Observer: Easy Writer

Posted inDesign Resources
Thumbnail for Observer: Easy Writer

Speak Up, the first of the graphic design blogs to make any kind ofimpact, 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: NowWhat?” In the past year or more, says Vit, Speak Up has “runout of questions and even perhaps out of steam. Some of us (authors)have gone from outsiders to insiders. … We have done it all. Westarted to get repetitive and, well, sometimes evenboring.”

Let’s pause right there for a second and turn toLooking Closer 5, the latest—and apparently thelast—installment in the Looking Closer series of critical writingsabout graphic design from Allworth Press. It’s been five yearssince the previous volume appeared. Speak Up also made its debut in2002, so its life coincides with the period of critical outputdocumented by LC5 (the book also has a few pieces from before that). Ithas been quite common during this time to suggest that blogs representthe great hope for a thriving new critical debate, a place where anambitious upcoming generation of design writers can sharpen theircritical skills and prose. I have made the same claim, or at leastexpressed the same hope, a few times myself.

So this is the moment oftruth. If forums such as Speak Up have proved to be fertile pastures, ifsignificant work is emerging, then we might expect to find the cream ofthe blog crop in LC5, including one or two pieces by Vit and his band ofregular authors. According to Vit, Speak Up alone has produced more than1,500 posts since it started, though many of these are short itemsrather than developed essays. Still, not a single one of SpeakUp’s longer texts has been deemed original, relevant, or durableenough to join the 44 essays in LC5.

There are a few blog posts in thebook, four to be precise, all of them from Design Observer. There areseven pieces from AIGA Voice, though this is an edited onlinepublication, so it differs in some crucial respects from ablog—more on this in a moment. When you consider the huge numberof posts on Speak Up and other design blogs, it does seem incrediblethat none of them have met the editors’ yardsticks, and it must besaid that two of the LC5 selectors, William Drenttel and MichaelBierut, are DO founders. (I should also declare an interest here as anLC contributor, DO co-founder and former writer.) While it’sperhaps not surprising that Drenttel and Bierut have each included oneof their own DO texts and two by Drenttel’s wife, JessicaHelfand—an established writer for whom blogging is now the mainoutlet—the fact is that Vit works for Bierut at Pentagram andBierut has always supported Speak Up, leaving comments on the site onmany occasions. He can hardly be accused of bias.

The same goes forLC5’s other editor, Steven Heller. No one has been moretireless, open-minded, and generous in encouraging new design writingfrom every direction. In his introduction, Heller addresses the lack ofwriting from blogs. “Blogs clearly provide stimulatingdiscussions—some quite eloquent and astute—but without therigorous editorial oversight endemic to magazines and journals, thewriting is often more raw transcription than polished prose,” henotes. Later, he adds: “While much online writing has yet to reacha consistent standard, the blogs—or whatever they’ll becalled in the future—will have to reach a more sophisticated levelto be taken seriously.” Heller is clearly phrasing this astactfully as possible. It’s disappointing that design blogs havenot proved to be much of a venue for design writing—ifLC5’s assessment is correct—and it calls for a littlemore investigation.

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

It seems obviousthat when an untrained intermediary is handling copy by an amateurwriter, the results are unlikely to be sparkling. Designers are quick toreject amateurishness within design; exactly the same considerationsshould apply to editing and writing. These are crafts that need to belearned, ideally from working with professionals. Output that fallsshort of basic standards is no more satisfactory or persuasive thanclumsily matched typefaces, botched kerning, or trite design formulasused as though they had just been invented.

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

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

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

In hisintroduction 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 slowdownreflects a decline in interest on the part of readers. Easy-accessonline design writing could be the answer, but if it is to outgrow itspresent amateurism and develop, it will need to be properly funded. Inthe meantime, for range of commentary, depth of research, and quality ofthought, 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 57comments made in response to M. Kingsley’s less than penetratingessay, only two or three respondents showed any sign of having read myactual piece before it was posted by PRINT on 10 May. That mustsurely tell us something about the quality of debate on design blogs.Although there was a smattering of thoughtful contributions onSU—for which I’m grateful—many of the other commentscompletely missed the point. For the record, I want to try to clear upsome of the misinformation and confusion stemming from SU’spost.

