4T Design and Design History Society Association Symposium
Power, counter-power: Adobe and Libre Graphics
In 2013 the American multinational computer software company Adobe ceased offering perpetual licenses for Creative Suite, its signature collection of visual design applications, and shifted to a ‘software as a service’ subscription model under the new name Creative Cloud, whereby customers would begin paying a recurring fee for access its tools. While the decision was immediately met with widespread criticism from designers already using the software (Kingsley-Hughes, 2013; Macro, 2013), the manoeuvre rapidly transformed the profitability of the company – indeed, to such an extent that Adobe is today regarded as a pioneer of the new ‘subscription economy’, alongside corporations such as Netflix and Amazon (Moorman, 2018; Luna, 2018). The history of printing teaches us that commercial interests have always been the driver of technological change within the field of typography and graphic design (Steinberg, 1974), but Adobe’s new subscription phase should be understood as a significant development in this history, where the industry standard graphic design tools – used to produce much of the contemporary profession’s output, whether through legal or ‘pirated’ means – were withdrawn within the cloud. This development provides a clear illustration of the authority that proprietary software companies wield, who, having established customer bases, can then directly govern and control how those customers use their products.
This paper will think through the ways in which questions of authority are played out in the interactions between proprietary software companies such as Adobe – considered here as ‘brands’ – and their consumers (graphic designers), and how that authority is challenged by designers working with free libre and open source software (F/LOSS). Three different perspectives will be considered in turn:
Part 1 – Adobe: programming the consumer-designer
The first section of the paper considers Adobe’s position within the graphic design profession as a producer of a number of industry standard tools (such as Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and Acrobat), though before going any further, it’s important to stress that many of my views about Adobe’s position within design have been shaped directly by my own experiences in educational and professional contexts within Europe – for example, I teach at London College of Communication where the students on BA Graphic and Media Design are trained in Adobe software from their earliest projects and are expected to demonstrate proficiency with the software within a few years. Proficiency with Creative Cloud is also usually cited as a base requirement for professional job applications in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Adobe products are by no means universally employed – the significant expense of the software prohibits use for many, and software usage traditions within graphic design vary from region to region, and also within the field of graphic design itself, where, for example, strictly digital practices (such as user interface design and motion graphics) often display wider technological diversity. However, Adobe’s status as a world leading influence is widely recognised, and as such, this unique position marks it as a worthwhile object of analysis, not least because it is understood by some designers (see the LGC later) to symbolise the concept of proprietary software in general.
Adobe is currently ranked as one of the world’s most valuable technology companies (Global Data, 2018) and last year posted record revenue earnings (Wells, 2018). Following its foundation in 1982, the company established itself by inventing and licensing Postscript, and subsequently began to expand into the development and production of visual software (Pfiffner, 2003). Technology journalist Pamela Pfiffner’s (2003) account of the company’s history charts Adobe’s acquisitions of an enormous range of software products during the 1980s and 1990s, notably during its competition with rival companies such as Altsys, Aldus and Macromedia, a process that has continuously expanded in scope, for example, with its acquisition of online type subscription service Typekit (Gilberston, 2011), now called Adobe Fonts; social media platform Behance (Kosner, 2012); and marketing software group Marketo (Fontanella-Khan, 2018). Reading through this history, it is clear that Adobe’s success has stemmed as much from its determination to monopolise industry as its ability to develop the capabilities of its products (as sophisticated as these are).
The timeline for Adobe’s growth incidentally parallels the growth of the modern branding industry, as described by media theorist Adam Arvidsson (2006) who discusses how, during the 1980s, businesses began to shift their approaches from simple advertising and marketing strategies into Customer Relations Management, which was ‘built on the idea that it was more profitable to tie existing customers to the brand and build up brand loyalty, than to advertise for new ones’ (Arvidsson, 2006, p. 63). Arvidsson goes on to weave a complex argument around how brands function within society, drawing on Marx, in particular, to argue that the value of brands is primarily created through their appropriation of consumers’ productive power, which is exercised while using products within the social worlds that they inhabit (Arvidsson, 2006, pp. 30-35). He builds on sociologist Celia Lury’s (2004) argument that brands seek to establish themselves as a ‘platform for action’ by creating conditions where consumers completely equate certain forms of activity with their products, and where brands work to ‘“program” the freedom of consumers to evolve in particular directions’ (Arvidsson, 2006, p. 74).
