Rick Poynor | Essays

The House That Design Journalism Built

Design no. 425, May 1984. Design by Keith Ablitt. Illustration by Nancy Slonims

I found this old copy of Design magazine in my attic, in a big stash of magazines that I have finally decided, with a born collector’s reluctance after years of hoarding them, to send on their way. The more immediately useful stuff is closer to hand and the rest was gathering dust out of sight. This one salvaged copy I shall keep, though. It comes from a period — the early to mid-1980s — when I was passionate about magazines and increasingly fascinated by all forms of design, though I had yet to start writing about the subject. The issue has a great cover, it’s highly representative of its era, art editor Keith Ablitt’s design is rather good, and John Thackara, my Observers Room colleague, was then the editor.

This, and some of my other design magazines from the 1980s and early 1990s, did give me pause for thought. Design, published for several decades by Britain’s Design Council, is long gone. It disappeared from the newsstands and then came and went in unsatisfactory incarnations aimed at signed-up insiders — a mighty fall from being the country’s design journal of record freely available to all-comers in the shops. Just a few days before I went rummaging in my attic, Britain’s Design Week published its final issue after 25 years; Lynda Relph-Knight, for an astonishing 22 years its editor, has departed. Design Week will continue to publish online, with at least some of its content hidden behind a paywall. I used to look at DW fairly regularly, though it’s a long time since I bought a copy, but I won’t be following it online and I imagine it will now drift off the radar of many other occasional browsers.

Let’s not forget, too, that it’s not long since I.D., America’s once great design title, also folded. The recent rebirth of the I.D. “brand” as a gallery “powered by” Behance Network is emphatically not a replacement. One thing people tend to say about defunct and, it often seems, little lamented magazines is that they had become redundant because the information is available elsewhere online at no cost (to them, anyway).

Well, it depends what we mean by information. Pictures — yes. Press release-like blurbs — no argument there. And fleeting tweets aplenty. But if you are a student, with access to a good design-school or college library, try digging out some old issues of Design or I.D. from 20, 30 or 50 years ago. Sample the range, expertise and quality of the writing. My issue of Design from 1984 has analysis of six kinds of housing (the cover story) with some highly revealing, almost anthropological pictures of ordinary people in their homes; close critical readings of a soda-maker, a washing machine, a saloon car and a kitchen mixer; and a skeptical assessment of shopping mall design — “stagey sci-fi and nostalgic whimsy” — by Peter Dormer, a fine critic, who died too young. Assistant editor Jeremy Myerson, who went on to start Design Week (he’s now director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art), writes about mass-market furniture design. And there is plenty more.

If you wanted to be this well informed about your industry now, where would you find present-day, regular, thoroughly sourced investigations equivalent to those delivered by these design publications, in Britain or the United States? (I’m not talking about titles that are primarily about architecture.) These magazines provided properly researched, decently funded professional journalism produced by well-qualified writers and editors with a full-time commitment to the task. The detail and accuracy of the reporting makes publications such as these invaluable time machines for anyone now engaged in historical research.

The new design writing and criticism courses at SVA, RCA and LCC are doing a fine job of attracting students in an unfavorable economic climate, but maybe more emphasis needs to be put on fundamental skills of reporting and a broadly based and sustained, rather than a desultory and hyper-personal, engagement with design. Without high-quality, properly resourced design journalism as bedrock and training ground, I can’t help but wonder how — and even more to the point where — this new “higher-level” criticism is going to emerge. The continuing closure of print publications without equally auspicious online platforms to replace them is not a good sign.

So let’s hope for renewal. Last week I did, in fact, see a new publication, issue 0 of a critical design magazine with the boldly acerbic, though admittedly slightly off-putting title That New Design Smell. The magazine, divided between web and print, is conceived and edited by Michèle Champagne, an ambitious Canadian MFA graduate from the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, with a crisp, “flight attendant” persona — her tutors’ words, not mine — and a nicely cultivated sense of irony. Her aim, she says, is to encourage dialogue, not monologue, by folding comments made online back into the printed version of the magazine. In an amusing video on Vimeo, Champagne locks horns with lame designer lingo.” And, sorry Design Observer readers, but she has also composed a witty illustration — we used to say deconstruction — of the language of adoration used in many of your comments. The website gives a little taste (or is that sniff?) but you really need to see the whole thing on page with all that positivity amplified in big type. You may never gush again.

