Rick Poynor | Essays

Theory with a Small "t"

The starting point for my previous post, “How to Say What You Mean”, was the continuing tension between practice-based and academic ways of talking about design, and these positions emerged clearly in the discussion that followed. The greatest polarity can be seen in the exchanges between Tom Gleason and Michael Blowhard. Gleason suggests that, “although the philosophical avant-garde has evolved to a certain point, designers have not assimilated these evolutions into their understanding.” And he goes on to argue that, “Our design thinking 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 work.” This undertaking will require an effort to engage with theoretical writing – Gleason cites writers like Habermas and Derrida – and complex thought may sometimes require an unfamiliar vocabulary.

Blowhard is sceptical. “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?” he asks. “I’ve been following the arts for 30 years, and I haven’t.” For Blowhard, all this theorising is “green goo” peddled by people who are adept at making it appear fascinating, edgy and chic, and it always seems to lead to the same left-wing conclusions about gender, race and class. Blowhard draws a distinction between Theory of this kind, which he sees as a pernicious influence on impressionable students left unable to think or write clearly, and theory with a lower-case “t”. “People have been coming up with theories about the arts forever,” he says.

It might seem that these positions are irreconcilable, but they can be understood. Gleason writes as a young, verbally gifted designer, not long out of design school, who is now engaged in a passionate process of personal inquiry and copious amounts of blogging motivated, it seems, by the desire to find a direction. Blowhard, on the other hand, writes as a seasoned arts journalist, now turned super-blogger. I first encountered his work under his actual name in the early 1990s in the influential, sometimes controversial, but long defunct British publication The Modern Review (tag line: “Low Culture for Highbrows”). Gleason’s and Blowhard’s views might be seen as representing the difference between an idealism yet to be modified by much personal experience and a realism based on years of watching how people behave in different situations and reflecting on their motives. There is truth in both points of view. (I readily admit that I am being a journalist here. At a certain point I become curious to know who these disembodied voices are. I believe this will enable a more accurate assessment of what they have to say.)

Blowhard’s distinction between Theory and theory seems particularly germane and it’s the latter I want to pursue here. In the 1970s, like a lot of people with an arts perspective, I was fascinated by the music and thinking of Brian Eno, and this led eventually to a book. Eno was a brilliant small “t” theorist who used interviews with music journalists as a way of exploring his ideas, which he did in long, tireless, beautifully composed and measured explanations of just about anything his agile mind alighted upon. When questioned about his unusually theoretical leanings, which few rock musicians have ever matched, he pointed out that theorising did not precede his practice as a musician – it followed it. It was Eno’s way of trying to understand and learn from the work he had done: he wanted to formulate operational principles for future action. This wasn’t entirely accurate, though, because in this quest he also drew on the ideas of people who could perhaps be described as theorists with a “T” – for instance, literary critic Morse Peckham in Man’s Rage for Chaos (1967) and cybernetics thinker Stafford Beer in Brain of the Firm (1972). Beer had a line about the need to organise a managerial system only up to a point – “you then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go”. Eno cited this often and it became a linchpin of his compositional method.

I am not a musician, but Eno’s reflections on music making always seemed to me to be full of wider implications. The “dynamics of the system” concept became something of a personal credo: it has innumerable uses. Many designers engage at some level in this kind of theorising and a few designers consciously use published writing as a way to facilitate their practice. “I write to understand and process new ideas and to think through certain positions,” says Andrew Blauvelt. Tom Gleason, too, speaks of making intellectual discoveries that are “directly relevant to our work” as designers. But design, as a form of aesthetic and structural thinking and planning, is potentially of relevance to everyone. Might there be a way of discussing some of these issues that would capture the attention of a wider public? I don’t see why not, but I also don’t see too many designers of any kind attempting to do this, except on endless fatuous home make-over TV programmes.

My own concerns as a design writer were most closely reflected in a contribution made by Stuart Kendall, who asked: “I wonder how much of this writing and reading engages with or questions the role of design in contemporary culture?” This, as opposed to matters of creative process, which are best dealt with by practitioners, is what I seek to write about. Kendall went on to question how much design writing helps “designers understand what they are doing every day, and why?” I support this aim, too, because designers should, of course, reflect on the implications of their practice, but that task is secondary for me as a writer. I believe that a critical writing determined primarily by the need to shape practice will be restricted in the cultural insights it can offer and too much constrained by its place within design, and this is the last thing design writing needs when ways to address and engage a broader public may be opening up. The design writer, like any kind of critic, should be as independent as possible. As Kendall notes, “While the Fine Art tradition no longer has any appreciable impact on the ecology of everyday life, the design disciplines certainly do.” That’s exactly right. It presents a huge opportunity and we should try to keep this understanding at the heart of any strategies we develop to talk about design.

