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Designspeak

Critical theory exists in academia, studio life, and here on the web where designers talk about design on our own terms using our own terminology: -isms, lessons in convergence, metaforms, experiencial narratives, empathy for the user, arc of a project, pattern recognition, form modulation, deconstructionism, authorpreneurship, etc. Are we killing design by talking it to death? What—if any—are the long-term consequences of being insular with a design discourse rooted in a specialized language? And how does this affect design’s ability to reach contemporary culture and the general public?

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ARCHIVE ID 1864 FILED UNDER Discussion
PUBLISHED ON Mar.09.2004 BY Jason A. Tselentis
WITH 78 COMMENTS
Comments
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Interesting post Jason, especially since I'm currently undertaking an MA, where, surprisingly, these words are bandied about less than I would have expected. I have to admit that sometimes I get lost in all the words and their changing definitions.

That being said however, I think critical theory is an essential part of the discipline. Such a young discpline is still developing its academic vocabulary, which is probably why so many terms seem "wishy-washy"(look at that term, eh?). But if we believe that graphic design is more than a craft, and has real social implications, then a language to speak about it is necessary.

I don't like the implications of "killing design by talking". How has talking about something ever killed anything? If anything, I think we need more dailogue within the discipline, about many more complex issues than how to get the next contract (no offense to the previous, useful posts, but....).

I do agree that a specialised language is dangerous. Especially when it becomes a language based in exclusion (I think your metaforms are not supported by the modulated convergence of your central image structure). However, a specialised language is necessary when dealing with a specialised discipline. Think of typographic terminology, does the layman know the diference between a couter and an em-dash(more importantly, does he care?).

Finally, I'm a firm believer in the trickle-down notion of ideas(if not of economics) and I think that the theoretical issues of design do inform experimental practice, which then informs general design practice, which then communicates to the audience in a simplified(some might say diluted) form. Deconstructionism being a key example. Cranbrook was at the cutting edge, pushing the boundaries of the theoretical discourse in graphic design, David Carson emulated it and realised it had commercial value, and the public bought it up... for a while. Now we can go back to it and try and figure out what the public's acceptance of those forms can say about not only design, but society at large.

On Mar.09.2004 at 05:27 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Good provocation, Jason. I'm probably not saying much more than Kevin, but i already wrote this so I'll post it:

Design is dead, and we have killed it. We killed design when we stopped believing in it, when we stopped talking about it and let it become an “empty reflection”. But it is no longer possible to believe the things we once believed; our progress is irreversible, and feigning belief in an outdated conception of design is not going to bring it back to life.

Obviously design cannot be talked to death. That’s not how talking works. If anything, a vibrant design culture will be born again through talking about it, just as it happened in the early 20th century. We have the means to establish a great public sphere. But are we going to let our vision be impaired again already by market concerns? What are the long-term consequences of catering to public opinion?

Terry Eagleton, in After Theory, said something like, “The issues that are important to the general population are not necessarily simple”. All language at one time was “specialized”. The fact is, design conversation that reaches far into the grab bags of terminology of other disciplines is not at all insular. It is the opposite.

On Mar.09.2004 at 05:33 PM
Jason’s comment is:

If anything, a vibrant design culture will be born again through talking about it, just as it happened in the early 20th century.

I like the sound of this, Tom.

But are we going to let our vision be impaired again already by market concerns? What are the long-term consequences of catering to public opinion?

Is it more about public comprehension than opinion? Their opinion strikes me as how they understand design and its value; their comprehension is whether or not they undersand what on earth designers are talking about. That begs the question, do they even need to know what we're talking about?

On Mar.09.2004 at 05:48 PM
Matt’s comment is:

do they even need to know what we're talking about?

Perhaps one of the reasons that the majority of people in our society don't value design or designers is because those of us that do understand its value have done a poor job of educating those that don't (them's fightin' woids, I know).

I'm not saying that a vocabulary/language isn't required to talk about a specialized field (I think it's inevitable), but I am saying that "they" may very well need to understand what we're talking about... and perhaps we need to do a better job of helping them get it.

On Mar.09.2004 at 06:03 PM
ps’s comment is:

Design is dead, and we have killed it. We killed design when we stopped believing in it

"we killed it? we stopped believing in it?" hmm, when the hell did that happen? i guess i'm not part of "we" ...

On Mar.09.2004 at 06:12 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Design is dead, and we have killed it. We killed design when we stopped believing in it...

It's a curious statement. I for one still believe in design, but what about design discourse to death? So much discussion and Designspeak that we reach an end of the line. Is that even possible? Tom feels like design may already be dead. Is it really? And to whom?

On Mar.09.2004 at 06:26 PM
Hesham’s comment is:

Graphic design's purpose is communication, wheither it is an idea or information or a product, so it is inevitable to talk about it. but the main question is how do we use words that don't have a unified defination, like Aristotle did, let's question the defination of these big words, what do they mean, what do they stand for, and then we can have a specialized language.

But before we do that let me ask you "what is a specialized language", is the technical language we use for printing (i.e bleed, 2 Up, imposition..) or something else to describe a design.

P.S. Design is dead, but we didn't kill it, it is dead because the big bold red headline took over and graphic design is treated like real estate (I don't know who said that expression but it is true)

On Mar.09.2004 at 06:30 PM
ps’s comment is:

Tom feels like design may already be dead. Is it really? And to whom?

maybe on mars (well, until now...)

On Mar.09.2004 at 06:31 PM
Greg’s comment is:

I do agree that a specialised language is dangerous. Especially when it becomes a language based in exclusion...However, a specialised language is necessary when dealing with a specialised discipline.

Kevin touches on something that I think is at the heart of the problem that we have as designers trying to communicate to a non-design educated base. I agree that terminology can become a language in any discipline, for example, medicine. A doctor can spout off any number of things that might be wrong with a person, but until he says words we relate to (stomachache, flu, etc.) we don't get it, so we tune out. Watch ER sometime and try and follow some of the techno-babble. Unless you have some medical school background, or a sick friend or relative most likely you won't understand.

