Rick Poynor | Essays

How to Say What You Mean

One thing that never fails to surprise me about the design scene – correction: the American design scene – is how much some people want to talk about writing. This does come up once in a while in Britain, but only in the sense of copywriting. Every so often there is an article in the trade press arguing that designers should be more aware of the importance of good writing in their commercial projects. And that’s about it. What never seems to arise in Britain in any serious way is the question of design writing. What is it for? Who is it for? How should it be approached? What are the differences between journalism, criticism and theory? What concerns and modes of address are right for particular audiences? British design writers and their readers carry on as though all this was self-evident and there was nothing whatsoever to discuss. It’s a shame.

In the US, though, it’s another story. In the last decade or so the question of design writing has come up repeatedly. As a former editor (more on that below), as well as someone who lives by writing, this topic has always been of the greatest interest to me. I was committed to writing long before I knew anything about design. I have written a handful of pieces about design writing over the last decade, but with a single exception, which I published in Eye, these have been for American audiences. In a couple of cases, they were initially presented as talks delivered in the US.

The most recent of these pieces is a column in Print magazine, where I took as my starting point a review written by Matt Soar, a British academic based in the US, of Paula Scher’s book Make it Bigger. It was something of a lament that the two sides, academia and practice, still find it so hard to discover a common language. “If design educators wish to bring about a more critically aware design profession,” I suggested, “then it is up to them to talk to ordinary designers in a way designers can understand.”

This sentence makes a couple of unexpected appearances in the latest Emigre (issue 66). Rudy VanderLans quotes it neutrally, but an academic called David Cabianca, interviewed by VanderLans on the strength of a letter he had published in the previous issue, takes exception. Cabianca argues that, since professional designers were once design students, their educations must have failed them if they struggle later with academic language. He also wonders why there is no corresponding call for professionals to elevate the level of their understanding and vocabulary. “No one faults a lawyer or doctor for using very specific language when discussing their respective practices with other lawyers or doctors,” he says.

Are lawyers a helpful example here? The serpentine syntax of legal language is often used to obfuscate meaning and confuse those outside the law. This doesn’t mean that legal concepts are necessarily hard to grasp. There is a crucial difference between subtle and complex ideas and needlessly convoluted and indirect forms of expression. The more difficult the ideas, the greater the need for clarity.

In his interview, VanderLans – as wily as an interrogator as he is modest – asks Cabianca to explain the phrase “disciplinary specificity”, used in his letter. Cabianca replies that it means that each discipline, such as painting or law, has specific ways of seeing the world. The idea is simple enough, but the phrase is likely to be unclear unless you operate in a milieu where it is commonly used as shorthand. (You only have to read Emigre’s letters to obtain a sense of the variety of backgrounds its readers come from and see that this understanding cannot be assumed.) The effect of combining encapsulations of this kind in sentence after sentence is to produce an awkward, unnatural prose that sounds nothing like everyday speech and constantly trips up the reader. Jargon has its place. It speeds up communication between insiders. But it quickly becomes a way of fencing off territory and keeping other people out. I have met many intelligent, well-educated designers, but I know very few who are comfortable with academic styles of language and who are able to communicate this way convincingly, either face to face or in writing.

Unless you happen to be a translator, there is no better way of grappling with the complexities of language and meaning than the experience of editing other people’s writing. Few readers of an article or essay, except for perhaps some academic readers, will peruse it as many times or as closely as an editor. It’s the editor’s task to understand what the author is saying and to ensure that this is expressed in a way that the reader can understand. Not many pieces of writing of any kind are sufficiently lucid and wrinkle-free to be printed without revision. Often you discover, once you begin to unravel knotted prose, that there is much less to it than met the eye. It makes you a wary reader. On the other hand, take a look at almost anything that finds its way on to Arts & Letters Daily. There is no shortage of sophisticated thinking, but the prose that delivers it is vigorous, endlessly supple and engaging everyday English.

One of my favourite essays about – not exactly design – but popular visual culture was written by George Orwell in 1941. “The Art of Donald McGill” is a fond analysis of British comic postcards, which combined great sexual frankness, for their day, with vulgar humour. Orwell’s vocabulary could not be plainer and more direct, yet the sentences push along with great energy and he is brilliantly attentive to the postcards’ visual routines, to their social and cultural meanings. I would be thrilled to read writing about visual communication today that showed half this level of ambition. There is a place for an inward-looking design terminology. But the real challenge for design writing now is to move outwards into a world in which design is everywhere.

Posted in: Media, Theory + Criticism

Comments [37]

In general, I agree with Poynor's assessment.
David Cabianca

Say what you mean. A strange locution, with the illocutionary force of an impossible and/or trivial command, and the perlocutionary effect of asserting that the critic (Poynor) is in a position to tell people what they mean by way of an editing process whereby meaning is constrained by "common English"..

"Say what you mean" tells us, seemingly simply, to say what we mean. But whenever anything is said, there are two meanings: the meaning of what is said --"Say what you mean", which I said is either impossible or trivial -- and what is "meant" by the author--"Say it in plain English", which as I've said elsewhere, might actually mean "Say something that I already understand."

Saying what you mean is impossible because words do not have inherent meaning. There is no combination of words that is equivalent to my meaning, since meaning is somehow "attached" to words, and quite loosely and contingently. What you mean cannot equal what you say, because words and meaning are not identical.

Saying what you mean is trivial, in another sense, because whatever is "said" (meant) is "meant". When I am saying these things, I do mean what I say. I mean that I mean what I mean. I am saying, perhaps indirectly, that the ideas of, for example, Ricoeur or Habermas are relevant to this discussion. I am saying that although the philosophical avant-garde has evolved to a certain point, designers have not assimilated these evolutions into their own understanding. I am not saying that it is necessary that designers do so; I am saying that I would like to see this happen. At the same time I am trying to make it happen by revealing connections and distances. I am using words like "illocutionary" precisely because I think that design writing should look outward, become less insular, and hopefully, by building these semantic bridges, begin to make "thought" (of the highest caliber) accessible to a practice that is supposedly centered around thinking and planning. I am not going to "dumb it down" because, in relation to this high philosophical thought, my thinking is already quite dumb. Perhaps my ambiguity is a sign of undigested thought, but I don't deny it. I suggest rather that there is a general fear of indigestion, or an embarrassment in relation to indigestion, which keeps design thinkers from attempting to assimilate new thought. The theoretical savage is not concerned with inhibitive manners.

