The Case for the Design Producer

© Graham Larkin 2013

In the previous section I described how the present website originated in a teaching experiment where I set out to catalyze some student projects and launch them into the world where I could continue to promote and cultivate them. Since this incubation process goes beyond mere teaching or advising, I think it’s worth giving a name to the role I’m carving out for myself.

There’s a certain overlap between the work I was doing and the job of creative director in a design firm. (Think Don Draper). But there are also a lot of differences: I was running a seminar, not a business; there was no client, no budget, no scientific market testing or vetting by committee; and teamwork was entirely optional. Rather than mimicking a traditional design firm, I was keen to sidestep any such elaborate infrastructure and get right down to making. This streamlined approach is born of a forward-thinking hacker ethos which is in turn rooted in older practices. The process of intimate collaboration and the anticipation of particular markets is strikingly close to A&R and production work in the music industry–an analogy that has led me to call myself a design producer.

Variously described as gatekeepers, groupies-with-chequebooks and cultural intermediaries, A&R (artists & repertoire) folks have long been a mainstay of the recording industry. Their job is to  do whatever it takes to make a hit. As a rule this means finding talent, overseeing  production, and assisting with promotion–a variety of tasks whose success depends on a wide range of knowledge, skills and professional contacts. Although for big record labels A&R has almost invariably been a conservative operation–more often mimicking existing trends than forging new markets–a notable exception is the tastemaker John Hammond (1910-1987) who helped launch the careers of popular musicians from Bennie Goodman, Billie Holiday and Count Basie to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn.


In the multimodal communications arena there is something of Hammond’s rogue spirit in Jerome Agel (1930-2007), a publishing impresario who paired authors and designers in the creation of the typo-photographic “experimental paperback” beginning with Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s Medium is the Massage (1967) and peaking with Buckminster Fuller and Quentin Fiore’s I Seem to Be a Verb (1970). We can now trace the genesis of Agel’s genre-bending exploits in a groundbreaking overview by Jeffrey Schnapp and Adam Michaels.[1] In coordinating the production of those explosive little books Agel loudly claimed for himself the title of (yes) producer–a term that resonated with the glamour of record producers like Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Wilson.

The record producer’s role is to punch up musical talent–again, doing whatever it takes to make a hit–through intimate collaboration with musicians and sound engineers. Using a similar method but different materials, Agel put together the writer McLuhan and the designer Fiore to make a hit–a book that was approaching its eleventh printing and half a million sales within six months of its 1967 release.[2] In addition to the paperback The Medium is the Massage was released as a hardcover, and LP and a magazine-in-a-box–a polymorphous array of publications benefitting author, designer and producer.


New technology often plays an important role in production innovation, and in that realm I see a close parallel between the sixties music industry and current design practice. During the long 1960s record production was radically freed up by the technology of multitrack recording, enabling the likes of  Spector, Martin and Wilson to achieve huge effects with relatively affordable post-production wizardry. In recent years the improvement and ready availability of digital tools has led to a no-less-dramatic revolution in sound, image and multimedia production. With the benefit of Adobe Illustrator, Tumblr and Twitter I can play both Agel and Fiore, assembling a verbo-visual mashup like this and publishing it on many platforms in under an hour. Just imagine what a studio full of architecture students could produce over the course of a month or two…

[1]  Schnapp, Jeffrey T, and Adam Michaels. The Electric Information Age Book: Mcluhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012. See the interview here.

[2] Schnapp & Michaels, ibid., p. 87.


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The projects featured here were created by graduate students at the Azrieli School of Architecture, Carleton University, in a class that ran from January to April 2013. For more information consult the menu bar, or simply browse projects by category using the tag cloud.
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