Posted in: History, Media, Technology, Theory + Criticism

Comments [31]

A smell is probably the most appropriate word for where design finds itself now. Albeit, its not alone. Is there a single profession right now that doesn't smell dangerous? Doctors are pill pushers. Police are civil rights abusers. Accountants are magicians. Bankers are robbers. Politicians are accomplices... Designers are crappy stuff decorators that line the pockets of bankers and politicians. And most design critics are "lovin' it" just like a McDonald's slogan.

Some might think a pessimist attitude is just as delusional as an optimist one. But do not be confused. There is a middle way, and there's great humour to be had in being a realist. Things are the way the are; market forces have embedded every thread of society, and its no surprise criticism—and critical thinking in general—have left the stage.

So let's call things as they are, and have a chuckle while we're at it. Might get people thinking for a change. Really glad to see the Roundtable Harmony piece in Champagne's magazine. One of the most troubling and hilarious pieces I've read in a while.
C. Tate

Finally, someone has the courage to call design observer as it is: a likedy-like NYC mafia with a strong following of sappy design adoration. It can sometimes play the critical card, but only for entertainment value. There's the Rebel Sell, and then there's The Critic Sell.

It used to be that design critics mourned the death of design criticism. But I'm a PR professional, and although I market for a living, I used to have a subscription to Emigre. I'd like to add my voice to the mourning.

That's a pretty severe assessment of critics — they're "lovin' it" or engaged in "The Critic Sell" — and it immediately raises the question: which writers and what kinds of writing are you talking about?

Without names or at least websites (?) to check out, I have to guess that the writing you are referring to, including perhaps some pieces published on DO, isn't criticism, never claimed to be criticism, and shouldn't be described as criticism. It doesn't even sound like it meets the basic requirements of journalism, which I argue above was an honorable, useful and necessary kind of design writing that provides essential foundations for more searching criticism.

I realise that Peter Dormer, a British writer mentioned above, will probably be unfamiliar to most non-British readers (he died in 1996), though he published a number of books, including The Meanings of Modern Design (1990) and The Art of the Maker (1994). But Dormer was the genuine article, a thinker and critic who, in his writing about crafts and design, was dealing with the problem of how we should live. I suggest we should reserve the word "critic" for writers of knowledge, great insight and integrity and not just use it lightly for anyone who happens to write gushing prose, some of it mildly opinionated, about the latest fads and fashions in stuff you can buy (if that's what you are actually talking about).

Rick Poynor

Look at Alice Rawsthorn, the "design critic" from International Herald Tribune. Her latest piece about China is embarrassing: "Looking at China as a Creator, Not Manufacturer" in The New York Times. She boasts about "daringdesign" an exhibition about "provocative" Dutch and Chinese designers. She completely fails to mention the political and economic reasons Dutch and Chinese do the tango: their leaders want increased free-trade between the nations. At a minimum, these "provocative" designs are just cementing the status quo. At worst, they provide sexy smoke and mirrors for what's really going on. And the whole title "Looking at China as a Creator" is ridiculous. China gave us the printing press thousands of years before Gutenberg came along. No context. No history. Just lovin' it. Rawsthorn is the epitome of the critic sell.
C. Tate

C. Tate --"China gave us the printing press thousands of years before Gutenberg came along."

China gave China the printing press thousands of years before Gutenberg but the world didn'benefitit from it because China was a closed society. Think what the world might be like today had they been open.
Dan Lewis

Rick, a timely piece considering the deteriorating state of Design Observer. For example, what do you make of Helfand and Dentrel's post 'For Sale: The Earliest Modern Studio in America'? I've noticed several comments on other posts critical of this real estate advert dressed up as historical commentary that were promptly deleted. Not to mention that comments were conspicuously disabled on the original post. See also the pointless post before yours (or any of the usual Pentagram plugs etc etc). Does this signal a policy of advertorials on Design Observer?

If so, why are you still blogging here? I'm not being snarky, just genuinely wondering how critical standards are compatible with editorial decisions that can't seem to escape the usual marketing logic of commercial media.