And yet, I'm not simply trying to play catch-up, or "use" this thinking to increase the status of design, as many in the previous generation of theorists did. I'm quite happy to remain in a position of no status for as long as I have not offered anything of real value. The reason that we cannot immediately make sense of these ideas, the reason that we need savages and not elites, is because we have a different background which is alien to and yet-to-be synthesized with this higher thinking. Our design background needs to be brought into conversation with other thinking-on-thought in order to produce a new kind of knowledge that is directly relevant to our own work. At that point we will have achieved some progress.

I cannot give you point-by-point instructions on how this can be done, because I haven't done it yet and in any case it is a process to be undertaken by a group of us together. Otherwise my thought would be rather introverted and eventually useless to fellow designers. I am inviting people on my journey toward making these connections and hoping that some will help speed it along and share the advances.

I would like to re-raise the issue of critical autonomy and note that, although I backed down and agreed with Mr. Poynor's claim to support both artistic and critical autonomy, I more and more begin to disagree with it. Catering to the market in terms of both language and possible complexity is a loss of critical autonomy. I recently became aware of Anne Bush's article in Emigre #36, "Criticism and the Politics of Absence", in which she criticizes Mr. Poynor along the same lines. I am unaware of Poynor's response at this time (I don't have all the Emigre issues), if he made one.

Also, although I am not engaging with it here, I would like to bring to awareness a recently-published, nice, short book by Elkins, called What Happened to Art Criticism?

In it, he offers a survey and a criticism of criticism itself. He explores 7 different forms of writing on art. One point that he makes is that the concern for "writing quality" is a good thing to have, but can't really have anything to do with the deeper goals of "criticism", and might indeed be a slick misdirection of the reader's attention away from the lack of actual critical thinking. The observations are incredibly relevant to recent discussions on design criticism, and include thoughts on common statements like "Criticism lacks a strong voice", "Criticism needs to be more rigorous", etc.

On my site I have been trying to note chestnuts like this on the Current Reading List, and hope to directly or indirectly reflect on these kinds of books as I encounter them.
Tom Gleason

The blue pencil is a wonderful invention. And those who wield it like a suregeon's scapel provide a great service to writers of all disciplines.

The best "script doctors" (and I've worked with many in mainstream and design presses) remove what is unnecessary, retain what is important, yet maintain the overall voice of the author rather than impose their own. They exist to help writers "say what we mean."

Design writing includes journalism, commentary, criticism, both popular and academic - it is practiced as essay, reportage, commentary, blurb, and now blog post. But one thing is paramount for all writing: clarity.

Whether a piece of writing is full of insights or observations - whether it theorizes or chronicles - the proverbial beginning, middle, and end is requisite. This does not preclude experimenting with form and language but it does exclude muddled thought as a roadblock to understanding.

Not every writer has mastered the craft well enough to navigate around the roadblocks, and that's the reason why god created editors.
Steven Heller

To David's point, it's worth keeping in mind that many design professionals are not the product of design programs. The vibrancy of the field is due in part to practicioners who bring so many different backgrounds to bear on their work: in my tiny duchy of typeface design, there are typefounders, calligraphers, epigraphers, paleographers, signpainters, illustrators, printers, linguists, librarians, historians, engineers, graphic designers, and sundry bibliophiles and entrepreneurs involved in the study and criticism of letterforms. We no more share a common language than do anatomists, sculptors, sports therapists, and acupuncturists in discussing the human body. It is indeed a frustration.

For those designers who are minted by graduate schools, there's also a distinction to be made between those who attended programs that stressed portfolio building, and those who instead focussed on far-reaching critical theory. (I can't help but think of Nabokov's Pnin, who taught at the university's language department, the place where "earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method.")

I wonder if one implication for these schisms is the segmentation of the design press. Emigre has a thing for impenetrable essays interlarded with specialized philosophical language; Step-by-Step Graphics, perhaps by charter, limits its reportage to a presentation of technique. Is there even a place where design writers can bring their full faculties to bear on the criticism of design, without excluding certain types of readers?
Jonathan Hoefler

On one hand, Tom, you don't believe that it's possible to accurately convey what you mean because words "do not have inherent meaning". This doesn't, however, stop you writing. Is this writing, then, some kind of solipsistic indulgence conducted purely for your own benefit? No, apparently not because, on the other hand, it seems that you want to produce thought that is not introverted and will be useful to others and you dream of being part of some advance guard of like-minded spirits. You state all this in language that is perfectly intelligible because it follows the grammatical rules of "common English" (from which you would apparently like to distance yourself) and employs words with which English speakers are familiar. This is entirely consistent with your second statement, if not your first.

You have no idea how any of this will be accomplished because you have yet to do it. All of this would carry considerably more weight, as I have suggested to you before, if you found demanding, established venues for the serious writing you clearly dream of doing, worked with some experienced editors who might even be able to help you, and accepted that, like anyone starting out, you have plenty to learn. You refer disparagingly to the marketplace but, if you want to write and you seek to be published and you hope to make any money out of it and would like to keep going, you will have to find ways to engage with it - like thousands of other hopeful writers out there. A broader range of subjects wouldn't do any harm either.
Rick Poynor

This discussion is at the core of why Design Observer exists -- and, hopefully, these are issues that will keep surfacing in the months and years ahead.

I'd like to suggest that the same issues extend beyond design journalism to how ideas and academic discourse are written about in general for broadly-defined intelligent audiences.

There is, of course, the example of the Sokal Hoak, in which Alan Sokal published a piece titled, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in Social Text in 1996. The piece was totally fabricated nonsense that passed as scholarship within academia until the hoax was revealed by Lingua Franca. The legacy of Lingua Franca, under editors Jeffrey Kittay and Alexander Star, was precisely to write about academic ideas, trends and society in a lively, journalistic, and accessible manner. (Lingua Franca, which ceased publication in 2001, was the print forerunner of Arts & Letters Daily, and in fact owned this important online humanities digest until it was purchased by the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

I think this legacy continues today in two noticeable places. One is the Boston Globe, where Alexander Star (until recently) edited the Sunday "Ideas" section. In an important American newspaper there are articles on the theory of whether urban economic growth is driven by a "creative class," and the implications of architecture on "sacred grounds" (citing projects by Louis Kahn and Moshe Safdie), to name two recent articles. (In fact, a Design Observer piece by Jessica Helfand on ampersands was recently featured: imagine a mainstream newspaper interested in a debate about the future of this little typographic artifact.)

There is also Edward Rothstein in The New York Times, who regularly chronicles and critiques the world of "hard" ideas in his "Shelf Life" column in the Saturday "Arts & Ideas" section. Imagine trying to write about Camus, fear, evil, and Greek homosexuality for an audience in the millions.

