HE DOESN’T KNOW HOW MUCH I LOVE HIM

Yellow book cover with dense type Contrary to expectation, 79 Short Essays on Design is not just an exercise in Michael Bierut fame intensification. These are not 79 blog postings conveniently and inexpensively “repurposed” from Design Observer. In fact, “only” 54 derive from there.

In cold light of print, what used to be mere blog posts turn out to have been “essays” – and they read like essays, too, gassy and replete with space-consuming circumlocutions of the “I can’t help but wonder if” variety. Some of that would be marginally excusable in the essays republished from print periodicals, where wordcount means something and if your ideas are too short, you have to pad. Online, it’s a filmed stageplay.

It turns out, then, that Bierut was never writing blog posts at all. He was transposing the failed and mortally wounded medium of design-magazine criticism to its successor, the blog. The only time any of that actually worked would be much later – once the “essays” were reunited with their biological parents, dead trees.

Eventually the elites of graphic design will give up the ghost and cease to perpetuate the fiction that “design writing” as practised over the last 50 years has any relevance anymore. I reissue my old challenge: Do a reader survey of two design magazines and two design blogs. (As far as the elites are concerned, there are only two design blogs. What’s the other one?) Find out how many print articles were read all the way through. Then ask the same about blog postings.

Are you willing to risk that kind of of empiricism? I didn’t think so. People don’t read your shit in magazines (they flip through it). People will read your shit online – if you write for the Web and not as though Rick fucking Poynor were “editing” you. (Because that is what every online design writer needs: An editor.)

Form

For a graphic-design book, 79 Short Essays is typeset badly. The conceit of a different font for each essay simply doesn’t work – type sizes are usually too small, and the choice of nospace-emdash-nospace orthography, nearly always a mistake, is fatal in a chapter typeset in spindly Courier. (I gave up after the first five lines.)

  • There’s one typo after another. (Things start out badly with “AGIA” twice in the first chapter. And did Steve “Guttenberg” print the Bible?)

  • I found innumerable artifacts of amateur conversion from blog text files to type. The kind of people who don’t know how to remove whitespace in a keystroke should not be typesetting books.

  • If I’m not mistaken, Chapter 10 uses fake italics.

  • There is really no understanding at all of how to set a heading (hint: surrounded by carriage returns and led by a tab isn’t it). Of course there is no understanding of what to do with the paragraph that follows right after.

  • A central argument in Chapter 40 holds that the not-equal-to symbol is difficult to typeset. “It was Design [I]s [N]ot Art that I was really looking forward to. The exhibition’s name, however, should have provided a faint warning. Not just complex but complicated, it would be more properly expressed here as Design [is not] Art, since the actual title used the mathematical symbol for ‘not equal to, but not greater than and not less than.’ The fact that it is so hard to transcribe the title” is not a fact at all, but was a lie even when the article was first published in 2005. Here it is: . There. That was one keystroke.

This is your brain on 79 short essays. Who’s our designer? Abbott Miller. Where does he work? Pentagram. Where does Bierut work? Take a wild guess.

Content

Now, there’s one gangbuster piece, an “essay” that really does live up to the idea of criticism. (It, too, is improperly typeset, with footnotes turned into endnotes.) “Ten Footnotes to a Manifesto” (I.D., 2000; also in one of the widely bought, widely unread Looking Closer books) thoroughly demolishes a sanctimonious public statement signed by everyone from Barnbrook to VanderLans. Their complaint was, in essence, that graphic design is a subset of advertising. Bierut’s rebuttal was, in essence, that yes, it is.

But even seven years ago, the Web made it reasonably possible for the first time for graphic designers to engage in something that commercial illustrators and photographers have enjoyed all along – personal work, which was never really viable before. (Because production was expensive, you always needed a client.)

Some pieces are dated, like Chapter 4’s advice on how to handle “slide trays,” the interminable delay when switching from one slide tray to another, and the implicitly inferior alternative, “presentation software.”

Bierut spends time in Chapter 6 complaining that, in another book of design criticism, “no actual picture of any piece of graphic design appears until well after Part Two’s halfway point.” You find that all over the place; it’s one of the nails in the coffin of “design writing.” But there isn’t a single illustration anywhere in 79 Short Essays, either – not even on the covers, which are strictly typographic.

Writing about design without showing the design is considerably worse than dancing about architecture. It’s the sort of thing word people do. I dunno – is graphic design by, about, or for word people? Is that maybe the problem with design writing?

And Bierut has the gall (also Chapter 6) to critique the mighty Paul Rand for a book of essays, “all but one previously published, and illustrated, like those in A Designer’s Art, that are the author’s own work.” (Sic, by the way.) Don’t you hate it when authors fill books with their own work? The adorable scamp from Helvetica would never stoop so low.

Bierut has a whole piece on bullshit that essentially admits he’s good at it. Having heard his pitch on Studio 360 for rebranding of Christmas (to “X.mas”), I believe it. I’ve never heard anyone do a better job dispensing with criticism. So you know full well what’ll happen if he ever deigns to read this.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.11.21 16:45. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2007/11/21/79/

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