“Paradox on the Graphic Artist” by Jean-Francois Lyotard

Designers, for some reason, tend to like describing what they do in terms of what other people do. Let’s enumerate the different roles of a graphic designer, as described in “Paradox on the Graphic Artist.” They are, simultaneously: artists, lawyers, witnesses, historians, judges, street artist, peddler, and promoter.

It seems like designers are always going through this identity crisis (which has most recently been addressed by designers attempting to position themselves as “problem-solvers”), which seems worrying. After all, how are you supposed to prove that what you do has merit in its own right if you’re constantly having to ground your work through comparison to other, clearly “legitimate” professions?

This crisis comes from what Jean-Francois Lyotard describes in this essay: designers are conflicted because their responsibilities so often sit in a contradictory position. Designers might be tasked with representing a given work or event, but there’s also a struggle within that to create: the have a sense of authorship independent of the represented thing which the designer has no control over. As Lyotard puts it, it’s the struggle between having to “offer their work and something other than their work: the thing… The graphic artist thus interprets, but here in the actor’s sense, for the actor too is a servant. Just as for the actor, there is a paradox in the graphic artist.” Michael Rock has offered his own take on this topic, which is also quite good.

I think one of the most interesting things that Lyotard points out, however, is the temporality of the designer’s profession as tied to the necessarily ephemeral nature of design:

Graphic art is not just good to sell things. It is always an object of circumstances, and consequently ephemeral. Of course, you can put it in archives, collect it and exhibit it—this is what we’re doing here. You thus suspend certain of the finalities we have designated: persuading, testifying. You retain only pleasing, which exceeds circumstance. You turn a piece of graphic art into an artwork. But you deceive and are deceived. The graphic object is circumstantial, but essentially so. Inseparable from the event it promotes, thus from the location, the moment, and the public where the thing happens.

Design does not exist on its own, and by definition it cannot.