My personal conclusion is that design writers, myself included, can learn much from how other journalists write about ideas for a general audience. I do not see much "dumbing down;" instead there seems to be a constant struggle for clarity and articulation. Perhaps design journalists and essayists can reach larger audiences, hopefully outside of the design world, from such models.
William Drenttel

I don't disagree with Poynor - but there is a glut of poorly educated Graphic Designers out there. Being a Graphic Designer has become an art career that parents of lazy children will actually pay for - and these kids are storming into the schools, who are all to happy to accept them. The humanities at even the most prestigious art schools are pathetic - they've lowered their standards to get the cash. So we have bad Graphic Designers with low reading comprehension skills. Lets not lower the standard of writing to accommodate them like the schools have.
Ralph McGinnis

In Howell Raines current 20,000 word article on his time at the New York Times he complains about the culture of complaint that thwarted the progress he sought to achieve at the paper. I'm afraid that there is a culture of complaint endemic to graphic design discussions that address writing or any other form of literacy where graphic designers are presumed to be an alien presence.

We read about a "glut" of poorly educated graphic designers. An editor would have to ask, "how many is a glut?" and "Can this glut be quantified?" "Is this annecdotal evidence or mere presumption?"

There are indeed problems in graphic design education, and one of them is the lack of emphasis on basic writing and research skills, but the old canard about illiterate designers simply perpetuates an incorrect stereotype. Many designers have both sides of the brain to work from, and as Jonathan Hoefler rightly notes, many people working in design offices or type duchies come from other realms of experience and education. If you puruse my interview with Harvard Professor John Stilgoe in the current issue of PRINT you'll read that illiteracy - of the visual kind - is very present at this august institution (he asserts pedagogic emphasis on standardized testing is largely to blame), and that is just as bad as not knowing how to write.

I believe the early foray into academic (jargonistic) writing was indeed a way of establishing a distinct "design language" yet it was cobbled together from other vocabularies. It effectively proved that those speaking this tongue could converse among an insular group, but design has reached a point where a more accessible language should be the goal.

I still love reading William Addison Dwiggins' "design writing." Although a tad archaic in tone, he was witty, informed, and forthright. He did not pull punches and when necessary landed few critical jabs, but he did not fall into arcane explanations of design even when aimed at fellow designers. He's still a good model.

BTW, Lingua Franca was a great example of wedding accessibility with scholarly sophistication. Too bad it folded. (Incidentally, Alex Star is now an editor at the New York Times Magazine, which annually does a great job with its special design issue of bringing design writing to a broader constituency.)
Steven Heller

I wrote earlier that in general, I agree with Poyner's assessment. But there are a few points that somewhat misrepresent my statements. In my interview I stated that I was left to wonder about the quality of education that students received when there is a difficulty with complex language. Perhaps I should have stated that the fault lies in a bias against a complexity of language instilled by educators. This complexity is continually pejoratively referred to as "academic" and "jargonistic" much like the labels now attached to Matt Soar and myself. I have to state that my speech is basically the same as my writing, I guess it is a fault of my architectural education.

My diet of complex writing includes "Oppositions," "ANY," Assemblage," "October" and now "Grey Room" and "Log." Perhaps because the foundation of these journals is built upon the questioning of architectural discourse (with the exception of October, though it was started by Eisenman's Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies) I am more accustomed to a more opaque expression of writing. The language is difficult, but by no means do I find it "unclear" or "needlessly convoluted." I may have a higher regard for the Law than noted by Poynor. I don't think that lawyers are there to purposely obfuscate. Lawyers understand the interpretive nature of language (hence judgments that acknowledge the "spirit of the law" whether or not explicitly stated in written law) and purposely aim to choose the most precise language available. I was very specific in making a distinction that when lawyers and doctors discuss their respective practices with other practitioners, their language is complex and precise. As a designer, I don't speak the same way to a client as I do when addressing a student as an academic. All of the journals mentioned above have editors, but the language remains complex. This would suggest that there is a particular audience outside the general public that is being addressed.

I don't think that the issue of context has been raised yet. Rudy asked me if design writing might end up being produced solely for other design writers, to which I responded "Yes. This has already happened in architectural writing." Of course journalistic writing speaks to a different audience, but I don't think of Emigre as a journalistic forum. I happen to compare it to Oppositions and ANY Magazine rather than "Print" or "The New York Times." These journals are rather specialized and not everyone in the profession of architecture reads them or has an interest in doing so, and that is acceptable and accepted.

Perhaps I am most troubled that Jonathan Hoefler would feel the necessity to respond in this forum based on his impressions of the interpretations made here. As stated in my interview, I don't think it is necessary to have the official stamp of a design program in order to make significant work, Hoefler and many of the best type designers (and graphic designers) are proof of this. Being outside the educational system only means one must develop a critical eye about one's work elsewhere. Hoefler's designs, writings and lecturing display the fact that he is one of the most erudite designers/writers/educators working today. In fact, having a different perspective on language isn't--in my opinion--a frustration, rather, it is what Hoefler rightly states adds colour and vibrancy to the world we live in.

I enjoy the discussion and hope that there are more voices that partake.
David Cabianca

David is correct about context. Different venues and audiences determine appropirate approaches. Content is also key. We are all aware of the rigor demanded of scholars in developing original research. Critical history cannot be left entirely to the journalist, chronicler, or annecdotalist. The complexity required of academic languages is often quite important in building a solid literature.

Matt Soar's original review of Paula Scher's book acknowledged her context, but nonetheless criticized the book for a lack of theoretical introspection. I believe her text was perfectly suited to her audience - and mission. Soar is a good example of a scholar who can also write for the practitioner audience, but his review was questionable. I believe reviews are unfair when a book is critiqued for what the reviewer "wishes" the book to be, or how the reviewer might have covered the same material. The Scher book was a professional autobiography aimed at fellow professionals (and frankly I know a lot of people outside the inner circle enjoyed the writing too).

At the end of the day academic writing is not the enemy, poorly crafted, badly edited writing is the problem. Johanna Drucker is one good example of an academic who, while densely complex at times, truly understands and makes others appreciate her view of theory and history. Similarly, Scher, Hoefler and VanderLans are exemplary practitioners who support their production with solid writing.
Steven Heller

Mr. Poynor, you're misrepresenting my position when you said that I would apparently like to distance myself from grammatical rules of common English. I put "common English" in quotes in my original comment because I wanted to stress how that expression can be used by people with power (editors) to give a Law-like appearance to their personal opinions. And I was speaking mainly of vocabulary and complexity of ideas. I meant that "use common English" usually means "do not use words like 'perlocutionary'." Mr. Heller's attacks on "jargon" are perfect examples of this attitude. While I agree that correct grammar is always a minimal requirement if you desire mutual understanding, I think that you are avoiding my point. To further this avoidance, you also said that the words I used were familiar to English speakers, ignoring my intentionally "uncommon" reference to relatively obscure theorists and linguistic terminology.

