I’m sure I’m not the only one to have enjoyed the public spat between Mike Dempsey and Emily Campbell. Royal Society of Arts internal politics may not be a matter of burning concern to many, but the design world, with its slow drift towards corporate blandness, might benefit from a little blood on the carpet from time to time. Not to mention the need to build a genuinely critical discourse around its activities.
Yet the sound of designers speaking out is becoming rare. This reluctance to call a spade a spade was evident during the London 2012 logo furore when senior figures urged fellow designers to rally round Wolff Olins and stick up for that logo and design in general. Why? An aversion to debate and self-analysis is a sign of an immature profession. And if the desire not to cause offence to clients, coupled with the constraints of client confidentiality, mean designers never express an opinion, then the design profession will become indistinguishable from estate agency.
I’m guilty of this reticence myself. As someone who writes about design – in magazines, books and blogs – I often avoid discussing certain topics because I might be seen as attacking other designers. Fortunately, however, there are free spirits like Dempsey who don’t feel constrained by design world protocols. His dust-up with Campbell isn’t his only instance of speaking out. He recently wrote a letter to Sight & Sound, the venerable film journal, lambasting the magazine – rightly – for its atrocious typographic covers.
We need more Dempseys. Expressing strong views enhances design’s profile far more than keeping primly silent. Feuds and passionate discussion are signs of health and vigour.
The literary world is full of disputes – and, amazingly, no one dies as a consequence. Take the recent outburst by Alain de Botton. After a bad review in The New York Times, he left a vitriolic comment on the reviewer’s blog/ ‘You have now killed my book in the United States… I will hate you till the day I die.’ Perhaps a tad infantile and not one of the great literary put-downs, but good fun, and you can bet de Botton’s book sales rose as a result.
It’s significant that de Botton made his stinging riposte online. The Internet is the one place where you can find disputatious designers. And while many design bloggers merely use the platform to criticise the kerning on a sign they passed on their way to work, others are colonising the medium to voice opinions and views that wouldn’t get an airing otherwise.
But it’s not the blog posts that generate the most polemical heat, rather it’s the comments posted by vociferous visitors to the sites. Many blog comments – often submitted pseudonymously – are bad tempered, ill-considered and abusive. They are the sort of remarks that the commentators are unlikely to make to the face of their intended ‘victim’, but which are regarded as acceptable in the impersonal environment of cyberspace. For an example of this, look at the recent response to the redesign of the Design Observer site.
I’m personally against people posting abusive comments without using their real names, but I’d rather have abuse and provocation than the sterilised silence of the professional design world. A bit of a scrap always keeps the blood flowing. And no great design is ever produced by an absence of opinion.