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.