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Paola Antonelli
 
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Dear Friends,
I guess that when people talk about a distinguished panel, this is exactly what they are thinking of. Core77 and I feel privileged--and elated--by your participation in this diatribe. Thank you. (For readers who would like more info on the participants, click here.)

All of us here share the belief that design is a fundamental part of human life at all levels and in all its facets. We think of it not only as a superfluous form of cultural and social fulfillment, but also, at a macro scale, as a factor in the dynamic of international business and an instrument in policy-making.

Let me go straight to the point: are you satisfied with the coverage of design in the large-circulation press in the country where you live? Do you feel that design is portrayed fairly and completely, and used for all its worth?

This first question will elicit fifteen others, I am sure. Readers will not be able to post directly to this forum, but can comment in the Article Forum. Please keep your ideas coming and, in my moderating role, I will do my best to learn from your thoughts and keep the discussion on track.

Three, two, one, go! Ciao,
Paola

thought one

Postby Laurene Leon » March 1st, 2004, 1:34 pm

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hi Paola, I'm going to answer your question with, not another question, but some thoughts regarding the topic. Also, perhaps, some ideas about how mass media design criticism could possibly reflect the richness and complexity of the field.

Yesterday I was reading an one page article in the New York Times magazine that was posted under the subhead "design". The article was about theis new-ish company in San Francisco, who makes a "designed" line of cleaning products. The author was able to fill the page with comments about form, some functionalism, and a little bit of marketing...and that was fairly typical design coverage as we know it. As I was reading it, I was wishing for some juicy historical preceedents to be mentioned, or some cultural criticism, or, even criticism of the formal choices the designer made...some type of argument that would jar my complacency, make me think, provoke me.

Yes, i appreciate the fact that design criticism (without a capitical C) is making inroads into mass market publications. We have the most talented and educated people writing, exhibiting and promoting design today. However, the idea of what design critisicm IS has to be expanded.

Speaking as the panel "designer," I know first hand, that everyone in the field of design, wants to be flattered, appreciated, commended for our contribution to society. However, to bring the discipline to the next level, there is a need for design criticism beyond formalism, functionalism and the trivialization of the cult of personality.

Does anyone have any further ideas how this new definition of criticism could be explored?

March 04: Design and the Media

Postby Beth Dickstein » March 1st, 2004, 2:25 pm

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My thoughts are more about coverage than criticism. I feel that shelter magazines are covering what they always covered - beautiful installations. They do not cover design as it relates to environmental issues or technology issues - which we all live with at home - and at work. Business/general interest publications that cover technology or environmental issues - are not relating those items to how we live. I would love to see more of a crossover in this. To reflect on a broader and more true level - how we live today.

thoughts

Postby John Warwicker » March 1st, 2004, 3:48 pm

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hi there, there are few observations that i would like to make from the u.k. perspective (often vis-a-vis the u.s.a).

1. there seems to be a gap between popularist and more academic criticism, neither of which helps the design discourse. this is especially true in 'graphic design' (whatever that is).

2. there is an assumption that it is one big industry. there is a tendancy to consumerise and trivalise the creative process (from initial idea or thought right through to final 'product' and placement in the world, as well as the individual creators themselves).

3. 'design' is such a complex and all-embracing process. i have yet to meet or read a writer that is articulate or knowledgable enough to do this justice.

4. in comparision to the u.s.a. the u.k. is well served both in the newspaper and magazines. (yet my cricisms of criticism still stands). having been regular visitor to the u.s.a. over the past 20 years it is obvious that there are a lot of talented and intreresting people there but so little is actually reported in the american press. i tend to see this work in british, european and japanese magazines.

5. in the u.k. the government has recognised the importance of design in both economic and cultural importance to the country as a whole (no matter that it doesn't really understand what's going on- i've been on several government think-tanks). does this happen in the u.s.a?

6. from my experience (in the last 20 years) few designers or critics in the u.s.a. have understood contemporary cultural criticism and used it in a creative way- i.e. evolving their own voice or ignoring it. they have just reeled off the quotes verbatum without integrating into their own evolving practice.

