Observer: Easy Writer

Speak Up, the first of the graphic design blogs to make any kind of
impact, is not what it used to be. Don’t take my word for it,
though. The news comes from the site’s irrepressible founder,
Armin Vit, writing in a recent post titled “Speak Up: Now
What?
” In the past year or more, says Vit, Speak Up has “run
out of questions and even perhaps out of steam. Some of us (authors)
have gone from outsiders to insiders. … We have done it all. We
started to get repetitive and, well, sometimes even
boring.”

Let’s pause right there for a second and turn to
Looking Closer 5, the latest—and apparently the
last—installment in the Looking Closer series of critical writings
about graphic design from Allworth Press. It’s been five years
since the previous volume appeared. Speak Up also made its debut in
2002, so its life coincides with the period of critical output
documented by LC5 (the book also has a few pieces from before that). It
has been quite common during this time to suggest that blogs represent
the great hope for a thriving new critical debate, a place where an
ambitious upcoming generation of design writers can sharpen their
critical skills and prose. I have made the same claim, or at least
expressed the same hope, a few times myself.

So this is the moment of
truth. If forums such as Speak Up have proved to be fertile pastures, if
significant work is emerging, then we might expect to find the cream of
the blog crop in LC5, including one or two pieces by Vit and his band of
regular authors. According to Vit, Speak Up alone has produced more than
1,500 posts since it started, though many of these are short items
rather than developed essays. Still, not a single one of Speak
Up’s longer texts has been deemed original, relevant, or durable
enough to join the 44 essays in LC5.

There are a few blog posts in the
book, four to be precise, all of them from Design Observer. There are
seven pieces from AIGA Voice, though this is an edited online
publication, so it differs in some crucial respects from a
blog—more on this in a moment. When you consider the huge number
of posts on Speak Up and other design blogs, it does seem incredible
that none of them have met the editors’ yardsticks, and it must be
said that two of the LC5 selectors, William Drenttel and Michael
Bierut, are DO founders. (I should also declare an interest here as an
LC contributor, DO co-founder and former writer.) While it’s
perhaps not surprising that Drenttel and Bierut have each included one
of their own DO texts and two by Drenttel’s wife, Jessica
Helfand—an established writer for whom blogging is now the main
outlet—the fact is that Vit works for Bierut at Pentagram and
Bierut has always supported Speak Up, leaving comments on the site on
many occasions. He can hardly be accused of bias.

The same goes for
LC5’s other editor, Steven Heller. No one has been more
tireless, open-minded, and generous in encouraging new design writing
from every direction. In his introduction, Heller addresses the lack of
writing from blogs. “Blogs clearly provide stimulating
discussions—some quite eloquent and astute—but without the
rigorous editorial oversight endemic to magazines and journals, the
writing is often more raw transcription than polished prose,” he
notes. Later, he adds: “While much online writing has yet to reach
a consistent standard, the blogs—or whatever they’ll be
called in the future—will have to reach a more sophisticated level
to be taken seriously.” Heller is clearly phrasing this as
tactfully as possible. It’s disappointing that design blogs have
not proved to be much of a venue for design writing—if
LC5’s assessment is correct—and it calls for a little
more investigation.

The biggest single problem with blogs as a medium
for writing is the very thing that bloggers tend to love them for: the
lack of editors. It’s naive to imagine that you can just sit down
at the keyboard, shoot from the hip, and hit the target unaided every
time. There is no writer who doesn’t benefit from good editing,
and it doesn’t matter how long you have been writing. Anyone who
has worked on a longer text for publication knows how much work it takes
on both sides to produce something fit to print. Some of this effort has
to do with larger issues of content and the development of a strong
argument; some of it with the details of copyediting.

It seems obvious
that when an untrained intermediary is handling copy by an amateur
writer, the results are unlikely to be sparkling. Designers are quick to
reject amateurishness within design; exactly the same considerations
should apply to editing and writing. These are crafts that need to be
learned, ideally from working with professionals. Output that falls
short of basic standards is no more satisfactory or persuasive than
clumsily matched typefaces, botched kerning, or trite design formulas
used as though they had just been invented.

