Battle of the Blogs
This year’s American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) conference in Vancouver was organized around the theme ‘The Power of Design’. Although many of the presentations focused on the use of sustainable and recyclable materials, the most heated debate was between those who see branding and marketing as design’s natural power base and those who see editorial design as the moral center of the profession. This disagreement over whether to favor the cultural or the corporate has largely played out on two blogs, both of which had major roles in this year’s conference: Design Observer and Speak Up.
CULTURE IS ALWAYS UNPOPULAR
At the end of Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel’s lecture in Vancouver half of the audience stood up and cheered and the other half rolled their eyes and skulked toward the bar. Both reactions were remarkable for a graphic design presentation, but their lecture, ‘Culture Is Not Always Popular’, wasn’t the typical slide/caption eye candy. Citing examples of work by colleagues and former students (many of whom were in attendance) as well as work from their own studio, Helfand and Drenttel argued that designers are generally not well enough informed to exercise the kind of power trumpeted by the conference’s theme. The presentation has continued to polarize the design community because it crystallized several questions that have been in the air since the end of the nineties: Do graphic designers have any power to influence culture? Is there more to graphic design than advertising? Are Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel snobs?
Why did equating power with knowledge (certainly not a novel concept) provoke such a negative reaction among so many designers? Perhaps it was like being at a party when someone leans against the wall and accidentally flips on the overhead light. For a moment you are startled by how pale and sloppy everyone looks, and then suddenly, horribly, you realize everyone is looking at you in the same way. Helfand and Drenttel’s suggestion that designers focus on work, ‘where acquiring a body of knowledge becomes an asset both professionally and personally,’ was a powerful indictment of what Mr. Drenttel called, ‘[the] AIGA’s generally uncritical endorsement of branding, both as a process and as the primary programmatic focus for the profession.’
The presentation coincided with the launch of Design Observer, Helfand and Drenttel’s blog that features weekly postings by the pair as well as Michael Bierut, and Rick Poynor. The site is still taking shape, but so far it has covered a wide range of topics that are often only loosely connected to design. The authors tend to treat graphic design as a way to get to something else that is really interesting: Quakerism, landscape architecture, life in Eastern Europe. In describing their new venture, Helfand and Drenttel are quick to mention the influence of journalism blogs like Pressthink and Romanesko. These sites have developed a following based on unique research and a strong editorial perspective unlike community-based blogs where inclusiveness and participation are the ultimate measures of success. In this way Design Observer embodies the thesis of ‘Culture Is Not Always Popular’: graphic design can be a way to obtain a body of knowledge as opposed to a body of work.[signup]
THE THIRD WAY: A CLINTONIAN VISION FOR DESIGN
Back in Vancouver, the publishers of Speak Up were distributing a compilation of writing from their blog entitled ‘Stop Being Sheep.’ Armin Vit started Speak Up in September 2002 because, as he told me via e-mail, ‘Designers are the best critics of design, and I think it is our responsibility to voice our opinions.’ Although the site covers all aspects of design, Speak Up has attracted a lot of attention for its discussion of branding issues. Branding has become a focal point for much of the discussion of ‘the power of design’ because it is the area where design most closely aligns with corporate power. You could say that branding is to designers what free trade was to Bill Clinton: a way to be on the winning side for a change. Because of its connection to financial performance, branding is largely discussed in terms of celebrating and attempting to replicate the success of established companies and their iconic marks. But this kind of analysis equates the design with the product, raising some difficult questions. If IBM had gone the way of, say, Commodore, would Rand’s logotype still be considered a classic? Is the designer’s job simply to align herself with the best business plan?
Speak Up presents an alternative to the design=product formula: an immediate critique of the design on its own merits before the market has had a chance to weigh in. Even better, the conversation often includes the person(s) responsible for the design. Tan Le, an author on Speak Up explains:
‘We’re fortunate to have a number of authors and participants who have worked at some of the largest branding firms in the country, so the discussions are very well-informed and honest. The ideology, motive, strategy, and implementation of brands are all critiqued, questioned, and assessed, often in brutally honest language. There’s little tolerance for marketing-speak.’
Although no Speak Up contributor would admit it, there is something of a critical bias emerging on the site, one that eschews the kind of extruding and metallicizing of logos that has characterized the re-branding of UPS and Hershey’s. As Armin Vit explains, ‘The contributors have done a hell of a job pinpointing great and terrible practices in branding. Speak Up participants hold designers accountable for the work they produce. Readers can access these points of view and draw their own conclusions.’[social]
This kind of immediate criticism and consensus building may be a way for designers to exercise power over the flavor of corporate marketing. It remains to be seen, however, if readers feel empowered by their online community when they log off and return to the conference room. It is also unclear whether the power of this community can be leveraged to effect more than superficial changes to corporate America. In any case, that so many designers are spending so many billable hours writing about brands instead of ‘repositioning’ them is perhaps the most progressive aspect of Speak Up.
RISE OF THE BLOGS
The emergence of a new generation of weblogs devoted to design criticism may turn out be the most enduring legacy of the AIGA conference in Vancouver. The lively exchange of ideas they promote is already creating a more diverse and multi-faceted critical perspective. But it remains to be seen whether this democratization of design writing will energize the discourse or water it down. Blogs tend to feature an unsavory mix of rants, personal attacks, and unsubstantiated pronouncements. For example, the discussion of ‘Culture is Not Always Popular’ on Speak Up quickly devolved into a copyediting pissing match between William Drenttel and the Speak Up regulars. The actual content of the presentation was quickly abandoned in favor of semantic parsing; Drenttel’s suggestion that people go back and reread the presentation was misinterpreted as a land grab for Speak Up readers.
Whereas a published article can be considered and measured, a blog thread evolves in a rapid-fire manner, usually running its course in twenty-four to forty-eight hours. If the conversation takes a wrong turn it is difficult to salvage. The format rewards petty comebacks and clever put-downs, which, while entertaining, are not always informative.
The current round of arguments in this debate represents a bit of a retreat for a profession that not so long ago was looking to appropriate the roles of filmmaker, author, and producer. It seems that as the memory of the go-go nineties fades, designers and the AIGA are wrestling over a steadily narrowing field of influence. It is certainly a positive development that the two competing visions for the field emphasize a designer’s relationship to content and seek to promote participation in critical dialogue.