Unfortunately, in design, we're saddled with the burden of communication with those who haven't had our education in the arts. And, to complicate matters, Art as an institution doesn't have its base in reality, like other disciplines. Trying to communicate thoughts and feelings is one of the most difficult things mankind has had to learn to do in his history, to make the unreal into the real. (Suddenly I have Pink Floyd echoing in my head...)

For further complication, some, if not all (to some extent), designers use that language gap as a barrier, rather than trying to bridge the gulf. Many see that as the only difference between Us and Them, that if we are forced to communicate on an understandable level, we won't be superior anymore, and might even be forced to defend an idea.

So how is the problem fixed? Patience. Explanation. Humbleness. Design must be driven by an idea, not by pseudo-intellectual babble.

On Mar.09.2004 at 06:33 PM
ps’s comment is:

P.S. Design is dead, but we didn't kill it, it is dead because the big bold red headline took over and graphic design is treated like real estate (I don't know who said that expression but it is true)

last time i checked, real estate did extremely well. and just because we don't like a design-trend, it does not mean it is dead. its just design we might not like. plus, there is plenty of great design being produced.

are we talking it to death? who knows, maybe one day some of us might get bored to talk about it, still design will just keep on going... and going..

On Mar.09.2004 at 06:40 PM
Su’s comment is:

Design is dead, and we have killed it. We killed design when we stopped believing in it, when we stopped talking about it and let it become an "empty reflection".

I'm surprised no one's come back yet with some equivalent of "40% of statistics are made up on the spot."

So here it is.

Is it now a requirement that comments start with cheap provocation, a la "Designers are NOT well read?"

On Mar.09.2004 at 06:47 PM
Hesham’s comment is:

"Nice design, ca we just change this colour to red, make the hedaline bigger and bolder, stretch these pictures to fill this area, distorted?? nope they look fine to me. And make our logo larger, yep that's it, now I am not sure about the font, can we use a different font to jazz it up. yeah i like this one, that's it, great job where do I pay?"

END Design

On Mar.09.2004 at 06:58 PM
pk’s comment is:

Design is dead, and we have killed it. We killed design when we stopped believing in it.

oh, go flagellate yourself privately, tom. what a load of hooey.

if there was no critical theory in design, you'd get what was going on at the university of tennessee at knoxville in the early nineties: a practice built entirely upon reaction to a task and pre-conceived forms (i.e. "do a double-page spread about vegetarianism"). none of the student practitioners had notions of doing much more than picking a font and picking an image which kinda matched because it "felt right."

that's so totally a worst-case scenario.

as for affecting design's ability to relate to or reach the general public, it strikes me as a non-issue which might be interesting to observe...in the same way that there's an internal discourse in filmmaking that clearly doesn't keep the intent from its audience, yet the audience generally knows that the filmmaker knows more about it than the layman does. it strikes me that we must closed-door discussions about linguistic patterning, visual encoding, and anything related. research generally doesn't happen very well in an open, democratized setting. too many cooks, and a few are not smart.

i decidedly don't like the implication in the beginning post that critical language is something which must be kept in check or halted. i wonder if that was a bit of an amplification on jason's part to frame the question..?

On Mar.09.2004 at 07:11 PM
jesse’s comment is:

Are we prepared to kill design by talking it to death?

Talking about design is going to kill it? Give me a break. Oh, right, I keep forgetting print is already dead.

What—if any—are the long-term consequences of being insular with a design discourse rooted in a specialized language?

Every specialized field has its own specialized language. Graphic design may have its own professional terminology, both academic and technical, but it also has a public face just like every other profession. I don't see it as an issue.

On Mar.09.2004 at 08:10 PM
marian’s comment is:

Hmm. No design is not dead, and talking about it won't kill it. But I think what Jason is talking about (forgive me if I'm wrong) is whether design-speak is in danger of going the way of the much maligned art-speak, in that it becomes [perhaps unnecessarily] exclusive and insular, turning the discourse into something only the cognocente can partake in.

This of course doesn't kill either design or the discussion of design, but it does split the discourse. I believe I have ranted about this over on DO, somewhere (making a fool of myself as usual). Generally I am in favour of expressing ideas and concepts in language most people can understand. I'm not talking about technical terminology (ems and kerning and points)--that's required in all fields, and I also don't mean "dumbing down." I think there's a fine line between specific terminology, required vocabulary and jargon.

Is it necessary for a discipline, such as design, to develop a "high" vocabulary for "serious thought" as the discipline "grows up"? This seems like some kind of creeping elitism to me.

Take Michael Beirut for instance: smart, can probably hold his own with anyone out there, but when he writes I can understand everything he says. I may need to look some stuff up, get a little history or context, but not once have I scratched my head and wondered "now what the f does that mean?" That's what I would aspire to.

On Mar.09.2004 at 09:40 PM
pk’s comment is:

Take Michael Beirut for instance: smart, can probably hold his own with anyone out there, but when he writes I can understand everything he says.

there's an important difference here. you're referring to what michael says in public versus what he might say during a daily critique. i'm betting the language necessary there is much more specific to the context.

Is it necessary for a discipline, such as design, to develop a "high" vocabulary for "serious thought" as the discipline "grows up"?

you don't think it is?

On Mar.09.2004 at 10:40 PM
marian’s comment is:

i'm betting the language necessary there is much more specific to the context.

Possibly: I--natch--wouldn't know.

To be honest pk, I'm arguing a point I'm not 100% convinced of. No, I don't think it's necessary to develop a high vocabulary for serious thought, but I could probably be convinced otherwise, so I'm not going to be all hard-line on this. I just find it so hard to imagine what needs to be said that requires the development of a new lexicon to say it. This ain't math or physics, it's graphic design: something that we provide to clients for (largely) public consumption.

