Designer + Educator J. Dakota Brown Is Untangling the Relationship Between Design and Labor

Photo by J. Dakota Brown.

So I went back and read Emigre and all these things that were in the air when I was an undergrad and I noticed that the postmodern stuff had very little to say about what I was most interested in understanding: work. When these writers did address the constraints of the workplace, it tended to be this thing about how The Man was going to put you in a Helvetica straitjacket and take away your personality. It seemed to me, on the contrary, that designers were increasingly expected to mine their souls for marketable new expressions.
In 2019, Brown released two pamphlets on the politics of graphic design: “Typography, Automation, and the Division of Labor: A Brief History” (Other Forms Books) and “The Power of Design as a Dream of Autonomy” (The Green Lantern Press).

What I loved about these essays was that they combined so many of my worlds that I hadn’t seen analyzed like that: the 90s era graphic design scene that I grew up into and the theoretical analysis I was used to from the art world. What brought you to writing them? 

Most of my students were born around the time I graduated from design school so my courses usually end with a discussion of what has changed since I was in their place. I’m always struck by their attitude toward technology, which tends to be more sober and more sophisticated than mine was. Think about the world they’ve inherited: the climate crisis is now undeniable, all sorts of reactionary political formations are popping up, and the state seems unable to even keep people alive. It makes sense that they would be more drawn to themes of crisis and dislocation than to technological utopias.
J. Dakota Brown studied graphic design at North Carolina State University and critical theory at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently completing a PhD in the Rhetoric and Public Culture Program in the School of Communication at Northwestern University, where his primary research focuses on typography as contextualized by historical transformations in labor, technology, and aesthetic experience. Brown teaches across art history, design, and writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and maintains an active practice centered around book and journal design. 

In making capitalism the context, I’m just naming a force that already structures design history as we know it. Even in the most basic textbook accounts, the designer only really emerges with the modern separation of planning and production. From Arts and Crafts all the way through the Bauhaus, there is an ongoing conversation about alienated labor and the possibility of socialist technology. That emphasis recedes during the interwar years and in the postwar U.S. a buttoned-up version of modernism becomes the face of corporate management. This sets the stage for new critiques beginning in the late ’60s. But in graphic design, postmodern theory arrives fairly late and it gets all mixed up with the arrival of the Macintosh so the idea of technology as a progressive force that liberates the worker (this time, the designer) sneaks back in. My graphic design history course ends with the
First Things First Manifesto 2000, where you can see the profession timidly confronting the social crises of late capitalism.

How does this approach of contextualizing design practice compare to traditional survey and history courses?

I found this disconnect really bewildering, along with everything else that was happening just then—a financial crisis and a series of new wars—so I started writing in my downtime to try and get a better handle on the problem. These pamphlets are one outcome of that, fifteen years later. The “Autonomy” essay is an intellectual history and the “Automation” essay more of a material one but they both make the same basic point, which is that we can’t understand much about our own working lives if we don’t start asking questions about capitalism.
Academia is definitely not the only way to prepare—in fact, the most important educational spaces for me were always elsewhere: in reading groups or around little magazines. One bright spot for me in this year of Zoom has been the emergence of so many new sites of discussion and inquiry. Last summer my friends Danielle Aubert and Kikko Paradela started a reading group on design and labor, whose scope continues to shift as we pick up new collaborators. I’ve also been able to connect with people that I may not have met otherwise. Two recent highlights for me were Lauren Williams‘s talk on “Black Futurity” and Silvio Lorusso’s on “Design and Disillusion.” I really love how unflinchingly both of these practitioner-theorists are confronting the entanglement of design and capitalism—never offering easy fixes, either for practice or for pedagogy. This has been a scary, isolating year, but I think it’s also been an important time for questioning and reinterpreting the conditions of our work.

And then how does this extend to what you notice happening in the design world today? 

Of course, what we teach needs to be broader than the canonical narrative I just sketched. For one thing, I think we should question how we even define “the designer.” The cast of characters in the history textbooks can seem a little arbitrary. We get a lot of information on modern painters (even cave painters!) but there is less on printers and typesetters, whose work more closely resembles our own. I think this stems from an impulse to depict the designer as an “author”—someone fully in charge of their own expression—rather than a worker who produces under specific constraints.

Maybe first I should acknowledge the difficulty of teaching history and theory in any serious way within the existing forms of design education. Design programs radically diverge in what they offer (or even make time for) outside of studio courses. And students are understandably focused on the kind of professional training that will make the immense cost of college worth it. Then, as they enter the field, they face unprecedented expectations of flexibility and versatility. They are coached to ceaselessly adjust and retrain, but they aren’t offered a lot of space to question where those compulsions come from or why they exist. The emphasis is always on transforming yourself to meet social demands which defers the question of transforming society to meet human needs.

How do you best prepare students to enter such a world? 

I graduated in the year 2000 so I’m in the generation of designers educated between the digital revolution and the dot-com crash. A lot of the faculty at N.C. State had been involved in the formal and theoretical experimentation of the early Macintosh era. I got a job at
Thirst and moved to Chicago, but soon after I arrived I found myself kind of questioning the field—like, what this practice even is and what its social role was supposed to be.

Part of the point in foregrounding capitalism, which is, of course, a very broad historical category, is to get away from presentism. As it often turns out, our contemporary anxieties and fantasies about technology have deeper roots. In one of my courses, for example, we read about nineteenth-century wood engravers. These workers initially enjoyed a lot of autonomy, but as demand for printed images increased, their work became more routinized and their wages dropped. With the invention of the halftone process, they basically disappeared as a necessary link in the transmission of images. Students often connect that story to the recent emergence of gig apps and template apps or to predictions of a future role for AI in the design process. But we also see how this streamlining of image production enabled the communications media that our practice now takes for granted. It’s a good study in “creative destruction,” which is one of the grand themes of both modernism and capitalism. It’s sort of what people mean when they say “disruption” today.

Posted by Contributor