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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.


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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