7. am i right in suspecting that education is at fault?
and/or is the u.s.a. is too insular as to what is happening around the world? therefore, am i right in suspecting that education is at fault?

more later,
hopefully this will generate some debate (and i do plead ignorance- my experience of the u.s.a. is very new york-centric)

all the best

john

Postby John Seabrook » March 2nd, 2004, 4:46 pm

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John makes some very good points about the lack of design education in the usa, as compared to Britain or Holland or italy or Sweden or Belgium. But of course it is possible to educate oneself, as a writer, about design. The problem is that when you write about design for an American audience you lack the luxury of commonly shared cultural references that a writer for a European audience can count on. (Unless you're writing about clothing design, but let's take up that point in a moment.)

It is very tedious, both for the writer and the reader, to describe in words the color, shape, texture, material, and style of an object -- when a picture could communicate most of this information in a fraction of a second. And yet, when you are writing for an audience that knows nothing of the context within which decisions about design take place, and has no feel for the culture out of which design choices emerge, then one has little choice but to scatter one's seed over such barren ground as mere description. Ergo, most cultural critics choose to spend their time writing about something else. Janet Jackson's breast, say.

Clothing design is different, because Americans do understand the social/status/class implications of clothes. People hire professionals to buy furniture for them, but almost everyone buys their own clothes. So, as a writer about clothing design, vulgarly known as fashion, one can spend relatively little time on the material, color, texture and so on, and more time on what it all means. You just can't do that with lighting or furniture or tablewear or applliances, in the US. Readers don't know enough about the context to care.

Postby Julie Lasky » March 2nd, 2004, 9:14 pm

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I would not be so quick to deny the existence of fine writing about design in mainstream media (Bill McDonough in The Atlantic, Malcolm Gladwell and John Seabrook in The New Yorker, to name just a few.) But as Laurene points out, the problem appears to be one of definition. How many indictments have we read of SUVs? And how often do we characterize those stories as design criticism? By criticism we usually mean interpreting or evaluating something according to criteria that are debated, refined, and reevaluated over time. Creators are held accountable. Context is explored. Comparisons with other works are made. Benchmarks are established and challenged, and eventually we have a tradition that writers refer to and build on for their own insights. Architecture has such a tradition, but it's spotty at best in the other design disciplines because we tend to approach, say, cars as consumer goods (evaluated to determine whether they're worth buying) or as instruments related to larger issues such as urban development.

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Paola Antonelli
 
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John W.'s post lucidly initiates many different threads of dicussion, thank you. In answer to some of your questions:
1. True, Americans like to stress the difference between high and low writing. 'High' means ten academics reading each other's tedious criticism essaysin journals and books. 'Low' means THE JOURNALISTS, having to cater to the masses and therefore the lowest common denominator. I found myself, to my surprise at first, in many a diatribe on this subject.
2. I think that the 'trivialization' of the design process comes from the need to find a narrative compelling enough to grasp the readers' attention. I think it is a valuable attempt.
3. Here I agree with Julie: there are several writers that have proven to be good enough to cover design--even though we are all still skiing on slippery slopes, design is indeed a very vague term. Let's all provide examples.
4. All true, John.
5. No, the US Government has actually degraded design even within the very small post it used to have at the National Endowment for the Arts. No support whatsoever.
6. Let's post links to good examples.
7. Yes, education is definitely at fault.
I think it is time we share some links to our favorite or exemplary design articles, and distinguish between criticism and reporting. I will create a new topic--if I am able to fogure out how to do it--for this purpose.