I would like you to know that many fairly intelligent people consider this venue rather demanding and serious, especially compared to other blogs. And I consider what I write here to be "serious" writing, because of the simple fact that I am serious when I write. I seriously want to talk (in depth), and I think that blogs are a good starting point.

I understand that what you mean by "serious" here is that my arguments should be given "weight" or power by attaching external power or weight to them, as if they don't have their own sort of discursively relative but intrinsic rational force (or impotence). If my participation here is not "serious", what are you saying about your blog? And more importantly, if don't believe that a "savage's" arguments can have weight in your discussion, I return the question to you: what is the point of arguing?
Tom Gleason

So far this discussion of the relationship between design and writing has only touched on the language of design criticism. Rick's original post however also briefly suggested another tack on the relationship: What about the enormously significant role of writing in most designer's lives?

In my experience, and thankfully, the designers who can write, who can explain in words what they will do for their clients and why they should be hired rather than the next guy, are in fact the designers who get hired over the next guy. These designers are also, again in my experience, designers who can also think about what they are doing, who think about how design works, or doesn't, and who think about the role of design in the specific areas of culture their clients occupy.

The AIGA's recent mailing, on this point, proposes a twelve step program to get businesses on the design wagon. The mailing in cute enough, I suppose, if presumptuous in its assumption that designers lack the verbal skills to gain and maintain employment. This may be the case, but my guess is that it's not.

Let's give the field some credit and assume that there are designers out there - let's limit it to the leaders in the field - who can actually read and write ( - fewer though, apparently, that can also spell). My guess, again, is that those designers who are unconcerned with such matters won't become leaders in the field, or perhaps even particularly successful.

I say both read and write intentionally, for writing well requires good reading. Reading well - both visual and written texts - may in fact be more important for designers than writing well. Here design education obviously plays a part, as does design writing, whether critical or journalistic, though some measure of this burden does fall on the audience, which is to say on designers.

There undoubtedly are designers who read. But what do they read? Magazines? Graphic novels? Design annuals? They may read practical writing on their craft. They may read more widely on the subject of design, perhaps magazines, journals, even blogs. They may even read books on design history, although one can read in the history of design without concern for historical context.

But I wonder how much of this writing and reading engages with or questions the role of design in contemporary culture? How much of it serves to help designers understand what they are doing every day, and why? And what would happen if this writing were to ever so subtly shift toward such an end? The question here is that of the purpose of design writing.

On this point, I have to agree with Rick, it's funny how much Americans love to talk about writing, and in particular love to complain, to sound the never-ending call for more thoughtful criticism, for more ideas in PRINT.

Journalism though fulfills itself in simply saying what is, in a given field, and saying it in the simplest terms. Clarity, to paraphrase Rimbaud, is key. For all this, journalism is beyond reproach (and hence perhaps, an easy out).

But design criticism? The task of criticism, as we all know, is to offer arguments in support of judgments, to make declarative statements as to the merits of a given object or act. The task and struggle of criticism is to actually say something. This is the stuff that helps designers talk about what they are doing and why. And it's not all relative.

Part of the challenge, as Rick and Steven suggest, is inclusion: writing in such a way that one can be understood by design professionals, whether designers, journalists or critics, but also by readers outside the field, academics, cultural critics, hipsters who read design rags just to be cool, though we need not concern ourselves with all the readers all the time.

Nevertheless, let's face it: the design disciplines are gaining cultural cache and momentum. Major trade and university presses are devoting resources to design publications. Design journals and magazines seem to be breeding like rabbits. While the Fine Art tradition no longer has any appreciable impact on the ecology of everyday life, the design disciplines certainly do. Design matters to everyday people. For this reason, the question of inclusive language, of a facile and flexible jargon of design, will undoubtedly and soon enough solve itself. And we won't even have to adopt a down home, yokel, ya'll listen up now ya hear, style to side with people who are actually trying to say something.

stuart kendall

In regards to what designers read? I'm quite tired of hearing everybody who thinks that what they are reading is so above the norm that they are quick to belittle designers' efforts to be versed in their own discipline. Be it be reading annuals, Heller's books, Poynor's essays or even GDUSA. Why is that such a shameful thing? I completely agree that a more general scope of lecture would be enchantingly beneficial, but we have passed from one horrible cliché (designers don't read) to an even more insulting one (designers only read design annuals). Well, buttocks I say. How's that for academic?

Speaking of the "academic" tone... I quite enjoyed Rudy's interview of Cabianca. It was strange to see that academic tone being questioned in the one publication that designers complain about being academic - it was oxymoronic. The first time I ever picked up Emigre, in college when I was still in Mexico and my English wasn't that gooder yet I was completely put off and confused. Now, why would you want to confuse and put off people who might be interested in reading about design? Seriously, there are millions of words already out there to explain "disciplinary specifity" as David himself proved when he had to explain it. I have no problem whipping out the dictionary and looking up a word, my problem is that when I look up a word there is that painful realization that it's really just a fancy word. I ask again, why?

Poynor and Heller do a great job in "breaking it down" in simple terms, and their writing is equally interesting and authoritative as any other highly-theoretical little tract. Even academics like FitzGerald and Keedy are at their best when they write in ways that design-annual-reading designers can understand. So why not chill out and just write so that designers can comprehend and in a way that - why not? - makes the writers look really, really smart.

For a couple of related discussions may I suggest - with no desire of self-promotion - Designspeak and Design and the Written Word.

Armin, if you'll permit me, I'll quote myself: "Let's give the field some credit and assume that there are designers out there ... who can actually read and write."

Also: "Part of the challenge, as Rick and Steven suggest, is inclusion: writing in such a way that one can be understood by design professionals, whether designers, journalists or critics, but also by readers outside the field, academics, cultural critics, hipsters who read design rags just to be cool, though we need not concern ourselves with all the readers all the time."

Undoubtedly, a certain accessibility is required of a certain kind of writing, though not to the same degree of all writing at all times. Poynor, Heller, FitzGerald, etc. each have made significant contributions to the emerging contemporary dialogue about design and culture. I don't think anyone can disagree with that. But saying such a thing shouldn't foreclose other ways of talking about design, nor will it.

stuart kendall

David, I hope I didn't misrepresent your point of view, and I certainly didn't mean to offend you! I was responding to Rick's gloss of your point about the commonality of design language which is imparted to designers by their schooling, which seems straightforward enough, and absolutely worth further discussion.
Jonathan Hoefler

Since you raise Orwell, I highly recommend his short essay "Politics and the English Language." It seems particularly relevant here.

