GraPhiC DesIGn iS mY PasSiON
A conversation about graphic design, money and politics between Max Weinland & Charlotte Rohde
Charlotte: Design is not about money, it’s a passion – that’s how many students enter their studies and often leave it with that idea. They enter the labor market with a lot of aspiration and motivation, but without a healthy sense of what their labor is worth. Graphic Design’s internal value system dictates that the jobs with the lowest budget, meaning design for cultural affairs, have the highest value – because you get to be the most “creative”. You get to leave your handwriting. You are expected to prioritize your visual ideals over your existential coverage, and to be proud of this asceticism. Jobs in design studios that work mainly for cultural institutions are scarce and mostly inhabited by interns. So if you don’t leave school with rich parents or any other financial input, you don’t have many choices.
Max: Considering the available alternatives after graduating – an employment in advertising or branding agencies, working for small, »cool« design studios, or having a more stable, part-time »money-job« and doing graphic design as a sort of side hustle – this idea of being a solo freelancer with a »practice« seems to become very attractive to many young graduates. It seems to exude a certain glamour and heroism, it promises authorship and semiotic power. A seductive idea that can surely generate a certain rigor and drive – truly entrepreneurial qualities. The idea of the »designer as author« or »design practice« really has more to do with entrepreneurship than with assuming a »critical« or »ethical« stance and I am convinced that it is a failed import from 20th century art discourses. Think about it: you’re done with your graphic design studies, maybe at a private Institution, a University of Applied Sciences or maybe even at an Art Academy. Your whole education is massively influenced by very individualist ideas of artistic practice, you want to get commissions and build a portfolio, you want to be seen as a unique »voice« and you want to wield power over the visual outcomes. Maybe you even attest yourself with the ability to »intervene« in the symbolic order of society. This is hardcore entrepreneurialism, you’re much more akin to the mythical figure of the Architect in an Ayn Rand story than anything resembling a worker who is aware of their situation. And you have no idea how to measure the worth of your labor. What a start!
Charlotte: This leads to many freelance beginners to accept any job offered to them, grabbing every rope that is thrown to them. Logo for 100€? Okay. Plus two rounds of unpaid corrections? You’re Welcome! The fear of “not making it” creates an imperative of saying yes to every price, every condition, every wish of the client. Night shifts, an hourly rate below minimum wage, constant availability. The competition is high and post-grad health insurance is expensive. Academic design education completely denies the entrepreneurial reality of the profession freelance graphic designer™ and this is a huge problem. Because if young designers, who visually might be on a high level, do not know what to charge, they unknowingly dump the price. The act of charging a reasonable fee is not just an act of self care, but also of community care or solidarity. The question of unions of designers has been around for a really long time, but nothing was ever done about it. And why? Are we pitched into being individuals in the first place? Is the promise of self fulfillment and its consecutive applause (and finally, genius-hood) what keeps everyone isolated and secretive? You cannot unionize while sitting in an ivory tower.
Max: True, though I would be a little less enthusiastic about the notion of solidarity in the context of charging reasonable fees. It’s solidarity on libertarian market terms, not in the political sense. Unions would constitute practiced solidarity much more. But of course, it’s absolutely mandatory to teach anyone who’s on their way to become a worker about the exchange value of labor and how to correctly assess it. How do I calculate an appropriate hourly and daily rate? How do I invoice? What are my options if a client won’t pay? How can I apply counter-pressure on an exploitative client? And how can I interact with other designers beyond the competition principle? This very idea that there are others in similar situations, that there is such a thing as society, there are class struggles – it’s under heavy attack by market ideology. Don’t let it push you into a loner position!
Charlotte: Being a loner often comes from insecurity, from a fragile ego. This insecurity has to do with the way we raise new designers. Academic design education often means being thrown into cold water. Especially in Germany, where both you and I studied, Universities refuse to transmit practical knowledge. It is about ideas only. The alternative would be an apprenticeship, but the state of that education is even worse, the craft taught in these programmes is rarely state of the art, and on top you will not have access to ideas. I think we don’t need that many academically trained graphic designers, or actually, that many academics. By the marketization of the Universities, the quality of the education suffers. And I don’t mean this in an elitist way: I mean this in the way that I see design as a tool, a craft, that can be used to have agency over semiotics, but that can also be used to make a business report of a law firm. So why is a technical education so frowned upon? I would plead for a reevaluation of the value of apprenticeships, glancing at our Swiss neighbors, who have a very high reputation for their apprentices. By transmitting solid knowledge and not expecting academic masterworks on top of mastering a craft might lower insecurities within the designers and make it easier to work together.
Max: Yes, there is an overproduction of academically trained people in Central Europe and a shortage of trade workers. I usually encourage my students to try and get employed somewhere before they try and freelance in the field. It makes more sense to first get a good sense of how things are going, get to a certain level of skills and routine, learn about the value of labor and also build connections for future work. But I also try to soften the pressure on them. They shouldn’t beat themselves up with ambitions to become auteur figures »with a practice« or set up their own studios. It’s all work under capitalism and there is no escape or outside position through simply doing one’s job, neither as an employee nor as a freelancer. That’s a really important point I think. I’d much rather see graphic design workers with little entrepreneurial ambition but a solid interest in politics than too-cool-for-school young guns whose »politics« begin and end at turning protest slogans into portfolio pieces.
Charlotte: Absolutely agreed. I try to teach my students that infrastructure matters. Who’s work am I referencing? Who’s typeface am I using? Are my aesthetics reinforcing harmful ideals? But then on the other hand, nobody is helped if I am poor. So a certain pragmatism is not wrong. There are strategies to build up a more robust infrastructure: And that’s my network. Find that friend that you will share your estimates and invoices with. Talk with peers about money. Recommend others if you cannot take on a job. Share skills and exchange expertises. Structures of support to create resilience within the maelstrom of late stage capitalism and the Entreprecariat.
Max: Yes, networks are important and exchanging about things like that sure helps. But we’re still talking entirely from an individualized, entrepreneurial perspective. Graphic design is inherently relational, the power of graphic design and graphic designers can only be second hand power: the power of the client, the scale of production, the scale of distribution, the popularity of the designer and so on. The political stakes beyond questions of graphic design are way higher and need to be addressed by us »as people«. To focus on what we can do »as designers« often only leads to performances of moralism or »business-networks« at best. We need to go way further. Organize labor power, demand fair pay, rights and social securities, protest (the design quality of protest signs is REALLY NOT the point), educate yourselves and others, share resources, redistribute capital, shift your focus away from »making it« as an individual to strengthening social bonds. Capitalism is destroying not just the natural, material basis for human life, it is also radically anti-social. And we’re still glorifying »careers«?
Max Weinland (DE, *1988) works as a self-employed graphic and type designer, often collaborating with others. He founded Riesling Type with Timo Durst out of a name joke. He occasionally writes about graphic design, art, labor and desire. He’s currently working on his MFA Thesis on online political discourse at the HFBK Hamburg. Max has been teaching graphic design at different institutions since 2014.
Charlotte Rohde (DE, *1992) is an artist, (type)-designer, and writer. She lives and works in Amsterdam after graduating from the Sandberg Instituut in 2020. She is currently the Guest Professor for Typography and Type Design at Bauhaus Universität Weimar, Germany.
Max and Charlotte met in 2017 through their interest in typedesign and have been exchanging political memes and texts in progress ever since.