaning of what the visual and verbal languages we use are expressing, in order to formulate a message of their own. Designers put visual languages to a use.

anonymous culture jammer

If, according to Roland Barthes, there is a ‘third’, implied, meaning in every sign, apart from its ‘denotative’ and ‘connotative’ meanings, then this ‘third meaning’ represents the domain where designers can be authors in the most direct and creative way.

Making only slight adjustments to the ‘original’’s formal and contextual references, these references can come to mean something quite different…

Like changing brackets in a mathematical formula is only a slight formal modification, that can produce a quite different outcome…

(a + b) x c  is not   a + (b x c)

Sometimes, only by erasing text does one realize how much space it actually occupies and what its messages imply… 


Are designers - as co-authors and co-editors of this visual milieu - in a position to redress the balance? To help make public space more accessible to other messages than those of commercialism and officialdom?

Graphic design, after all, is a public thing, it’s about communication in the public realm…

Design is not about a craftsman's groin, however good it may feel to make something that others get off on… Design is not about telling the bosses’ story either - it is not about the truth…

Jonathan Barnbrook, Adbusters Las Vegas Bilboard

Design is, as Dutch designer Jan van Toorn put it in the 1970s, about showing the origin and manipulative character of a message in its formal representation. This is an editorial activity.

Design can be a dangerous tool in the hands of demagogues, but it can also be a powerful weapon for those who oppose them. 

In a media saturated culture where image is everything, 'hacking' one's visual culture can be hugely effective. And design becomes an important part of the content when it's directed to an audience of experienced 'readers' of mediated messages. 

Mevis & Van Deursen, First Things First 2000 poster

In this cultural panorama designers today are, in a very practical sense, 'cultural agents' - that is to say: they traffic meaning, they transport ideas and concepts and opinions, they visualize structures and contexts. In short: they condense information into cultural content.

Our mediated visual culture has opened up a space for interpretation, in which lie great opportunities for the designer as author and editor of messages beyond those of their clients…

Since design has become not just a problem solving tool, but a visual language, designers are in a perfect position to stimulate and channel critical notions and alternative views through their work. 

When working from this mentality, designers could take the imagination of their readers to the next level - activating a critical sensibility in stead of luring an unsuspecting audience into blindly agreeing with the messages presented to them. 

Quite the contrary: this mentality aims at being openly provocative, directed at a critical and visually literate audience. 

Designers that want to act as authors and editors in the public realm must realize that they have a variety of audiences, different sets of readers… They are not just addressing potential customers, they speak to fellow citizens, who have broader interests than consuming products.

Designers should, once again, realize: 
"we are part of the message…" 

Inserting themselves into the information they communicate, and using imagery that everybody can "read" and understand, be it locally or globally,  andmake interesting, meaningful designs, that is a challenge for authors.

Thonik (Widdershoven/Gonnisen), anual report Dutch State Council for Culture featuring designer Gonnisen swimming through another culture

September 2001

max bruinsma