Comments: March '04: Design and the Media RoundTable

Comment on Design and the Media RoundTable, moderated by Paola Antonelli.

Great discussion so far! I wanted to ask about two other flavors of design in the media…design firm PR (or is it starf***ing?) and DIY media.

In the first case, there is often some direct or oblique discussion of design that features the practitioners themselves. For example, a few years ago, MacUser or MacWorld (or whatever the magazine was) asked frogdesign to come up with the next Mac design. This was before the iMac came out, btw. They developed some concepts and got lots of PR for doing it - a whole issue with their renderings and so on. I’m not sure that a reader of that issue would have learned what frog does or been able to extend that example to anything further about the field of design. Ironically, the magazine referred to them as Frog, not frog, which amused me.

Similarly, ithe most recent issue of Wired, there’s a piece on how four designers would redesign the Google interface.
I guess it’s a matter of opinion, but this was just horrible! Wired is willing accept any sort of crappy unusuable, unthoughtful, poorly presented solution if they can leverage the brand of the designer. Ironically, the magazine refers to Ideo, not IDEO, which amused me again. But really, those were all terrible!

So, this case is not writing about design, but presenting design, and in a certain format - giving the designer extensive control over the content of the magazine, hence my PR comment above.

The second case is the web newsletter and blog “media.” There’s an insane amount of writing about design - and this site and my own FreshMeat - (is that egregious self PR?) - a lot of it is about interaction, but certainly not all of it.

(Elsewhere it might be interesting to update whatever lists of bookmarks about design/product/graphics/interactin/technology/culture we all are carrying around).

These are a form of media, so how do these factor into the discussion?

Thanks for sticking with my rambling!

Following the thread of your conversation, I was struck by two over-arching themes:
a) that there is a dearth of writing about design that both garners a general and a professional readership without falling prey to assumptions about both—to paraphrase Paola, without being breathless or boring; and b) the sense that mass media coverage is consciously or unconsciously censored in favor of either designers or advertisers egos.

Re ‘a’:

Julie, Kurt, and Ralph are right in pointing out that design is more widely covered than ever. The fact that you can find it in the Home, Circuits/Technology, Style, Business, and Real Estate sections of the major dailies, reveals both the strength and weakness of the subject. What is missing is the absence of a singular design column and critic (comparable, say, to Peter Schjeldahl’s for art at The New Yorker) writing on the subject at large with predictable regularity. One can only assume the subject is considered too porous or ill-defined, but herein lies the great writing opportunity. The form of the essay, even more so than the review, is essential if design is to become intellectually relevant, not simply “covered.” And, in fact, since most design doesn’t enter the public realm through a formal ‘debut’ (like a building dedication or an one-person show), by definition, it begs for less event-driven and more discursive pieces.

Re ‘b’ and the need for a platform not beholding to its subject(s):

The issue for me isn’t as much about the absence of critique as it is the need for illumination and contextualization. On this score, Laurene’s comment that historical insights are in short supply seemed particularly relevant. The obsessive present-tense of design coverage needs to be expanded to ameliorate its status in the public mind as simply one feature of ephemeral, banal consumption—here today, gone tomorrow.

Furthermore, since design is essentially behaviorialist in nature, it also seems logical that a social dimension enter the picture. Nest magazine, while not mainstream in any real sense, does an interesting job of bridging the particulars of the material environment (as Seabrook says so tedious to enumerate) with the larger social milieu (often quite dysfunctional). Over and above its obsessive-compulsive design, Nest’s real strength is its editorial point of view. As such it might be a useful model. (Full disclosure, I serve as one of their contributing editors.)

I think that in the US the media is as good as can be hoped for with regards to covering product design, which is what I know best. The coverage of it tends to attempt to link design with increased profits and revenue. This kind of coverage helps sell product design into those domains where it is under used.

What I tend to see from Europe (on the internet) and here in Canada is a more artistic slant to product design. Usually in Canada, the newspaper or magazine articles (never on TV) just cheer on ‘beautiful’ design and suggest that it helps business, but then they provide no data to support their claims. These kinds of articles tend to quote sources from one of the many state supported design institutes. All in all, I think they only preach to the choir.

On a side note, I didn’t like that Wired article either SteveP. The good thing about the Google interface is the simplicity after all.

Hi everyone:
I for one am really enjoying the Media RoundTable. Hats off to Core77, the moderator, the panel, and everyone else who’s participating. I’m chiming in to re-iterate what stevep said about bookmarks:

(Elsewhere it might be interesting to update whatever lists of bookmarks about design/product/graphics/interactin/technology/culture we all are carrying around).

I’m wondering if the RoundTable panel might enumerate examples of their own personal, favorite media? I see the new thread, “The Best Design Stories Ever”–I’d love to see a list of their own design-related bookmarks, or other references to media which are purely for leisure, to amplify references to each other’s critical/professional writing.

Look forward to reading more…Thanks again.

I have received these comments from Jennifer Dunlop, who had trouble logging in. I report them verbatim. PA

  1. I think the non-design-educated public in the US lacks the vocabulary and criteria to judge what is good design beyond style, function and economy. Those three characteristics are aspects of design; however, I suspect the American public is unaware of the larger category.

  2. I can understand John Seabrook’s frustration that he is not able to write in the style or on the topics he would like because of his audience’s design limitations; however, I’m not convinced that creating celebrities is the way to create an awareness on the topic. Profiles are great–and its a New Yorker signature–but articles about everything the roundtable as already mentioned–differences in perception of design in various countries, design education in schools, design history, design theories can also make compelling and educational articles. Don’t underestimate the intelligence or curiousity of the public, despite the lack of education.

  3. Despite the rise in media attention to design, almost all the writers and sources cited, are intended for a more educated and culturally aware audience. How can awareness about design be broadened to a larger public? Beyond Graves/Starck/Oldham-at-Target, Martha Stewart-at-Kmart products? You and everyone in the roundtable are certainly making the best efforts through exhibitions, articles, mass-produced design and more–are there other approaches? How do the more design conscious countries appeal to a broader public?

  4. Nit-picky annoyance
    I am so peeved that the NY Times replaced “What Were They THINKING” with CONSUMED that I have considered cancelling my subscription. This type of product/lifestyle oriented discussion of design reads like an ad/commercial to me.
    Jennifer Dunlop
    (former student of Paola Antonelli, Cambridge, MA)

My favorite design story is, alas, also from the New Yorker–Malcolm Gladwell’s 1996 piece called The Science of Shopping.
Malcolm Gladwell – Home | Malcolm Gladwell.
Extremely thought-provoking and a great primer on design research. I love the “Invariant Right” (the phenomenon of people almost always turning right when they enter any retail environment), and the “Petting” tables (jargon defining those hip-high tables with sweaters on them at the Gap, etc.)

In a way, I think that almost ALL of Wired Magazine is about design.

The Rem Koolhaas issue is a classic. The “Color Space” map is unbelievable, but it looks like the graphics for that one aren’t online.

But many of the other “spaces” are.

Recently in Wired, this was a curious story:

Not really about a design artifact per se, more about human interaction with a smart machine-coach. Makes one rethink the notion of the kinds of relationship we can have with designed objects–in this case, a piece of software.