Jonathan, no offense was taken, I was concerned that it was the other way around and wanted to nip it in the bud if I was being interpreted as advocating design programs as the only way to make significant work.

In fact, I just returned from a conference at Princeton that dealt with the history of the PhD program in architecture. One interesting discussion centered on the fact that two leading schools of architecture--UCLA and Pratt--are chaired by individuals who do not have degrees in architecture. Both Sylvia Lavin at UCLA and Catherine Ingraham at Pratt have their respective PhDs in comparative literature. Further, many PhD programs in architecture have dropped the requirement that incoming students have a previous degree in architecture, so some of the most fascinating work is being undertaken by individuals who look at architecture from a completely different perspective. This has implications for a discussion about inclusiveness: rather than narrow the possibilities for expression by claiming inclusiveness, architecture is opening itself up to alternate possibilities of discourse by accepting the notion that we can learn from other disciplines.

While perhaps trite, the adage that America is a melting pot while Canada is a mosaic perhaps gets to the heart of the matter.
David Cabianca

Both Tom Gleason and David Cabianca claim that I have misrepresented them. In Tom's case that's a good sign, I think. It seems to confirm that he is indeed trying to say what he means and furthermore that he wants the rest of us to be clear what that is.

I know how you feel, though. I felt a little misrepresented myself when I saw half a sentence from my Print article pop up in David's Emigre interview. That sentence was part of an argument. Its full (intended) meaning depends on its context. But still I accept that this kind of thing is going to happen. People will use writing as they wish, amplifying elements to suit their own concerns and playing down or ignoring others. It's another good reason to strive for the greatest possible clarity: make yourself as hard to misunderstand as possible.

There is one point that I would like to be especially clear about. When I made my remarks about needlessly convoluted prose I was not referring specifically to theoretical language in academic journals. I was pointing out that even relatively straightforward kinds of writing can lack clarity and benefit from editing. In the case of complex kinds of writing in which the use of specialised concepts and terminology is perhaps unavoidable, exactly the same thing applies. However, because of the difficulty of the material, even more is at stake in terms of the reader's understanding. (How opacity can be a virtue, David, I don't know, even if you personally are used to it.) The fact that material is published is not in itself a guarantee that it has been especially well edited, as the Sokal hoax revealed.

There are, in any case, two kinds of editing, both vital. There is editing that is to do, broadly speaking, with matters of content. This should be undertaken by someone with a good knowledge of the subject. (In the case of highly specialised material, additional opinions may be sought.) Then there is copyediting: grammar, spelling, orthographical matters, and questions of clarity at the level of the individual sentence. Editing is a time-consuming, expensive task and editors vary in talent. Even in book publishing, books appear in which the task has not been as thorough as it might have been.

Nothing I have said here or anywhere else is intended to limit or in any way cast doubt on the pursuit of complex thinking about visual culture. If that is the inference some have drawn, then I have failed to make myself clear. I shall have to try harder. I support searching critical inquiry and have tried to encourage this when I had the chance. However, I feel sure enough of my own abilities as a reader to question forms of writing that are unnecessarily circuitous or purposefully vague and that seem to be primarily intended to impress a small band of colleagues. We are talking about design and visual culture here, after all, not abstruse aspects of philosophy.

Nor am I trying to restrict the vocabulary employed by writers. I feast on words. I think our vocabularies could be much richer. The dictionary is arguably the most vital book in the house. Uncommon words, used carefully, are not the same thing as jargon.

One final point: I wasn't being negative about Matt Soar. In Print, I noted that he was a highly promising writer. I just didn't agree with aspects of his review of the Scher book. Everything I have seen by Soar is written in clear, lively prose. It can be done.

Rick Poynor

Rick, at the risk of appearing glib, I should have written "more dense" rather than "more opaque." But I don't have a value judgement attached to such writing: it just exists in that form.

On the other hand, I wish to thank you for making expicit your intentions about the benefits of well-tuned language. There was no malice attached to my use of your statement in the interview. I intended the quote to be symptomatic of a larger issue and not the singling out of a particular point-of-view. If that is how my use of your words has been perceived, then I most certainly owe you an apology.

When I wrote my initial letter to the editor, I knew that I was being "fast and loose" with my language. But it being a personal response, I wrote it without thought about the audience. It was meant to be a letter that expressed my own "rant." My interview was something else. I tried to temper my language because it was a different format with a different intention, and because language was part of the issue at hand. My intention was not to impress anyone but to use the opportunity to advocate for a richer use of theory and criticism in design programs. The language I use is not disingenuous, it is the way I speak, and I suppose, something I need to work on.

The greater part of this blog has been about the [mis]use of language in design writing--something that was not part of my intention but a topic which I understand as just as valuable. Hopefully, the presence of theory and criticism is a topic which will still be picked up for discussion.
David Cabianca

A few thoughts, observations and musings?

1) It's bizarre in American journalism how little coverage of ideas there is, and how little discussion of art/sociology there is in terms of ideas. General-interest mags and newspapers go back and forth among trend pieces, "reported" pieces (where the writer's stuck quoting "experts" and doesn't really get to say anything himself), and reviews that are basically thumbs-up, thumbs-down things. It's such an obvious gap that it seems like fear, or something, must motivate it -- some sense on the part of editors and publishers that Americans dislike ideas. (Mainstream British arts coverage seems comfy with personality, ideas, a little sophistication, yet still writing for the interested amateur.) Yet doesn't the flourishing of the blogosphere demonstrate that there's in fact a huge hunger for these kinds of discussions. The blog I co-write, where my buddy and I gab about evolutionary-biology, New Urbanism, what's happening in the arts as they go digital, etc, averages about 2500 visitors a day. Given that we're two amateurs with no budget working on our spare time, it seems fair to conclude that the commercial mags are missing an opportunity.

2) How about the basic fact that visual people often aren't terribly verbal? Some are, but it doesn't seem to be standard equipment. I've witnessed entire design departments where no one -- not a soul -- could do a decent job of discussing what they were up to. Yet they were all proficient and talented at their jobs.

3) And how about the other basic fact that for many visual people attitude and impact are much more important than making verbal/intellectual sense? They often seem to make their "statements" with eyeglass choices, and behavior-attitude choices.

4) And how much of this might have to do with the utter crap (philosophy, criticism, etc) that the kids going through the arts and design schools are fed? I find it bizarre that the schools see fit to lay this stuff on kids. It seems to work for them (makes them feel radical and advanced, etc), but it's lousy-quality thought, and often badly-expressed. (Hey, if it were well-expressed, people would be able to see through it.) I meet young designer/artists all the time who are just beaming with certainty that they know intellectually where things are at and what needs as a consequence to be done, and how to go about it. Yet it's all recycled po-mo/decon, all over again. Adolescent minds are vulnerable to chic-seeming baloney, and visual people may be even more vulnerable to it than most.

