Michael Bierut | Essays

I Hear You’ve Got Script Trouble: The Designer as Auteur

In her recent post about designers’ obsession with the everyday, Jessica Helfand mentioned the film All the President's Men, and the drama that it loaded into mundane activities like the manipulation of an on-hold button, saying “William Goldman's screenplay masterfully lyricizes a plot where the stakes are huge.” The movie is great, but one thing you don't know from its title sequence is that Goldman wouldn't claim full credit for its screenplay. In his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman said it was “the most stomach-churning time I've ever had writing anything,” with competing scripts offered up by, among others, Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron. Although he would go on to win an Oscar for it, he was dismissed in favor of another writer before the filming began, and said, after seeing the movie in his local neighborhood theater, only that “it seemed very much to resemble what I'd done.” Hardly a confident statement of ownership.

Screenwriting, like graphic design, is a collaborative art. That puts the people who write about it in a tough position. It's always easier to evaluate a creation in terms of its relationship to its creator. So what happens to the idea of authorship when many hands are involved in bringing something to life?

William Goldman is one of the best writers ever on the day-in, day-out struggles faced by anyone attempting to create good work in a hostile environment. His account of writing All the President's Men is particularly harrowing. At one point, while writing "God knows how many" versions of the screenplay, he is introduced by a friend to the legendary anchorman Walter Cronkike, who dismisses him with a curt "I hear you've got script trouble" before going on his way. And you thought graphic design was tough.

Goldman has no illusions about what it takes to create a great movie: lots of talented people. After the death of Alan Paluka, director of All the President's Men, eulogists were quick to credit him with, among other things, the shadowy paranoia of the movie's parking garage scenes with Deep Throat. “Sorry,” says Goldman, “that is [cinematographer] Gordon Willis you’re talking about here.” Obviously, the auteur theory - briefly, the critical view (advanced in France by Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and championed in the United States by Andrew Sarris) that a film's sole "author" is its director - finds no fan in William Goldman: his reaction to hearing about it for the first time is a sardonic "What's the punch line?"

The average piece of graphic design is certainly less complicated in its genesis that the average movie. Yet all but the simplest have multiple hands involved in their creation. Nonetheless, those who write about design find it irresistible to evaluate work as expressions of individual vision. And I'd be lying, as one of those individuals, to say that I haven't reaped the benefit, and enjoyed the attention that goes with, that kind of simplification. Becoming famous, as anyone who watches the Academy Awards knows full well, means being gracious about thanking your many wonderful collaborators while making absolutely sure the spotlight stays focused on you.

On top of that, unlike filmmaking, graphic design is still largely an anonymous art. For anyone at all to get public credit (at a mass market level, at least) for designing, say, a logo or a sign system is still a novelty. Those gruesome details about who actually did the final digital artwork, who did the illustration, who contributed to the underlying strategy, who influenced whom, who argued with whom, who stole what from whom, not to mention the client, God help us: for most people, these are mind-numbing details that would tax already-brief attention spans. Easier to stick with This Object Was Designed By This Designer and move on to the next caption.

I do wonder, however, what's being lost here. There seem to be two popular modes of recording design history: either as the product of a succession of visionary creators, as described above, or, more ambitiously, perhaps, as the product of massive but essentially anonymous historical forces. Sometimes we get one, sometimes we get the other, sometimes we get a mix of the two. But what we seldom get is the messy truth in between. I think that's part of what Lorraine Wild is asking for in her essay "Sand Castles" in Émigré No. 66: more accounts of "the specific energy and texture, seriousness and rebellion, the orneriness and fun" that goes into producing graphic design in the real world.

This would not be easy, but I suspect it would be worth the trouble if anyone were brave and dogged enough to undertake the challenge. In my mind I see my own favorite scene from All the President's Men: Woodward and Bernstein doggedly sifting through records under the rotunda of the Library of Congress...played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, cast by Alan Shayne, filmed by Gordon Willis, scored by David Shire, edited by Robert Wolfe, designed by George Jenkins, produced by Jon Boorstin, Michael Britton and Walter Coblenz, and directed by Alan Pakula, from a screenplay by - more or less - William Goldman.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [18]

Graphic design has long had its share of those taking credit (Paul Rand routinely signed his work, as do Milton Glaser and John Maeda today) as well as its share of those who — whether intentionally or not — remained anonymous (early magazine art directors often went uncredited on the masthead) but the real message I take away from this post, Michael, is that "messy" is an intrinsic part of the culture of making something. So why is so much graphic design so clean?

