Design matters, like never before.
In a world changing faster than at any other time in human history, a dynamic and critical analysis of what is ‘good’ design could not be more urgently required. Whilst new communication technologies are offering revolutionary platforms for mass collaboration and opportunities to democratically converse within a global community (1), simultaneously the world faces unprecedented environmental, social, and economic crises (2). Are designers really capitalising on social media platforms and collaborative opportunities? What do these democratic shifts and global challenges mean, and what future role do they offer to the designer, writer and critic?
In 1998, writer, curator, and graphic designer Ellen Lupton (3) described how Michael Rock’s 1996 notion of the ‘Designer as Author‘ had “enlivened debates about the future of graphic design“. A decade on however, the arena of critical discourse in graphic design still remains very young (4). In comparison to architecture, fashion, fine art and cuisine, professional writing and criticism in communication design remains limited to only a handful of recognised names (Poynor, Heller, Rock, Lupton, et al.), and any substantial analysis of design authorship and criticism is restricted to those same voices (5). With post-graduate programs in design, writing and criticism springing up in both London and New York, however, design historian Margaret Maile predicts that the notion of what is considered to be ‘good’ design is set to face a whole new set of critical standards, led by a new breed of professional design voices.
“The slow development of criticism within design may in fact be related to the very concept of “Good Design,” which traditionally has prioritized rationalism, functionalism, and aesthetics over a deeper recognition of the broader cultural and contextual implications of design. But the reign of “Good Design” may be coming to a close as the discursive floodgates open, fueled by design criticism graduates with new ways of thinking and writing about design.”
Traditionally the notion of ‘author’ has been associated with the written word. However I believe, as French philosopher, critic and sociologist Michael Foucault argued, an author is not constrained to storytelling, but is a broader term used to describe a creative individual; “[…] it is ‘the author’-by which we mean any creative agent, whether writer, painter, filmmaker, or theorist-that allows us to conceive of the subject as a specific and particular individual, someone who can be distinguished from all other subjects.” (6)
When German critic Walter Benjamin wrote the text “The Author as Producer” (1934 cited Lupton 1983) he explained how “writing (and other arts) are grounded in the material structures of society.” Similarly, Foucault’s theory of ‘The Author Function‘, “the necessary thing that marks a particular discourse or set of discourses and authorizes them to circulate within a society” remains apparent today. When recalling favourite books, movies or even designs, it is often not the work itself that is remembered but its authorial voice. Danaher et al. (2000. pp.153-4) explain; “It is the name of the author that sells books or that attracts us to movies – John Grisham’s name is typically far more prominent on the covers of his paperback novels than the titles, and a movie is promoted as ‘the new film by George Lucas‘.
In 1946 British author George Orwell (7) suggested four motives for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and/or political purpose. Essentially driven by authorial content and discourse, individuals (authors) across the world are proving this theory valid, informally and, often unconsciously, branding weblogs with authorial motives: self-promotion, a subjective aesthetic showcase, a historical exploration, or with a social, environmental or political premise. Not only is everyone a designer now (8), or a critic, but everyone has become an author too.
With such democratic ability to freely publish thoughts and criticisms, the rise of the ‘layman’, ‘amateur’ and ‘informal media’ (9) is set only to grow more powerful, interconnected and far reaching. Without continual analysis of these publishing platforms and comprehension of contemporary forms of communication, the ‘DIY’ culture of criticism and self-editing will only continue to threaten the very nature of what defines a professional author and critic. Questioning the future of digital design discourse with regard to its monetary value, Eye Magazine editor John L. Walters explained how prolific design writer and critic Rick Poynor stopped writing for prolific design weblog DesignObserver.com, as the platform did not generate an income.
In a feature for Eye Magazine, design historian Martha Scotford (10) attempted to illustrate the power of digital design discourse using a concept of “googling the design canon”. Albeit a limited exploration, she insightfully reflected;
“From a book you can get a cohesive design history; from the web, never. But there is no turning back. While books and journals will continue to be important repositories, appreciated for their credibility, capacity and user experience, the web will increase in volume and useage.”
Considering my own authorial voice in relation to the diverse study of the author and critic during term one of the MA Design Writing Criticism program at London College of Communication, I strongly believe that further recognition of online design writing is critically relevant to the future of design. As designers evolve within an increasingly interconnected society, and as the very notion of good design changes, the designer, writer and critic must, in the words of Ellen Lupton (1998), become a producer with “the skills to begin directing content by critically navigating the social, aesthetic, and technological systems across which communications flow.”
by Kate Andrews.
(1) Gormley, I. (2008). http://www.UsNowFilm.com (2) Berman, D. (2009). Do Good Design: How Designers Can Change the World. http://www.davidberman.com/dogood (3) Lupton, E. (1998). The Designer as Producer. http://www.elupton.com/index.php?id=43 (4) Maile, M. (2008). Design Criticism for the 21st Century. Core77.com (5) Triggs, T., and Gerber, A. (2007). Design Criticism has long been the poor relation of other forms of critique. Blueprint Magazine. (6) Danaher, G., Schirato, T., and Webb, J. (2000). Understanding Foucault. London: Sage Publications. (7) Orwell, G. (1946). Why I Write. London: Penguin Books. pp.4-5. (8) Gerritzon 2003, Simon cited Thackara, J. (2005). In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. p.1 (9) Seijdel. (2007). The Rise of Informal Media. Open. (10) Scotford, M. (2008). Googling the Design Canon. Eye Magazine.