I can't help but feel that this is somehow related to our collective inferiority complex re: e.g. architecture and our uneasy relationship with art and craft. It seems like we want something very badly: recognition, elevation, status and in our attempts to attain that something we set these artificial milestones: "we need our own language" because what we do is so important and esoteric, and if we create an ivory tower for it, everyone else will look up in awe. Maybe this is how we separate ourselves from the desktop publishers at last and rise out of the muck of the client-designer relationship.

Maybe I'm wrong.

On Mar.10.2004 at 01:10 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

If you still believe in design, what exactly is it that you believe?

Unfortunately, discourse is always exclusive to the cognoscenti, or to use plain English, the informed. Every discourse, or to use plain English, conversation, is that way. Exclusive is also not a simple word, so let’s just say that people can only take part in conversations they know something about.

To use theory speak, it is the hermeneutic circle. Unless you know all about the conversation, you can’t properly interpret any part of it. And obviously it is not possible to understand the whole without understanding the individual parts. Taking part in any conversation is a process involving interpretations and reinterpretations.

It stands to reason that, yes, you need to be something of a cognoscente to participate. But this isn’t asking much, is it? Some people are more informed, others less, but it’s relative, because what exactly constitutes a conversation? There are always sub-conversations and intra-conversations and meta-conversations; there is always somewhere to hop on, as long as you grasp a few words or concepts and have your own background of experiences. Conversational exclusion is a natural fact, not something to take personal offense to.

There is a type of exclusion, though, that is artificial and destructive of discourse. And in fact it happens most often where you might least expect it: in the lesser-informed sub-conversations, which find themselves naturally excluded and seek in retaliation to artificially exclude the rest of the discourse. This is what I’ve called the “worst theory of design: the theory that theory is separate from practice”. It is incapable of encountering the nature of its own existence as theory because it excludes “theory” from the conversation. Therefore it is incapable of any further self-understanding.

Artificial exclusion also happens when the cognoscenti become too conscious of the power they wield. And when those with an inferiority-complex become cognizant of this potential use of power, the result is often an embarrassing self-reflection and inflation, an absurdly exaggerated caricature of oneself, as graphic design often becomes.

The most-informed, most exclusive participants, on the whole, are the ones who have remained open. Naturally not everyone is capable of understanding the whole of what they are saying; but this isn’t artificially imposed. Again it is a natural fact of conversations. It is extremely likely that they desire to be understood, but are simply saying things that are impossible for some people to understand. And yes, it’s true that such knowledge is power.

The irritating “elitism” (“snobbery, tending to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those regarded as inferior,” such as those “too talkative killers of design.”) happens through the artificial exclusion I spoke of above.

On Mar.10.2004 at 03:17 AM
Su’s comment is:

If you still believe in design, what exactly is it that you believe?

You're veering dangerously close to a religious debate there. You made yet another sweeping, unsupported, generalization, Tom. You have the burden of proof. Christianity is still going strong after that whole "God is dead" thing, and interestingly, your line of reasoning is very similar.

[...]so let’s just say that people can only take part in conversations they know something about.

Untrue. Discussion can begin with one clueless person just listening, particularly with regard to Jason's third question. You seem to be making the rather large assumption that people would only ever talk to other people at an equal level of knowledge. Or, more likely, you're only arguing the academic side of the topic. Conversations, however, are also chances to teach or learn.

As has already been brought up, it's quite possible that the reason the public doesn't appreciate design is that they have no idea what you people are talking about. Or more precisely, even if they would be perfectly capable of understanding the concepts being expressed, they can't understand the individual words, particularly considering the arcane differences in usage designers tend to assign some existing terms(ref: half hour argument with PK over telling students to redo something in their own "style").

As for the academics, well, it's easy to say they only need to understand each other, but their ideas will eventually need to be filtered down to the practitioners, so I see no reason to make up words when perfectly serviceable ones already exist. Even if new terms are necessary, they tend to be so nebulous as to make me think they involve putting crystals on foreheads. If they'd like to continue the practice, there's nothing to stop them. Maybe when it gets bad enough, someone like Alan Sokal will pop up and teach them a lesson. Sure, you're not linquists, but spending a little extra time coming up with something that actually sounds like it is something will go a long way towards lowering the number of bullshit-meter false alarms.

Marian: Since you mention art-speak, you should hunt down a copy of Umberto Eco's How to Travel with a Salmon the next time you're in a Border's or somesuch. Read "How to Write an Introduction to an Art Catalogue" for a giggle. It's only about 8pages.

Unless you know all about the conversation, you can’t properly interpret any part of it. And obviously it is not possible to understand the whole without understanding the individual parts.

That's a neat little Catch-22. The first statement is absolutely false, by the way.

On Mar.10.2004 at 06:21 AM
Brook’s comment is:

Unless you know all about the conversation, you can’t properly interpret any part of it

so why converse? ever?

On Mar.10.2004 at 07:22 AM
jesse’s comment is:

discourse is always exclusive to the cognoscenti

Bullshit.

On Mar.10.2004 at 07:39 AM
Greg’s comment is:

The Hermeneutic Circle, put forth by Roland Barthes, principle is this:

You can't understand the part without understanding the whole. You can't understand the whole without understanding the parts.

What Tom (I think) is saying, is that design discourse has fallen into this type of paradox. Not all disciplines have, but unfortunately what we have to learn "to be part of the conversation" is becoming more and more nebulous, we're switching from readerly text and language to writerly text and language. From words with specific meanings to words with contextual meaning.

Something echoing in my head for a while, since the Ergo discussion, was something Paul W said: "it's too bad you're content to pass it back and forth among yourselves." I initially reacted poorly to the notion, but have since been able to think more clearly about what he was trying to say. Maybe we all should.

