Communities, zines, and the value of design (sort of).

An essay by Christopher Swift

I had long considered artificial intelligence to be one of the primary hurdles that graphic designers and other creative commercial practitioners (editors, photographers, writers, etc.) would have to get over, or at least get around in some manner in the very near future. Adobe, the company that makes the primary tools for graphic design work, is now one of the leaders in machine learning and AI in the world. The same people making our tools are making new tools to replace us. And they are very good at it. I had originally planned to study this potential impact, to try and map out a way forward in this new reality of machines doing much of the work that we have considered uniquely human. While planning that research project, while defining categories and subtopics in my head, while thinking about the range of work and the kinds of people that work is done for and with and by who, I changed my mind about the project. I do believe that much of the larger commercial work being done by designers will be replaced by machines, by very good algorithms that will make something indistinguishable from a somewhat talented and trained human, by systems that will autogenerate something “close enough.” But I think that those impacts are likely to only be felt in part (an economically important part) of the space where we work. It is the part that pays the most money and because of this financial consequence will be very difficult to live with, but it is not all that this work is. Work with small, local, community-based, non-profit, non-corporate groups and individuals will not likely be as affected by the power of these algorithms. Design may have to become much more local, much more of a community resource, much more accessible to those with small or no budgets, and thus will be much more helpful.

When we humans see the moon near the horizon it can very often look enormous. A huge glowing ball at the edge of the world, that as it rises gets smaller and smaller. But the moon’s orbit is not ovoid, it is a near perfect circle; the moon is never really further or closer to us. The moon does not look bigger because it is closer, it’s a trick of the brain. When we see things on the horizon, our brains know them to be far away and will play with our understanding of scale. Our brains can’t really conceive of the size of the moon or its distance, the scales are just not understandable. I have been wondering if our collective climate change denial might be based in a similar malfunction of our brains. The scale of the climate crisis is just too large to understand. When we go out into the world it is massive, it stretches out farther than we can see. In the forests of western Massachusetts or Vermont, one could get lost for days, or lost forever. I know that the scale of this problem is not something that I can personally change, it is not in the power of an individual to make the needed changes to our ways of life, it is outside of my abilities to effect change. This realization can still, occasionally, paralyze me with a sense of dread deep within me, a tightness in my stomach surrounded by a low panic. I have found that accepting that I am mostly powerless in the face of the scale of the climate crisis lets me focus my energies, empathy, and hopes on smaller scale local and community issues where I can maybe make something better for someone. The day to day hardships we face are not lessened because they are common and mundane. The need to be safe, secure, seen, heard, cared for, these are things we can do, things that will make an impact, things that need to be done.

Ian Lynam recently used a very old joke structure to ask, “How do you make a small fortune in publishing? You start with a large fortune.” The same joke format exists for almost every commercial venture you can name, so much so that it makes one wonder if it is not the industry in question that is the flaw in the system, but the system that it is trying to work inside of. Community based publishing (and zines in particular) often has the freedom of never intending to make a profit. The “everyday compromises” (Chidgey, 28) of a traditional commercial venture can be avoided. If you start out never intending to make money, in fact knowing that you are likely going to lose money, you cannot fail.

Zines and other type of small press publications regardless of content can be read as a form of protest by their nature and underlying production and distribution models. They use the “tools and language of the market in a counter way” (Chidgey, 28). The supremacy of concepts like profit, efficiency, marketability are often totally ignored in these community publishing projects. The writers, editors, designers, publishers and others work together without profit motives, with the freedom to say and make what they want to say and make without worry and without compromise.

When we consider the value of a statement we read, we understand much more than just the words as written by the author(s). The writing, the quality of the design, the material, and numerous other things multiply together to create each act of reading. The intent of the author and the message received are hardly ever a one for one transaction. A published piece carries more weight. That someone felt that the content deserved to be read by an audience, that someone edited the words, that someone spent time and energy laying it out in a format that is not a standard Microsoft Word template, that money and time were spent committing all of that to paper is meaningful, impactful, and has cultural value. The investment of time and energy by someone implies a value. The profit motive of most publishers means that who they can afford to publish is very limited in scope. A story must be able to resonate with or excite in some manner a large enough audience to recoup the cost of publication and to ideally, in this method, make a profit. Without that primary limiter to whose voice has “value” small press and zine publishers can amplify hyper local content, can publish the words of a small group for a small group.