Adobe’s aforementioned shift to a subscription service offers one clear case of this strategy in action. The design tool is no longer a self-contained entity – it cannot operate without internet access and is but one part of a larger network of services that continuously sends feedback to its owners, and that requires regular authorization in order to be accessed. Furthermore, the nature of the subscription service encourages dependency because the more work that a designer produces using the subscription-based tools, the less likely that they can change tool later on, given that design projects often have very long life-spans (or might need to be revisited), and so need to be accessible through particular file formats relatively indefinitely. It is quite apt then that the service is called a ‘subscription’, a word which contains the Latin root ‘sub’ with its connotations of ‘under’, ‘below’, or ‘beneath’, as in the word ‘subordinate’. This naming literally highlights the asymmetrical nature of the power relationship between brand and consumer-designer, reaffirmed with each payment.
While graphic designers are not ‘employed’ by Adobe, the work that they produce supports the company both directly, through the consumption of its products, and indirectly, by reinforcing its brand image. This means the once binary nature of these two roles – consumption and production – becomes dissolved, ‘ensuring that the means of consumption effectively become the means of production [of the brand’s image, and whereby] the brand becomes a… de-territorialized factory’ (Arvidsson, 2006, p. 82), with consumers performing as workers on behalf of the brand. Video footage of last year’s Adobe Max Summit provides a striking example of this, where, speaking from a spectacular stage, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen showcases examples of the work of consumer-designers to illustrate the ways that ‘millions of people around the world use creativity and Adobe’s tool to inspire, to express themselves, and to make an impact’ (Adobe Creative Cloud, 2018). As he continues his presentation, the full intent of the company’s aims are described in ambitious terms:
[There is one] fundamental truth that drives everything that we do here at Adobe: we believe that everyone has a story to tell. These stories may come from different corners of societies, and serve different aims, but the transformative power of stories, the fire that can ignite, from this creative spark, and the desire to turn this into action, is absolutely universal, because the capacity to create, should know absolutely no boundaries. And so our goal at Adobe, is to empower everyone to tell their story, and to nurture this creativity that exists within all of us.
(Narayen in Adobe Creative Cloud, 2018).
While we might balk at the grandiose nature of these claims – so typical of Silicon Valley brands – clearly, from Narayen’s perspective, Adobe’s growth is enabling the democratisation of technologically-fuelled creative activity as more and more practitioners gain access to its products. Key to this, he subsequently points out, is the provision of free access to Adobe products for children in certain schools – an initiative which, on one hand, might be deemed laudable, and on the other, is a clear-cut example of what the activist Naomi Klein (2001, pp. 87-105) has criticised as the ‘branding of learning’, where one of the most powerful ways that brands have of guaranteeing lifelong commitment is to expose potential consumers to their products from a very young age. This is a process that contributes to what Arvidsson (2006, p. 116) has described elsewhere as Customer Lifetime Management: ‘a strategy that aims at maximizing the overall life-time revenue of customers [by making the brand] penetrate deeper into his or her life’.
As of 2017, Adobe was estimated to have 12 million Creative Cloud subscriptions, with close to 20 million predicted by 2021 (Forbes, 2017). From a commercial perspective, this is a significant success, but the question I would like to ask today is to what extent Adobe now represents a hegemonic force within the field of graphic design. For cultural studies theorist Raymond Williams (1976, p. 145) (drawing on Antonio Gramsci) hegemony exists when our ways of seeing the world ‘are not just intellectual but political facts’, and depends ‘not only on its expression of interests of the ruling class but also on its acceptance as ‘normal reality’ or ‘common sense’ by those in practice subordinated to it.’ If designers cannot think beyond the possibility of using Adobe in order to practice – indeed, if they tacitly perceive the satisfactory realisation of their identities as designers being contingent on their proficiency with Adobe software – then it is indeed hegemonic. Williams’ crucial point is that hegemony is power that isn’t perceived as power, and instead, the world that it engenders feels natural.
Part 2 – Power and software
What might a counter-hegemonic position look like? I will argue here that one active form can be found within the Libre Graphics community of designers (LGC), who are actively involved the promotion of free/libre and open-source software (F/LOSS). This community includes practitioners from all over the world, and has its most publicly visible presence at the Libre Graphics Meeting (LGM) ‘an annual international convention for the discussion of free and open source software used with graphics’ that has met once a year since 2006 at various locations in Europe and Canada, and once in Brazil (Libre Graphics Meeting, 2019). As free software pioneer Richard Stallman (2015, p. 28) explains, advocates of these tools often use the word ‘Libre’ in place of ‘free’ to emphasise that their concern is with ‘liberty, not price’. He often jokes that the best way to understand this distinction is to think of ‘free’, as in ‘free speech’, not ‘free beer’ (Stallman, 2015, p. 43). At stake is a concern for the intellectual and political freedoms afforded by access to technology, as outlined by Stallman’s Free Software Foundation (no date) who state that ‘computers [should] work for our individual and communal benefit, not for proprietary software companies or governments who might seek to restrict and monitor us.’