These days, things seemed to be whipped at such a frenetic pace that it's hard to find places that will genuinely penetrate the froth. Who has time for a deep plunge when everyone is just skipping stones on the surface?

Like most things... If we're not part of the solution we're part of the problem.

Another publication taking the challenge is "Open Manifesto" by Kevin Finn. http://www.openmanifesto.net
Troy Matheson

Dan Lewis -- Perhaps the printing press was over-simplified. But consider the craft and technology coming from the ancient China/Mesopotamia tin-glazed ceramic trade, which seeped all over the world, and into what's now known as Dutch "delfware". It's not unfair to say China has been used as a manufacturing base for cheap Western products over the last 30 years. But to present China as having just recently discovered its "creativity" is still pretty absurd.

And my general argument still stands: many very well-known critics still fail to practice criticism—nuance, context or even historically accuracy—as part of what they do. For the most part, they engage the trade rhetorics of marketing, while planting but a few short critical sentences to easily maintain their credibility. This is "The Critic Sell" (just like "The Rebel Sell" plants images of Che Guevera on otherwise very capitalistic products for sale). Alice Rawsthorn being but one example out of many.
C. Tate

I remember that issue! We got a lot of flack from architects to the effect that we were devaluing their art. Their complaints did not go unheard: I was sacked within a year of that issue... But working with Keith Ablitt and Peter Dormer was an inspiration and a joy - to me, if not to a majority of our readers, so I have only fond memories of those years.

My definition of a design critic is a writer who does not depend on the approval of his or her subjects in order to do the job. For me it's not a morally superior trade: our job is to start timely and interesting conversations, not to be an arbiter of good and bad people, or work.

This is why I enjoy writing at Design Observer. It does not have a 'line' which we writers can be accused of crossing, or not. What it does have is a steady supply of vigilant readers who give us a good kicking if we make a mistake, or become sanctimonious. For me, that makes it a healthy ecology.
John Thackara

Thanks for that, John. Wondered whether that cover would prompt some memories.

Still not convinced we are talking about quite the same thing, C. Tate. I suspect you are alluding to a lot of market, style and self-image obsessed American writing about consumer design, which I don't see, which probably wouldn't interest me much if I did see it, and which I wouldn't regard as even attempted criticism in any serious sense of the word. In other words, I wouldn’t lash it for not being what it never could have been in the first place.

But in essence we probably agree. In my view, there is very little design criticism happening in English-language writing anywhere. I've written about this in other places, but it comes down to the lack, in many writers, of a well-defined personal politics and coherent position, an unwillingness to risk sticking one's neck out, and a severe shortage of commissioning editors who understand the need for a truly probing design criticism, know what it looks like, and encourage it.

Then there is the problem of maintaining critical distance when one is entirely enmeshed, as a design-as-lifestyle consumer, within the product culture being written about. How does the design writer deal with that? Is it possible to be inside and outside at the same time? The price of criticism might be a degree of self-ostracism from the prevailing culture and its slippery assumptions, while continuing to monitor it as closely as possible. How many writers genuinely want that essentially alienated role, especially at a time when the task of criticism has been so heavily devalued, and it is harder and harder to stay afloat doing it?

In "The critic's technique in thirteen propositions" Walter Benjamin writes:

Anyone incapable of taking sides should say nothing.

A dialectical vision of the critical task if ever there was one, and totally foreign to the way many people think now. Anyone who regards himself or herself as a critic, or fancies the task, should think long and hard about that warning siren of a sentence.
Rick Poynor

Rick, I don't dispute that "the task of criticism has been heavily devalued" - but I choose to believe that the tide may be turning. Many people now realize that groupthink, and the cognitive capture of whole professions by the status quo, is bad for all concerned. There's a strong case to be made for critics as a necessary ingredient in any industry or profession that aspires to be innovative. In this context, you may enjoy "The Fool and the Great Turning" by Dr Chris Seeley.
John Thackara

Didn't know Benjamin had written about criticism. Thanks for the tip. In any case, to what John said about "groupthink" and the "status quo", I wonder if he realizes how emblematic Design Observer is in this regard. There may appear to be a multitude of voices in the forum, this is true. Some voices are critical, like with Poynor in general, or smart and insightful with Elshahed's writing on Tahrir Square; but many, many more voices are neither (and as Emily pointed out, they do an ungracious dance with advertorials). Do you see the imbalance others see?

