In 2015, graphic designers Benjamin Koditschek and Alexander Hayashi founded Dgenerator, a provisional Chicago-based studio, based on their shared belief that the conversations currently occurring within design communities insufficiently address broader social, cultural, political, and economic contexts and instead uncritically celebrate individual entrepreneurship and technological advancement. Their projects seek out a new set of aspirations and reject tried-and-true “design advice” in order to provoke the classic debate of creative labor: what should (or could) we surrender—as designers, as writers, as artists—in exchange for pursuing our work?
The studio’s public-facing side is its Confrontations reading group, which began in July 2015 and meets monthly at the Chicago Design Museum. Each session addresses a different topic in contemporary graphic design practice, such as manifestos, freelance politics, personal branding, and TED Talk-ificiation in order to encourage productive debates regarding the limitations, responsibilities, and possibilities of designers who practice within the precarious space at the intersections of laborer, messenger, and content creator.
Journalist Jessica Barrett Sattell spoke with Koditschek and Hayashi about how they provoke the boundaries that design inherently places upon itself as a commercial art, why designers are inherently hypocritical, and how criticism can be a productive force.
JBS: You two met through the conversations you shared at the Chicago Design Book Club, which went on hiatus only to re-emerge as Confrontations. When did you decide to start to collaborate together?
AH: We met about a year and a half ago, and we weren’t aware of each other’s work at all before then. I think Dgenerator was mainly Ben’s idea to begin with.
BK: The studio is an outgrowth of a smaller project that we did this past spring, which was a series of “design advice” posters. I was invited to give a talk to design students at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), but I really didn’t want mine to be the standard model. I’ve gone to a number of conferences, and especially at student conferences, people end up saying the same types of things, and the same advice is reproduced over and over again.
AH: That advice that doesn’t go anywhere. The kind that’s nice to hear and vaguely encouraging, but has no real application and doesn’t particularly engage any realities of actually working as a designer in anything other than a school vacuum. You’re told, “you can do anything! But…” But everyone always avoids talking about the “but.”
JBS: But what’s the “but”?
BK: Well, that kind of advice does engage the reality of working as a designer, but it’s a popular fiction.
AH: It’s the Neoliberal fantasy of “everything’s going to be OK and we can solve it by doing what we love and working hard.”
JBS: Which is the basis of things like Creative Mornings talks, where speakers get audiences pumped up about the gloss of inspirational or aspirational work, but they rarely address the systems that designers are working within and the politics of production.
AH: Very few people give, especially to students, advice that applies to living one’s life as a designer. I think the talk at UIC would have gotten a totally different reaction if it were presented at somewhere like Creative Mornings.
I’d be interested to see how it would go over in the context of a design conference, where people are very committed to defending their perspectives, especially when they view something
as attacking their own value systems around design.
JBS: But you’re not trying to attack anyone head-on. It’s subtler, more like calling out the system rather than the participants within it—although you seem to hold them accountable, too. Where does your advice fit into this?
BK: Around the same time that I was doing that talk at UIC, I read an article about Johnny Ive that mentioned that he had one of the Good Fucking Design Advice posters hanging in the Apple Design Studio. I thought that poster would be a great object to center my argument around.
Alex and I had this vague idea of making a response to Good Fucking Design Advice with a design advice talk. So, we started working on a poster series called “Degenerate Design Advice.”
JBS: What is it about the medium of the poster? And, why do you make them all available for free online as PDF downloads?
AH: The poster is the typical graphic design fallback, and I think it’s also a direct response to what Good Fucking Design Advice was doing. They want you to see and admire their posters online, but then you have to buy them.
Posters, too, are objects that are often imbued with transferring knowledge. We make all of ours freely available, because, first, we don’t have the money to be producing these posters and handing them out everywhere, and second, we don’t want to sell them. Had we done that whole project and then say, “buy the poster!” then it would be totally self-defeating! You have to take the approach and critique full circle.
“Degenerate Design Advice” was a key project for us because is allowed us to start thinking about how we wanted to help people to start questioning norms within the design community. We wanted them to look at their practices and realize that they have choices beyond being told that they could subscribe to any number of labels: product designers, socially engaged designers, or other roles that are already allotted as tools for young designers to help them develop identities in the design world.
BK: Or even just as people—as citizens, as informed participants in the public sphere.
JBS: Why work from the platform of a provisional studio to encourage people to question their own practices?
BK: It’s our way of trying to take our ideas beyond the first project’s poster form and start to engage the broader design community.