On Mar.10.2004 at 08:56 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Uf, good discussion. Here is a little something from that book that I can't explain very well, whose author name I'm too lazy to write down, which makes me look smart regarding this so-insular design speak :

Linguistic obfuscation is only one means by which domains become isolated. The more general problem is that each domain is becoming increasingly specialized not only in its vocabulary but also in the conceptual organization of its rules and procedures.

[...]

What makes this breakdown in communication among disciplines so dangerous is that, as we have repeatedly seen, most creative achievements depend on making connections among disparate domains. The more obscure and separate knowledge becomes, the fewer the chances that creativity can reveal itself.

I, for one, don't care for elevated speak. Not because I don't understand it (even if I don't, I look it up) but because it is awfully off-putting. It is unnecessary and inflated, and like Su said, there are already millions of words perfectly suited to explain anything. I think it was Joshua Ray Stephens' essay in the last Emigre (65) that was all about academic, non-sensical jargon that made me want to scream.

Design theory may benefit from such claptrap in elevating the status of the cognoscenti. Whatever makes them academics happy. But for example, Kenneth FitzGerald (hi!) is an academic, yet he still employs everyday language to make his points in an assertive and authoritative manner without resorting to inflated vocabulary (at least from what I've read).

In design practice there is absolutely no room, nor need, nor justification for the use of that language.

I know I'm late to the design is dead beating but I have a couple of things on this:

1) Design is not dead. I don't even know what the fuck that means.

2) While I'm sure design is not dead I can also say that it might not be the alivest it has ever been. On the practice end, I think things are not as exciting as they have been… that doesn't mean that designers are doing bad work it just means that there seems not to be anything to look forward to.

On this same thought, I was very amused by Michael Bierut's recollection of the 1989 Duffy/Kalman bout as anti-climatic. Whereas me, when I'm told about the story I get all excited and wish I was there to be able to see it all — yet they didn't think it was such a big deal at the moment. Point being that perhaps we can't acknoweldge great things as they happen and it takes us 10-15 years to realize how big and important they actually were.

Design is dead… please.

On Mar.10.2004 at 09:07 AM
Jason’s comment is:

discourse is always exclusive to the cognoscenti

If we replaced cognoscenti with informed, would that change some people's opinions about exclusivity?

___

Armin brings a unique view to the design is dead discussion. While I'm sure design is not dead I can also say that it might not be the alivest it has ever been. On the practice end, I think things are not as exciting as they have been… that doesn't mean that designers are doing bad work it just means that there seems not to be anything to look forward to.

Why is that? Why don't we have anything to look forward to? Are we too busy talking about the next thing "to look forward to" instead of practicing what we preach? Maybe "everything" has been done.

On Mar.10.2004 at 10:12 AM
jesse’s comment is:

If we replaced cognoscenti with informed, would that change some people's opinions about exclusivity?

Nope.

Maybe "everything" has been done.

*sigh*

On Mar.10.2004 at 10:17 AM
Zoelle’s comment is:

P.S. Design is dead, but we didn't kill it, it is dead because the big bold red headline took over and graphic design is treated like real estate (I don't know who said that expression but it is true)

ps's comment: last time i checked, real estate did extremely well.

I had discussed in a previous thread how I observed a client's attitude toward design as treating it like real estate. By that, I meant the page was viewed as having a price per-square-inch value. That client saw white space as lost ad space = lost money. Every hole needed to be filled. The ads looked like the classifieds in the back of photography magazines.

Design is dead.

What I would find helpful, before I comment, is the definition of live design.

In response to the debate over the use of an exclusive language, I believe the notion of what is right and what is wrong falls upon the speaker's intent. I think it's safe to say that client's don't like to feel dumb. Intentionally using words that a client is not familiar with is condescending and unprofessional. A good doctor or mechanic can sit down with a client and explain technical terms and concepts so that a client feels empowered and confident in that relationship. It has been my experience that savvy business people are not afraid to make you re-explain a concept in terms they can understand.

The intelligence of teachers should not be measured by what a teacher knows, but by what the students have learned.

Design is a gift. It should not be wasted on those who do not see its value. Energy can be better spent giving the gift to those who appreciate it and can not afford it, rather than converting those who can. Because in the end, some fat people like wearing stretch pants.

On Mar.10.2004 at 10:38 AM
Greg’s comment is:

Intentionally using words that a client is not familiar with is condescending and unprofessional.

Very true. But who hasn't done this? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Let's say you've really worked hard, stayed up all week, and cried blood for a project. It looks great. In fact, it's better than great. It's portfolio material. You present it to your client, and they say, no, I don't like it, the font is too small and understated, the logo isn't big enough, (and my favorite) it doesn't *pop*.

Now, do you start design-speaking? Or do you calmly rationalize in terms that are easy to understand? I bet most would start trying to "impress with wisdom" rather than impart wisdom.

On Mar.10.2004 at 10:53 AM
Jason’s comment is:

What I would find helpful, before I comment, is the definition of live design.

Why don't you give it a shot, Zoelle? Or tell us what "dead design" is to you.

On Mar.10.2004 at 10:57 AM
marian’s comment is:

I simply cannot believe I spelled "cognoscenti" wrong. This is my most embarrassing Speak Up moment ever. It is also incredibly funny.

On Mar.10.2004 at 11:10 AM
Paul’s comment is:

Greg, I appreciate your candor. Been there and done that, and will again if I have to. But that doesn't let us off the hook. The idea is obviously to strive for a balance, because I honestly believe that some of that "impress with wisdom" can result in an increased sophistication and savvy on the part of the client. I can think of one of mine in particular who has, over the past year, become far more able to see things my way, and not because I've bullied him with jargon but because he is starting to see better.

On Mar.10.2004 at 11:17 AM
Zoelle’s comment is:

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

You are right. My statement in hindsight was idealistic. There are times when I feel that someone is attacking my work on a personal level. In that case using this deadly vocabulary can have a self-pleasing effect. Is it right? I don't know. I do know that working with clients who resort to those kinds of tactics are poisonous. When I wrote my comment I was thinking of those who chose to first attack good clients with jargon rather than make an honest effort to explain design principles. If they don't get it, will taking the gloves off really help?