As a reader, writer, and editor, my interest lies, above all, inwriting—in all kinds of writing, including designcriticism—and that’s what this PRINT column is about. When Iwas editor of Eye, it was my goal to encourage good writing, and sincethe mid-1990s I have written a number of times about the development ofdesign writing and criticism during the past 15 years. When designblogs began to appear around five years ago it was natural to wonderwhether they might prove to be the source of new critical voices andapproaches. I was particularly interested to see whether participantswhose first experience of writing came from blogging would be able tomake the leap from short-form blog writing to more intensive anddemanding longer-form essay writing, whether published on screen or inprint. I blogged for a couple of years on Design Observer to get afirsthand view of the medium’s possibilities and pitfalls.

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

Yet even as Speak-Uppers show little interest in othereditorial outlets because—they humbly insist—they aredesigners first and only amateur writers, they manage to imply withamazing arrogance that their (amateurish) way of doing things issuperior to centuries of writing history, and represents some kind ofway forward. Central to this is an entirely false opposition, stated byKingsley and repeated by others, between supposedly dull professionalperfectionism and thrillingly passionate amateurism. The assumptionseems to be that passion is the ultimate good, trumping all otherconsiderations. This is clearly nonsense—you can be bothpassionate and totally wrong-headed. Moreover, whatever the activity,endeavoring to meet high standards in your work in no way rules outpassion. Indeed, part of a talented person’s passion is verylikely to be to do something as well as it can be done. Passion canmanifest itself in many different ways and forms to readers and viewerswith the sensitivity to appreciate it.

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

1. New i
nformation or arguments2. Exceptional knowledgeof a subject3. Relevance to readership4. Range and depth ofresearch5. Accuracy of reporting6. Capacity to weigh theevidence, and reliability of judgement7. Quality of writingstyle8. Originality of individual sensibility and approach

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

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

Onecommenter suggests that blogs are “an evolution of writing,towards informal conversation rather than formal discourse.” Thismight sound 21st century and progressive, but what does it actually meanwhen applied to the parts of blogs—the initial posts—thatare in many respects no different from published writing? (And I repeat:this is the aspect of blogs I am discussing here.) They are far morelike writing than conversation, even if the style is conversational, andmore informal styles are, in any case, commonplace now across all kindsof print. If the implication is that blog-post writers are somehowabsolved by the medium from the need to bear in mind points 1 to 8, thenthis can only suggest a wholesale plunge into Kingsley’shalf-baked, shitty mess. Only someone with very little experience ofgenuine quality could find that appealing. But SU-ers like MarianBantjes and Kingsley know full well that won’t do. The only wayforward is to accept the wisdom of writers, editors and readers down theages and embrace 1 to 8 as best they can, given the lack of funding (akey issue, insufficiently considered) and the part-time nature of theenterprise.

A number of commenters make the point that LC5 isnot the be-all and end-all of design criticism. No, of course it’snot. At no point do I suggest that the writing in the LC books cannot bebettered. Certainly, it can. But the question is: has it been betteredand, if so, where? See points 1, 5, and 6 above. It’s not enough toimply there are better surveys of graphic design writing out there,without naming any. My point is that the four contemporary volumes of LCdo offer a representative survey and therefore a benchmark of graphicdesign writing since 1994. If blogs have produced strong, original essaywriting, then LC5, the final volume in the series, is where wewould expect to find it, whether SU-ers claim to care or not. Butperhaps the editors are wrong. Perhaps they haven’t paid enoughattention to point 4. (I’d love to hear those lunchtime chatsbetween Armin Vit and his boss Michael Bierut about why none ofSU’s pieces made the cut.) Direct any questions aboutLC5’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 havenothing against blogs in general and if they paid, I would probablycontinue blogging, though satisfyingly detailed writing will tend on thewhole to require longer pieces than are comfortable to read on screen.Even so, there are brilliant bloggers working in other fields. See, forinstance, Momus, whoblogged briefly at DO, and the incomparable K-punk. Someone like thetireless Michael Blowhard is inanother league from the average design blogger. Designer writers shouldaim higher and, if they really can’t, they should stop pretendingto know it all about areas of activity—writing andediting—in which they admit they are amateurs.

Ipse dixit? SUcouldn’t have picked a better title to describe its complacentresponse to criticism.

Start the discussion in our forum now!