Book View: CAPS LOCK by Ruben Pater

CAPS LOCK: How capitalism took hold of graphic design, and how to escape from it

I hugely enjoyed the author’s previous book, The Politics of Design, and I’m glad to say that I hugely enjoyed this one too, if not more.

It is a pleasurable, eye-opening read full of well remixed facts and speculations that, combined together, form a powerful story about the relationship between graphic design and capitalism.

Reading Ruben Pater’s CAPS LOCK is a bit like watching Adam Curtis’ documentaries — you can hear a single voice traversing a broad range of fascinating ideas, which are all connected by a series of historical evidence and the narrator’s propositions.

In the book, the author ruminates and speculates on designer’s various roles in society, and through those lens, establishes the tangled relationship between capitalism and graphic design.

Lots of fascinating histories and implicit connections gradually help you shape up your own lens of that relationship, leading eventually and effectively to the realization that the seriousness of the matter is not to be dismissed.

And with that diagnosis, the author offers observed ideas that might lead to potential prescriptions – activism, movements, and beyond.

This is probably one of best books to start exploring graphic design’s role in society, as long as the reader keeps their critical eyes open.

The question is: is that relationship between capitalism and graphic design unique?

I’m not so sure, even after I finished the book in the most satisfying way possible.

What’s so special about capitalism when it comes to graphic design? After all, capitalism, as a concept, is not really at the same abstraction level as graphic design does. We might use a critical eye and say that any kind of “ism” surely takes hold of graphic design, not because that “ism” is similar to capitalism, but perhaps because graphic design permeates almost everything we can observe, and whatever we happen to see, becomes the things we associate with graphic design. Unfortunately, whenever we open our eyes, we see capitalism. If we opened our eyes and saw communism, would we also establish a relationship between that and graphic design? It seems we would and could just as well write a book about it.

That is not to say that the author’s diagnosis is wrong. I’m simply saying that, capitalism is not a loner in that tangled relationship with graphic design. Or maybe, capitalism is too big a concept to explore any kind of relationship with it, in the same sense that, it’d probably be an overkill to use the concept of the universe to explore its relationship with Hawaii, unless, of course, you’re a philosopher or anthropologist or the like.

Therefore, attributing capitalism to everything that’s wrong about graphic design seems at least debatable.

No doubt, capitalism permeates everything that’s wrong about graphic design, because it permeates everything about graphic design. In fact, it permeates way too many things in a world dominated by global economic and political systems. But that doesn’t mean there’s always a clear cause-and-effect explanation to anything wrong with any specific.

Graphic design is coupled with visual culture. And visual culture is inevitably entangled with the world systems, including capitalism.

In order to move forward, perhaps we not only need to look ahead, but also need to move beyond, beyond a single focus on capitalism.

This book is perhaps one of the greatest starting points for that journey of exploration.

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