5. Has anyone ever really, truly run across an art thought (or an art-crit thought) that couldn't have been expressed in comprehensible, relatively clear and plain language? I've been following the arts for 30 years, and I sure haven't.

Michael Blowhard

As a postscript to some of what has been discussed I just came across a wonderful dictionary, "HOW NOT TO SAY WHAT YOU MEAN: A Dictionary of Euphemisms" by R.W. Holder (Oxford), in the tradition of Orwell. Rick writes "The dictionary is arguably the most vital book in the house. " Well, this might be the most enjoyable.

Here's one choice definition

Art (pornographic)
A survival from the days when pornographers were libable to prosection, and a favored defense was that the matter in question was artistic rather than titillating.

With all our talk about design speak, crit speak, academic speak, we may have overlooked that Condi Rice showed the world that she's mastered the art of obfuscation with more consequential effects.

For all the density in critical design writing, the pols take the prize.
steven heller

In an attempt to de-snot-ify my previous comment a bit ...

Isn't it possible that one of the best reasons why people going through the lib-arts these days (creative or scholarly) often write so badly is that, at a crucial time in their developments, their heads are filled with Theory instead of, say, the history of science, or economics, or traditional philosophy, or history itself? They arrive in the world convinced they can answer everything, because Theory is a blender that any phenomenon can b thrown into and turned into the same green goo. And, what with life and making a living, they never get a chance to shake it off and find something more substantial. And the people who peddle Theory are of course masters at making it appear to be fascinating, chic, edgy -- so it's stylish, it answers everything, it's endlessly complicated, it puts you on the side of the angels politically and artistically ... And of course it also rots your thinking and your writing abilities. Wheelspinning will do that.

Is one of the roots of what's awful about the Theory thing the fact that it's so determined to whip together criticism and philosophy? Who in god's name ever thought that was a good idea?
Michael Blowhard

I have one thought to add to this: take it, leave it, read it, skip it, dismiss or delete it even...but someone, somewhere, take it to heart.

The wisest men in the world aren't the ones talking, they're the ones listening.

Greg, before you pat yourself on the back for keeping quiet, don't forget that the people talking are making your listening (and thus your wisdom) possible. :) What a nasty little problem.

Mr. Blowhard, it's very possible that since you're an amateur, even the people who would be able to critique your position will refuse to do so. I find this sad, because only arguing with "professionals", remaining true to the power structures and professional politics, makes for a "complicitous critique". All of these intellectuals calling for critical autonomy, but still concerned with such a level of propriety-- that's something to be explored someday.

I'm also an amateur so I'll happily engage with your thinking.

1) I think the lack of discussion about ideas in American journalism has to do with it's "immunity" to criticism. Journalists aren't there to promote argument; they are there to set forth the arguments which maintain the status quo, and to let a few dissenting voices be heard and ignored to promote the appearance of free speech and discussion. Yes there is a hunger for something more.

2) You can say that these illiterate designers are proficient, but your idea of proficiency does not include verbal skills. There is a serious movement in design to make verbal skills essential, and this has to do with what those people believe designers should be capable of, which goes far beyond form-making. The argument needs to be about the role of verbal skills in the ideal design process.

3) The movement toward verbal skills in design is a movement away from design as simply a superficial visual art. Those who advocate this movement toward verbal literacy are interested in the deeper possibilities for design.

4) I personally wasn't taught theory in school. I found the quality of thinking in school to be generally pretty lousy, and theory was a way to add rigor for me. I think Derrida is probably the most rigorous philosopher alive, in spite of all this talk of "playfulness", "irreverence" or "obfuscation".

It's not clear to me that you understand what you're talking about when you say "Theory". If you just mean deconstruction, what is wrong with its reappearance? Deconstruction is always at work in philosophy; it always has been and it always will be. It is what makes philosophy possible.

5. I would challenge you to (correctly) define what you mean by "Theory" in simple terms, and see if your comments still hold together. Try to have actual reasons for disliking Theory, and an actual definitition of what Theory means to you.

My interest in theory was very much influenced by the Teaching Company courses you speak so highly of. You must be able to recognize the existence of theoretical concerns at the heart of any historical, economic, scientific, or other educational presentation. To take these issues for granted, to simply accept knowledge structures as they are presented to you, is to avoid critical thinking.

Your "green goo" theory is indeed a theory--a not-too-rigorous theory in need of revision. And since when has art criticism not been whipped up with philosophy? Aesthetics has been a branch of philosophy since the beginning.
Tom Gleason

It would be perfect if Rick's main article could be reblogged without the typo culural, for cultural, in the last paragraph. As I read the lively discussion I found many more mistakes like expicit, libable, appropirate -to name a few. Whether the result of typing errors or lack of knowledge, designers concern themselves with ink on paper/pixel on screen, the visual representation. For print we employ proofreaders, for the web we should do the same. As for contributing comments, the responsibility lies with each posting entity. Some will use the tools of an originating word-processing software or a given preview button. A feature yet to be coded into posting panes may come along to spoonfeed users who feel it's too much trouble to cut and paste from another document after running spellcheck. It would show readers the blog cares to be as exquisite as possible, visually. Since the final outcome rests with the blog operator who will, as usually stated, remove any unwanted or inappropriate postings, exactitude is possible. Especially since often a word is same-sounding and isn't 'read' as an error by the software.

So actually, while we hope the comments are well written and error-free maybe we should hold a website responsible for the whole pixel-packed impression it makes onscreen.

As stated early in this discussion, editors are valuable filters. One of their jobs is to question assertions and assumptions.

Just a brief note about American Journalism. Spending but a week in J-school one is exposed to different levels of journalistic practice. Common to all is the rejection of blanket assertions and assumptions. So, I may be going out on a limb here by categorically stating that American Journalism does not promote the appearance of free speech and discussion, but I will nonetheless argue that instead it allows for such practice every single day.

Yet distinctions must be understood. Reporters report on events as they see them and/or their sources experience them, this is otherwise known as "covering" the news. Sure, sometimes aspects of the news are missed or slanted owing to particular perspectives - sometimes sources mislead the reporters - but the goal of reportage is not to maintain a status quo but to document the here and now - there is a significant difference.

Journalism includes news, features, editorial, commentary, photography, information graphics, illustration, even design. To suggest that all these are in cahoots to manipulate and outwit the American public suggests a rather narrow understanding and appreciation of the standards that most (I know Jason Blair, but I said most) serious journalist live by.