Posted in: Media, Music , Theory + Criticism

Comments [10]

I hope I haven't missed the momentum of this (actually the previous) discussion.

The main observation I would like to offer is: a separation or a drawing-of-a-line between plain language (at its best, Orwell, for example) and theoretical language/Theory as a tool of both design education ad professional critical discourse is a canard. The separation is a canard, that is. Clarity and complexity in writing are not opposites, nor mutually exclusive. Neither simplicity and density. A writer ought to choose a given mode for a given topic, intent, and audience--not terribly unlike picking a typographic style for a design project, though the analogy seems a little feeble to me. I believe there is real insight and indeed pleasure to be found in so-called theoretical writing, as well as in Orwell, Joseph Mitchell (one of my favorites), and that sort. I don't believe all of Theory is great writing or great insight, but then all of nothing is great all the time (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln). "1984" is a very interesting idea but actually kind of lousy as a novel, so even Orwell nods.

If there is something to be fixed, or a goal to be set for design education [this was a carry-over from How to Say What You Mean, but it applies to a certain extent to how designers write or approach writing], perhaps students' desire and ability to think abstractly should be emphasized. The ability to articulate a metaphor, to combine seemingly opposite statements, to think with irony (not cynicism)--maybe this will help.

Second, back to clarity and complexity. The real antithesis and even enemy of both plainspeak and theoretical discourse is dogmatism. It is dogmatism of whatever kind--modernist, deconstructionist, generational (the sort described by Rick Poynor in marking the differences in experience between Tom Gleason and Michael Blowhard)--it is dogmatism which closes down on the free roaming of ideas and the language that attaches to those ideas. (I believe I have just tread into "Politics and the English Language" territory but it's been a long time since I read it and my memory these days is crap.) Why should there be any need to decide (for everyone?) which is the more right [sic] mode of writing and thought? That any of us may have a preference for Orwell or Derrida says nothing so much about Orwell or Derrida, but it certainly reveals something about each of our respective tastes. I can see absolutely no good reason whatsoever for limiting one's own taste. Imagine missing out on the pleasures of foie gras because you believe fish & chips make a better meal. Have both. Appreciate both (I'm talking about plainspeak and T/theory again). When blogging, encourage both. It can only make one more informed, never less. Some might reply that as one's experience builds up, one's taste correspondingly becomes more defined and one simply knows with more certainty what one likes. To which I say, it seems far more desirable, as a goal in life, to develop the broadest possible appreciation for the differences of things and their respective qualities and insights, than to set about excluding that which simply seems complex, or abstract, or theoretical. To say that Theory or theoretical discourse offers only empty solipsism (I'm paraphrasing about a year's worth of design blogging) as evidenced by architectural and fine art criticism doesn't to me lessen the value of or need for doing criticism. It only indicates that it needs to be done better. Being bad at hitting and pitching doesn't make baseball a bad game.
Sam Potts

It sounds like what Rick Poyner is asking is "what through the lense of design can we see about the world in general?" Rather than "what through the lens of some other discipline's theory can we see about design?" This would argue that design is its own language more than that it is a dialect of the arts (say visual arts and writing). And this may be the case. But is it fully recognized and practiced as such? That such things as "design is communication" are said suggest, this not being taken as redundant, that design is not fully recognized, or perhaps habitualized, as a language in which to discuss the world and its goings on.

It is both a strength and a weakness that design is not entirely precise. This imprecision allows the viewer to perceive a message on a variety of levels, but also means the thing being said is not clearly spelled out. To compare it to writing, design is most often neither essay nor short story, but combinations, in various amounts, of both. This, to me, seems promising in that it takes into account what might be the true nature of communication, that it is imprecise, that it is parts essay and story telling and that all these must be present to be in some way clear. But of course this makes it slippery and difficult to define.

