Observer: Encyclopedia Erratica

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“One of the key features of graphic design is it involves selecting the appropriate image making tools out of it’s ability to generate meaning rather than preference.”

You probably had to read that sentence twice, and even if you did, you are almost certainly wondering what it is supposed to mean. Apart from the clumsiness of construction, something has veered off track in the middle, and the second part of the sentence, after the erroneous “it’s,” doesn’t appear to relate to the first.

Welcome to Wikipedia and, in particular, to the Wikipedia article on graphic design. As part of the world’s favorite write-it-yourself encyclopedia, this gem of a sentence may have been deleted by the time you read this, but as the program’s logs will show, it was there, representing the best of current knowledge about the discipline, on August 24, 2007.

For anyone who turns to Wikipedia for an introduction to graphic design, gobbledygook like this doesn’t inspire much confidence. The text as a whole is a mess: a jumble of amateurish history writing, superfluous technical details, and waffle. Wikipedia is supposed to distill collective wisdom: The entry was started on December 16, 2001, by a contributor called “Wojpob” and between then and August 24, 2007, it was edited 1,657 times. Yet somehow, despite the continuous attentions of a platoon of proofreaders and text adjusters that no commercial publisher could ever afford, no one had managed to spot that “advertising” isn’t spelled with a “z.” Then there are the errors of fact. The 1964 First Things First manifesto, we’re told, was “massively influential on a generation of new graphic designers and contributed to the founding of publications such as Emigre.” Both assertions are incorrect, and whoever added three “citation needed” notes to the sentence would have done better to delete it.

It is not quite true that the 1,800-word entry doesn’t cite any references or sources, as an official Wikipedia notice states, but the seven footnotes record only one substantial work on the subject, Philip Meggs’s A History of Graphic Design—and then only once. The other citations are trivial. This contravenes Wikipedia’s guidelines, which state that references should come from authoritative sources, whether on the web, or, as is more likely, from print. Whatever one’s feelings about the probable reliability of encyclopedia updaters going under pseudonyms such as “Ohnoitsjamie,” “Knowledgeispowerandihavetheknowledge” and “West Brom 4ever” (a shout-out to the British soccer team), the lack of convincing references after six years’ worth of rewriting and correction suggests that remarkably little expertise has found its way into the entry.

And this is just an introduction to the woeful state of graphic design coverage on Wikipedia, where confusion proliferates as fast as you can knock out an off-the-cuff, unsourced new entry. Where a conventional encyclopedia might confine itself to just one general introduction to graphic design—in Encyclopedia Britannica Online’s case, one running to 17 pages—Wikipedia has space for competing spinoff entries such as “Graphic designer” (with less-than-encyclopedia-worthy info about what a portfolio looks like), “Graphic design occupations,” and “Communication design,” which have all been slapped with official Wikipedia warnings owing to their complete disregard of the site’s referencing policy.

There is also a “List of graphic designers” entry, but its usefulness falls far short of similar lists for artists and architects, which are subdivided by nationality and date. Some key figures with Wikipedia entries—Alexey Brodovitch, Bradbury Thompson, Tadanori Yokoo—haven’t even made it into the list. Entries relating to individual designers suffer from the faults already noted; they often lack even rudimentary sources, and the writing would fail in a high school essay. Countless examples could be given. Here are just a couple (again as of August 24):

On Milton Glaser: “Throughout his career he has had a major impact on contemporary illustration and design and played an influencing role for Howard Milton.” The literary term for this is bathos. There is no indication as to whom Howard Milton might be (he’s a co-founder of the British design company Smith & Milton) or why this single named example is so salient (it isn’t).

On David Carson: “During this period, Carson became a father, a fact that affected his design and work.” Fatherhood happens to many designers. Why is it particularly significant in Carson’s case? The writer doesn’t say. The detail is little more than an undigested snippet, most likely taken from an interview with Carson (not cited) and dropped into the text without any thought about whether it explains anything or not.

While Glaser and Carson clearly merit articles—Britannica features them, too—other graphic designer entries are sometimes questionable, if not ridiculous. Here, again, Wikipedia has very clear guidelines. To justify inclusion, a topic should be notable. The site explains: “A topic is presumed to be notable if it has received significant coverage in reliable secondary sources that are independent of the subject.” I have followed graphic design for many years, but the designers list still includes some American and British names I have never heard of before, and reading their entries, I’m at a loss to know what makes them truly notable compared to more illustrious colleagues. The fact is, anyone can write his or her own entry under an assumed name, or get a friend, relative, or PR person to do it, and some of these entries read like the glowing press bios found on a designer’s company website. That said, I do admire British designer Malcolm Garrett’s honesty. Someone started an entry about him, and Garrett corrected and expanded it using his own name. Still, at this point, the “encyclopedia” becomes just another promotional tool.

I have purposely refrained from making a general attack on Wikipedia. In a recent book, The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen charges Wikipedia (and other web phenomena) with destroying our culture and disrupting the economy. But if you dig down into Wikipedia’s policies and procedures, many aspects of this idealistic venture are revealed as admirable, although the site’s theoretical commitment to editorial quality is no more than you would expect from any reputable publisher. When an entry reaches a sufficiently high standard, it becomes a “featured article,” the very best of Wikipedia, indicated by a bronze star. Only about 1,500 out of 1,940,000 articles have hit these heights, and just one of them, about El Lissitzky, is related to graphic design. The second level of quality—“well written, stable, accurate, and referenced”—is dubbed a “good article.” To date, about 2,700 have reached this standard, and one of them is about Paul Rand, though at press time it still contained a howler about how he was an originator of Swiss Style.

It’s not surprising that articles on subjects such as Lissitzky and Rand should achieve a good standard. These are exceptional figures who have generated a substantial literature on which scholars, teachers, and students can draw, and they are important enough to attract the better contributors (and correctors). Even so, when it comes to design, Wikipedia’s way of constructing an article seems hopelessly circuitous, inflicting a protracted series of poorly written, error-prone, interim versions on readers who may not always know better (but certainly deserve better) on the way to an acceptable level of quality that it may take years to achieve if the graphic design article is anything to go by. It’s certainly “democratic” and anti-authoritarian, but apart from being free, from a reader’s point of view—let’s keep insisti
ng on that—what’s the advantage? A good article could be produced in two or three drafts by an experienced and knowledgeable writer working with qualified editors.

What’s less forgivable about Wikipedia and its exponents, as Keen argues in his book, is the denigration of expertise, which somehow goes hand in hand with Wikipedia’s elaborate (and rather expertly drawn up) statements of editorial intention. The site now has a rival, Citizendium—a self-styled “more reliable free encyclopedia,” started in November 2006 by Larry Sanger, a disillusioned co-founder of Wikipedia. Citizendium looks very much like Wikipedia, and you use it in the same way. There are some crucial differences, though. Anyone can still contribute, but it has to be under a real name. Citizendium also offers “gentle expert oversight,” and you need demonstrable expertise to become an editor.

All this left me with expectations that rose even higher when I found that Citizendium already has an article about graphic design stashed away among its 2,500 entries. But this turned out to be a version of the Wikipedia article imported by a graphic design student, a practice Citizendium now discourages. They should tear it up and start again, and so should Wikipedia.