One has to understand how Design Observer is perceived outside its Western blockade. When visiting Shanghai for a two-week workshop, I was confronted by students and teachers about using Design Observer references in my presentations. Not because it mostly focuses on American or Western topics, but because they understood it only supported content that reinforced its own status quo: Amero-UK market style, with a hint of lefty-ism. Which means be delightful, smart and informative, but never get angry or rant. Never have a direct debate with another writer, or reader; always have commentary with chit chat sputtering around it. Be nice. Be gentle. And always be courteous. Rule of thumb: design writing with a happy face.
Jennifer Jones

Another Design Observer advertorials can be found here, in a blog post called "Open Season on Dutch Cultural Innovation": http://observersroom.designobserver.com/johnthackara/post/open-season-on-dutch-cultural-innovation/28448/

...where Thackara promotes a book in which he contributed writing, and Poynor defends an institution where he has worked before.
John Lipe

Jennifer, the quote from Benjamin comes from the long, multi-parted essay "One-way Street." You can read "The critic's technique in thirteen propositions” (or theses) online. I was quoting from the recent Penguin translation. The online version is a different translation and has, "He who cannot take sides should keep silent." Take your pick.

I agree with what you say about the need for more open and vigorous debate between writers, and for more intense and committed discussion in the comments. If we really think all this matters, then follow through by raising the temperature of debate.

John L, I was a visiting tutor at the Jan van Eyck Academie from 1998 to 2000. I admired the academy’s approach to education in the visual arts before my short stint there and, though I haven't been back since, I continue to think that it is exactly the kind of educational establishment that design needs. Is it an "advertorial" to offer a personal view on something that you have directly experienced and feel strongly is worth saving? Not in my book.

John T, thanks for the link. Something to read at the weekend.

Troy, thanks also for your link. I’m an Open Manifesto admirer, too.
Rick Poynor

Any true critical design literature must derive from outside the design profession. It's vital to distinguish between the design discipline and the profession. The latter considers them equivalent, with inevitable results. The groupthink present amongst the profession's readers and writers is that writing should be celebratory since design is undervalued and unappreciated. Morale must be maintained and the ignorant enlightened. To be at all critical is to be branded as "negative," a buzz kill for readers and career killer for aspiring writers and editors. I'm curious to see how many of students at the aforementioned SVA, RCA and LCC programs dare to actually write about graphic design (so far, I could replace "how many" with "if any").

And if you miss Emigre, Jennifer, boy, do I have a book for you.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Jennifer, you're not the first person to accuse of me "design writing with a happy face": the words "recycled hippy", and "we heard all this in the 70s" crop up pretty frequently in the feedback I get. Maybe I'm being naive, or complacent, but I have the impression that most people reading Design Observer see it as a broad church and take what they want from it.
But "nice"? That hurts. I must do something about that.

John Lipe: get a life, you sad loser. Yes I plugged a book, to which I contributed, in my own column. So what? If you don't like it, go and read a car magazine or something.
John Thackara

Recycled hippy is much better as a catch phrase. I'd stick with that. And besides, who doesn't love hippies? They gave us socialism, silicon valley and the environmental movement.

Gentle readers,

THIS seemed relevant to the topic at hand. You may, or may not, agree. Feel free to discuss…

( And now, I must retire to the restroom… )

Very Respectfully,
Joseph C. Moran

"If you wanted to be this well informed about your industry now, where would you find present-day, regular, thoroughly sourced investigations equivalent to those delivered by these design publications, in Britain or the United States?"

Collect mail order catalogues (like Vogue, Wallpaper or Frame) or watch informercials (like Fashion File). They'll tell you everything you need to know: verything is a commodity. This is how your industry is now.
Ahmed Murad

To John -- "Maybe I'm being naive, or complacent, but I have the impression that most people reading Design Observer see it as a broad church and take what they want from it."

With apologies to Barthes: "Critics often use two rather singular arguments... The other consists in confessing that one is too stupid, too unenlightened to understand... One mimics silliness in order to make the public protest in one's flavour, and thus carry it along advantageously from complicity in helplessness to complicity in intellegence."

