About ten years ago I noticed that Jean Luc Picard, Captain of the Star
Ship Enterprise–enemy of Klingons and Romulans–never used paper. The
implication was clear: cyber tablets would be the notepads of the future
and paper, like trees, would be a vestige of a more innocent time.
Well, now we actually do write on digital tablets called PDAs and
receive daily doses of data through our computers, Blackberrys, and
other miniature screen-based, wireless media.
For designers this has clear and obvious ramifications. But for design
writers it has also begun to change some of the rules of engagement.
Despite certain wailings in the '90s about the “end of print,” many
presumed it was specious talk—a phrase coined to shiver our collective
timbers—but had little real impact on our immediate future. Today,
however, although print may not be totally obsolete, critical design
writing is fast migrating onto the Internet and to blogs in particular.
This migration is destined in the short term to change the ways writers
write, readers read, and design news and criticism is received. Is it a
At a recent SeriouSeries panel discussion held in New York devoted to design book publishing organized by the blogmasters at Speak Up,
the inevitable question about the impact of the web on writers and
writing elicited what for me was a depressing response by Michael
Bierut, co-founder of the blog Design Observer and a frequent
contributor to design magazines. “I will never write for a print
magazine again,” he said. His reasoning was that lead times, especially
for the bi-monthly and monthly design magazines, can actually be as long
as four to six months before a story sees print, and by then it is
likely an original idea will have turned stale. Conversely, blogs are
instant transmitters of thought and, more importantly, forums for
instantaneous response. The downside is obvious: In the heat of the
moment there is less time to massage a piece of prose before, as Bierut
notes, he “just hits the publish button.” The gratification, however,
far outweighs some craft issues. Nonetheless, as panelist Kevin Lippert,
publisher of Princeton Architectural Press noted “the writing is
getting much better.” Bloggers are learning to both think and write in a
speedy manner. The real deadlines on blogs are to say something before
someone else says it first.
I suppose there is much to laud in this new publishing paradise. Design Observer, Speak Up and Voice
have attracted some seasoned writers, while giving needed opportunities
for neophytes to strengthen their writing muscles. Despite a few
insufferable rants, blog content is now often as sophisticated and
informative as any design magazine, sometimes even more entertaining.
Blogs have also proven that, unlike newsgroups, the writing is not
entirely unedited and can be quite complex. For that matter, not all
print periodicals, despite extended lead times and editing staff, are
always well edited. For some writers the early blog-world was a dump
for copy that could not be in print, but now it is a viable primary
destination for a growing number of writers and thinkers. The immediate
action and reaction endemic to posting a story may be seductive, but it
is also productive as a generator for useful debate and a test market
for ideas before they go to print.
Still, I'm torn. I love seeing a new issue of a magazine come
shrink-wrapped in the mail or appear like a newly blooming flower (sorry
for the florid metaphor) on the stands. I anticipate opening it and
seeing the layout with my story for the first time, which is often a
pleasant surprise. I revel in reading it over because on the printed
page it is a totally different piece of writing than as a manuscript (or
on the computer screen). I feel happy turning the pages and closing the
cover and putting it either on the desk or in the bookshelf. These are
tactile sensations that are as much habit as anything but it is
experience couched in a tradition of reading and writing that goes back
ages. Frankly, I also like the fact that, once it is in print it can’t
be changed, so I can stop thinking about it and move on to other
But there is more. As a design writer I’m not simply mechanically
funneling words and thoughts onto a page, I’m marrying text and image in
both word and deed. Even those essays or critiques that need not be
illustrated are about ultimately about visual matters. For me the layout
is as important in conveying the ideas as the words. While the web can
be a phenomenally rich visual environment, I do not get the same
typographical joy from the web as that on paper when all the layout
elements are in sync. On the web, type often changes and layouts are
reconfigured depending on the browser. Reading and seeing a blog story
(or even a Voice story) on the screen is too ephemeral. In a
way it doesn’t really exist, and may not exist in perpetuity, at least
that is my fear.
Perhaps design writing for blogs demands a different rigor than design
writing for print. And perhaps this may be a good thing for the field.
What must be conveyed on the web may require more personality, more
clarity, and more vivid descriptions to offset the absence of what is
taken for granted in a print environment. But ever since the dawn of
machines, artists and designers (i.e. William Morris) have lamented the
loss of value at the expense of speed. While the web is a boon to design
writers and writing, and the dissemination of ideas to more than the
traditional design reader audience, I refuse to accept that our
magazines will ultimately be vestigial. Speed is not the only virtue.
Blogs demand immediate everything—writing, reading, responding—magazines
allow contemplation. Its good to have both, but I hope that the Bieruts
out there will not limit their writing to just one medium simply
because they get a rush from the one and are impatient with the other.
In the information era, many factors have contributed to the overwhelming presence of chartjunks, but you don’t have to be one of those. Whether you choose a graph or a table, it doesn't matter—as long as you make clarity your goal.
Section: Tools and Resources
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