Are Design Blogs Killing Design Writing?

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.

Hatin’ on Design Blogs

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.”

Great Expectations

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 “.” 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.

The Danger Is Free

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.

  1. Isn’t the whole point of design writing/criticism about communication and discussion? And dont we agree that online media powerfully enables such sharing of thoughts and opinions? I feel like design criticism in ‘old-media’ is really too esoteric with the audience being only designers. If design is about bringing social change, then its writing should embrace the new social mediums.

  2. The problem is that good and worthwhile criticism requires that the author has an in-depth understanding of both the modern trends and less-than-modern history of the topic, not to mention excellent communication skills. The vast majority of chatter on the intertubes is simply people spouting off opinion disguised as criticism. Simply saying “I like” or “I don’t like” without being able to explain why, and without having a consistent and coherent approach to the subject is, at best, a disservice to the design community.

    What Poynor largely sidesteps, however, is that there has always been this kind of chatter. It just hasn’t been this easily accessible. Designers have always talked in shops and coffeehouses. The difference between the old model and the new model is discernment. Where it used to be the judgment call of an editor as to whether an article is worth viewing, it is not up to the reader to use his or her judgment. Whether this is a good or bad thing is too early to tell. The burden of discerning value has been shifted.

  3. I’d say that Kingsley’s article is worth more than a passing glance in accompaniment to Poyner’s — he calls Poyner on some important points, and nails both Speak Up AND Design Observer for their faults (which both certainly have — it’s refreshing to see smug DO take a well-deserved drubbing every once in a while).

    I agree with Charles’ comment, above. I have to say, I started a design blog two years ago, frustrated by the yawning gap between the esoteric self-aggrandizing style of design “magazine” blogs (like Design Observer) and the inane commentary (or lack thereof) of many design link blogs (like swissmiss, who features great items but then often captions them simply “Me Likey!”). On my blog, I take the time to do lite research into almost every item I post, and I write a coherent paragraph (often just the basic info, sometimes more) about each feature. I do it for free, and yeah, it’s time consuming, but it’s important to me to create something worth people’s time, even if by it’s bloggy nature it qualifies as a “shallow” exchange. Many of my readers have said that the “meaty brevity” of my blog really appeals to them, which totally jives with my initial goal.

    I’m not trying to simply toot my own horn — believe me, I feel my own insignificance in the online design sphere. But my point is that there seems to be an audience for all types of online design commentary, from lengthy elevated essays down to chattery spout. If people are going to start funding and valuing an online design community (which currently, as far as I can tell from four years of observation, is mostly made up of colleagues and friends who are already socially connected offline), then good writing needs to be supported on ALL levels, not just at the lengthy pro-design-journalist article length. People need soundbytes, small mouthfuls as well as the big academic chunks — if anything, in these days of shrinking attention spans, Steven Heller should be blogging breadcrumbs to boost readership of his lengthier print pieces (or maybe he feels above that?). Print commentary, published with far less immediacy, needs to be supported and supplemented by the online community — it baffles me that some think that 1) it can exist without it (Poyner and Heller’s dismissal of blogs will be laughably Jurassic tomorrow) and 2) that only sites like Design Observer can provide what it takes.

  4. I would say that design writing/criticism (and writing/criticism in general) isn’t just about comunication and discussion, but also about the level of engagement with the ideas. Blogging by its nature encourages the “shoot from the hip” kind of opinion, and discourages more measured reflection,

    The overwhelming trend of blog-level criticism is more shallow, which will, I think, ultimately be to the detriment of the design community – favouring things that can be instantly appreciated at the cost of works that require more engagement and reflection.

    Kudos to those who are trying to bridge the gap, and come up with criticism that’s halfway between the two; perhaps it will stir up a desire for more involved discourse than “Me Likey”.

  5. there’s got to be a correlation between the surge of web 2.0 media and reality TV shows.

    it’s a vox populi thing.

    i should hope both co-exist. i think poyner’s underlying assumption is that people are too dumb to discern what is what. they aren’t.

  6. I can wholeheartedly agree with your point of view here. And I’d add this phenomenon is going beyond design writing – in fact, most every professional field faces the same “bloggers vs. established journalists” friction issues. I see it in other fields I participate on, such as high end audio and current events topics.

    I can relate to those on traditional media who are feeling the heat of bloggers – While everyone praises the Internet for democratizing communication, giving the “nobodies” of the world a voice, it also have brought us a big problem – on the web, everyone can potentially become a self-proclaimed pundit. Pull some strings wisely, get a high ranking on Google and bam, you’re good to go. Instant “cred”. Few people (like you) try to earn their cred with their hard work to demonstrate they actually know what they are talking about. But on the other hand, it may be expecting the wrong thing from the blog form – blogs, by their own nature, thrive on the heat of the moment, on the here and now, and a world of paradigms and theories that change almost every day. They are the reflection of a world that is spinning faster than ever before, and that includes all forms of human expression – like design. If you are expecting some sort of Ph.D-level exposition out of a blogger aficionado, you are probably looking on the wrong places.

    It is, however, worth encouraging those who are willing to take the road less traveled and, using the blog form, try to add value to the design world beyond the “OMG this is so cool!!1!” disposable remark. Zeldman, for example, didn’t become the reference figure he is now on the web overnight. Online or off, it takes time and hard work to show the world what you’re really made of.

  7. 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

    This got me thinking: How many other people besides Poynor fit this description? Let’s assume we’re talking about graphic design (versus interior design, car design, etc). I’ll pull a number out of thin air and speculate that it’s under ten. Less than ten people on earth make their living writing about graphic design. Everyone else who writes about design does so “on the side”, as most bloggers do.

    Does this seem accurate, or am I living in a bloggy bubble?

  8. A very interesting piece. Although I admire Poynor as a writer, I do fear that he’s simply jumping on the journalistic bandwagon of reproach heaped upon the non-professional writers (bloggers/whatever).

    No source of information is THE source. Every day we read or hear information that we must make choices about – choices regarding its veracity, its relevance, etc. That goes for the news and views of professionals and non-professionals alike. Journalists are restricted by their editors. Private Bloggers are not. Blogs also promote and provoke more of a response in my experience. How many responses to articles in the print media are published?

    There is a place in this world for both/all mediums to exist – and it’s for me you, her, him to choose – not Poynor. Interesting that his piece is creating such a storm on-line – with opinions for and against expressed – haven’t seen much in print about it 😉

  9. It’s hard to get past the feeling that Poyner is hammering square pegs into round holes, attempting to transpose the framework of one medium onto another. I don’t see either as directly comparable or mutually exclusive. One is vetted and institutionalized while the other is primary source material. That the difference isn’t well accounted for in his essay is a serious flaw.

  10. I completely understand Poyner’s point of view and actually agreed with a lot of it, but he neglects to include the impact of interactivity and the importance of community. Take this very article as an example. This response article and it’s comments make for just as interesting and inciteful reading as articles in print or even preachy design blogazines like Design Observer (not that I don’t like a good bit of preaching).

    There will always be room for both. And besides, I thought design was for the people, not the chosen few who read the correct medium.

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