Now in Circulation
by David Schnitman
A designer’s curious typographic flourish is lifted for the next advertising campaign. At the same time, the designer ironically uses brand iconography in their own postmodern exhibition space. In the endless stream of content, images and advertisements move together in sequence, the boundaries between them increasingly indiscernible.
Graphic design delights in its own self- referentiality, happily abetting a cycle of production, distribution and consumption wherein the commodity and its visual signifiers refashion each other and circulate as one.1 Within this economy of the sign, everything is done in the name of style. A designer’s style—their unique process and aesthetic— becomes a kind of value in motion, moving from one form to the other and remaining intact across many formats (i.e., the magazine, the poster, the record sleeve, the billboard). Designers are conduits of style, and their work is valued precisely for its ability to move through the circuits of consumer society and engage an endless variety of commodities and substrates. The successful employment of a style fuels attention, generating financial returns for clients and cultural capital for the designer in question.
Pierre Bourdieu writes that cultural production is structured by an opposition between two fields, that of restricted production and that of large-scale production.2 The restricted field is a space of production for producers, an economy defined by a collective disavowal of commercial interest. Here, prestige, celebrity and symbolic capital take priority over quantitative or financial measures of value. In graphic design, the so-called restricted field is constituted by the terrain of art book fairs, MFA programs and critical graphic design. Meanwhile, the field of large-scale production is coextensive with mainstream consumer culture—the realm of branding, advertising, profit and conspicuous consumption—where market demand organizes production. The designers discerning enough to recognize the restricted field of their specialty and participate in its creation view the field of large-scale production as the culturally inferior domain.
The constituents of the restricted field espouse a return to the fundamentals of graphic design in order to define “…the legitimate exercise of a certain kind of cultural practice.”3 One example of this orthodoxy is a purely typographic approach to design, as though playing with black type on a white page means organizing the molecular units of the discipline, and therefore, of graphic design itself. For example, with its devout use of the typeface Helvetica, Dutch graphic design studio Experimental Jetset invokes the myth of the typeface’s objectivity while simultaneously noting that “Helvetica refers mostly to graphic design itself. And this self-referentiality is yet another reason why we use Helvetica.”4
The field of large-scale production borrows original styles from the restricted field in order to renew itself; designers draw their livelihood from this process. For example, German design studio HORT Berlin appropriated a bespoke typeface by designer David Rudnick for an unused Nike campaign poster. Given enough time, aspects of large-scale production also flow back into the restricted field as well, primarily as nostalgia.
As it winds itself through different objects, a designer’s style can produce additional value. Style never leaves circulation, but preserves and multiplies itself over and over again. To borrow from Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi, an infinite cycle of circulation becomes a spiral, and tightens into a narcissistic loop.5 Whether it is a major brand that hires a designer and utilizes their style or imitators who follow in the designer’s wake, the designer’s work ends up producing more within the circulation process than the designer initially threw into it. The centrifugal motion of a designer’s style generates surplus value.
Today, being a graphic designer demands a split-screen view of the world, and a constant awareness of how one’s actions might be perceived in both the restricted field and in large-scale production;6 one tab open to Pinterest and another to The Sprawl, the website for Metahaven’s short documentary series on propaganda. Earning one’s livelihood means participating in the field of large-scale production, although for many who do, desire still lies in the restricted field. Designers who concern themselves exclusively with large-scale production and profit-maximization risk never being consecrated by the cultural elite of the restricted field. The restricted field haunts the discipline’s mental conception of what design could or should be. A fragile self-consciousness looms over those who believe they are not participating in the field in the “right” way. Designers don’t even show the work from their day jobs in their portfolios, as that is considered by many to be far too embarrassing.
Prone to feeling alienated from the consumer culture that they helped create, designers develop the subfield of restricted production by defining their own vernacular and by producing for one another instead of exclusively for their clients. As seen in various art book fairs, the formal experimentation of self-initiated projects by and for designers encourages new styles and new ways of working. Elite post-secondary educational institutions legitimize this subfield of creative production and organize it with reference to its own internal norms of perfection, pointing their students towards the austere, disaffected typographic style of the international contemporary art world. While designers who decry the consumer world tend to seek engagement with art institutions, sadly, those institutions keep those designers’ work relegated to the gift shop.
The restricted field opposes as ethically bankrupt the economic order of large-scale production, as well as the established figures within it (Stefan Sagmeister, Michael Bierut, etc.), or, in other words, yesterday’s avant-garde. Between generations, the young compete with the old for symbolic authority and positions in the discipline’s cultural hierarchy.7 Claims about the definition of design are semi-conscious strategies for attaining cultural legitimacy. In Twitterstorms, established celebrity designers are called out and condemned for behaviour that might be construed as sexist, racist, etc.. However, these critiques are often individualized and not structural. As Mark Fisher wrote in his essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” “In all of the absurd and traumatic Twitterstorms about privilege earlier this year it was noticeable that the discussion of class privilege was entirely absent. The task, as ever, remains the articulation of class, gender and race—but the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the _dis_-articulation of class from other categories.”8 An aura of irreverence hangs over the restricted field like a cloud. In trying to es- cape the mass market, have designers simply rented out studio space inside the Vampire Castle?
These two subfields of cultural production are mutually dependent. Restricted production organizes itself by its opposition to the mainstream, cultivating its own logic for the rationing of symbolic capital. Large-scale production, meanwhile, reproduces a relation- ship to capital and sucks living energy from the restricted field. Design sets in motion the dizzying circulation of a style. An endless stream of content where all bearings are lost. Designers who have become increasingly mindful that the form of their work is not commercial in nature should pay attention to the fact that the work’s distribution eventually adheres to the logic of capital.