You’ll Never Guess the Amazing Ways Online Design Criticism and Writing Has Changed
It’s a confusing time to be a design writer. On the same design blog, a deeply researched essay on postmodern architecture and gender politics might appear just under another feature entitled, “30 Desserts That Le Corbusier Would Love.” It’s also a guarantee that the latter would receive thousands more clicks and shares.
Thanks in part to Steve Jobs and the tech industry, design developed into a buzzword with huge cache over the past decade. iPods were the gateway drug for a whole new generation of consumers who grew to crave an acute attention to design in their products and surroundings. To feed this heightened awareness, big media outlets like Wired, Fast Company and the Atlantic launched design blogs that were met with immediate success. Even better, scores of editors and freelance writers have found employment writing about user interfaces, high-concept furniture, and branding.
It’s been incredibly exciting to witness these online design publications get thousands of page views. The audience for design writing has swelled, and finally newspapers and magazines see the value of adding a design section (or vertical) as the clicks, likes and retweets keep coming. Design writers, we now have multiple online venues to pitch our work, where editors welcome us with an enthusiasm that was much more difficult to find a handful of years ago. Finally, a sense of validation — they love us, they really love us!
When Design Becomes Link Bait
Like so many other online publications, popular design blogs are churning out content at a ludicrous speed. The rush to generate clicks and page views has led editors to take liberties with what they offer under the subheading of design. Co.Design, for example, began running such stories last year as “Jane Austen. Game Theorist?” Last September, when Slate launched its design blog called The Eye, the first story it ran was a 750-word piece called “The Classic French Eclair Gets A Makeover.”
Rarely are these blogs running critical or thought provoking pieces — the most common words you’ll find include: stunning, beautiful, gorgeous, incredible. What they are doing, for better or worse, is creating a new populist definition of design writing, one where pastries and British authors are prime topics.
On today’s web, editors often treat the design section of an online publication as a miscellaneous category, where anything related to visual, tech or object culture can be siphoned. Design often read like source material for the potpourri category on Jeopardy. It’s the perfect excuse for large photographs of covetable things, where the promise of seeing 23 Images of the Most Awesomely Tiny House is just a click away.
You can’t exactly blame online publishers and editors for taking this route. After all, this is a model that rewards page views, not critical discourse. It’s not that this sort of content doesn’t have its place; every now and then, you do want to know what desserts Corbu would’ve craved, or if a piece of 3D-printed candy actually tastes good. But design writing and its ability to provide critical context and debate is unrecognizable in this model. The result is that these blogs have succeeded in alienating design writers and readers who were hoping that, at the very least, content would stay on topic.
The real loser in this scenario, it seems, is the design community itself. Design blogs have proven to be useful resources for visual inspiration and industry news, but ultimately add very little meaningful value to design as a discipline. As a design writer, I could make a living selling and writing pieces about 3D printing trends, for which I would be rewarded in both paychecks and retweets — perhaps that is part of the reason why essays directed specifically toward the design community, like the one you are reading now, are simply not as abundant as I assumed they would be by now. If any of this sounds hyperbolic, just ask yourself: when was the last time you read a great essay, directed to designers and design writers, that inspired tons of fiery comments? For me, it was Michael Bierut’s essay, “Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport.” That was over a year ago.
It is my fear than in our exuberance to embrace online publishing, we’re forgetting to use these same tools for the betterment of the design discipline, for starting our own conversations. We no longer have to worry about how, where or if design writing will be published — the audience and outlets exist. What we do have to worry about, however, is that the community that produces this work continues to feel supported, inspired, and connected.
The design community goes through waves when it comes to the desire for connectivity. Even in the recent history of design discourse, the ebb and flow of this need drove key movements that still resonate today.
First Things First
Manifestos aren’t really in fashion these days, but there was once a time when designers felt passionate enough to write them and we felt compelled enough to read them. In 1999, a group of designers, academics and art directors, revised and signed an updated version of First Things First, a manifesto written in 1963 that sought to bring ethical reasoning to the process of money-making design and advertising business models. “That designers could exert any significant influence seemed far-fetched,” wrote Steve Heller in Looking Closer Four, “but FTF was a wake up call that passivity could no longer be tolerated.” Carrying a message to the same effect, the 1999 version of First Things First was signed by a younger generation, and was disseminated in design journals and in anti-consumer culture magazine Adbusters.