The arts in general are slippery in this way, but they are afforded much more time and scrutiny. They are taught in school, their artifacts become part of the fabric of our lives. And they are continually discussed, bolstered, and theorised about. Perhaps this may become the case for design and should be. But it doesn't yet seem so. Maybe if the ways in which design has become part of the fabric of our lives becomes a subject widely taught in schools and discussed in general we will be moving much more swiftly in this direction. In other words, if people like Rick Poyner are teaching at liberal arts colleges rather than in design schools. But I can see that before this begins to happen, the theoretical underpinnings must be stronger, design as a language must be more fully habitualized.
Trent Williams

arising from work/life-looking back-the feeling that art (as the feeling of being alive) is necessary, wholly necessary: and that empty spaces, open things, gaps and questions are equally if not more essential in our culture if it is to survive the change that the ethical nervous breakdown it is currently suffering demands.

it's funny how things sometimes coincide-here's a few quotes from curtis white's 'the middle mind' (penguin/allen lane 2004) which i randomly picked up on thursday:

"the answer to the problem of the poverty of imagination is simply that we must learn to think change."p.171

"the creative economy does not require us to be artists. it requires us to be stupid/smart. it used to be that we required only our soldiers to be stupid/smart-dumb enough to go to saigon, say, but smart enough to win once they got there. now workers need to be smart enough to want to be creative and smart enough to be capable of creativity, but they also have to be stupid enough to think that the present economic disposition really allows for this creativity." p.162

"oddly enough, it is art, in all its inarticulateness, that best understands the difficulties of our collective social wagers, and best intuits what these abstractions can and should mean. art and the imagination lead us away from communication as domination, away from mere communication's impoverishing of the imagination, away from "information", and toward an intuition about our activities as the feeling of being alive." p.193

his argument, it seems to me, is that this idea of art-the sublime, imagination, reading, thinking-is all but absent from culture, from life. we are fed it in small capsules (the bag scene in 'american beauty', an i-pod, a radio playlist, blogs), in the form of panacea, contained within works whose viewpoint confirms assumptions, bigotries. the answer to this is to make and think about and consider art wherever and whenever we can-as an ethical imperative, a necessity; that the standing-for-art is an ethically superior position to the denial of it's need or even arts potential or marginal presence. in a similar way that peter singer argues (in 'one world') that the consideration of the needs of the planet takes ethical precedent over the consideration of the needs of our family, our neighbours, curtis white's proposition demands activity and forces one to decide where one stands. the argument that these ideas, words, approaches and concepts are too demanding, too complex, too difficult-yes, too imprecise and abstract-is really more a statement of their nature than any kind of useful debate, and this why so often the debate takes on a circularity than ends up winding down whilst out in the world work is being made.

so-is this the understanding that is spoken of? that art and poetry are the very lifeblood of culture-of design-and that in order for this understanding to have a real power then there are sides to take, enemies to recognise-a fight? art and poetry, the imagination, the sublime: the basis and essence of all useful design endeavour. to believe and work otherwise is to be repressed-dead from within.

It seems one of Poynor's main points, and one that he has made elsewhere, is the distinction between "shop talk," in which every profession engages, and what I'll "cultural criticism" - locating design as both a reflection and catalyst of larger social events.

Since designers' work participates more in the everyday lives of most people - we encounter signage and adverts more often than we do paintings - it's imperative that we explain our goals and tactics to this public. An awareness of some of the "capital t" theories that influence the way we make sense of contemporary life - simulacra, chaos, convergence - doesn't hurt in describing how a piece or group of objects participates in this larger cultural dialogue.

Still, it seems that designers as a group require more voices like Poynor's, dedicated observers and critics who can analyze and evaluate some part of what constitutes "design." Like any other body of cultural criticism, the arguments that play out in print can gradually reveal much about the state of the discipline to a public that (rightfully) doesn't know Baskerville from Mrs. Eaves.

I'd like to finally make a few comments on this. I'm having a hard time figuring out what kind of writer I am. Maybe I'll be able to better define my position by relating to these posts.

My problem with Blowhard's idea that art thinking can be made simple is this: Most people do not understand modern and postmodern art. Many people who have worked hard to understand it still do not. I'm one of them. I'm afraid that the simple explanations haven't been satisfying to me, and that simplistic understandings of art are not really "understandings" at all.

My inability to write clearly is more a result of my lack of understanding than any academic leaning that I might have. As I understand it, academic writing should be quite clear and well-argued. As Sam Potts mentioned, clarity and complexity are not necessarily at odds. However, I do see a kind of deep ambiguity that comes along with the superficial clarity of most "journalistic" writing. It's irritating to me because the illusion of clarity can mask the ambiguities lying underneath the surface, eschewing deeper consideration. The design shows on TV are a poignant exaggeration of this phenomenon: never, while watching, do we consider that thinking might go deeper than what we see in the product given to us.

