Change Maker: Steven McCarthy

Spreads from McCarthy’s book, The Designer As…Author, Producer, Activist, entrepreneur, Curator and collaborator: New Models for communicating

Emily Luce and Steven McCarthy make Complex Social Change connections based on his recently published book exploring the expansive discipline of design.

What is design authorship?

It began, in the 1990s, as a confluence of writing, typography, graphic design and the self-publishing of designer-generated content. Design authorship has since enlarged its purview to represent designers’ engagement with content, meaning, and the full scope of social, economic and cultural production through design. Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope poster is a good example: not a client commission, but initiated through the desire for social change. Of course, Lorraine Schneider’s iconic poster “war is not healthy for children and other living things” pre-empted this by forty years.

Because you’ve recently developed your book,The Designer as…Author, Producer, Activitst, Entrepreneur, Curator and Collaborator: New Models for Communicating, you’ve had the opportunity to assess the state of design in the present moment. What’s happening out there these days?

There’s a wealth of varied and exciting activity. Related theoretical movements such as ‘critical design’ and ‘design fiction’ enrich design authorship’s intellectual base by pulling in those from product and industrial design and engineering, science fiction and computer science. Those working in literature are now exploiting the possibilities of richer visual-verbal texts; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World, for example. Authorship is showing up in activities such as exhibition curating and event-programming — Design Inquiry combines design with social interaction in a community-oriented setting.

Can you give an example of how a new model for communicating affects authentic change?

In the book I make this case by its opposite: imagine the absurdity of questioning designers’ ability to write, initiate, publish, create, dissent, innovate and so on. In others words, the cultural legitimacy afforded to poets, artists, architects, film directors and others will now be due to designers as we move from solely professional service provision to shapers of our common future. Because ‘designers as…’ are both content creators and end-users, we can more deeply empathize with others.

Can you share a couple of further resources for design authorship, new models for communicating, or anything that’s lighting you up right now?

A few of the many: Kyungwon Kim’s recent MA thesis project “Graphic Authorship” done at Kingston University, London, French collective H5′sLogorama” animated film, curator Thomas Starr’s “We The Designers” exhibition, the “OpenBook” workshop held annually in northern Michigan, Someguy’s “1000 Journal” project and more!

How about a quick recipe?

TEFF-CAKES (pancakes made from teff, an east African grain)

half cup teff flour
half cup wheat flour
one teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
rounded teaspoon sugar
one egg
one cup milk
quarter cup vegetable oil (prefer canola)

mix all briskly with wire whisk until evenly smooth
ladle a six inch diameter circle of batter onto to medium hot griddle, slightly oiled
flip when a few bubbles form on surface

serve with butter and maple syrup; add a chopped banana on top for a real treat!


About Steven McCarthy

Steven McCarthy has an MFA in design from Stanford University (a joint program of the departments of art and mechanical engineering), and a BFA in sculpture and drawing from Bradley University. Since 1998, he has been a professor of graphic design at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. For nine years prior, he was on the faculty of Northern Kentucky University.

Steven’s graphic design work has been published in Graphis Poster, the American Institute of Graphic Arts annual, HOW, Page and in Provocative Graphics: The Power of the Unexpected in Graphic Design, among others. His creative work has been in over ninety juried and invitational exhibitions.

His artist’s books are in some prestigious collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria & Albert, the Banff Centre in Canada, the Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry, Yale University Library and the Houghton Library at Harvard University. His interactive works have been exhibited at the Paris/Berlin International Meetings, at FILE – the International Festival of Electronic Language in Sao Paulo, and at the Images Festival, Toronto.

He has had the good fortune to have been included in some innovative curatorial projects that seek to expand the boundaries of the discipline: Soul Design, organized by Kali Nikitas, Adversary, ‘collated’ by Kenneth FitzGerald, I Profess, jointed curated by Maya Drodz and Chris Corneal, Products of our Time, curated by Daniel Jasper, and We The Designers, curated by Tom Starr.

Steven has published in Eye, Convergence, Design Issues, Visual Design Scholarship, and the Journal for Aesthetic Education. He is known internationally for his contributions to developing a theory of design authorship.

The Designer As…Author, Producer, Activist, entrepreneur, Curator and collaborator: New Models for communicating is available from BIS publishers (

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