The response to the republished manifesto was astounding. Years of debate followed in the form of conferences, lectures, rebuttal essays, and argumentative cocktail hours, sparking conversations that were far more interesting than the content of the manifesto itself. Its “high-ground tone” created more controversy than “any design issue since the modern-versus-postmodern style war of the early Nineties,” wrote Heller. So inciting was FTF, its effects could be found in enough design essays to fill up half of Looking Closer Four.
Though the principles of FTF never quite seem to make a long term impact, they will possibly never die; with its 50th anniversary this year, it was renewed for members of a web-based generation.
Perhaps the only positive long-lasting effect of First Things First was that it inspired designers to get more involved with critical discourse. Fortunately, just as the final FTF shockwaves were dissipating, a new platform appeared in 2002, when designer Armin Vit founded Speak Up, a virtual watering hole that fostered the beginnings of design criticism and writing on the Internet. Unlike the glib, casual environment of cocktail parties, Speak Up saw many designers thoughtfully verbalizing their opinions and methodologies in a (virtually) pulic setting; a look through the archives reveals the raw, unfiltered opinions of some of today’s most respected designers and design writers.
Back then, the Internet was like a digital Cheers, where everybody knew your username. Speak Up provided the meeting space for a previously-scattered international community, where everyone debated, discussed and defended ideas on equal footing. The site had unprecedented effects, building careers and forming friendships. Debbie Millman even credits much of her professional success to the connections she developed through Speak Up. It was even, according to William Drentell, the inspiration for the very site you are reading now. For a time, the two sites were complimentary; the informal conversations on Speak Up inspired many of the polished essays published on Design Observer.
Design Observer has officially been around a decade, ensuring that we have, and hopefully always will have, a repository for design writing. But Vit’s decision to close Speak Up in 2009 was a reflection of a rapidly changing area of the Internet. By that time, online publishing tools had become affordable (free) and accessible (one-click). Designers and design writers broke away, creating their own personal blogs on their personalized dot coms. Whole communities fractured for the pursuit of DIY publishing. “Goodbye to the good diner in our neighborhood. With the long counter and the regulars who like to talk,” wrote Jim Lasser in the final post on Speak Up.
The Next Step
Online or off, it hasn’t been the best year for design writing and criticism. I would list the many blows the field has suffered if I thought it would be constructive, but it would only be depressing. One of these low points came early last year when Michael Bierut, having determined that quality design writing is drying up, wondered if it was even possible to “scrape together enough content for a sixth volume” of Looking Closer — I took this personally. The exciting news is that offline, design writing is being championed and supported with renewed interest; independent design journals are cropping up, along with design book clubs and salons. But I’m still convinced that we can harness online tools to continue to press design discourse further.
It’s not to say that meaningful design conversations aren’t happening online; you can find them on personal blogs, on Twitter and Tumblr, and in emails. But it is my hope that we can pull these conversations out of their silos. We can, after all, have great interactions on Twitter, but those tweets drift away, lost in a fire hose-like output of pithy aphorisms and FourSquare check-ins.
As part of a new generation of design writers, I’m still trying to envision the next step. I want something that’s meaningful, inquisitive, exciting and most of all, inclusive. I find myself itching for the community and interaction that occurred among previous generations over a decade ago. Looking over the history of design reveals how certain movements — the Bauhaus, First Things First, Arts & Crafts — function like Mary Poppins, appearing when they are most needed and disappearing once they have been outgrown. Yet it is up to the members of a frustrated generation, not a wind-propelled English nanny, to resurrect and adapt these movements.
I’m glad design blogs exist, even if they prioritize page views over subject matter. But what we need is more community, more conversation and more arguments. Maybe it’s time to bring back the diner.
Originally published on Design Observer, March 6, 2014