Why don't you give it a shot, Zoelle? Or tell us what "dead design" is to you.

Live design to me is design that excites me. It transfers energy from a nonliving thing to a living thing -- me. The first time I saw a MINI Cooper on the road my pulse quickened and I made unsafe efforts to view more of it. Why? Design. I can't fully explain why. I just know that something about it produced powerfully positive emotions. I could give many other examples, but I'll spare you. The death of design, for me, would be the death of that feeling. I hope that day never comes.

On Mar.10.2004 at 11:30 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Here are two opposing viewpoints which I have been kicking around over the past couple weeks:

In 1958, composer Milton Babbit wrote an article entitled "Who Cares If You Listen?". His thesis was contemporary music had developed to a point where it no longer appealed to the general public; and there was nothing wrong with that.

Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and in that important sense, will cease to live.

From a recent New York Observer front-page profile of Chris Rock, "The King of Bling":

In one of the backstage hospitality rooms of the Theater at Madison Square Garden, Chris Rock sat on an ass-battered couch, arms folded tightly, and talked about the ambition in his "Black Ambition" tour.

"I want to have it so tight that it works in front of every audience: rich, poor, a strip club and the Senate. Literally like that," he said. "If only smart people like your shit, it ain’t that smart." ...

"The greatest artists of our time were pop. Beethoven was pop!" Mr. Rock said, putting an emphasis on that last word as if he were participating in a poetry slam. "Beethoven was the fucking Justin Timberlake of his time. You know what I mean? Louis Armstrong, that shit was pop! It wasn’t like just some cool-shit jazz people that listened to it. That shit was pop. Picasso was pop. Motherfuckers are eating burgers and going, ‘that Picasso shit is good.’

So I guess the question is: how many motherfuckers do you want eating your burgers?

On Mar.10.2004 at 12:38 PM
Zoelle’s comment is:

So I guess the question is: how many motherfuckers do you want eating your burgers?

That's worth printing.

On Mar.10.2004 at 01:14 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> Why is that? Why don't we have anything to look forward to?

Well, it is not as bleak as I make it sound actually. And in my following example I'll go with the dreaded mainstream mention of the CA annual.

So, for example, I am more excited about Sam Potts* updating his web site so I can see what cool stuff he's been doing than the next CA design annual. The design that is getting coverage nowadays (and I know that is not the only way to see design) is pretty much the same stuff over and over. Sure, there is great, amazingly developed design but there hasn't been much to wow over. IMO.

* C'mon Sam, you've had that new work coming soon up for a while.

> So I guess the question is: how many motherfuckers do you want eating your burgers?

First time Chris Rock gets quoted in Speak Up. And to answer your question Mark, I wouldn't want too many motherfuckers eating my burgers.

On Mar.10.2004 at 03:03 PM
aizan’s comment is:

And occasionally pursuing. Some stuff about design needs to or should be universally accessible. But it's lazy to want all knowledge pre-chewed for you. I think that's more about impatience than a genuine concern for everybody's welfare. If you cared about them and thought they needed to know something in particular, you'd do the work and write it in a more popular way.

Lots of things may be unimportant to the general public, or even most designers. Not all thought about design (not theory, which is only one aspect) necessarily must connect directly with practice. Discussions on some things, like the cultural history of stencils, can fully utilize jargon because for intellectuals it is more user friendly, compact, efficient, evocative, and would have no practical use anyway. (A historical study of how stencils have been made would be totally different. Hell, I'd be interested in that.) This isn't necessarily elitist, but esoteric. Tom's already talked about unnecessarily exclusionist jerkhood and dilettantism, so I'll leave it at that. Rest assured, the things they're talking about are useless anyway, so you're not missing out.

On Mar.10.2004 at 03:37 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

Hmmmmm.

I guess what it gets down to, is what does one hope to accomplish by talking about design?

On Mar.10.2004 at 04:22 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Bradley, that is an excellent question and, frankly, it is the reason of being of Speak Up.

Talking is good, no matter what. Communicating, sharing, explaining, discussing, fighting about whatever topic (from chris rock to burgers to design) is always better than staying quiet. For anything to evolve it must be critiqued, explained, challenged and only by talking can that be done.

I am constantly disgruntled when people say that designers talking to designers is useless. How can talking be useless? Sure, it would be Wizard-of-Oz-wonderful if we had these same conversations in front of venture capitalists, or recent Harvard MBA grads or whoever it is that will eventually need design services, but to strengthen the design profession we must start from within. This sermon is in the About page of Speak Up so I'll spare you. No profession can advance without talking — and graphic design is no different.

It can be talking about stuff as mundane as the kerning of the To pair to a scholarly discussion about the importance and relevance of WA Dwiggins. Sharing knowledge, advice, experiences, discoveries, can't be bad. At all.

Just imagine the contrary: what if we didn't talk about design?

What would we accomplish then?

On Mar.10.2004 at 04:46 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

Believe it or not I might just actually contribute a FUCKING TOPIC for the first time in ages...I've got a thread going through the ol' brain right now, Armin. So hold that thought.

On Mar.10.2004 at 06:09 PM
aizan’s comment is:

Umm...not sure if you were responding to my comment, Armin, but maybe I should have elaborated. I wasn't suggesting that you or anybody I personally know was an "exclusivist poser" (the sum of all lousiness). Nor was I suggesting that "useless" theory is of no redeeming quality. I mean it like "pure" mathematics, which has intellectual value whether or not someday it ends up having practical value.

Bradley's question sounds oddly familiar. If it's been asked before, I don't think it got much of a response. It really needs some looking into....

On Mar.10.2004 at 08:09 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Aizan, I was actually responding to Bradley's. Maybe there was some overlap between your previous comment and that question… so nope, my response didn't have to do with your comment… not that ignored your comment but, um… yeah, how 'bout them burgers?