AH: The idea for doing a provisional graphic design studio sprung out of a conversation we had with one of my professors at UIC, Jack Henrie Fisher, about where we could go next with “Degenerate Design Advice.” He suggested that we make a studio because it would allow us to be producing with our own goals in mind. We could take on client work but still have control over the greater intent of our own work.
We’re using the word “studio” here as more of a form of working, rather than a small corporation. It’s a kind of working relationship, rather than a structure with the end goal of making money.
BK: A framework for creating design projects.
AH: The influence that we want Dgenerator to have isn’t particularly in terms of aesthetics. It’s more about in terms of a criticality of the design industry at large, and in terms of peoples’ individual practices. It’s not our intent to find and discover some new, radical aesthetic.
BK: Our goal with the studio, even though we have to formally express ourselves through design, is to look at the meta-level of design, what it means to be a designer, and what it means to be “designer as worker.”
JBS: From poster series to studio, and now to a reading group. How did the idea for Confrontations come about?
AH: There are a lot of leftist reading groups, but there aren’t a lot of design reading groups, let alone those that combine leftist ideas with design. At least to our knowledge, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to discuss how the boundaries of design interact with political, economic, and social theory.
I used to help Emily Haasch run the Chicago Design Book club, but she moved to San Francisco and then that structure started to dissolve. We didn’t want that to happen, and at first we had planned to keep running it the same way. But Ben and I began to think about how we could make the discussions more pointed and directed. Before, a sort of both positive and negative aspect of the Book Club was that it was very open-ended. That was good because it provided for a variety of discussions to happen and to engage a lot of different kinds of designers, but there was also very little imperative for people to come. It was hard to retain participation, and even if there would be a really deep conversation over the course of a two-hour meeting, there was no link to the next one. Oftentimes, those seemingly open-ended discussions ended up turning into ones on politics and economics.
BK: That is, if one of us were there!
AH: [laughs] I don’t know if people dreaded being around us because we would turn the discussions into this dysphoric dismemberment of contemporary design practice, saying that it was unable to do anything to change anything in any meaningful way.
JBS: That hits on the argument, though, that so much discussion about contemporary graphic design, either in writing or thinking, tends to be so self-affirming and uncritical beyond a formal surface examination. Maybe the fact that people were getting uncomfortable with what you were bringing up in terms of how design interacts with political issues hits on something that needs to be said.
BK: I do think that people got uncomfortable. Even though the Design Book Club was more heady than a lot of other conversations happening about design going on in Chicago at that time, there seemed to be an urge to keep things positive. I think that tendency, this aversion to criticism of any sorts, especially self-criticism or self-questioning, is very common in design communities.
Alex and I wanted to push that further; still have it be open and not have a specific agenda to shove down people’s throats, but try to push more towards the critical, potentially darker sides of design.
AH: There’s a multitude of reasons that conversations with people in groups of designers tend to be pretty positive. Part of it is that we work in an industry that puts us in a position that’s at the blunt end of a lot of critique from a lot of different people. You’re dealing with a lot of criticisms, and while it’s ideal to be able to separate yourself from your work, it’s not always possible to fully do so. You’re going to be upset, sooner or later. So you need a support system to work through that, and to foster positivity around your work.
The trend toward that positivity has a lot to do with the general societal trend towards not being critical, because being critical isn’t fun. You don’t want to be the only one being negative.
BK: You don’t want to be the hater.
AH: That makes people overly cautious. There’s this assumption that if you’re not totally for something, you’re totally against it. You can be very polite and respectful but still be against something.
BK: And you can acknowledge nuance, that there can be “love” and “hate” at the same time.
JBS: To be a designer is to adhere to an unstable kind of label that never quite fits the nature of the work. Why do designers so often feel that they need to look outside of design to justify their practices?
AH: Something that came out of “Degenerate Design Advice” was this idea that has been prolific for the past five or ten years: “Designer as fill-in-the-blank.” “Designer as entrepreneur.” “Designer as writer.” “Designer as activist.” “Designer as academic.” “Designer as printmaker.” Which is great, because it’s important to think about how one’s discipline relates to others, or to one’s other passions.
It was funny to me to look at these kinds of “Designer as…” lists because I began to think of my own practice as “Designer as hypocrite.” That is, working as a graphic designer, but also being interested in issues involved with morality and politics, made me realize that my value system does not align with contemporary graphic design practice.
I always feel like a hypocrite. I think part of that is owning it, and being up-front about it, and acknowledging that it’s normal to make decisions that don’t totally sit comfortably.