Incidentally, David Shire's long-time musical collaborator was Richard Maltby, (who he met when both were students at Yale) and Shire himself went on to win his own Oscar in 1979 for Best Original Song. (It Goes Like It Goes from the movie Norma Rae.) The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three and Saturday Night Feverare also Shire creations.
Jessica Helfand

Although many designers, from Rand to Glaser to Maeda, have routinely signed their work, little of that work was produced in isolation. Even Rand, who worked in relative solitude in this Connecticut studio, created work that was shaped by his interaction with clients. That process is something about which there is much mythology and very little else in the public record.

I think we designers are aware of this messiness, and overcompensate for it by attempting to obliterate every trace of it from our work.

David Shire, whom you mention, Jessica, is a great example of a consummate professional who often took a backseat to his collaborators; for instance in Saturday Night Fever, it's the Bee Gees songs we remember, not the incidental score. The fantastic dissonant jazz score of The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three shows what he could really do when he had the spotlight to himself.
Michael Bierut

And then there's the reality that many (most?) fine art works are now and have been (for centuries) products of group effort with one "signature" appended. Every artist likely needs a "Project", not just Rembrandt and Warhol.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Before we extend too much sympathy to screenwriters, perhaps we should recall that in Hollywood they often receive fabulous sums (compared to, oh, magazine journalism, for instance) even in cases where the films are never finally made. The big houses presumably make the humiliation just a teeny bit easier to bear.

Peter Biskind's thrillingly libel lawyer-defying book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about the 1960s/1970s generation of American directors, shows how some of these guys would resort to almost any tactic to "share" the all-important final writing credit, even when they did little more than pace around the room requesting a few cuts. Some of the most extraordinary revelations relate to Paul Shrader's treatment of his own screenwriter brother, Leonard. (Will anyone ever write a book this brutally honest about designers and their machinations?) There's a good reason for this ruthlessness, of course, because in their hearts directors know that true auteurs must write their own material. This is why, among American directors, Woody Allen commands such admiration from his film-maker colleagues. He pulls the writer/director routine off again and again.

The auteur part of Michael's title has its origins in the French "politique des auteurs" (misleadingly translated as the "auteur theory"), which underpins any notion of the director as author. This now rather antique piece of film theory has had some airing in the design sphere. The art and design historian John A. Walker discusses it in relation to design in Design History and the History of Design (1989); Michael Rock considers it specifically in relation to graphic design in "The Designer as Author", published in Eye no. 20, in 1996; and I took a shot at applying it to the reading of a graphic designer's body of work in my book Vaughan Oliver: Visceral Pleasures.

If design authorship is really possible, then, as with films, two things must happen. All the inputs from everyone else must be under the ultimate and decisive control of someone, and that someone, director or designer, must have some kind of coherent vision that can be discerned in operation from work to work. The fame of a particular designer in relation to a body of work is no guarantee that this vision actually exists in any deep or consistent sense. Authorship in this more rigorous sense would need to be demonstrated by a close critical reading of the work and the onus would be on the critic to show that any other inputs were actually subordinated to the auteur's vision.

Rick Poynor

Filmmaking is often cited when discussing graphic design auteurship, but there really is no comparison, unless the designer is also a filmmaker, but then he or she will probably ask Pablo Ferro to design the titles. Okay, there are exceptions to the rule: Saul Bass made one short science fiction film where he did everything on his own (though he still had a DP, asst. director, etc.). But it is possible to be a graphic design auteur when narrowly defined.

The thesis for the SVA MFA Design program must be an "authorial" or "entrepreneurial" work/product. (http://design.schoolofvisualarts.edu/test/thesis.html) They can be anything original but must be a marriage of design and content/idea, carefully decided upon, tested, and analyzed for viability in the marketplace.

My defininition of design auteurship is the creation and fabrication of an individual vision, involving personal attention to all facets of the finished product. It cannot be design for its own sake, but rather design in the service of the overall idea.

