A lovely quality about weblogs is their immediacy. At times, a fever-pitched volley of instant self-expression and feedback manifests a unique aesthetic not quite conversation, not quite a measured exchange of belles lettres. And much like Massimo Vignelli gazing upon an Emigre typeface, some of our colleagues have yet to develop an appreciation for the very things that seem so wrong about blogs.
Like our friend and colleague Rick Poynor.
In the May/June issue of Print, Rick opines upon the shortcomings of Speak Up; using certain comments by Armin Vit as his punctum. And while I agree with several of his conclusions and axioms, something about the general tone and structure of the piece left me bothered.
He starts by quoting Armin. “In the past twelve to sixteen months, however, we’ve run out of questions and even perhaps out of steam. Some of us (authors) have gone from outsiders to insiders. … We have done it all. We started to get repetitive and, well, sometimes even boring.” (For the sake of clarity, the ellipsis before the phrase “we have done it all” refers to the wide range of posted subjects.)
Rick then pauses to present Looking Closer 5 the latest in a series which debuted in 1994 as a paragon of good critical writing, argumentum ad verecundiam.
Lo, not a single Speak Up post was deemed worthy of inclusion in Looking Closer 5. Rick points out that even though two of the editors are Michael Bierut and William Drenttel both Design Observer founders along with Rick they are absolved of bias because Armin works for Michael at Pentagram and Michael often comments on Speak Up. Another editor, Steve Heller, is extolled as having a track record of “encouraging new design writing from every direction,” yet finds blogs too unsophisticated “to be taken seriously.”
The fundamental problem of causal inference is that we can only be positive about things which are observable. In this case, we can only prove the following:
1. Speak up debuted in 2002.
2. The Looking Closer series debuted in 1994.
3. Armin Vit is a founder of Speak Up.
4. Michael Bierut, William Drenttel and Rick Poynor are founders of Design Observer.
5. Michael comments on Speak Up.
6. Armin and I both comment on Design Observer.
7. Armin works for Michael at Pentagram.
8. There are posts from Design Observer in Looking Closer 5.
9. Nothing from Speak Up appears in Looking Closer 5.
10. Steve Heller thinks blogs are unsophisticated.
11. Steve Heller encourages many people to write for his many collections of essays.
12. Both Armin and I have written pieces for Steve Heller.
13. Steve Heller paid me $75 to do so.
14. It took me a couple weeks to write the piece.
15. That’s a shitty hourly wage.
Correlation does not imply causation. The absence of Speak Up posts from Looking Closer 5 indicates only that there are no Speak Up posts in Looking Closer 5. Any inference otherwise is fallacious.
And if Steve Heller has a problem with blogs, it doesn’t seem like he has problems with bloggers writing essays for him. But I don’t know for sure; ask him.
Anyhoo… after Rick establishes the missing Speak Up posts as a straw man, he investigates what the problem could be, and comes to the conclusion that it’s a lack of editors.
He writes: “It seems obvious that when an untrained intermediary is handling copy by an amateur writer, the results are unlikely to be sparkling. Designers are quick to reject amateurishness within design; exactly the same considerations should apply to editing and writing. These are crafts that need to be learned, ideally from working with professionals. Output that falls short of basic standards is no more satisfactory or persuasive than clumsily matched typefaces, botched kerning, or trite design formulas used as though they had just been invented.”
Yes. I agree that it is better to learn one’s selected craft. I agree that untrained people generally don’t produce fabulous work. But the same could be said for the host of future professionals churned out yearly by design schools and English departments across the country.
And the dogmatic insistence on one’s standards makes for a dull life. I love a clean, crisply set block of type as much as the next guy; but there’s room in my heart for Corky McCoy’s work for Miles Davis or Sun Ra’s home-made graphics. I love their work because it’s passionate, and not perfect.
If there’s one single thing I learned from my time with Brian Collins at BIG, it’s the preëminence of the personal connection. Graphic designers are often caught up in the minutiae of spacing, materials and proportion to the detriment of making that connection. And if you can connect emotionally, you can influence.
This is what Speak Up did.
It’s a mess, there’s a lot of shitty prose to wade through, and many of the ideas are half-baked. But at its best, Speak Up makes that emotional connection.
After four years of design school and several years of diligent attendance to AIGA events in New York, I realized that the best design lessons often came in very relaxed settings. The off-handed comment from a working professional offered in an informal manner is a gift shared, while the same information in a classroom is a rule espoused. Which has a better chance of being remembered?
Rick claims that Speak Up and Design Observer are “really magazines by another name.” No. They are blogs: a different kind of animal with magazine-ish elements, a more immediate sense of community, unbridled passions, a water-cooler informality, and one that judges people by the merits of their contribution even if it is as strangely written as Design Maven’s comments. And with this new form, comes different aesthetic criteria.
Perhaps now is a good time to draw attention to one of the more interesting posts to appear on Design Observer: Rick’s post Critics and Their Purpose, a 62-point list from 1966 which describes “Critical Method.” The following selections have significance in response to his Print essay. My comments are in italics.
8. The content and level of criticism is determined by the audience addressed. Blog and print audiences are different
12. Criticism should be persuasive, not dogmatic. I’ve addressed this above.
13. The critic should discipline his prejudices and remember that he is subject to error. Hmm… Editors calling for more editing?
14. The critic should remember that all art is based on experience, however remotely. The blog experience is different than the print experience.
16. Criticism must see beyond superficial décor to spiritual purpose and order. Speak Up participants are expressing thought. Why is this a bad thing?
17. The critic should understand the limitations of the medium and have a sense of the interplay of the medium with the subject, but he should not get lost in the discussion of techniques. Technical criticism “murders to dissect”.
20. The critic must allow for the fact that his reaction will be biased by the context in which he experiences the work.
22. The critic must get outside himself to criticise fully. He must abandon built-in expectations and have a sense of possibilities.
25. Criticism begins with a description of the impact of a work of art and proceeds to consider its intentions and whether they have been realized.
26. The act of describing will reveal the critic’s own biases. The description of phenomena plus the description of feelings equals the definition of values.
29. An interpretation of a work can still be valid even if it does not correspond with the artist’s intentions. Agreed: we all could write better.
31. Of two carefully considered but contrary opinions both may be right. Hopefully avoiding logical fallacies and ad hominem attacks. Rick’s second-to-last paragraph was beneath his abilities and unworthy of a point-by-point response. As someone who has spewed ad hominem myself, I’m a bit sensitive to this.
While I take issue with the “woolly thinking” behind his essay just the kind that, ironically, an editor should have questioned (sorry Joyce) I do agree with the general sentiment of Rick’s essay.
Yes, I often find my eyes rolling back when reading Speak Up posts and comments included but it’s only because I care. Who wouldn’t want their colleagues to be better? It makes you look good by association. But you know what? There are a lot of half-assed comments dressed in intellectual drag over at Design Observer; and not every post is golden either. Call it Sturgeon’s Law (90 percent of everything is crud) or call it natural ebb and flow, this is the way of the world.
The word “essay” comes from the French verb “essayer” to try. The first practitioner of the essay was Michel de Montaigne, who, in his Essais of 1580, asked the ultimate question to begin all inquiry: “Que sais-je?” or “What do I know?”
That’s all we’re doing here just trying to find out what we know. Thanks for the moral support.
[Ed.: Link to Poynor’s article added — 05.09.2007]