One of the first hurdles encountered by the design historian, or for that matter anyone who writes about design, is the question of authorship. Not the elevated kind that has been so heatedly debated over recent decades—the auteurist notion of the graphic designer as author—but the more prosaic question of who did what, and its emotive corollary, who gets the credit for what.
It’s a question not confined to graphic design—it extends to all aspects of creative endeavor. Famous artists have assistants: Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have armies of helpers. Do we know who they are? Do their employers publicly acknowledge their contributions? Does it even matter?
Over the past few years I’ve written three graphic design monographs. In each the question of personal attribution was a recurring theme. Work that was widely and formally credited to one of my subjects was found, on closer inspection, to have been done by others, invariably studio personnel. Or if not done entirely by others, it was work that was at least contributed to by others, often to a substantial degree. Yet these same works appear in books and magazines credited to a single designer.
The problem of correct—and equitable—attribution is a perennial consideration when assessing any designer’s work. In truth, it is really a question of what is authorship in the context of graphic design itself. And since graphic design, at least at its more advanced levels, is a collaborative process, the notion of individual authorship is increasingly slippery. However, this doesn’t stop designers craving credit for work they have made, or feeling denigrated when they are either not credited for their efforts, or worse still, see the credit go to someone else.
Yet it’s unrealistic to think of today’s complex graphic design outcomes emerging from a single pair of hands attached to a single brain. Even a designer working on his or her own is likely to use typefaces designed by others. And just as progressive social historians encourage a view of history that is not exclusively focused on the activities of monarchs or the machinations of the powerful, but rather one that acknowledges that history is also made by ordinary people, so we should be wary of viewing design as the work of single figures.
The problem of attribution is somewhat alleviated by the use of a studio name. The logo that bears the name of a studio, or studio-owning designer, might in truth be the work of an employee—a junior even. Yet how realistic is it to expect a junior designer to be credited as the author? The commercial argument in favor of only citing the studio—or studio head—as the “author” is persuasive.
How else do clients know whom to contact with offers of work?
But this argument ignores the ethical requirement of acknowledging the contributions of others, and more importantly, it flies in the face of one of the fundamental reasons why people choose to become graphic designers in the first place: the allure of authorship. No author in any field—high or low—likes to go unacknowledged for his or her work; anonymity is the enemy of creative endeavor.
When I owned a studio, I allowed designers (wherever possible) to have personal design credits. This worked well for the individuals concerned, and as their names were always combined with the studio name, there was no barrier to anyone who wanted to get in touch with us.
The weakness of the system was that it failed to include the contributions of others such as production people and junior assistants. The designers who got their names into print were undoubtedly the principal authors, but they were rarely if ever the sole authors. It’s a practice I wouldn’t implement today.
Paradoxically, the subjects of my three monographs stand out as exemplars of fairness and generosity in the matter of equitable attribution. All three men (Herb Lubalin, FHK Henrion, and Ken Garland) were generous in acknowledging the effort of others. Only in Lubalin’s case did I find a residual bitterness among some of his collaborators—grossly unjustified in my opinion. Ken Garland, the only living member of the trio, is vigorous in his desire to acknowledge the contribution of his associates. And in the Henrion archives I found numerous examples of public recognition of his collaborators.
Authorship will always be a contentious issue wherever creative work is produced. The new era of co-design, user-generated design, human centric design, and sharing economies, means that we must all learn to deal with anonymity. I was going to post this text anonymously. But I decided against it.
This essay was first published on Design Observer.