Fri 18 May
Though I posted it to this site’s Elsewhere section, I want to take a moment to point out Rick Poynor’s recent article for Print Magazine, “Easy Writer.” Since its publication, this piece has stirred up a little bit of controversy because it can be fairly easily read as an indictment of design blogs and their allegedly low standards for serious writing and criticism about the practice and art of design. Right or wrong, it’s an important essay that bears a closer look. At the same time, it’s worthwhile to take at least a passing glance at the response to Poynor’s article by D. Mark Kingsley at the design blog Speak Up, too.
Poynor essentially contends that the informal, loosely researched and often emotional quality of most of the writing about design seen on the Interweb shortchanges truly revealing discourse. In essence, he’s arguing against the very form of weblogs and their unsupervised nature:
“The biggest single problem with blogs as a medium for writing is the very thing that bloggers tend to love them for: the lack of editors. It’s naïve to imagine that you can just sit down at the keyboard, shoot from the hip, and hit the target unaided every time.”
I happen to think that Poynor, one of the most prolific and in my opinion one of the most valuable design thinkers working, is both right and wrong in this. But it’s difficult to see the nuances of his reasoning when he concludes his article with this fairly damning assertion:
“In the meantime, for range of commentary, depth of research, and quality of thought, printed publications are still the best source.”
Ouch. You wouldn’t blame a design blogger if she read that reasoning as old media jealously calling out new media’s pretensions. And in some respect, it’s very true that this is a case of the prior regime lashing out at the new regime. In a response to Kingsley’s response, Poynor explains why, though he was a founding editor at the blog Design Obsever, he ultimately gave it up:
“Despite everything I have said above, I have nothing against blogs in general and if they paid, I would probably continue blogging.”
Before I get to why I think Poynor is right, I want to point out why he’s wrong. It’s unfair to expect design weblogs to routinely produce the sort of lengthy, highly articulate and well-researched writing that Poynor produces as a matter of course. That’s just not what the medium is about, and to complain that it does not live up to the standards of, say, the thoughtful Eye Magazine (which Poynor edited for several years during a stellar run) is unrealistic. It’s a bit like complaining that YouTube has yet to produce an equivalent to “8½.” Which is to say, so what?
Here’s where he’s right. YouTube and art cinema can co-exist, at least for now. But if you want to talk about new media eating old media’s lunch, then the danger posed to Hollywood entertainment creators by the internet is like a far-off tectonic shift of no particular urgency compared to the immediate, pressing and under-appreciated danger posed by design blogs to serious outlets for design criticism.
In the article, Poynor offers his impression that “there is less serious critical design writing happening in any medium [today].” He᾿s right. The market for design criticism of the sort he’s so effectively produced has always been vanishingly small, and it’s shrinking every day. I’d wager that more people will be exposed to design ideas via the comparatively shallow framework of blogging in the next five years than have ever read printed design journals in the past fifty.
Unfortunately blogs just don’t pay enough for a design writer to make a living from blogging exclusively, and yet the number of bloggers writing about design is only growing. As the market gets saturated with more and more design writing being done for the low, low cost of free, the financial incentive to produce Poynor’s relatively expensive brand of design writing will inevitably shrink.
You can argue whether that’s a good or bad, but in my opinion it’s an unhappy side effect that, as someone who is generally pro-blogging, I reluctantly accept. As is true for the bylines on the majority articles in the traditional, printed design press, design blogs are written by design practitioners, those who earn a living through design work.
By contrast, Poynor is one of only a very small handful of professional design journalists. That is, he does not make his living by earning design commissions from clients nor in the employ of a major enterprise. He puts food on his table by writing about design, and in doing so he also fulfills a crucial role that the design profession can only benefit from: that of a serious, dedicated critic who is uncompromised by his own practice of the craft. Fine art has a healthy contingent of these professionals, as do architecture and technology. Design has always lagged behind, and in the economic equation that design blogs put before us, it seems unfortunately true that that situation is not likely to improve.