Rick Poynor is a design critic of approximately my generation, with an output rivalled only by Steven Heller. Even though he’s made sense exactly twice in his career (in Helvetica and in a review of different covers of Ballard’s Crash), he’s a big fish in the small pond of graphic-design criticism. The other critics – all five of them – really care what he thinks. But when they are gone, so will memories of Poynor be, because not only is he on the wrong side of history, he has opted out of the defining medium of the 21st century. And, like an aging chanteuse with too many farewell tours, he can’t keep from repeating himself: First he quits the Design Observer blog, dismissing the entire enterprise, then he used a column in Print magazine to do the latter all over again.

Why are we letting Rick Poynor set the terms of the debate? Why are we even having a debate about Poynor-style unreadable, unillustrated, turgid, overintellectualized design writing on the one hand and design blogs on the other?

Failures as Web sites

Admittedly I have a low tolerance for design blogs, too, but for more specific reasons – like their failures as Web sites. Poynor’s column was even worse.

  • The Print Web site, a classic Failed Redesign, uses 110 components to deliver a mere 2,700 words. Among them:

    • 37 tables
    • Six iframes
    • JavaScript listing every U.S. state, every Canadian province (but only two territories), and most countries of the world (like those hotspots of design criticism, Brunei and the Channel Islands)

    The URL alone is 81 characters long. The main page takes a few minutes to load in Safari. The print-friendly page is no better: It’s an oxymoron, it’s usable only with JavaScript support (it isn’t even a real hyperlink), and it spawns a new window.

    Tell me: If Poynor wants us to believe that “[o]utput that falls short of basic standards is no more satisfactory or persuasive than clumsily[-]matched typefaces, botched kerning, or trite design formulas used as though they had just been invented,” why does his own magazine’s Web site defy basic standards and, indeed, act as though those had never been invented? A design Web site that uses tables for layout and all that malarkey is like a “designer” who uses Times (“New Roman”) and Arial. It’s the wrong kind of amateur.

  • Why are the only two design blogs he cares about, Speak Up and Design Observer, scarcely any better at a technical level? (And when one complains about that fact, one receives a sarcastic response – though admittedly in a velvet glove in Design Observer’s case, given that Michael Bierut has more tact than his purported employee, Armin Vit. And ask me sometime about David Berlow.)

If you hate the club so much, why join it?

Poynor’s thesis is that blogs (online writing) scarcely ever meet the standard of book chapters (writing for print); Speak Up has never met that standard. Then why is the article online in the first place? Poynor makes it sound as though all the good stuff goes into print; being in print is a badge of quality (QED). Why not practise what you preach and keep your column offline?

I know why: Because then your column is as dead as the trees it’s printed on. You’ll get two or three, or five, or ten, letters published in another issue of Print some months hence. It won’t be Googlable and simply will not exist for any designer under 40. You got paid for it and an editor’s training wheels kept you from getting too wobbly, but in point of fact you were pissing in the wind. You might as well dance about architecture.

Centrally, though, Poynor just doesn’t like electronic media. He doesn’t. You know how I can’t stand it when people top-post? He can’t stand it when one interleave-posts, getting angrier and angrier (and sounding less and less sane) in an old E-mail exchange we had. He tried out this blogging thing for a while and, instead of ceasing to write for sites that don’t pay him (a solid reason in itself), he was unwise enough to let his true feelings show. Your writing doesn’t count unless it is deemed worthy of dead trees – deemed thus by him, or Steven Heller (another avowed enemy of the Web), or, importantly, an editor, especially an editor of a book anthology like Looking Closer.

Essays are written, not necessarily read

I’ve spent the last couple of years methodically reading every book of graphic-design criticism from the last two decades that I could buy, borrow from the library, borrow via interlibrary loan, or simply sit at the library and read. I’ll let you in on a secret: On the whole, they’re terrible. Either they’re picture books with no “critical analysis” whatsoever (compilations of ads of the year, or of annual design winners, are prime culprits here), or they’re endless text-heavy pages of nothing but “criticial analysis.” Books in the latter category notoriously don’t even bother with pictures even though they are discussing pictorial works (and tend to have bad type).

