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Writing & research for graphic designers
I’ve been writing about design since the winter of 1994. It was a
piece about the mass-market graphic style of supermarket magazines
like Women’s Own, Hello, and TV Times in issue 15 of Eye that did
it. It made me realize there was a publishing context for the kind
of writing and the kind of subject matter that I was interested in.
I can picture the layout of the article, with its magenta titles
on a brash red background and the covers of the featured
magazines, all practically identical. Despite having moved
continents since then, and offices several times, I know exactly
where on my shelves to find that issue.
In 1994, I was a history of design student at the V&A
Museum. Through studying history and connoisseurship I was
beginning to realize I wanted to focus on the contemporary
and the everyday. My research on the design of club and rave
flyers was unusual in that context—willful even. At the
V&A it was more common to write about 18th century
chairs, gas lighting, or corsets. So the piece in Eye 15 by
Keith Robertson, with its cool, non-judgmental analysis of
supermarket tabloids, really struck a chord. When Robertson
wrote that, “[mass-market graphic design’s] conventions are
instantly understood by its readers, yet like the black sheep
of the typography family, it is a phenomenon that most
design discussion ignores,” he flagged a conundrum I still
find compelling: the kind of design that is part of most
people’s lives is constitutionally incompatible with the design
that designers and design writers talk about. Never mind
a black sheep, mass-market design might as well be from
another planet as far as most designers and design writers
are concerned. They raid it occasionally for ironic effect and
comedic punch-line material, but don’t give it serious con-
sideration. And yet here was someone writing about “noisy,”
“aggressive,” “value-for-money” graphics in the best-respected
graphic design journal. Robertson’s article set a challenge and
showed a way forward for this fledgling design journalist.
Another essay which has become a touchstone for me and
which was also written in 1994 is “Clip Art,” by the author
Nicholson Baker. Baker describes in intricate detail the design,
production, evolution, marketing, use, and social implications
of the ninety-nine-cent chrome-plated nail clipper. Baker’s
interest in the neglected aspects of life is well known and
“Clip Art” was written as a riposte to a comment made by the
author Stephen King, who had described one of Baker’s books
as “a meaningless little fingernail paring.” Baker took King’s
slight as a challenge and, after his enthusiastic explication of
the clippers, he went on to invoke a stream of literary refer-
ences to fingernail parings, ranging from Norse myth to Joyce
and Nabokov. For these writers, as for Baker, the humdrum
objects, the overlooked fragments and marginalia of everyday
life are more than background distraction; they are the very
source and location of meaning. Investigating and analyzing
the everyday is a line of cultural and critical enquiry that con-
Design journalism for the mass market
Chair, MFA Design Criticism (D-Crit), School of Visual Arts, New York (Originally published in Eye magazine, No. 80, Summer 2011)
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section 2
surveying the diciplines
What can we gain from looking at “mass-market”/ordinary
Bringing the entire critical tool set to bear on mass market or everyday
design expands, enriches, and enlivens design discourse and benefits
both people in the upper echelons of design commentary, like curators,
academics, and editors, and people usually not particularly inter-
ested in design. Weekly entertainment magazines, mobile or social
networking games like Angry Birds or Farmville, fast food packaging,
or DMV license application forms are the kinds of design most people
have contact with; providing them with the means for understanding
them, talking about them usefully, and demanding better benefits
everyone. By subjecting mass-market design to rigorous and scholarly
interrogation and through the telling of compelling stories about it,
you can also reach design’s power brokers and help them have a better
understanding of the scale and impact of contemporary social phe-
nomena and design’s role within them. This can help them make their
own exhibitions, publications, and syllabi more relevant and likely to
engage more people.
nects a lineage of writers who wish to resist their era’s dominant
and hegemonic mode of thought. For design critics, too, the
choice of the everyday, the mass-produced, and the popular
as subject matter is a way of reshaping the design canon and
democratizing discussion about design.
Since then, design of the everyday has been further legitimized
as subject matter both in publishing and in museums. MoMAs
2004 “Humble Masterpieces” show refocused attention toward
the quiet brilliance of the Post-it note, paperclip, and Bic biro;
the Walker Art Center’s 2003 exhibition “Strangely Familiar:
Design and Everyday Life” examined design’s relationship
to what Georges Perec has called “the banal, the obvious,
the common, the ordinary, the infraordinary, the background
noise, the habitual”; and club flyers are now a part of the
V&As collecting plan. My own interest in the material
culture of the quotidian has continued unabated; I’ve written
about the New York Greek Deli coffee cup, street stenciling,
walk/don’t walk sign interventions, Amazon product reviews,
and the IKEA cafeteria.
You would have thought that blogs would have afforded
regular and mass-market design more analysis and interpretation;
that the cups, key rings, lotto cards, Hallmark cards, and Angry
Birds Rios of our lives would have been contemplated and their
implications discussed. And yet, all the blogs seem to do is
to document and catalogue images of these things. Lists and
collections, or what Rob Walker describes as “online projects
devoted exclusively to lovely photographs of carefully arranged
groups of objects,” don’t convey meaning, don’t contribute to
design discourse. What is still needed, I feel, and even more now
in the wake of so many design magazine implosions, is well-
written and well-edited feature articles that probe a subject
and extract its significance, combined with tested techniques
of art direction such as editorial pacing and multiple images,
which allow a story to develop and intensify over several pages.
News, reviews, profiles and captioned images have survived the
migration to blogs and are flourishing; feature articles have
been dispossessed, and I miss them.
What are the advantages and drawbacks of writing about
contemporary design culture?
It’s important to write about contemporary design culture in order to
separate what’s harmful and wasteful from what’s meaningful and valuable
in real time so that your evaluation can actually have a chance of making a
difference. Writing about contemporary design culture is liberating, because
you can define the field on your own terms. There are no set canons, no
established conventions; every aspect of contemporary design culture—from
the material manifestations of Occupy Wall Street protests to graphic
designers’ current interest in performance as a strategy, and from an infectious
trend such as “design thinking” to Snooki’s style choices—is up for grabs
as topics for inquiry. The challenge of working with this kind of material is,
of course, that it doesn’t sit still for analysis and evaluation; it is constantly
changing, and as a critic you have to be able to make judgments in haste as
well as knowing when exactly is the right moment to intervene and write
something. As a critic you are a bit like a fly fisherman with a river of fish
constantly flowing toward you. Which ones will you pick out to focus your
attention on and when? Design history, on the other hand, gives you time.
Alice Twemlow Talks about Covering Design Culture
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