Many large papers currently have "public editors" that serve the reader. Knowing that journalism is not a perfect craft, newspaper and magazine publishers have long attempted to involve the expert reader in a conversation, and even tap their expertise for the truth. Hence the creation of Op-Ed pages and other inside/outsider venues. Blogs have made this conversation even more open, yet they could still benefit from a filtering process that separates the wheat from the chaff. . .and keeps the right stuff.

steve heller

What the comment means, Tom, is not that people shouldn't talk, it's that people should listen when others talk. Half the problems in the world would be solved instantly if everyone in it stopped to consider that their position might be wrong. I commented on Speak Up that you aren't fairly heard, and I still believe that applies not only there but here too.

I was watching the Today Show this morning and Sean Hannity (from Hannity and Colmes) was talking about the problem with liberals, that they don't recognize evil when they see it (a paraphrase). I think the problem lies with the characterization of "good" and "evil." Since we're mostly designers here I'll present the problem as a case in grayscale. When you have a black and white photo in an editing program, you have options about what levels you'd like to see the photo in, what should be the ultimate lowest level, and the highest. When you change the ultimate white, what you'll actually have is a shade of gray that looks white in comparison to the rest of the photo, and the same goes with adjusting the black levels. This transfers easily to the subject of good vs evil. No one on earth is truly good, no one truly evil. We're all shades of gray, and most think they're a pretty light shade. Hence, no one thinks to listen when his opponent speaks, since that person is already right and his opponent is terribly wrong. Perhaps I should adjust my statement: Foolish men speak without listening, while wise men do both.

Thanks for spotting that missing "l", Shahla. Now corrected. At Design Observer we are unhealthily obsessive about these details, but typos slip through anyway. Employ a proofreader? If only. Blogs require a level of attention to self-editing in both posts and comments that's rarely called for by conventional publishing.

Greg, you have veered a little too far off topic here, but in the spirit of listening (nice preemptive move) what can we do but let it stand?
Rick Poynor

Tom --

* You write: "It's very possible that since you're an amateur, even the people who would be able to critique your position will refuse to do so." Sorry, I have no idea what you mean by this. Profs wouldn't condescend to address me, is that it? If so, I guess I can live with it. FWIW, I've done
  • scads
  • of gabbing and arguing with arts professionals (if by that we mean something like "people who make art for a living, and/or talk about art for a living"). Numbers of whom, come to think of it, agree with me on these points.

    * You write: "Journalists aren't there to promote argument; they are there to set forth the arguments which maintain the status quo, and to let a few dissenting voices be heard and ignored to promote the appearance of free speech and discussion." I find this bewildering. On what basis do you make such a charge? Journalists love promoting argument -- it's part of the fun of the job, and it's a way of getting attention, generating business, and perhaps having an impact on the world. As far as "arguments": relatively few journalists make any "arguments" whatsoever in their pieces -- they're simply conveying facts or trends, or telling stories. But I couldn't agree with you more on your point that there's a hunger for more, and especially a hunger for more arts-and-ideas chat. Arts and Letters Daily, for instance, has been a big (and an influential) success covering just that beat. (There's some indications that a few places, like the NYTimes, have taken some note of ALD's success.) But I'd never suspect that there's some attempt at mind-control behind the relative lack of such coverage, and it seems to me paranoid in the extreme to think there is. But maybe I misunderstand your point here.

    * I think you've got "Theory" and "theory" mixed up. People have been coming up with theories about the arts forever. But "Theory" is a body of litcrit/philosophy approaches that grew out of '60s-ish French radical philosophizing, and that has become the standard thing to inflict on kids in many lib-arts departments. It's content-free; can be applied to everything everywhere, and at all times; and always leads to the same gender/race/class conclusions. It's chic abstract Marxism, basically.

    * I also suspect that you're letting the word "Deconstruction" get a little fuzzy on you. "Using analytical tools to pull apart and examine something" isn't Deconstruction. It's "using analytical tools to pull apart and examine something," and people have been doing this for ages. Deconstruction, on the other hand, is a specific post-'60s philosophical movement that (surprise) has a chic, Marxist agenda. As far as I can tell, arty kids' heads are still being filled with it; meanwhile, their ability to actually use analytical tools to pull apart and examine things seems to have gone all to hell. I suspect that there's a relationship between the two phenomena.

    Michael Blowhard

    Regarding the points about "Theory" and Mr. Blowhard's (is that your real name?) excellent reduction of Deconstruction to "chic," I am reminded that for pretenious high school juniors and seniors there was (and possibly still is) a fashionable following for Ayn Rand's anti-Marxist triumph of the ego novels. When I hear the word Theory bandied about with the same import as Cradle of Civilization I can smell pretense. I enjoy reading a good theoretical potboiler as much as the next guy, but when it is used as a weapon of mass cultural deconstruction I doth protest that its out of proportion to its relative merit in the design discourse.

    You mean a missing "t", righl?

    : )


    * I guess my experience is different from yours. Many profs have been kind enough to talk with me, but at a certain level (usually the level I am interested in talking at), they will always stop talking. It is either that discussion at this level must be done "academically" in order to be done properly and fruitfully (which I could understand), OR they are not comfortable trying to really justify the foundations of their thinking. It is usually the latter, I'm guessing. And that might be cynical, I admit, but I've also talked to a lot of profs.

    You have to be a bit skeptical. What if they are just agreeing with you to give an end to the conversation? Or what if the people who agree with you haven't thought about it any more than you have, in which case it means nothing that you're talking to a "prof".

    * I think I can understand where you're coming from on journalism. You ask on what basis do I make the charges, and I can say that Noam Chomsky's analyses of media have been influential in my thinking this way. Again, I'm taking a skeptical attitude toward the media and I don't think it is wholly misguided to do so. You say that journalists like to promote argument, but that they don't "argue". I suppose this is a part of the "objective" position they try to take. But if they were really being objective (or if they could sufficiently appear to be so), wouldn't their stories cut argument short? Wouldn't their work be the Word? Argument could only come from taking a critical attitude toward the worldview they feed us. Maybe I'm paranoid to think some mind-control is going on, but I never said it was a conscious conspiracy. I'm able to think that it is a conspiracy based on ignorance, and hidden within the media are the tools for Oppression as well as Enlightenment, as I've suggested with the hidden biases, censorships, and "propaganda filters" as Mr. Heller suggested. I don't mean to say it is a black and white issue.

    * I'm not sure the lit/crit philosophy is so dangerous. I have read some decent arguments against it (The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past by Keith Windschuttle and Tenured Radicals by Roger Kimball) and this kind of discussion seems good to me also. It's obviously a conservative/liberal debate, and it is unlikely to be resolved (in any sense of a final solution) but it is important to continue the discussion in the hope that the hardline, closed-minded positions might be "dissolved" (not "solved" but relieved of seemingly absolute problems) into something more open. I agree the deconstructionists can be just as closed-minded as anyone. Derrida has been known to be evasive as well as engaging.