I thought the gig was up nearly 15 years ago when I wrote about the two – two! – Neville Brody books, which laboured to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, to overlay some kind of theory on what is really just the workaday world of type and illustration. Yes, even Neville Brody was “workaday”: He and his mates were just putting out a fashion magazine.

Graphic design is not art; it simply isn’t that profound, and it cannot bear the weight of ancient design critics piled up its shoulders like Master Blaster. Graphic design is like the Web itself: It’s populist, not intellectual. It’s meant for everybody, and it isn’t deep. (Maybe that’s why the field is dominated by straight guys.)

Let’s apply a Web concept to these important “printed sources”: Let’s do a usability test of the last five years of Eye. Gather up 50 subscribers and interview them about which articles they read all the way through. (You’d have to use subscribers as your user base. Eye is so obscure and expensive that almost no libraries carry it, and almost nobody but me is willing to schlep to a library anyway. Casual readers of Eye barely exist.) Do the same with the small number of people who bought any specific Looking Closer volume: How many chapters did they read all the way through?

What are your numbers like?

What are the numbers like on individual postings at Design Observer and Speak Up? Do you doubt that people read those postings all the way through? OK, run a test. And with so many more postings, doesn’t the total critical content dwarf what you get in books and magazines?

Perhaps there has been no “decline in interest” in design essays. Maybe people were never really interested in them anyway. Now that they have an alternative that works, they’re just not willing to pretend anymore. In the market for attention, consumers have made a rational choice. They’re showing a preference for short pieces that they can read anywhere; subscribe to via RSS; save for posterity in computer-searchable files; and critique themselves using the same tools. (Poynor calls that “the safe world of their own self-created blog club.” Beats the shit out of having to talk an editor into running your piece. But then again, he’s very big on editors as a defining characteristic that will doom the blog. Newspapermen thought that, too. How’s that been working out?)

Writing long isn’t the answer; Poynor makes it sound like a hazing ritual (“more intensive and demanding”). Anyone conversant with the aphorisms of writing knows how hard it is to write short. Yet curiously, we don’t need an editor’s help to manage that online. Perhaps we never did. “Sustained essay-writing” is a gold standard for a tiny few design writers, but it’s a prison sentence for readers.

Now, if you’re Rick Poynor, and your “essays” are overlong, and your topic does not merit an “essay” in the first place, and you can’t prove your readers are actually making it all the way through, and you just cannot stand the fact that times have changed and blogs have made the structural inferiority of design magazines and books all too apparent, well, why not go out with a bang? Why not do it twice? Why not keep using the electronic medium to assert its inadequacy?

One last thing: Bias

I can’t let this one slide (clubby acronyms expanded):

There are [four] blog posts in [Looking Closer]… all of them from Design Observer…. When you consider the huge number of posts on Speak Up and other design blogs, it does seem incredible that none of them have met the editors’ yardsticks, and it must be said that two of the [book’s] selectors, William Drenttel and Michael Bierut, are Design Observer founders. (I should also declare an interest here as [a Looking Closer] contributor [and] Design Observer cofounder and former writer.)

While it’s perhaps not surprising that Drenttel and Bierut have each included one of their own Design Observer texts and two by Drenttel’s wife, Jessica Helfand – an established writer… – the fact is that Vit works for Bierut at Pentagram and Bierut has always supported Speak Up, leaving comments on the site on many occasions. He can hardly be accused of bias.

No, he’s just hiding his bias in plain sight. Bierut is using the book he co-edits as a forum for his own postings. He’s shutting out the competition (again, it’s a market for attention). The fact that Vit works for Bierut means nothing; editing the book wasn’t an employment relationship. Besides, Bierut is in dogged pursuit of getting his online work into print – he has a whole book coming out, in fact, whose title, 79 Short Essays on Design, upgrades blog postings to “short essays.”

According to Poynor, you’re either an essayist or a blogger, a claim his own colleague may just have disproved.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.05.14 14:22. 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:

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None. I quit.

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