A critical agenda

Design writers and graphic design magazines should widen their perspective to gain credibility, rather than just singing the praises of designers, says Peter Hall.

In New York, earlier this month, I sat on a panel hosted by a book publisher and professional organisation with four other writers to discuss the role of the design magazine and criticism in the graphic arts field. It didn’t have a lot in its favour, I’ll admit. No pretty slideshow, mesmerising film titles or even music. And on top of that, it was the night of the grand finale of America’s most popular sitcom, Seinfeld. It’s difficult to convey the comparable importance of this TV event, other than to say it’s as if England was playing in the world cup final on the same night as a Chartered Society of Designers debate on professional ethics. I certainly wouldn’t have gone to see myself talk.

For some unfathomable reason, however, about 60 people showed up at the Strathmore Gallery on Fifth Avenue to hear us. Perhaps it was the free wine and baby carrots. Or the fact that Steve Heller of the New York Times, the moderator, promised to ring a closing bell on the strike of 8.30pm, to allow the audience to make a hasty dash for a yellow cab outside the door.

Fortunately, too, the city-wide taxi drivers’ strike against Mayor Guiliani’s ambitious new “anti-reckless driving” law had taken place the day before. (In New York, reckless driving and taxis are as inseparable as pretzels and mustard.)

Anyway, after half an hour of panelists happily discussing the problems of design writing, culminating in a cerebral chat about the validity of the Cranbrook Academy of Art’s efforts in the Eighties to align itself with French critical theory, the session was thrown over to the audience for questions.

The chasm between the panelists’ and the audience’s agendas opened up like Tower Bridge. First there was silence. Then, after some prodding from Heller, someone piped up that there were too many ads in design publications. Finally, there came a flood of complaints about the low esteem carried by graphic design in society. “It doesn’t affect people as products do,” said one person. “Eighty per cent of the public couldn’t care less.” Another insisted that design writers should be proselytisers, solely concerned with “what could be done through the press to elevate what graphic design is about”.

Perhaps it was to be expected from the kind of audience that shows up to panel discussions and free wine and baby carrots on Seinfeld finale night, but I have begun to think lately that this relentless demand for design magazines to preach the merits of the profession for the world at large is to blame for the poor quality of the writing and the stunted development of a critical forum.

If a design magazine spends all its time promoting the discipline as, say, a marketing tool that can give clients a competitive edge, then it becomes well-nigh impossible to raise its cultural status. Because any magazine that makes its primary agenda the promotion of its subject matter to non-believers will carry a limited range of discussion. The history of architecture is not, to my knowledge, full of case studies of how buildings helped businesses succeed, no more than the contents of architecture magazines is devoted to explaining the basic value or usefulness of the profession.

That’s not to say I don’t sympathise with those who feel their skills are misunderstood and unappreciated by the public. As one of the panelists, Michael Bierut of Pentagram, reported, when he explains to people at parties that he is a graphic designer, their reaction these days is not bafflement, but foggy comprehension: “You do websites?” The clouds of confusion descend again, of course, as he shakes his head.

But even Bierut argued that it is probably irrelevant whether or not his mum understands what he does. In fact, he said, the less people understand the role of a graphic designer, the more flexibility he or she has on that project to move around between the disciplines (Bierut is, after all, also a writer).

Has the design magazine definition of design become too narrow? If we were able to take a step back and address design’s role within society and the economic system without making the presumption that it must be valuable, then wouldn’t our magazines, not to mention panel discussions, be more interesting to the world at large?

Wouldn’t we have more to talk about if we expanded our account of design beyond promoting the little community of friends that calls itself a graphic design profession?

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