Blind and Dumb Criticism, by Roland Barthes

when in print there were other constraints applied. article length being prime, too many words and the editor unsheathed the sword, too few and white had to be filled. images could not be in small, large and gigantic.

magazines had a following, often maybe because it came with a subscription. even if most of an issue was was bunk, there was always something.

I am not convinced that the quality of the argument has diminished, but the form of its presentation has.

many organisations have superior small screen presentations of their content. example- New York Times. the limitation of small screen or page makes the design more constrained. the designer having to work harder?

as far the comments on the nature of the blog, if you are willing to own, found, run, contribute, why not do what you want. by all means sell your child's barbie collection, who gives a toss.

Rick, sorry if I am hogging too much space in *your* comments section!

but William: that's great quote from Barthes - but I suspect you are tilting at windmills? I can't speak for Rick, but I don't want or expect all or even a majority of my readers to agree with me. If I did, I'd have slunk of to another line of work years ago. No, my ambition is to give them - you - a second or two's pause for thought.
John Thackara

No problem, John. There is no lack of space.

Barthes' essay makes a good point about the writer who parades ignorance in an attempt to appear superior to the subject under discussion. This still applies to some general, purportedly critical writing in the press and to some design writing, too. "To be a critic by profession and to proclaim that one understands nothing about existentialism or Marxism [...] is to elevate one's blindness or dumbness to a universal rule of perception, and to reject from the world Marxism and existentialism." (Barthes was writing in the 1950s; we might update the isms now.)

I don't see the connection William makes between this critique and your earlier comments about Design Observer being a "broad church" since that is obviously what it is. But if writing doesn't provoke thought by defining a clear position or "taking sides" — as Benjamin advised — then it isn't doing much. Your writing has a very clear position.
Rick Poynor

Mr. Poynor, Its fascinating how you describe Design magazine as an "unsatisfactory incarnations aimed at signed-up insiders". Yet, general knowledge dictates that Design Observer plays the same role. Most critiques of DO in these comments are most likely coming from this understanding. Besides Mr. Thackara jumping in to save the sinking boat—to compliment contributors and readers—doesn't help one bit; it makes the boat sink even more, as Ms. Champagne's "J'adore" section vividly illustrates.
M. Lahn

Dear Rick, you wrote "Without names or at least websites (?) to check out, I have to guess that the writing you are referring to, including perhaps some pieces published on DO, isn't criticism, never claimed to be criticism, and shouldn't be described as criticism."

Yet, when you Google search Design Observer they make explicit claims to "Features news and critical essays on design, urbanism, social innovation and popular culture."
C. Tate

C. Tate, I understood you to be referring to design writing today in the broadest sense, and not specifically to DO, though perhaps including some writing on DO. And I replied in that spirit.

I'm a contributor to DO and not in any way responsible for the commissioning, selection or editing of writing that appears on the different channels: Observatory, Change Observer and Places. Clearly, though, all three publish both news (i.e. writing that is primarily reportage) and critical writing — just as it says on the can.

The point of my post was to argue for the value and necessity, both historically and today, of high-quality design journalism, as distinct from design criticism, which has always been in shorter supply.
Rick Poynor

"it will now drift off the radar of many other occasional browsers"

This reminded me of a small but thought-provoking article I read a couple of days ago in Journalist, the NUJ magazine, about the threat of the "Daily Me" – that is, the habit of many people using digital info technology to limit their intake to searching for only their own narrow interests and interacting only with people who echo their views. The kind of wider-ranging random reading that can be provided by newspapers and magazines, is harder when search engine algorithms serve us stuff based on what we've already looked at/read/bought, making it more of a mirror than a window.

Everyone (except Design Observer fans and contributors) knows that Design Observer is not where you go to get design criticism. You're lucky of you get sprinklings of it; but sprinkles are not enough for me, or my colleagues in England, New Zealand, China and the Netherlands. Thanks to Mr. Poynor for sharing That New Design Smell. There is potential there for renewal. Let's see what the next issue brings.
Natalie K.

Nice post Rick. I've enjoyed reading your sort. It is informative. Thank you for the information.
Evelyn Paterson

I will check your other blog also. Keep it up.

Evelyn Paterson

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