Blogs vs. Mags
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.
Who would have imagined over a decade ago when critical design writing was just beginning to pick up steam and graphic design periodicals were transformed from purely trade mags into visual culture journals, that ink-on-paper publications would be on the endangered species list?
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 revolution?
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 obsessions.
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.
About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com