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Labour in Design

What does our popular conversation around design conceal? A closer look at the uncredited labour within our industry

The work of DTP artists floods every street, covering every habitable surface. From large lettered shop signs, to pamphlets thrust onto passengers alighting from local trains, they are ubiquitous, riding on the backs of buses and coiled around traffic signals. Ordinarily, we pay little attention to these posters, which earn at most a passing glance. The posters themselves disappear, sedimenting under others. As time passes, crusts of curdled ephemera come away, revealing a palimpsest. A poster over metal offers coaching for the now suspended UPSC examinations, while on another wall, a poster and memory half effaced poses unanswered questions.

However, they also reveal the unrecognised labour within and contributions to visual culture in India – the work of printers, more specifically, the work of those working in these printshops: DTP artists.

DTP Artist as Designer

Fastened flat with glue onto a metal door, a bevy of sans seriffed letters on an a4 poster reads: MS-OFFICE; TALLY ERP; ADV. EXCEL; GST; 4 COURSES; ONLY @ ₹ 5999/-; GOVERNMENT RECOGNISED; S-TEK; IT EDUCATION; KHARGHAR; 9892446942; A Division of Speakwell. 

Another array of posters offers: Rs. 15,000 – 50,000; For Housewives/Retired/Job Holders; काम का Training दिया जायेगा; 6452980992.

Many designers remark on what they see as arbitrary choices of colour, type and arrangement. These are undesigned, they accuse. But a closer inspection reveals otherwise. For instance, in the above example, there is a deliberate switch to the Latin script from Devanagari for the word ‘training’. This could be because the word is an English one, or it could be a semantic switch to draw attention to the most important word in the sentence. Either way, it is an evidence of thought and reasoned faculty, which is not the sole province of accredited designers. The work is intentioned into being. In simpler terms, they are designed.

Most of this work is created by the very people presumed to work as uncredited servants of design. But the printshop is more than a corridor of servitude. It is an ecology of creative exchange. It is here that DTP artists occupy a liminal space, as intermediaries between designers and the printing press, and at the same time directly cater to a lay clientele, designing logos, cards, letterheads, magazines, and books.

Aestheticians Facilitating Design 

The space of the print shop acts as a crucible, where works of accredited designers – the dominant voices in the discourse of graphic design aesthetics – are juxtaposed against the notions of design held by the lay public. DTP artists, at the nexus of this creative exchange, negotiate these aesthetic values, all of which are reflected not only in their work but in the vocabulary of their business. Witness design in action and you’ll hear statements like:

ये पेपर यूस करो। एकदम पोॅश लगेगा! (Use this paper. It will look posh!)

आपको ऐसा डिझ़ाइनर लुक चाहिये? (Would you like such a ‘designer’ look?)

ये थोडा सस्ता लग सकता है। (This might look cheap)

आज-कल ऐसा बारीक—बोले तो मिनिमल—डिझ़ाइन चल रहा है। (Now-a-days minimal design is in vogue)

DTP artists leverage their knowledge of class and aesthetics to don  the fundamental role of a designer: that of a facilitator. Through a participatory and collaborative process, design is shaped in real time. Artists observe expressions and listen to hesitations and stutters, two of many heuristics acquired on the job.

Yet, if the work still appears unremarkable to us, it is because notions of taste are circumscribed by class. Moreover, working conditions in DTP offices are bridled with constraints. Imagine designing an identity in half an hour, while simultaneously assuaging someone about a slow printing process, answering a junior worker’s questions, and placating an accredited designer demanding priority service for a premium customer.

And yet, most clients leave happy, satisfied with the services offered to them.

So, Who is a Designer?

Despite obvious evidence of skill and enterprise, DTP artists remain marginalised, relegated by accredited designers to a lower rung of professionals. Their work represents a mediocrity against which real graphic design work must stand out in stark relief. Colloquialisms abound: ‘they are not real designers’, ‘the work looks very DTP’. This rhetoric exercises a very real power in terms of demarcating boundaries and dictating identities.

Our conception of a designer is a parochial and elitist one, limited to those who work in studios, agencies, MNC’s, and as freelancers, but more than that, to those with a degree, those privileged enough to have received an education. This assumption dovetails with another: only designs commissioned across this network constitutes legitimate graphic design work.

Consequently, we assume that designers are a monolithic class, albeit with a gradient of fortunes. We overlook those employed in the corridors of servitude, and the streets that brim with what we consider unauthored work. Ironically, while DTP artists are on the margins of intellectual discourse, in terms of numbers and output they are a clear majority.