The writing at my blog is complex, certainly, but also unclear, admittedly. And although we try to be clear, we are not yet concerned with the making of saleable product. Therefore we are not journalistic OR academic. Maybe we're just in a brainstorming process for academic writing; it might be as simple as that.

The thing is, with the idea of "disclosure", we are enjoying this lack of clarity, pressing on, using it. It is a poetic approach with an academic inkling. We're not satisfied with just poetry, not just revelling in the mystery or the magic of it all (as I'm afraid Graham might do, as much as I appreciate his comments and interactions); we're using poetry to disclose possibilities for rigorous thought. And by "poetry" I mean feeling, intuition, daring, metaphor. And it is working. We are making distinctions, new structures of understanding, new concepts of design. Maybe I'm making too much of a simple brainstorming process. But this is an unusually immense and ongoing brainstorming process (going on outside of academia and ITS constraints) which I think calls for an acknowledgement and evaluation rather than a dismissal on the grounds that it is merely preliminary.

You mention that Eno's theorizing came after. We are starting from my assumption that thinking should come before the work--that thinking and writing are essential to the design process. To theorize after the fact is, likely, to "rationalize" what you have done without thinking. To theorize before is to develop "reasons" for doing. Granted this can all be a part of the learning process (and Mr. Poynor certainly touched on this): having thought about the past we can better approach the future. But I believe that "rationalization", in general, has had a deleterious effect on graphic design. It has often created "operational principles" out of ignorant acts. (Granted there is always an ignorant starting point in some sense--but this is the kind of theoretical problem that we are actively confronting). It has given design the mere appearance of rationality even after we've abandoned the modernist rational approach and confused design completely with art.

I have to admit I haven't seen this book on Eno, and in many ways "riding the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go" sounds appealing to me. So maybe I misunderstand your description of Eno. As usual, I'm using what I do know in order to make a kind of point.

Most importantly, I think, is that we don't know where this will lead. I have said before that I am suspicious of design following the path of art as if it has simply been lagging behind as a lower art. There is an element of rationality in design (perhaps, just perhaps, different from that of autonomous Art) which must be dealt with.

Or, if design cannot find its own way, maybe it is the cautious learner. From Art, it may learn lessons. If Art whirls around ignorantly and aimlessly (albeit freely), at least it leaves the possibility for design to make well-considered choices. If art is freedom and rationality is an aspect of wisdom, and Design is a combination of art and rationality, then perhaps with Design we will be able to wisely choose a future path.
Tom Gleason

What you describe as "theorising after the fact" is probably more like a kind of feedback loop. Once a sequence of work is under way, the two activities, reflection and practice, are bound to overlap and complicate each other. Your concern, Tom, seems to be that without sufficient thinking through of the direction that design work should take, with reference to all this theory (much of it only tangentially connected to designing), the work will be almost certain to fall into predetermined grooves derived from the assumptions and practice of others. Maybe you underestimate yourself a little here, as well as other self-questioning, creative people.

I don't in any way discount the process of intellectual exploration you are going through. However, the point must come when, despite your intellectual uncertainties, if you really want to be a designer, or any other kind of creative person, you just go ahead and make the work to see what happens, using whatever resources you have to hand. Discoveries you make in the course of working can then be fed into the process of reflection and creation in future work. Think of the work itself as a kind of hypothesis. You can't know the result of the experiment in advance. This is what someone like Eno is doing - not just rationalising after the event. One thing he talked about was the need to keep going into the studio and trying to create something whether you happen to feel "inspired" that day or not; never use lack of inspiration as an excuse not to attempt to work. I believe this is right.

The book I mentioned was based on a series of visual interpretations of Eno's early songs by the British artist Russell Mills, whose maxim was a nice variation on French chemist Louis Pasteur's famous phrase that "chance favours the prepared mind". Mills suggested that "chance favours the prepared observer". Absolutely true, in my experience, and this connects directly to what I was talking about in the "Graphic Flanerie" thread. At the risk of provoking another bout of intense cerebration, I would say: beware of overthinking it. You seem well enough prepared.
Rick Poynor

Thanks again for the feedback.

I am aware of this feedback loop model but I do question its basis in a sort of deterministic systems theory.

And I think you've got your finger on what I've been trying to say. So, this conversation has been productive because now I have to introduce the "feedback loop" into my theories and figure out what my take on it will be. Along which tangent this loop will roll seems to be a pretty important choice to consider.

This is something I've said many times before, but I do see what I'm doing as work, and as productive. And I'm observing what happens. Through this process the possibilities for design are opened up, which is another matter altogether.