These arguments connect with a number of others within discourse around the relationship between technology and authority, and design and democracy. For the philosopher Andrew Feenberg (1999, p. 131) ‘technology is power in modern societies, a greater power in many domains than the political system itself… [and further, that…] the legislative authority of technology increases constantly as it becomes more and more pervasive.’ Given that we readily acknowledge the vast power that technology holds over us, he questions why we don’t subject it to the same democratic standards as we do our political institutions (Feenberg, 1999, p. 131), and believes that ‘real change [to this existing and undesired state of affairs] will come… [only] when we recognise the nature of our subordinate position in the technical systems that enroll us, and begin to intervene in the design process in the defense of the conditions of a meaningful life and environment’ (Feenberg, 1999, p. xiv).
Based on his studies of those working within the free software movement, the anthropologist Christopher Kelty (2008) has proposed that those who participate in the creation, development and use of free software represent a collective that is ‘independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives’ (Kelty, 2008, p. 3). Given the networked nature of free software development, a further way of understanding these ideas would be within the growth of internet-mediated political resistance networks as theorised by Castells (2012, pp. 4-5), who has argued that ‘since societies are contradictory and conflictive, wherever there is power there is also counterpower… [which is] the capacity of social actors to challenge the power embedded in the institutions of society for the purpose of claiming representation for their own values and interests.’
Those working within the LGC might not be seen as ‘political’ in the sense that many of the movements that Castells discusses would be, but within the context of design, their positioning is significant because it marks the private working environment of the designer as the first point of contestation, as a place where the political begins – rather than in the publicly visible work itself that is produced. The design theorist Gui Bonsiepe has argued that designers need to be more cognisant of how their work enables or stifles the functioning of democracy in order to help ‘dominated citizens transform themselves into subjects opening a space for self-determination’ (2006, p. 29). If this idea makes sense for the end-users of design, then it must follow that the creation of design itself takes place within a similarly autonomous context, with tools that can be freely used and modified to suit the designer’s needs.
Part 3 – Libre Graphics: counter-power?
For this final section of the paper, I will discuss Libre Graphics Magazine, which was published between 2010 and 2015, running 8 issues in total, with the aim ‘to serve as a catalyst for discussion, to build a home for the users of Libre Graphics software, standards and methods’ (Libre Graphics Manifesto, no date). Produced with a regular three-person editorial team of Ana Carvalho, ginger coons, and Ricardo Lafuente, as well as guest editors and a wide network on contributors (many of whom are involved in the LGM), each issue considers F/LOSS in relation to a specific theme: first encounters (1.1); use and affordance (1.2); collaboration (1.3); the relationship between the digital and the physical (1.4); the relationship between the local and the international (2.1); gender (2.2); type and typography (2.3); and data capture (2.4) (Libre Graphics Magazine, no date).
The wide range of subjects addressed demonstrates the extent to which the subject of F/LOSS embodies a wide range of practice-based and theoretical concerns for those working within the LGC. Rather than simply being an economically expedient means to an end, free software becomes the scaffold with which to construct an entire ethics. Tools do not simply facilitate the creation of design work, but rather enable particular ways of being in the world – calling to mind the concept of ontological design, originally theorised by Terry Winogrand and Fernando Flores (1986) in the book Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, and subsequently developed by authors like Anne-Marie Willis (2006), Tony Fry (2007) and very recently Arturo Escobar (2017). These perspectives take as their starting point the idea that ‘in designing tools, we are designing ways of being’ (Winogrand and Flores, 1986, xi), and further that ‘ontologically oriented design is… necessarily… political… looking forwards to as-yet-uncreated transformations of our lives together’(p. 163). In the sense described above, libre software might be thought of as ontological from two perspectives: firstly, a defining feature of F/LOSS tools is the capability that its users have to modify the software as they see fit, so users are able to exercise self-determination by designing their own ways of working; secondly, because collaboration with others is frequently necessary in order to establish how the tools will develop, working with F/LOSS stimulates a particularly social form of practice that builds community.