On Mar.10.2004 at 09:52 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Mad props to Mark Kingsley for quoting Chris Rock and Milton Babbit in the same post. Don't be distracted by the swear words, kids, he actually has a good point, and not just about burgers.

On Mar.10.2004 at 10:56 PM
marian’s comment is:

(See what I mean?)

On Mar.11.2004 at 12:30 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

-What's dangerous about a religious debate? Since I said that Design is dead (and, for what it's worth, it has been said before by much more respected figures in design), it might be interesting to browse a study of Radical Theology and convert a typology of possible meanings of "Death of god" to a list of possibilities for what it might mean in Design. It also may be of interest that these "Death of God" theologians still consider themselves Christians.

-Su, come on. let's be a bit more rigorous here.

You take issue with me by saying that I think "people would only ever talk to other people at an equal level of knowledge". This is obviously not true, if you read my comments. But you, on the other hand, seem to argue the same position you just accused me of. You seem to think that the "more" and "less" knowledgeable groups won't be able to communicate because of the difficulty with words.

-It is easy to say that theory should be always "popularized", but when have you ever read a popularization that digs as deep as the theory it is popularizing? As much as I laugh hearing about tossed salads, a world full of Chris Rocks is not my goal. Many incredibly important, interesting, and influential things are not "pop".

-The Sokal Hoax was strangely relevant to designers. After all, we are the ones who sell so much BS and pretend that it's legit. People buy it up and we call that our "culture". I personally don't endorse anything I don't understand. Graham's recent posts on my blog are almost unintelligible to me, so I'm not going to praise his wisdom just yet. I continue to have faith that he has a point, though, since so many people seem to not understand me and I certainly feel that I have points.

-Greg, I'm not sure the Hermeneutic Circle is as much a "paradox" as an observation about how interpretation works. (you probably know more about it than me; I'm just musing) It only becomes a paradox when we fantasize about perfect understanding. If we accept the "play" of meaning, then it's not so much a paradox. People have also talked about a Hermeneutic Spiral, which feels a little more like fun.

I like your points about the switches in language that we're making as a result of critical theory. I don't know if its a good thing or bad.

-If something is obscure, shrouded in darkness, I say go rip the veils of illusion off of them. Because it is really just illusion, and the illusion is all from your side, in your own eyes. Even critical theory is incredibly clear if you let it be.

-Again, Armin, making a move to separate practice from theory, forgetting that theory is thought, and this whole blogsite is based on the idea that thinking is good even and especially for practitioners. Well, apparently for you, certain thinking is only good for "elevating the status of the cognoscenti". Hell, though, why should you think otherwise, when the first generation of design hyperintellectuals were struck with the inferiority complex of graphic design, and admittedly used theoryspeak to artificially elevate the status of graphic design? That's not the way to go, I'm telling you!

-If there is nothing to look forward to, if we will be complacent, design certainly is dead.

-Jason, you seemed to get what I was saying about exclusivity. Thanks for clarifying.

Are we too busy talking about the next thing "to look forward to" instead of practicing what we preach?

Well, if we were thinking in the timely, Neomodern way, this wouldn't be a problem, because we would be preaching talk. And from talk would come the "next big thing".

On Mar.11.2004 at 04:18 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> and this whole blogsite is based on the idea that thinking is good even and especially for practitioners.

Well, here is the catch Tom; yes, this site is based on thinking but with the intention that the people who read it take this information and do something with it, which is why the majority of the readers are practitioners — in this comment I may then be excluding theorists, but that is not my intention, all are welcome in mi casa.

> Well, if we were thinking in the timely, Neomodern way, this wouldn't be a problem, because we would be preaching talk. And from talk would come the "next big thing".

Regardless of thinking in the "timely" neomodern way, I do agree that from talk could arise the next big thing — but not without action. Talk without a manifestation is pretty much useless. For example, the AIGA conference (just an example, I don't want to get into a whole AIGA thing): if nobody, not a single person acts on the subjects touched on that conference, then it would be a complete waste of time, money and resources — the importance of events like that or talk is that somebody must act on them. That is essential. Which is why I see a division between theory and practice: theory will always, forever and ever inform practice but without somebody actually sitting the fuck down and doing something, that theory simply goes to waste.

So I would not hasten on the "timeliness" of your manifesto until people actually embrace it.

> Don't be distracted by the swear words, kids, he actually has a good point, and not just about burgers.

Michael, I agree, swear words aside the burger analogy is full of wisdom.

On Mar.11.2004 at 08:49 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

...but with the intention that the people who read it take this information and do something with it, which is why the majority of the readers are practitioners

To paraphrase:

Design = Ass + Chair

On Mar.11.2004 at 09:28 AM
Paul’s comment is:

Brilliant! However, I think

chair = ass + design

is more accurate.

On Mar.11.2004 at 10:53 AM
Greg’s comment is:

How about

Designers = Smart + Ass

?

On Mar.11.2004 at 11:31 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Or we might say that a good chair is an assthetic experience?

I hate to bring this up again, but what the heck are you people talking about when you say "do something?" Were the theorists not "doing" something when they worked to elevate the status of design? Were they not in cahoots with professionalism, trying to boost the value of practitioners' work? "Welcoming" people and engaging with their ideas are two different things.

Regardless of thinking in the "timely" neomodern way, I do agree that from talk could arise the next big thing — but not without action.

Just sounds like forcing something to happen, if you ask me. Talk until something can't help but be done, because it finally makes so much sense that it's not a question of whether you're going to "act" or not. Talk without a manifestation is insufficient talk.

without somebody actually sitting the fuck down and doing something, that theory simply goes to waste.

Is the opposite true? Without somebody thinking about what is done, all our actions go to waste?

On Mar.11.2004 at 12:13 PM
ps’s comment is:

tom,

not sure what you're trying to accomplish. maybe its the presscheck that kept me up all night, but i get the impression you're arguing for arguing's sake not to make a point???