Where the lack of both
rigorous editing and a proper editorial structure is most problematic is
with collective blogs that are really magazines by another name. Speak
Up and Design Observer fall into this category. Blogs generally
don’t pay, which makes it hard to sustain contributors’
involvement over time, or obtain copy from established writers
unaccustomed to working for nothing. (It’s striking how few of the
writers gathered in the Looking Closer series over the years have
anything to do with blogging.) Research will always suffer where there
is no cash to fund it. There is an inevitable tendency to go with
whatever contributions you can get because you are not in a position to
do anything else. Since the site owners are their own arbitrators, there
is no one to question the content, pertinence, or interest value of the
pieces they write. The thrill of blogging—I have felt it,
too—is being able to please yourself. The danger with this is that
you succumb to self-indulgence and don’t even know it.

Of
course, none of this matters if you are blogging only a few quick lines
of text to go with some digital snaps you want to share. There are many
innocuous, one-person design blogs of this kind. They are often likable,
informative, and entertaining, but they don’t attempt the sort of
sustained essay writing that LC5 has gathered from printed sources.

Perhaps Speak Up’s self-acknowledged lull is the moment to
suggest that hopes for design blogs have been pitched too high. Vit
blows his own trumpet with a gusto few printed publications would stand
for, but a lot of it is hot air. His post is full of grandiose claims
about how critical Speak Up has been. True, the comments sometimes
contained some sharp and revealing exchanges, though you usually had to
wade through a lot of bilge to fish them out. But many posts by the
site’s resident authors were uncritically pro-establishment, and
as Vit says, some of them are insiders now. His suggestion that Speak Up
will attempt to “find Design Relevance” (his caps) is just
the kind of woolly thinking an editor might have questioned. First Vit
seems to be talking about design’s relevance in everyday life;
then he seems to be talking about everyday life’s relevance to
design. Whatever he is trying to say, as a big new direction, despite
the self-admiring fanfare, it’s far from novel: The best design
writers have been exploring these issues for years.

In his
introduction to LC5, Heller suggests that, compared to the ’90s,
there is less serious critical design writing happening in any medium,
and that’s my impression, too. It may be that the slowdown
reflects a decline in interest on the part of readers. Easy-access
online design writing could be the answer, but if it is to outgrow its
present amateurism and develop, it will need to be properly funded. In
the meantime, for range of commentary, depth of research, and quality of
thought, printed publications are still the best source.

POYNOR REPLIES TO SPEAK UP’S DISCUSSION OF “EASY WRITER”

The column above has caused quite a palaver at Speak Up. In the first 57
comments made in response to M. Kingsley’s less than penetrating
essay, only two or three respondents showed any sign of having read my
actual piece before it was posted by PRINT on 10 May. That must
surely tell us something about the quality of debate on design blogs.
Although there was a smattering of thoughtful contributions on
SU—for which I’m grateful—many of the other comments
completely missed the point. For the record, I want to try to clear up
some of the misinformation and confusion stemming from SU’s
post.

As a reader, writer, and editor, my interest lies, above all, in
writing—in all kinds of writing, including design
criticism—and that’s what this PRINT column is about. When I
was editor of Eye, it was my goal to encourage good writing, and since
the mid-1990s I have written a number of times about the development of

design writing and criticism
during the past 15 years. When design
blogs began to appear around five years ago it was natural to wonder
whether they might prove to be the source of new critical voices and
approaches. I was particularly interested to see whether participants
whose first experience of writing came from blogging would be able to
make the leap from short-form blog writing to more intensive and
demanding longer-form essay writing, whether published on screen or in
print. I blogged for a couple of years on Design Observer to get a
firsthand view of the medium’s possibilities and pitfalls.

In
a review of
Speak Up
published in 2003 after it had been going for a year I
noted its strength as a community. Clearly the opportunities for
interaction and debate that blogs present make them a different medium
in that respect, but this is not what I’m talking about in my
column. I’m concerned simply with the substance of the writing,
especially in initial posts that are most essay-like. If SU’s
founder and regular contributors have no interest in developing as
writers outside the safe world of their own self-created blog-club
that’s entirely up to them. Wherever they come from, talented,
ambitious writers with something original to say will want and need
rather more.