Invisible Labour

Regardless of its author, embodied within every printed artefact is an invisible labour of print. Take the following sequence of events: the designer hands over a file to an associate at a printshop, the associate gets an assistant to format the file according to their printing setup, a workman mans the printer to collect the print, ever vigilant for the slightest malfunction. Another cascade of events is triggered until a person, pendulous on the face of a building, rolls down the poster for next month’s Bollywood release. Not to mention the undocumented clerical and technical support required.

Much of this labour is deemed as ‘simply mechanical’, with the assumption that the labour that enables ‘designers’ to materialise their designs, conducts itself without agency. In many ways they fulfil an ideal of a subaltern:

The ideal of the subaltern’s existence can be described with a paradox: the servant must be permanently absent while he is supposed to be present all the time. The perfect servant escapes the attention of his master… ‘He is a noiseless creature’. 

Pamela Horn, The rise and fall of the Victorian servant (1975).

Even as servants of design, DTP artists and printers are involved in the design process. They prepare material for printing, suggest techniques and influence paper choices. They leverage their experience in the trade, assisting and advising both inexperienced and experienced accredited designers. Essentially, they are ghost co-authors of every printed artefact, shaping it with their technical expertise.

In a time when all labour in the country is afoot, fleeing from under the scaffolding of institutions that render them invisible in the first place, it is deeply problematic that such labour goes unacknowledged. 

Knowledge and Skill

Perhaps one reason we resist including their work as part of our canon is because it gets to the heart of how we (mis)understand our profession: we ‘think’, they ‘do’. Design and execution appear as complimentary yet antithetical facets of the process, with designers controlling the former and DTP artists relegated to the latter. However, this dichotomy betrays the true nature of our profession. Design is a vocational discipline, and creative work cannot be extricated from the craft of design. Nor should DTP artists be considered mere extensions of the machines they operate when they are in fact intelligent workers with creative agency. Their ability may not stem from academic syllabi, but is embodied within their actions – their competent use of tools and a discerning interpretation of their clients. Their subservience is simply a by-product of the structures erected to buttress our dominance.

What They (Cannot) Do in the Shadows

Consider an expanded view of our profession, one that includes DTP artists in the interstices of graphical design discourse. Given the current circumstances, most work cannot shift online. Their clients are people in the flesh, the work the solid materiality of paper. The printshop remains the only site where work happens, and most of them are now shuttered. Moreover, most DTP artists do not enjoy the benefits of permanent employment like job security, paid leave, or health insurance. According to one head of a training institute in Kharghar, The starting salary is ₹ 5000 and even with experience this caps at ₹ 25-30,000.” He then went to lament how simply learning CorelDraw and Photoshop was not enough to sustain life.

Nor does time at home present opportunities to upskill. Most DTP artists do not own the tools of their labour. A common refrain is that ‘they do not invest in themselves’, or ‘they lack ambition’. But, as Senthil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir suggest in their book Scarcity, “…this is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity.

Some printshops continue to function, accepting work online. The owner of a printshop in Belapur suggests, …the months of June and July are the busiest, because that’s when schools reopen and conduct a number of opening-day-celebrations. But the current crisis has decimated all seasonal work and obviated celebration. Yet some shops stay open because they need to. However, in a time when any exposure is dangerous, there is a need to ask, is the work essential? And at what cost?

What We Talk About, When We Talk About Design

These are disconcerting truths and uncomfortable questions for our profession, which in no way negate the suffering endured by unemployed designers and freelancers. They do, however, draw attention to the assumed homogeneity of our profession, which overlooks the pluralistic understory.

There is a need for a new language when talking about ‘work’ in design. One that moves beyond a celebration of aesthetics, and interrogates the conditions under which work is produced. One that acknowledges every participant in the labour of design. A wider vocabulary will not only deepen our understanding of but also extend our empathy to all those working within the economies of design.

“To look, and not see; an old problem. It usually means a lack of understanding, an inability to divine the meaning of something in the world around us,”

Siri Hustvedt, “Notes on Seeing” in Living, Thinking, Looking (2012)

We can continue to appreciate the movements and ‘isms’ within our canon without treating the rest as carrion. It would be a worthwhile endeavour to include the work done by DTP artists in our discourse, to understand the contexts – spatial, economic, and temporal – within which it exists and allows it to thrive.

Graphic design often effaces the labour that produces it. It distends the emotions of the viewer, rarely drawing attention to what lies beneath. For a discipline that believes in the utterance, ‘good design is invisible’, it is time we ensure this invisibility does not read as an erasure.

(The following essay is adapted from the author’s Masters thesis at the University of Reading titled “Knowledge and Skill in Graphic Design”. He is grateful to his supervisors for their support. The opinions in this essay are the author’s alone and are based on a research project still in its infancy. He requests that all feedback, polemical or constructive, be directed to his email aadarshrajan@gmail.com)

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