A few of these thesis projects have, in fact, been sent out into the world. Some have survived intact as they began, others required more intensive collaboration by additional experts in order to see more than blue sky.
steven heller

Steve, this is surely a case where a touch more theoretical rigour is called for. It's not enough to just assert that "there really is no comparison" between the situation in film and design, as though this deals with the issue. Evidently there is a comparison: people have sometimes made it, though not, I think, with the frequency you imply - not in ambitious design writing, anyway. The term auteur when used in English, as by Michael, has its origins in film writing. One has to understand how it was applied in film criticism, by people like Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (1968), to see whether it might have any usefulness for design.

We might then conclude that it is of limited or no use, but to be at all meaningful this discussion still has to be related to the etymology and critical aims and uses of the term. Or one might conclude that some modification of the idea is necessary. The added complication is that the auteur theory is largely discredited in film theory circles, although in film promotion and general career terms it lives on (it's always a "film by" even when the film is a complete stinker). But, as I say above, simply to take it for granted that someone's body of work expresses an "individual vision" does not make it so. Any designer, in fact any one at all, could claim that their work embodied a vision. Used this loosely, the term becomes meaningless. Exponents of the auteur theory attempted to determine which film-makers exhibited the greatest depth, complexity and consistency of vision: these were the auteurs. Film-makers such as Lubitsch, Hawks, Ford and Hitchcock (all members of Sarris' "pantheon") who operated within the commercial studio system were elevated to new heights of critical esteem in the process and pretty much remain there.
Rick Poynor

Rick, your point is well taken. However, what I mean by this theoretically rigor-less statement is that the goals of filmmakers and graphic designers are not routinely the same and, therefore, the term auteur in English or French, as used by Truffaut or Sarris, is of questionable value when applied to graphic design.

Paul Rand was an individualist (in his early days a maverick), but he was not an auteur as Truffaut described Hitchcock in that wonderful book of interviews between the two. As Michael points out he was beholden to clients who gave him certain liberties that allowed him to do great work. He was an author of monographs (collections of essays on the practice of design), but he never created anything (other than his little known paintings) that were untethered from some client's mother ship (even the kids books illustrated Ann Rand's texts).

Maybe rather than continue to compare graphic design to screenwriting or film direction (a relationship that I frankly quite like), we might examine define graphic design auteurship through an analysis of those who operate within the commercial art system who "might be elevated to new heights of critical esteem" because they've contributed something that we've yet to acknowledge.
Steven Heller

From an interview conducted in 1995.

"Well, working for me is the worst place, because you will never get a chance to do any designing. I even tell my assistant -- if I have one -- I do not even want you to suggest anything. Just forget it. If you have great ideas, go home and do them, but do not show them to me. The reason for that is, many studios who hire a bunch of designers, who get no credit for their work, but the principle gets the credit. I do not do that, in my studio you just do hack work, you know, lettering, or computer, or cut paper, or whatever, there is no designing.

If I ever had a studio where you did do designing, you would be getting credit for it. Because I think it is terrible not to. However, when you are looking for a job and you want to learn I think you have to forego all of those luxuries. Because I did work for a designer, who I learned a great deal, even though he took credit for my work, this is how it is, OK."

-Paul Rand

Anthon Beeke has a reputation for being the one and only designer in his studio.

Based on what I have heard, what I myself experienced as his intern 15 years ago, and from what Anthon himself admitted to me in an interview last July - it is true.

I don't think I have it on video but at some point he said that his studio is less like Dumbar or other reputable designers young people might work for in the Netherlands. Paraphrasing 'People come and go in my studio. So I never feel like I have a team. They come here. They do what I say to do. They leave. So my studio is like a kind of boot camp. My designers all go on to success on their own or elsewhere.'

If you work for this great Dutch designer (and in IMHO probably the greatest living), you will basically be doing his vision, his designs and his concepts. However, the guy is so incredibly smart and innovative, that it starts to get inside your mind and suddenly you are thinking like him. But it is still Anthon who gets the credit. He's the Wizard.