Education is a central concern throughout the magazine, emphasised as the vital grounds upon which such transformations of practice might be realised: one article by Lila Pagola (2010) considers the ethical dimensions of teaching with proprietary versus free software, questioning why, for example, teaching photography with just one brand of camera would be considered unethical, but when teaching software this is the norm. She argues that ‘both teachers and students should promote critical approaches and capabilities to adaptation and flexibility in who learns, instead of creating captive users with no social awareness’ (Pagola, 2010). Such critical approaches demand an independent mindset as a corollary, and so although there is much technical guidance offered throughout the pages, ultimately the reader must learn to educate themselves, and many of the other articles embody this position implicitly, for example, the features in Issue 1.2 ‘Use Cases and Affordances’ by Pierre Marchand (2011) or Eric Schrijver (2011). The notice page included each month provides a list of new software releases and updates to be investigated by readers, and there is a comprehensive glossary section for anyone who is unfamiliar with the specialist terminology that features throughout. The editors write: ‘In this magazine, you may find concepts, words, ideas and things which are new to you. Good. That means your horizons are expanding’ (Libre Graphics Magazine, 2010).
The subject of Adobe features frequently, often as the antithesis of what that the LGC is understood to stand for. Carvalho and Lafuente (2014, p. 6) of Portuguese graphic design studio Manufactura Independente lament the fact that ‘the Adobe way of doing things has become, to many, the one way to do serious design work’, a ‘myth’ which they believe has ‘historically been emphasized by the prominent presence of Adobe in the graphics software arena.’ This dominant status has the effect of positioning anyone who practices without Adobe products as an outsider, not a ‘professional’ to be trusted. The comprehensively organised operation run by Adobe – particularly within Creative Cloud, where different applications are integrated seamlessly – is regarded as one of its particularly attractive attributes. For the duo one of the main reasons that F/LOSS tools are not widely used is that they lack ‘the convenience that people crave… [and] convenience is the main enemy of principle.’ (Carvalho and Lafuente, 2014, p. 6) This last point feels particularly significant, as one of the overarching themes to emerge from investigating the magazine relates to how the time-consuming nature of being involved with free software, and the commitment it demands – fixing bugs, writing code, corresponding with others to make updates, constantly solving problems – is substantially greater than in traditional graphic design practices, where the tools are primed for ease of use, and where this quality has proved highly seductive for the vast majority of designers.
The Libre Graphics manifesto (no date) states that users of free software are ‘underserved and unrecognized’, and notes that while the field has a ‘vibrant developer community’, it is yet to firmly establish an ‘equally vibrant and articulate user community’. Given the marginal place within traditional graphic design discourse that libre graphics currently occupies, this statement appears to hold true for now. As someone from the ‘traditional’ graphic design community, this paper is borne out of my own interests in the work of the LGC, and I remain, for now, simply an interested outsider. Part of my professional background is in design criticism, and I believe that the work that has been produced within the LGC, in particular by collectives and studios like Open Source Publishing, Manufactura Indepdente, and Constant, among many others, deserves much more serious attention than it has been given in the design media to date. Libre graphics might be a marginal activity, but the depth of its intellectual engagement with questions of power and authority within design is significant, and should be, I feel, more widely understood within the profession. While searches for alternative modes of practice are often defined too simply in terms of aesthetics or subject matter, the LGC’s work pursues a defined ethics rooted in every day praxis. This is quite different to the ethics of the often discussed ‘socially conscious’ designer, that, as Metahaven have written, operates ‘within the ideological void of the post-political’ (2013, p. 64), seeking to ‘do good’ but blind to their own complicity within the corrupt systems that shelter their activities. There are obviously other considerations here which haven’t even been touched on here – technical, economic (see Lessig, 2005) – but what I would like to suggest as one significant point to be taken here, is that an oppositional method of practice might begin before the ‘content’ of a given design has even been considered. Libre graphics represents an attempt to wrestle design back from its corporate ownership, to reclaim it as an activity that can be practised both with greater individual autonomy and in more social collaboration with others. Despite the fact that it has concluded, the magazine demonstrates that the tools are there, the knowledge is established and growing. It remains whether the traditional graphic design community at large is interested in taking up the challenge to Adobe’s authority – or whether they wish to continue to produce design as an extension and reproduction of that brand’s power, labouring ceaselessly on its behalf.
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