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Paola Antonelli
 
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A few days ago, Amy Spindler, a fashion writer I admired deeply, passed away. For those of you who have not read her obit, please go to the link, it is very relevant to our discussion:
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/28/nyregion/28SPIN.html
In the obit, Cathy Horyn writes "She recognized that fashion was as important a cultural barometer as music or art and that it should be — demanded to be — covered as rigorously as a political campaign... In 1994, The Times created the position of fashion critic for Ms. Spindler, making her an equal with the paper's other critics and acknowledging the weight of her view on a subject she not only knew in depth but also believed should be taken seriously."
As simple as that? Is that not also a description of the role of design--all of it, product, graphic, etc.? John S. says, fashion has the advantage of relying on common references. But what about design? Don't we use those razors and computers even more than we use a Valentino gown? Maybe the truth is that design is not as seductive a subject, at least at first. It is more interesting for the reader to mentally try on the gown for a dream party, rather than slide the razor mimicking in the most mundane act of daily routine.

fashion/design

Postby Holly Brubach » March 4th, 2004, 8:44 am

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Although I agree in principle with John's remarks about greater latitude when it comes to writing about clothing, I think the circumstances when it comes to covering both design and fashion are, unfortunately, parallel, in that in neither field has there been any longstanding tradition of criticism as we know it in literature, art, movies, theater, dance. Both are commercial fields in which one is obliged to rely to a great extent on the people one is covering for information about them, and both supply the advertising base for any number of magazines. I can speak from experience that when fashion designers disagree or dislike whatever it is you'd said about them, they don't hesitate to retaliate by pulling their ad pages. I think in design magazines that feature "decorating", with product-based advertising, there's a fear of alienating the advertiser, and also of creating an editorial environment in which the reader is encouraged to think critically--read: negatively--about any aspects of what is being featured.

On the few occasions when I've written critically about some aspect of architecture or interior design, the subjects (though they lacked the financial clout to pose any serious threat to the publication) has generally behaved no better than the fashion designers who used to punish me by banishing me from their collections. Of course, no one likes to be "criticized" (why is it that the verb is negative when the noun, as a tradition, is meant to be neutral?). I certainly hated it when a reviewer would trash my books. But because it happens so rarely in design (and in fashion as well), I think that the people who are our subjects have had the "luxury" of dismissing criticism as a personal attack.

Plus, I think design in general in America still suffers from the complex that ailed dance in the U.S. in the fifties and sixties: it considers itself a "beleaguered" field with a tenuous grasp on the public's attention and a not yet fully acknowledged role in the culture. In which case, when it comes to coverage, it's boosterism that's required.

Postby Ralph Caplan » March 4th, 2004, 12:53 pm

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Paula at al,

I don't know that I'm satisfied with the media coverage of anything but sports, but it seems to me that design is covered better now than in whatever past I can remember. For one thing, there are more good writers doing it. I think of, among others, Phil Patton, Akiko Busch, Steve Heller, Rick Poynton, Cristopher Hawthorne, Philip Nobel, plus several on this panel. In addition to "design writers," there are people like Malcolm Gladwell and Verlon Klinkenbourg, who tend to bring a design perspective to whatever they write. Plus people like Michael Beirut and Jessica Helfand, who are not primarily writers but designers who write better than most writers. Design is also examined, if not covered, by graphic artists like Ben Katchor, whose cartoons in Metropolis can be deeply revealing of architectural details.

In other media, Studio 360 on NPR regularly illuminates design issues, Andy Rooney on television grumpily complains about how things are made as astutely, if less fullsomely, than many critics, and, I'm told, there are a number of helpful forums on the web.

The various media are more likely than ever to treat design critically, that is to say, as if it matters. This necessarily entails saying that some designs are better (and therefore some are worse) than others. That is not the most important aspect of critical writing, but it is unavoidable in dealing with what is most important. I was impressed by the recent analysis in ID of
a line of "designer" kitchenware for Copco. (Predictably it elicited a reply from the designer who said he welcomed criticical writing, but that this was myopic and banal. But that's no worse than the defensive responses to book reviews.)

Having --- as politicians and pundits say --- said all that, I have to qualify it. I think, partly because of media coverage, design awareness has increased. I am not sure of a comparable increase in design understanding.