BK: One of the ideas we talked about in the first session of Confrontations is the “First Things First” manifestos. There’s a reason why designers end up looking hypocritical, and it’s not a moral failing—that they’re unethical and unable to “do good.” It’s that the social and economic context that we’re working within is contradictory. Everyone is a hypocrite; that’s just the world we live in. We’re trying to acknowledge and understand this underlying issue more in-depth, which means looking outside of design.
AH: Every conversation about design and designers, if it’s productive, applies to society as a whole. We’re not operating in a vacuum. That’s the case with the examination of any so-called “creative” group: the outsider-looking-in perspective is that we’re starving artists who get to do whatever we want. There’s this valorization of not making a lot of money doing something you love. But isn’t that a problem? The system is very much set up to make everyone seem like a bad person.
JBS: As artists or writers or designers, or anyone who is doing any kind of “creative” work, we make that choice to do so as a means to support ourselves, and when we do so, we’re ultimately giving something up, be it agency or accountability or security. That seems to be where that oft-quoted but problematic advice to “do what you love” comes in.
AH: The “do what you love” mind-set is incredibly seductive. But it’s not that simple. The trap is that you see people supposedly living lives where they’re being paid copious amounts of money to do what they love. But in reality, the majority of them can do so because they came from wealthy families and were able to get the best educations in aesthetics and conceptual art. They’ve been provided for. When people are unable to actualize a “do what you love” life right out of school or training, they feel like failures because they’re unaware of the level of privilege that comes from.
Another issue is that “do what you love” never asks you to be critical of the things you love, or want to do. It perpetuates this commonplace lack and fear of criticality, and criticality in terms of the greater good of society. It placates people and makes them feel comfortable. It’s a carrot-on-the-string mentality: it’s out there, but it’s always just out of reach.
JBS: It’s back to that false binary of love versus criticism, and as criticism as something negative when it’s really just the act of thinking critically.
BK: Love and criticism aren’t separate things. I think everyone should be able to do what they love. It’s a tragedy that they’re not able to, and the rhetoric of “do what you love” prevents it from becoming a reality for everyone.
JBS: Who do you want to be a part of the discussions you’re holding, and how are they getting involved? And, how will the conversations taking place carry on beyond the structure of the meetings?
AH: We want as diverse an array of people as possible to attend, since there will be no truly constructive discussion without a mixture of opinions, perspectives, and privilege. Right now, we’re relying on our social networks to spread the word, in addition to individually inviting particular people who we think would act as great catalysts for discussion. While we’d prefer if people were to come to each meeting, the conversations also each stand alone, allowing for an accessible, drop-in model.
Right now, there is no intended outcome of this other than the discussions themselves. But, we’re looking to start recording them in order to create a set of source materials, which could be utilized as audio files, or as content for use in a design project like a publication or poster series.
BK: Each discussion is focused on a small selection of opposing or complementary texts that target a related set of issues. Broadly, it’s based on the idea of trying to get at the boundaries of design discourse, the kinds of things that are unacceptable, for various reasons, to talk about in the workplace, at parties, or even in most classroom settings. We’re interested in issues that are common to the creative industry as a whole, not just specific workplaces.
The first discussion questioned whether designers and advertisers are able to act ethically through their work: what is the relationship between the design for business and the design for good? Might aspirations for design to act as a social force be self-undermining? The next discussion will build off of that conver-sation and take a look back to early modernism to consider how history repeats similar patterns, and takes stock of how the grand aspirations of modernist design have played out. The third discussion shifts gears a bit to interrogate the relationship between corporate identity, corporate personhood, and the obligation to brand oneself as an enterprise of one. Future discussions will address the way TED talks have transformed the ways ideas are expected to be presented, further explore the charged politics of the “do what you love” rhetoric, and dive into the pros and cons of contract freelance labor.
JBS: What are you hoping will arise from Confrontations, as it continues? How are you defining the success of the debates you’re trying to engender?
AH: A successful series would be one that allows people to openly discuss their ideas and ideals in a space that invites productive creativity, and that these discussions help people better understand their individual practices more deeply on both personal and structural levels. There are topics that each session will approach, but really, all I want to happen out of it is that there’s spirited discussion in general. That is incredibly important. I would really like a lot of the people who disagree with the things that Ben and I have to say to show up. Because of all of the nuances of these issues, and because everyone has a different experience, it’s going to be exciting just to be in a place where criticality is understood as a productive asset and not as a hateful force.