I don't really feel the need to make myself work because I almost never feel a lack of inspiration. If I had set a box around what was "work" and what wasn't, then I would have this problem. But as soon as I create this box, isn't my design work artificially limited? And isn't it a limitation based on given (professional) assumptions of what is and isn't design work? And doesn't that curtail a real autonomy? How could design ever escape what it is if the definition of practice is already decided upon?

This openness is established in preparation for an opportunity that might be lost to those who see design in a box. I see action in thought, and I'm taking advantage of an opportunity that is immediately revealed when one opens up to that insight.

Tom Gleason

The example of Eno is a good starting point. I do believe Rick Poynor's admiration of Eno's "agile mind" supports my own belief that music was "merely" the outcome of Eno's 'work'. That is, privileging the process of making over the made, the subject over the object. This seems to be consistent with Mr. Poynor's attentions to the potential relevance of design as "a form of aesthetic and structural thinking and planning." My desire here however is to problematize the presumption that design is an institution, or rather, to question the effectiveness of this assumption when considering the relevance of design to a wider public. I'm uncertain if it is Mr. Poynor's intention to suggest that "design" has something to offer a wider public or "designers" do. I think the distinction here is far from semantic. It is essential. I believe the inclination to codify design as a discreet cultural practice for the purpose of capturing the attention of a wider public is ultimately a superficial enterprise. I think Rick's example of Brian Eno however is a good representation of both the possibilities and limitations of design's potential to capture attention outside itself — through necessarily specific moments and situations. This maintains the focus on design as an effect of a situated human agency and not a prevailing institution.
Will Temple

In respect to the topic of design criticism for a wider public, I am divided. On the one hand I believe in the value of examining design and its relationship to culture, on the other hand, because of the nature of design, and the quantity of material produced I have trouble finding the relevance of an individual critique to the culture as a whole.
For me that doesn't mean that an individual piece can't be analyzed, just that making judgements about its affect on culture stretch the limits of believable analysis. Looking at work on the level of its effectiveness, and defining what is does and does not do, as well as looking for reasons that make a piece valuable, all seem to me interesting and important critiques. Building up theoretical discussions this way, and applying Theories and theories to work seems like one of the best uses of both T and t theory.
On the other hand, using theory to evaluate the effect that XYZ packaging had on the scatological patterns of Americans seems a bit of a stretch. Evaluating national trends through design is more of a conceit than a valid critique. The variables are more complex than pointing to or evaluating a design as the cause or force behind social trends.
Saying this however doesn't mean that I think the general public will not be interested in design, just that they will not be interested in the designers views on why design is so important to their lives. Lets find a way to interest the general public in our analysis of the work as it is, and its good and bad points. Maybe this is the distinction many of you have been making between "shop talk" and culturally relevant discourse.
John Gordon

I was curious about what John Gordon means by "interest the general public in our analysis of the work, and its good and bad points." How is this possible in light of design's recent general public emergence on magazine covers as a sexy commodity? Does not the popularization of design as chic consumable trump any well-meaning intention to gain public interest in our analysis of design? I completely agree with him when he says "evaluating national trends through design is more of a conceit than a valid critique." Conceit, a classic weakness of the literati, design or otherwise.

On the issue of public engagement, I question the effectiveness of the construct "us" designers and "them" general public. Like the majority of contemporary writers on this subject, Rick Poynor's perspective hinges largely on the position that design is a discreet and relatively stable professional occupation. It has taken decades to solidify this professional status and "we" have many people to thank for this achievement. It is however only an achievement at professionalization. Much has been sacrificed over the last century to achieve this more economic and less cultural goal. Relying on the stability of the profession in attempts to engage a broader public seems roundabout. In fact, it privileges continued professionalization rather than build public engagement. I would argue that we can't both substantiate "our" profession and gain wider public appeal at the same time. Something has to be sacrificed along the way. The bigger graphic design programs become and the more programs emerge, the more "we" are in fact engaging the general public. This is an argument in favor of public engagement through interdisciplinary design education rather than real-world practice. It harkens back to a time when design was something people DID and not something we waited for our conservative parents to (finally) appreciate.

The inclination to focus on the "small "t" seems in keeping with attempts to isolate what design "is" in order to feed that (whatever "it" is) to a public that might otherwise not have appreciated it. This places the burden once again on the practitioner to teach rather than on the student to learn. Needless to say, we need big and little theory to get us through school. "Theory" I would argue, is most helpful to the designer when educators work against the instinct to justify Theory by asserting it practicality for design.
Will Temple

Jobs | July 24