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it's been interesting to follow the responses that everyone has made. and i'm not surprised by the mixed reaction. and it would be interesting for me to know exactly what everyone does because i have a feeling that some areas feel that they are better served than others. orcrucially, think they are better served- architecture, product design and fashion. thought follows function?

the overall impression that i have is that yes there are praiseworthy examples but no publication (meant in the widest definition) that seems to be collating this properly. i'm also noting the comment made about the u.s.a. being a diverse and geographically/culturally stretched nation of disparate communities that are bundled together under the banner of 'design'.

my thought is this. the web can be a wonderful thing. unlike a paper -based publication or even television it can not only publish the vertical- areas of particular interest but can also cross-link with the horizontal - context.

there is a need, not only in the u.s.a., for this pluralistic approach. i feel that it is important to show to everyone; the professionals, the students and the interested that this is the reality of the situation and in this way become a valuable and much needed reference point for the <disparate communities that are bundled together under the banner of 'design'>.

the key is in the curation and ironically, in the design (in terms of structure).

with pdf software now being able to contain film isn't this the way forward?

if, as it has been indicated by some of the panel, that issues are not dealt with or are truncated because of editorial pressure then surely it is down to us to do something about it.

the great thing is that it is accessible to one and all, not only in the u.s.a. but also the world.

the big frustration for me is that there are many people and groups of people who are not specialists but have a wider range of interests and make things purely because they are interested to see what happens. the conventional press have, in my experience, great difficulty within their alloted spaces representing this.

tomato, my group of friends, that happen to be a company, are extremely hard to report for a conventional publication because we have no agenda apart from our curiosity and are extremely unpredictable. if pushed i suspect we would all agree with joseph beuy's dictum 'thinking as form'. what is it?- design?, fine art? - who cares?

we all write, draw, take photographs, make films, direct television commercials, make sounds and make music, we publish, enjoy typography and books, and are involved in architectural design, self-authored 'fine art' installations, electronic interactive media etc etc. and i am sure, in fact know, that there are similar individuals and groups around the world. so where is this in the press. where is the description where this way of being intersects with the singular, more prescriptive but equally creative practice?

to conclude: if pushed, again, then i guess we would call ourselves 'sculptors'.
with thinking and conversation as our base material.

does this make sense?

and shouldn't we be doing something about it?

i believe it is our human duty to share and converse.
to put ideas into the world and to talk about it.

this forum is great. and well done to everyone that made it happen.
but now what?

an electronic 'black mountain college' anyone?

all the best

john

Postby Kurt Andersen » March 5th, 2004, 12:33 am

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The fact that design is not "one big industry," as John W. said in his first post, is, I think, the most important reason for the failure of design coverage and design criticism to get serious traaction in newspapers and general interest magazines. Film is a particular craft, music composition is a particular craft, dance is a particular craft, and so on, but design is a collection of crafts, a bunch of disciplines, a "complex and all-embracing process" (per John W.), a portmanteau word for everything visual that's useful and/or isn't art. (And since the line between art and design has gotten blurrier and blurrier over the last 30 years, as we've gone from Judd furniture to Pardo architecture-as-art, even that distinction has become unhelpfully quasi-moot.)

On the other hand, when I was Time's architecture and design critic in the late 80s and early 90s, that amorphousness and expansiveness made the beat much more fun for me and much more attractive to editors who were understandably nervous about being too narrow and "inside." (My one predecessor as Time's critic left after a year -- he was too steeped in a single discipline, too distinguished, too qualified.)

My experience at Time may also bear on one not-so-terrible reason design writing taken as a whole may seem puffy. Back in those days, the magazine's appetite for design pieces was about 15 a year. So although I wrote some tough things about buildings and other design I thought were crap, the vast majority of my Time pieces were essentially celebrations, because I thought it was important to use as much of my scarce space as possible to bring genius and beauty to that big audience's attention.

I wonder what you mean, John W., when you say "no publication (meant in the widest definition) that seems to be collating this [good design writing] properly." Particularly in the internet age, can't we each pretty much do the "collating" ourselves?