On Mar.11.2004 at 12:37 PM
aizan’s comment is:

Talk without a manifestation is insufficient talk.

I could sort of agree. All consequences are organic and natural, as I see it, so if we're talking about forced action (the creation of a bandwagon), we're also talking about a lameness of talk that leads up to a doomed project. This is predicated on the same idea people use to advise others not to look for fame, but to do what you love. Maybe you'll get famous, maybe you won't, but either way you'll be doing something you love.

What I'm not sure about is whether there's much of a difference in the significance and lastingness of either approach. How much is that under our control? How much is that even the motivation of this argument?

i get the impression you're arguing for arguing's sake not to make a point???

No such thing as an argument without a point.

On Mar.11.2004 at 01:04 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

ps, it's the press check. get some sleep.

On Mar.11.2004 at 01:15 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> I hate to bring this up again, but what the heck are you people talking about when you say "do something?"

Right, let's straighten that out. Here are just a few of the things you can do (based on theory, since that is what you are arguing for):

- Do a poster for an actual event that reinterprets your theory into something visual

- In fact, do a logo and tell me how that goes.

- Make a postcard, flyer, little note off your printer and send it out, just send it, see what happens

- Write an article and submit it to Eye, Print, HOW, Step, Emigre, whoever you think would be interested in publishing your theories and don't make any excuses of why you don't want to write

- Gather a bunch of people (preferably practicing designers) at your coffee shop and explain your thinking and ask them how would they incorporate theory into their work

- Talk to a real client, get work from them, show them your ideas, get paid

- Don't want to sell out and design for commercial purposes? Fine, go to an activist group of your preference and do something for them

One thing that I admire about Cranbrook is that they put something forth after all their research, overexplanations and theories — some of the work is butt ugly and weird, other is amazing, but they are doing something with that knowledge, with the time spent thinking, conceptualizing, discussing, etc. They have something to show after their two years are over not just unproven words.

Graphic design is essentially about doing — no two ways around that.

> Without somebody thinking about what is done, all our actions go to waste?

Presumably, when one does something, one is thinking about what they are doing — but then again, I don't quite understand that question.

> Talk without a manifestation is insufficient talk.

You can't talk things into happening. Which is why I'm done talking about talking.

On Mar.11.2004 at 01:20 PM
marian’s comment is:

Without somebody thinking about what is done, all our actions go to waste?

I think I understand the question, and the answer is "yes." Or rather, this would be the road to the death of Design. People do act without thinking--probably the majority of what passes for design is relatively thoughtless action. But certainly not all of it, and there is a huge amount of thoughtful backbone to the body of all design.

I don't think anyone would say that we shouldn't think, theorize, or discuss. It's just that some of us are in disagreement as to how all of that is manifested (return to beginning and read all again).

On Mar.11.2004 at 01:33 PM
aizan’s comment is:

You can't talk things into happening. Which is why I'm done talking about talking.

Leaders all talk things into happening. Have you decided to not be a leader, or to be a follower? Or a rogue who neither leads nor follows, yet has no idea what to do?

)- Do a poster for an actual event that reinterprets your theory into something visual

Everybody does that already.

- Gather a bunch of people (preferably practicing designers) at your coffee shop and explain your thinking and ask them how would they incorporate theory into their work

I'm sure people have been doing this for a while now...if you're one of them, how did it go?

- Don't want to sell out and design for commercial purposes? Fine, go to an activist group of your preference and do something for them

Hehe, I'd rather not. The strategies of most activist groups are idiotic, templates used by self-absorbed pricks who care more about assuaging their guilt than anything else. 'Radicals' really need some better options.

On Mar.11.2004 at 01:52 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Radicals usually make their own options.

On Mar.11.2004 at 02:01 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Oy… you know what? You guys keep talking and talking without doing — we'll see where that takes you in ten, twenty years, OK?

Come think of it, yes, you can talk anything (including design) into death.

On Mar.11.2004 at 02:16 PM
Greg’s comment is:

You guys crack me up.

I'm still trying to decide who stole whose girlfriend in college.

Armin, you mentioned the debate in the round from 1989 that Michael Beirut wrote about - I'm all for a Tom vs. Armin debate. I'll do the posters. Get ready to Rumble!

On Mar.11.2004 at 02:52 PM
aizan’s comment is:

Now that's an idea! And Marian can be the facilitator.

On Mar.11.2004 at 03:09 PM
surts’s comment is:

I'm all for a Tom vs. Armin debate. I'll do the posters. Get ready to Rumble!

I'm still waiting for that Bradley interview with Nancy...

On Mar.11.2004 at 03:59 PM
Armin’s comment is:

At least we would be doing something.

On Mar.11.2004 at 04:01 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

hehe, true.

On Mar.11.2004 at 04:04 PM
Su’s comment is:

Right, let's straighten that out.

And all that other crap Armin spewed after *grin*

Seconded.

On Mar.11.2004 at 04:29 PM
ps’s comment is:

I'm all for a Tom vs. Armin debate.

debate? no.

blow-out? yes.

On Mar.11.2004 at 04:34 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

ps, shouldn't you be sleeping? (just kidding)

Why is this, here, not considered debate?

On Mar.11.2004 at 06:06 PM
ps’s comment is:

ps, shouldn't you be sleeping?

i thought that if i'd fall asleep through this, the subject would really be talked to death. so i forced myself to stay-up. however, i did hold back on my comments...

On Mar.11.2004 at 06:13 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I think it's incredibly socially irresponsible to keep this blog running if you guys really think talking is deadly.

On Mar.11.2004 at 06:20 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Hehe, I'd rather not. The strategies of most activist groups are idiotic, templates used by self-absorbed pricks who care more about assuaging their guilt than anything else. 'Radicals' really need some better options.

Hate to veer completely of topic, but I resent this blanket statement (not the fact that your saying it aizan). I'd like to think I'm not a self-absorbed prick(ouch!) but I'm more curious about what you mean by 'Radicals' (especially the single quotes?) needing better options. Care to clarify please?