In both movies and design, it is not wise for the backers to give any one person, any one creater, too much power. This is why the reality is that many people participate, that there is, in some sense, a system of checks and balances. The director usually cannot afford to fund the project so must jockey for as much control as possible within a complicated power structure. The same is true for the designer. The only power that the designer or director can wield comes from having received credit for something done before, for some kind of overall cultural standing. So I can see why any designer or director or writer would be wary of diluting their power by sharing credit with a group. The exception seems to be when a group is presenting themselves as a unit as in, I believe, The Designer's Republic. Pentagram seems a curious, probably savvy, mix of seeking both individual and group credit.
Trent Williams

Following a script. Staging a scene. Directing photography. These are just a few steps in the process before mass distribution of a film. And as Michael says, it's a collaborative, 'messy' job. Like a mudbath, it'll be good for us. If Paul Rand was brought to the screen in a documentary on the history of graphic design -with old footage of Sutnar ambulating on the streets of some European city- it'd be fantastic. There's bound to be 'home video' material on other figures of note within the field and it's time to find them and acquire rights, etc.
Comments on Graphic Flanerie refering to the plastic bag blowing in the wind points to the person behind the camera. That lone boy, in American Beauty, with his camcorder. That scene is 'film on video' or video in film. I'm wondering if the reason students do those kinds of 'looking closely' projects is that they are unaware what their student status gives them in terms of citing sources and it being legal(?) to 'take' from original media. Wouldn't a graphic design student, correct me if I'm wrong, be within his or her rights to screen grab randomly from Edward Scissorhands, for example, to 'write a graphic' article on film set design, with greeking for text? [there are many blades on the auteur/editor's hands :)]
Cheese Monkeys may let us down. We'll see.
In the pseudo-documentary American Splendor, comic book writer Harvey Pekar, complains about not getting footage of a Dave Letterman show he'd been on -they wouldn't give him the transcript. If you try to find writing credits you're linked to WGA.

Jessica Helfand asks:
but the real message I take away from this post, Michael, is that "messy" is an intrinsic part of the culture of making something. So why is so much graphic design so clean?

Because numbers of people, through 'oversight', have managed to take all the piss and vinegar out of it.

Rick, I don't think you really need a theoretical exegesis (comparing design with filmmaking) beyond realizing that the lower the stakes, the more personal the product. For me, this helps explain why club flyers are more interesting than the new UPS logo; why I prefer Godard to James Cameron; why pecorino is better than Velveeta.
M Kingsley

I didn't mean to be dismissive. The rigor that Rick calls for can certainly help frame a definition of the designer as author or auteur. And a solid foundation for such discussion is beneficial.

Indeed I am sometimes asked by editors at publications not focused specifically on graphic design (but that cover visual culture) why a particular designer I am writing or propose to write about should be considered as an originator or visionary in a field that is noted for its "messy" collaborations. I will always list accomplishments (i.e. iconic work for visible clients) that underscore a distinct point of view - beyond the superficial aspects of style. I never use the words author or auteur in pitches because it suggests a certain pomposity (at least on the part of the designer). And yet these terms fit certain individuals (i.e. Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, or Victor Moscoso), owing to their range of abilities (Glaser, for one, does it all, from drawing to typography) manifested in works that have made cultural and/or commercial impact.

So, after pondering Rick's challenge to be more rigorous, I must say that before accepting or rejecting the auteur theory applied to graphic design, we need to analyze the terrain with greater depth. What are the similarities, if any? What is valid, and what is myth? Whatever we call them, there are individuals who have altered the practice of graphic design through force of will, vision, and talent.
Steven Heller

I'm enjoying this thread. Drawing comparisons between filmmakers and designers has its merits on critical and theoretical levels. So what are the similarities between director and designer?

Designers service clients who target an audience; filmmakers service a studio who targets an audience. The title of auteur is granted when either one supercedes the mission or purpose delivered by the client/studio. They create a unique and personal vision, true to their agenda. This activity serves an individual in lieu of a collective. In designland, it places valuable contributors in the back seat. Copywriters, account executives, and even photographers will lose placement in the final outcome. And it's no different with film. Goodfellas becomes a movie by Martin Scorsese --a man who injects elements of his own upbringing as a short asthmatic New Yorker into each and every film. The talented crew only appears in the credits, long after the opening label of "a film by Martin Scorsese."

Architecture has operated in much the same way for centuries. We know the masterminds behind each and every structure and rarely hear about the sweat and tears given by engineers, construction workers, urban planners, or truck drivers. From Palladio to Corbu to Gehry, the designer's signature is as iconic as their final product.

What's the value in fulfilling such personal vision? Why should we care about what they have to say outside of the client's, studio's, audience's, or inhabitant's needs? And is it unfair to label auteurs as selfish? Since reading The Vow of Chastity by First-Year Students at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, I've asked myself the above questions. Their manifesto's final point always sticks in my head (from LC4): "10 - The designer must not be credited (unless all other workers are also credited). Designing and making is a collective work."