Holly -- whose writing about fashion is such achingly good cultural criticism -- mentions that design "considers itself a 'beleaguered' field with a tenuous grasp on the public's attention and a not yet fully acknowledged role in the culture." I suppose this is true, the inferiority complex, but it seems slightly misplaced to me in this age of Target and National Design Awards and special newsmagazine issues devoted to design and all the rest of the media hullabaloo, I don't think designers have EVER had as much acknowledement and public presence as they do right now. Am I missing something?




Postby Lisa Gabor » March 5th, 2004, 2:11 am

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John--as wonderful as the web can be, it’s still constricting when working within the confines of an off-line brand. Ok, no surprise. Still, as someone working online I constantly question how people want, respond to, or can find the information they’re accustomed to receiving in paper-based format.

When I ask myself your question, “Where does this (editorial pressure) leave people who are not specialists but have a wider range of interests and make things purely because they are interested to see what happens?” I end up hitting the wall, the wall that is media consolidation. Admittedly, it’s a rough time for those of us still convinced print is the ideal medium to express complex ideas.

Regarding Paola’s question--and in response to these posts--thank you, Holly, for taking on the elephant in the room.

Publishing criticism in a magazine dependent on advertising (fashion advertising, in particular) is, I'm guessing, what it feels like to surf in Queens. I've seen people in the ocean, floating on boards and standing on small swells rolling toward shore. Is that surfing? Is it pluck? Rockaway Beach isn’t Waikiki. Still, every summer, I see people loaded down with gear get on the subway to chase what could be.

Ad driven magazines seem as environmentally friendly to serious criticism as Queens is to surfers. The intention and effort are genuine, but the result reads like a celebration. For designers this is, I think, what they mean when they say the media turns them into caricatures.

A friend of mine, and former critic, reminded me that a bad theater review in The Times can close a play. Far as I know, no magazine has ever ruined a fashion collection or design object. But, as Holly points out, fashion advertisers will pull pages—and that can cause serious damage to a magazine. The upshot is magazines become like the ladies they once spoke to: if there’s nothing nice to say, they won't say anything all-- which is itself a kind of commentary.

helping out

Postby John Warwicker » March 7th, 2004, 8:18 am

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dear all,

i think in response to what has been said i should make my suggestion a little clearer.

from the posts there seems to be a consensus that magazines and newspapers are what they are and that the members of this forum have through their skill and inquistiveness done a good job at fighting for their patch (which is obviously why they've been invited to participate). my question is 'do you feel constrained by the constraints?'. putting aside professional pride in what you've achieved i want to suggest a bigger picture, that of education and debate - in the widest possible sense.

as i'm sure we all agree the u.s.a. is a geographically and culturally disparate nation. and i'm sure we all agree that education is of prime importance.

if, as some of you have indicated, there is a problem in education then how is this going to get sorted? what can we do to help? all we know is all we know but it could be a valuable part of the mix. there is no way a student in portland is going to read the new york times. however, if something exists on the web, they might engage with it. this is not a replacement for a paper-based publication. it cannot replace the inimate and special circle that is created when one either reads a book or a newspaper but it can be distributed nationwide/globally and it can be engaged with continuously. it's not the solution but a response. as for "collating it ourselves" who knows where to look, and who has got the time?

surely it's a good idea to try. and to get the ball rolling?

all the best

john

Postby Kurt Andersen » March 7th, 2004, 6:59 pm

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Not to get all circa-1999-internet-utopian about this, but a student or anyone else with an interest in design in Portland or Omaha or anywhere else on earth can indeed read the New York Times at nytimes.com.

On the other hand, while I think most kinds of information and discourse are well-suited to the web, I think print -- newspapers but especially magazines -- has a singular, visceral, artifactual power as a venue for writing and reading about and looking at design.

I'm curious what we mean when we say that American education is deficient in terms of design. Do we mean the education of designers and people who write about it, or the educable design fluency of ordinary educated civilians? Because if it's the latter, I can't imagine what might practically be done to improve things. Or even, I guess, what ought to be.

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