On Mar.11.2004 at 06:36 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Back on track, folks. Let's redirect things to the subject at hand. Tom brings up an interesting point, if talking kills design, why talk? Armin vies for a balance between talking and doing.

But who are we talking to? Ourselves? Wonderful. That's how we'll make design better. What about talking to others? What steps are being taken? Do you see a need to "dumb things down" for the layperson?

On Mar.11.2004 at 06:55 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

There's no need to dumb things down for laypeople. We do it well enough for ourselves; we're not that smart to begin with, and there isn't much to dumb down here, which is why the whole last decade was spent trying to smarten us up.

If theory runs high and practice runs low, practice has two options, to cut off theory or become equal with it. It's easier to cut it off, it's a much easier equilibrium to create, but there goes any potential for progress on the practice side. Should I try to make this mental model more clear? It is a very clear mechanism that I'm thinking of, I hope that it's understood.

That's where the artificiality of Armins's conception of "balancing" theory and practice comes in. It comes in when we separate the two. If theory and practice are not artificially separated, then progress is possible.

On Mar.11.2004 at 07:29 PM
ps’s comment is:

There's no need to dumb things down for laypeople. We do it well enough for ourselves; we're not that smart to begin with, and there isn't much to dumb down here,

i thought this post could have made for a great topic. however, comments like the above by tom, make it impossible for me to stay in this discussion.. i'm out ...

On Mar.11.2004 at 08:16 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

We do it well enough for ourselves;

Ahem... 'We'?

Tom, I suspect much of the resistance you're finding on Speak Up comes from your previously written comments that you are too radical to work as a designer; and that you would rather be a janitor. Could you please clarify for the rest of us; how is it that you're a designer?

If all you want to do is talk, then may I suggest a career in philosophy, bartending or social work. Otherwise I'll repeat a comment I made in another discussion: For someone who doesn't want to work as a designer, you spend a lot of time posting to a design blog.

On Mar.11.2004 at 08:32 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

I hope I'm not the only one who feels that Tom's posts are constructive. Sure they may be a little aggressive and offensive at times, but I think he's making valid arguments. I'm not agreeing with everything he's saying, but in the spirit of dialogue, I don't understand the negative reaction to his provocations.

I've always been confused about the fear of theory and the need to "dumb things down." Even the term 'layperson' disturbs me. Yes, I have my daily frustrations trying to explain type to people(the inevitable question, "what type?") but this is a completely separate issue from the development of a theoretical discourse of design.

I've always thought of graphic design as a language, and I'm sure most of us would agree. And what is language without literature, and what is literature without literary criticsim? I'll say it again, design is a young, young, young discipline and in order for it to grow a critical engagement, both academically and simultaneously in practice, is necessary.

Key movements in design(and art) have always been marked by work being produced that not only reflected the philosophical ideas of the time but actually embodied them. Design isn't dead, but it seems that there is a growing divide between theory and practice. And if you look at any discipline, that's when it begins to die.

Please, let's keep talking.

On Mar.11.2004 at 08:56 PM
surts’s comment is:

I'd like to think I'm open to tough questioning and willing to listen to a number of perspectives to gain insight. However I agree with the sentiments of p.s. and m.k. posts.

On Mar.11.2004 at 09:40 PM
marian’s comment is:

I hope I'm not the only one who feels that Tom's posts are constructive.

I do. I welcome being raked over the coals. Sortof. It's good for me. It's like a slap in the face: it hurts but in those few seconds of irate surprise you get to contemplate all the possible ways to respond and re-examine your own position at the same time.

I'd rather there were a Tom than no Tom. For what it's worth.

On Mar.11.2004 at 09:42 PM
Tom G’s comment is:

Thanks :)

Any offensive is purely part of the debating game.

On Mar.11.2004 at 09:50 PM
Sam’s comment is:

* C'mon Sam, you've had that new work coming soon up for a while.

Thanks, for that, Armin. Too busy doing work for others to talk about my own on my site, though. Nothing to 'wow' over anyway--it's all stolen from the big kids.

On Mar.12.2004 at 12:11 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I do consider myself a designer, though in fact I am not a professional, and I don't profess. I don't take offense to much, but I do take offense (well not really, I just find it silly) to the implication that I am not in the right place, and that I don't belong here. If I wanted a career in philosophy, I would have one. I am trained in design, I have practiced, and now I have a very relevant agenda which is backed by a good deal of thought.

MK, ps and surt, if it's offensive, I recommend that you try not to take it personally, because I include myself in all the negative comments about designers and I'm acting in accord with the ideals of SpeakUp when I challenge the profession. It is impossible to challenge a profession from "within"; as soon as you challenge it you are a heretic, just as with religion. But heretics do not consider themselves heretics.

Other people who have said that design is dead, or that design is insufficiently critical, or that designers don't read, would be praised up and down in here because of their prestige. I'm asking that we think about things; I want to see that you people would like to discuss ideas, just because you really like to discuss design issues, even with an interested amateur/janitor who doesn't have a name to be dropped.

On Mar.12.2004 at 01:55 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I know somebody is going to be offended by the "praising up and down" thing. To those who wouldn't do that, think about why you wouldn't (maybe because you actually want to talk or figure something out), and try to imagine yourself in my shoes.

If you're in a situation where you're not impressed, and you say, "look, I don't get it, I don't see that you've offered anything here," you hope that the person will show you something more. You hope there is justification. Maybe they thought you couldn't understand it before, because it is so well-thought out. But if they just get mad that you don't buy into the illusion of something being there, and you sort of see that the "presentation" is all there is, you start to suspect there isn't much there at all.

To me, it seems that more reasons (which come prior to the making, not 'rationalizations' which come after) should translate into more value, more trust, more persuasiveness, more substance...

On Mar.12.2004 at 03:22 AM