At the end of the day, when I'm tired of masturbating over notions of auteur theory and design, I can't help but ask myself, "How does it alter the practice of graphic design?" Or better yet, whom does it serve? Whether director, designer, or architect, auteurs win all the glory or get stomped on for failing. They do so by earning credit and attention for the work they do, and that's the nature of a celebrity lifestyle. Perhaps, these design auteurs (celebrities) will serve as ambassadors of our practice.


The similarities between filmmakers and designers is downright obvious when the discussion in centered around the logistics of collaboration and authorship. A more compelling discussion for me is a comparison of process.

A few years ago I taught a course with John Kramer at the Art Institute of Boston that studied design from a filmakers perspective vs. the other way around. Specifically we used David Mamet's On Directinig Film as a guiding principle. In this book, (actually a transcript of a lecture/discussion that Mamet had while visitng Columbia) Mamet outlines his version of a reductionist philosophy when organizing screen writing and frame sequencing. It's essentially a practical design manifesto. Students were then asked to use's Mamets principals to solve design-related problems. I originally thought the solutions would be an easy leap for senior-level students but the results were all over the map. Students built single images, then image sequences and finally shot video to better understand the relationships between still and moving images. Most of our attempts at coming to a true understanding fell miserably short...which means we were probably on to something.
Paul Montie

Apropos process. For a few years in a row I invited a filmmaker named Stacy Cochran ("My New Gun" and "Boys) to speak to my then illustration MFA students. Her lecture included the following.
1. Her original script for a scene in "Boys." (which she had students read)
2. The original screen test for Winona Ryder and the lead male actor, Lucas Haas (the grownup kid from Witness)
3. Her original cut of the scene with her choice of music
4. The final cut made by the production company producer (with ties to Disney) with their choice of music.

She had been hired as director/screenwriter because she was the "auteur" of "My New Gun," which had received critical praise.

The final scene bore scant resemblance to the director's cut. The music was different and represented bands under contract with the production company's label, which later appeared on the sound-track.

The entire exercise with my class was to show that artistic freedom is fleeting at best. When money is in question (Disney had hopes for this film), the vision belongs to many. Even auteurs are reduced to mistreated employees when the stakes are high.
Steven Heller

As you know Steven, everything you've ever liked that I've generated was for projects with little or no money involved. Even then it's important to note that a collaborative effort was at the core. My ideal consists of two creative spirits finding a collective path toward something beautiful and effective. That could be a designer and a director, or a designer and a scientist.

Forever a slave to aesthetics...shoot me now for not being a brand marketing strategy business management development consultant shit slinger.
Paul Montie

Great post and discussion!

I love seeing the mess that goes into designers' work, something I'm exposed to everyday working at a large studio. Unfortunately in the making of design, there is seldom funding for commentary tracks or bonus featurettes. Designers are on to the next thing as soon as an idea goes into turnaround. The desks are cleaned, the interns are on to the next gig, and years later the principals are responsible for their own biographies.

For me, part of the appeal of graphic design has always been that its heroes and practitioners go largely unsung - as a design student, I saw them as tradesmen, regular guys (and women). It's an industry, after all. Perhaps it was our field trips to messy studios and print shops, in the years just before the computer completely took over. There was something mensch-y about it that I loved. Romanticized working-class fantasy? I was going to school in Cleveland. Regular guy Harvey Pekar did end up on Letterman. I know the auteur theory had its roots in similar attitudes, in the appreciation and elevation of "unsung heroes" of the "system."

In her long essay "Raising Kane," Pauline Kael dissected the mess in the making of Citizen Kane, looking at the film as a product of collaboration and defusing Orson Welles' bloated claims of authorship. Her perspective might also save us from the designer-as-auteur:

"The director should be in control not because he is the sole creative intelligence but because only if he is in control can he liberate and utilize the talents of his co-workers, who languish (as directors do) in studio-factory productions. The best interpretation to put on it when a director says that a movie is totally his is not that he did it all himself but that that he wasn't interfered with, that he made the choices and the ultimate decisions, that the whole thing isn't an unhappy compromise for which no one is responsible; not that he was the sole creator but almost the reverse - that he was free to use all the best ideas offered him."

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