Yet even as Speak-Uppers show little interest in other
editorial outlets because—they humbly insist—they are
designers first and only amateur writers, they manage to imply with
amazing arrogance that their (amateurish) way of doing things is
superior to centuries of writing history, and represents some kind of
way forward. Central to this is an entirely false opposition, stated by
Kingsley and repeated by others, between supposedly dull professional
perfectionism and thrillingly passionate amateurism. The assumption
seems to be that passion is the ultimate good, trumping all other
considerations. This is clearly nonsense—you can be both
passionate and totally wrong-headed. Moreover, whatever the activity,
endeavoring to meet high standards in your work in no way rules out
passion. Indeed, part of a talented person’s passion is very
likely to be to do something as well as it can be done. Passion can
manifest itself in many different ways and forms to readers and viewers
with the sensitivity to appreciate it.

According to Kingsley, using
more damning language about SU than anything to be found in my column,
SU is “a mess, there’s a lot of shitty prose to wade
through, and many of the ideas are half-baked. But at its best, Speak Up
makes that emotional connection.” While passion does indeed help
to make an emotional connection with the reader, it’s hardly the
bedrock of good writing. A piece of writing without at least several of
the following qualities (in no particular order) will amount to very
little:

1. New information or arguments
2. Exceptional knowledge
of a subject
3. Relevance to readership
4. Range and depth of
research
5. Accuracy of reporting
6. Capacity to weigh the
evidence, and reliability of judgement
7. Quality of writing
style
8. Originality of individual sensibility and approach

And, if these standards are to be maintained, proper editing is
vital.

The question, for anyone who wants to think seriously about Speak
Up’s—or any other blog’s—value as writing and
commentary, as opposed to its social or community function, is the
extent to which it demonstrates any of the qualities above.

One
commenter suggests that blogs are “an evolution of writing,
towards informal conversation rather than formal discourse.” This
might sound 21st century and progressive, but what does it actually mean
when applied to the parts of blogs—the initial posts—that
are in many respects no different from published writing? (And I repeat:
this is the aspect of blogs I am discussing here.) They are far more
like writing than conversation, even if the style is conversational, and
more informal styles are, in any case, commonplace now across all kinds
of print. If the implication is that blog-post writers are somehow
absolved by the medium from the need to bear in mind points 1 to 8, then
this can only suggest a wholesale plunge into Kingsley’s
half-baked, shitty mess. Only someone with very little experience of
genuine quality could find that appealing. But SU-ers like Marian
Bantjes and Kingsley know full well that won’t do. The only way
forward is to accept the wisdom of writers, editors and readers down the
ages and embrace 1 to 8 as best they can, given the lack of funding (a
key issue, insufficiently considered) and the part-time nature of the
enterprise.

A number of commenters make the point that LC5 is
not the be-all and end-all of design criticism. No, of course it’s
not. At no point do I suggest that the writing in the LC books cannot be
bettered. Certainly, it can. But the question is: has it been bettered
and, if so, where? See points 1, 5, and 6 above. It’s not enough to
imply there are better surveys of graphic design writing out there,
without naming any. My point is that the four contemporary volumes of LC
do offer a representative survey and therefore a benchmark of graphic
design writing since 1994. If blogs have produced strong, original essay
writing, then LC5, the final volume in the series, is where we
would expect to find it, whether SU-ers claim to care or not. But
perhaps the editors are wrong. Perhaps they haven’t paid enough
attention to point 4. (I’d love to hear those lunchtime chats
between Armin Vit and his boss Michael Bierut about why none of
SU’s pieces made the cut.) Direct any questions about
LC5’s content to S. Heller, W. Drenttel, and M. Bierut.

One final point about blogs: We have ended up talking about Speak Up,
but my points also apply to other collective design blogs, including DO.
I used SU as an example because it was the first design blog of note,
and is well known. Despite everything I have said above, I have
nothing against blogs in general and if they paid, I would probably
continue blogging, though satisfyingly detailed writing will tend on the
whole to require longer pieces than are comfortable to read on screen.
Even so, there are brilliant bloggers working in other fields. See, for
instance, Momus, who
blogged briefly at DO, and the incomparable K-punk. Someone like the
tireless Michael Blowhard is in
another league from the average design blogger. Designer writers should
aim higher and, if they really can’t, they should stop pretending
to know it all about areas of activity—writing and
editing—in which they admit they are amateurs.

Ipse dixit? SU
couldn’t have picked a better title to describe its complacent
response to criticism.

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