Recently while talking about my interest in zines and small press publishing, I was asked “oh are you part of the scene?” My age, location, and social status generally, make me, decidedly, not a part of the scene. Much of the success of small press and zine culture comes from a trusted sharing model for everything from writing to designing to printing to distribution. These elements are organized around non-commercial systems of community and sharing of resources. You can’t buy your way in.

In 2007 I discovered a group of architects and designers working together in a group called Project M. They said that designers, architects, writers, and editors, these cultural makers, tended to have a larger voice in the world than most, and that we should use that outsized voice to make the world a better place. They paraphrased uncle Ben from Spider-Man comics and said “with great power comes great responsibility.” The first project I saw that they did was Buy A Meter, a short run one color 12-page newspaper raising money for residents in Greenboro, Alabama. The project aimed at raising money to get residents a hookup valve to the municipal water supply to provide clean drinking water. I was always struck by the compactness of this project. It was hyper local, it affected one part of one community, it had real impacts immediately, and it had larger less obvious impacts. This helped people, it was incredibly solvable in the most pressing way (they could measure how many houses did not have the hookup, multiply that by the cost of the hookup and then aim to raise that much) and it brought into question larger points like why would this system punish the poor members of the community in such a way? The project also managed to annoy parts of the local community frustrated with the arrogance of these out of town, out of state graphic designers thinking that they could solve problems that no one else could.

The Project M Pielab project also faced the same out of town savior problems. What was intended to be a place to talk about how design could affect and help the community also lacked connections to the community. The reasons people choose to help others are often very complex, there is no pure intent. It makes someone feel useful or good about themselves, it is mandated by their religion, it will fill out a CV well, or some other common and boring motivation. Trying to fix what you think is wrong is never the right place to start. You need to learn about the thing, the place, the people, the complexities of the place and time. Clever slogans and self-indulgent design work never solve the problem if you haven’t asked what the problem is. Community based local projects, where you live, where you have a stake in the place and an interest in the people, that is where graphic design can make a real difference.

When I was in my undergraduate studies program in cultural anthropology we learned about the Tiv. The Tiv live in West Africa, and we studied them because of a very complex cultural-economic system they use. The Tiv have a multi-layer system of trade, food can be traded for food, and brass-rods that denote cultural importance can be traded for other brass-rods in the same level of economic importance. The elements of each level can be traded only in that level, you cannot trade food for cultural status, you cannot trade livestock for political status. When European trade attempted to force wage labor ideas with a single economic unit (dollars) onto the culture they fought back. The idea that cultural importance could be valued in the same manner as the purchase of a chicken was absurd and insulting.

In debates among Canadian environmental advocates a similar debate occurs. How do you value Canada’s boreal rain forest? A proposal to give the forests a dollar value based on its value as a carbon sink has created debate. The argument is that these forests are invaluable, that you cannot measure their importance with just money. Is the value of my MFA education really the same as 60,000 donuts? Is the Graff Diamonds watch valued at 55 million dollars of the same importance as cleaning up the water supply of Flint Michigan? The acceptance that all things can be purchased, that all things can be measured in terms of a dollar amount is the most depressing thing we seem to have accepted in our modern lives.

The part of being a graphic designer that I find the hardest to reconcile is that I think this work is incredibly important, incredibly valuable, and can really help to solve problems. But it hardly ever does that, it is hardly ever used in important ways, its value is misspent and misdirected as a tool for marketing. But the realities of our system are such that we must trade our skills and labor for money. We must make concessions, we must make compromises, and we may very well end up using our skills to sell the services or products of something or someone we find repellant.

The non-commercial, the anti-commercial even, nature of zines and community publishing projects is a great example of how the tools and skills of graphic design be used in positive ways that values the work differently. These projects sidestep the traditional modes of design work. There is no client needed, there is no need to be clever, no need to try and convince someone of something, no need to be marketable to an audience, no ROI to consider. The designer can self-publish or publish others; it is wide open.

For all of this, it is also very hard to do the needed work. It is hard to be part of a community. I think of the lyrics of Gillian Welsh’s song Oh look at Miss Ohio: “Says I wanna do right, but not right now.” I wonder if my altruism can stand up to any real challenges to its authenticity, or if I will abandon things when they get complicated, because people are complicated and local community work is working with people.

Chidgey, Red. “Free, Trade: Distribution Economies in Feminist Zine Networks.” Signs, vol. 35, no. 1, 2009, pp. 28–36.