    I don't know if it's fair to identify Theory with marxism. But it is interesting that a deconstructive technique does have real political consequences and encourages equality, free speech, and the critique of oppression.

    * I think you're absolutizing deconstruction, and in the spirit of argument, I think Derrida would agree with me (that it has always been at work in philosophy) a bit more than with you (that it is simply a fashionable manifestation of marxism). I hope it is clear that although I do a lot of "deconstructive" writing, something is also created through that. Derrida does have beautiful points to make; at the heart of his thinking is an infinite Love, and a continuation of the Enlightenment. To hear what he is saying requires a good deal of renunciation.

    So, given that in some sense people are always saying what they mean, to the best of their abilities, perhaps Greg was prescient in his observation on listening. Maybe the problem is that we need to work harder to hear what people mean. And maybe it is good to work at reading and re-reading each other. Deeper and deeper appreciation can come from that. Imagine if we could all value each other as much as we value the classics of literature.
    Tom Gleason

    If the following is off topic, Rick please remove.

    While rereading MSS by WAD (W.A. Dwiggins) I came across two paragraphs in his essay "Roman Letters" that is a joy to read and a model of fine writing about our sometimes arcane passions.

    "The graphic signs called letters are so completely blended with the stream of written thought that their presence therein is as unperceived as the ticking of a clock in the measurement of time. Only by an effort of attention does the layman discover that they exist at all. It comes to him as a surprise that these signs should be a matter of concern to any one of the crafts of men.

    But to be concerned with the shapes of letters is to work in an ancient and fundamental material. The qualities of letter forms at their best are the qualities of a classic time: order, simplicity, grace. To try to learn and repeat their excellence is to put oneself under training in the most severe school of design. "

    He so beautifully said what he meant through order, simplicity, and grace.
    steven heller

    I do think that Mr Poyner has a point with his piece illustrated above. Design education, theory and writing does have a tendency to disappear into its own ass at times. When I was at school I thought a lot of the work design academia produced was pure self justification, I remember a lot of talk and not much 'work', output and concrete ideas that my tutors produced.

    Ralph McGinnis in his post laments on the slew of 'uneducated' design gradutates being pumped out of design schools worldwide. This is because design is seen as a fashionable profession-but really how much work in direct design practice is there? Does anyone have ideas on what will happen with this glut of 'design' gradutates flooding the market?
    Clem Devine

    When the "glut of design graduates" floods the market, and it already has, competition will tighten the ranks.

    Design jobs will diversify as more and more businesses and institutions recognize the importance of presentation in maintaining their identity and hence market share. Competition for these jobs will become increasingly intense and a new hierarchy will emerge within the design community.

    Designers will be required not only to be good at their craft but also to be good at selling their craft, which is to say good at talking and writing about design. These designers will not be afraid of big words: they can't afford to be.

    Design publications will experience a similar diversification. Some will cater to an increasingly interested general population, through the vehicle of life-style magazines which embrace design culture. Some will meet the needs of the new designers, the designers hungry for passionately engaged, intellectually informed discussions of the intricate practical details and history of their field.

    Designers who neglect the verbal and other non-visual cognitive elements of their career will not have a career. Designers who can say what they are doing and why will capture and maintain the loyalty of their clients.

    Design writers disinterested in the careful articulation of ideas about design - its function, methods, and place in contemporary culture - will be journalists surfing waves of fashion. Design writers who meet the challenge of this pursuit will help designers forge a vocabulary commensurate with the complexities of their task yet flexible enough to accommodate the diverse demands of the marketplace. These writers will be known as design critics. They will not simply record the passing forms and fancies of the field, they will distinguish themselves through the careful articulation of judgments of taste.

    All of this, in my opinion, of course.
    stuart kendall

    I would like to reframe some of the discussion if that's possible.

    What I would like to call attention to is the fact that we are willing to allow students to make mistakes as they develop their design abilities. In fact, schools tend to focus their energies into developing formal skills. Degrees in the humanities do the same: they teach skills in writing and assume that it is only with practice, exercises and assignments, criticism and feedback, that students develop the skills to write effectively and well. All of this takes time and an acceptance of the fact that initial efforts will probably be quite crude. When I was teaching architecture, I would tell students that their first 7 models would without doubt be quite ugly. It would not be until they made the 8th model that there would be something worth keeping. And from there, after their 12th and 15th models, we would have something fascinating to evaluate. The point was that they had to get through their first 7 models to get to number eight. The same holds true for writing. Students (and later, professionals) of graphic design rarely get the same opportunities to test their rigor of written expression in graphic design programs. It is not a matter of draft and redraft: it is a matter of practice, testing different ideas, different theory, different professors...

    I was present in the audience when Rick Poynor delivered the lecture referenced above, "The Time for Being Against." It had a profound impact on my thinking about graphic design. Poynor's lecture opened up a space for the possibility of design practice as the product of writing. I don't know if I would have thought about a career in graphic design that included some form of writing if the same suspicion of language displayed in this blog were present at that AIGA Conference.

    I am trying to draw attention to the fact that we are willing to accept a certain amount of initial awkwardness and "bad form" in visual design that is curiously unseemly in written design. Yes, I describe it as written design. I believe that the possibility exists that graphic designers will be able to develop careers as full time writers; their practice, their labour, will be to write graphic design. If I understand graphic design as the visual shaping of content, then the written shaping of content is not so far removed. Key among both phrases is an understanding that graphic designers use form, i.e. shape. The crossing of what visual design reveals about our world and what written design reveals about our world is a field ripe for exploration. I think that individuals such as Rick Poynor, Peter Hall, Janet Abrams and Steven Heller [please forgive me in advance, I know that this list is woefully ignorant of other significant writers] have made exemplary careers out of writing graphic design. It's just that the list is still too few.
    David Cabianca

    Thanks for this, David. This has been a great discussion and thanks to everyone for taking part.

    Suspicion of language, though? That's certainly not the way I see it. Writing is thinking, after all, so clumsy expression is usually a sign of poorly framed ideas ... But I am starting up again here, and that's not my intention.

    I want to try something new for Design Observer. This thread is very long now, with many substantial comments. So I'm going to bring it to a close. I shall write a new post summarising some of these issues in the next day or so, and making another attempt to define my own position as a way of encouraging debate.

    Stay tuned Theory lovers, because this will be the new focus. The discussion above can continue on the new thread. (If this works, then it may be something we do more often on the site to keep threads to a manageable length and focus debate.)
    Rick Poynor

    Jobs | July 12