A couple of things happened this week that got me thinking again about the relationship between design, the public realm of ideas, and academia. First, I somewhat belatedly got around to peer-reviewing a submission sent to me by an academic journal. The procedure is quite rightly supposed to be “blind” so I won’t give any details, not even of the publication. It was a curious process because every stage appeared to be automated, from the original letter generated by the editor through to the final prompt, with a week to go, that my review was due. The reviewing process was also automated: it involved answering an online questionnaire and copying my review comments into a box. It was the most contactless editorial transaction I have ever experienced. Naturally, the instant reply thanking me for my efforts showed every sign of being automatic, too. These people run a tight ship.
According to every rule of thumb I thought I’d learned about editing, this ultra-impersonal touch is not the way to do it. What a nostalgist I am! I had the idea that a bit of personal contact was a valuable thing. The shift to doing everything by emails, which were at least crafted for the recipient, was already more than enough of a comedown from talking it through on the phone or face to face. (I’m not questioning the anonymity of the reviewing itself.)
The other thing that happened was that I received a copy of the Design 2012 Catalogue from the academic publisher Berg, which produces books and journals, including The Design Journal, Design and Culture, and Journal of Modern Craft. Berg, owned by Bloomsbury Publishing, is a big deal. Its publications are nicely designed and their presentation in the catalogue is attractively sleek. In 2014, according to a full-page announcement, Berg will publish prof emeritus Victor Margolin’s years-in-the-making, three-volume, 2,400-page The World History of Design, which promises to be a landmark in design studies. If design philosopher Tony Fry’s last volume, the tremendous, ground-breaking Design as Politics, is any guide, then his follow-up, Becoming Human by Design (due in October), could be one of the year’s must-read design books.
As I checked out other recent and forthcoming titles, covering all areas of design, I felt both exhilarated by these signs of industrious scholarship, serious thought and intellectual commitment to design, and regretful that so little of this material is likely to make it into the field’s everyday discourse, let alone the public realm. Many of these writers will be familiar names to colleagues but unknown outside academia. Their books are written for students and fellow researchers, and that’s as it should be. But if this research deals with subjects and issues of more general importance, shouldn’t it also be part of an academic’s brief to communicate these discoveries and ideas more widely? It’s striking how few of the names identified with academic writing about design — people who speak at academic conferences, write peer-reviewed papers for journals destined for libraries able to pay expensive subscriptions, and publish learned books with publishers like Berg — make any effort to seek and address wider audiences.
If academics are (or are supposed to be) first-rate thinkers, then their participation in public discussions is vital. Naturally, this requires a willingness to exchange ideas, as well as the versatility to engage in commentary, analysis and speculation outside the immediate area of one’s specialist research.
The cloistered quality of academic life is not a state of affairs unique to design, though public intellectuals seem much more plentiful in other disciplines. I had better also make it clear that I’m talking here about academics, most probably with PhDs, who are active researchers, and not about the many designers-turned-teachers who also work in education. No doubt onerous workloads are a critical factor in limiting design academics’ inclination to reach out. Present-day career paths require the continuous generation of auditable “outputs” perceived as signs of an institution’s status and rank. If you want to get on in academia, you must be an effective producer within this system (here’s the UK’s). Publishing a paper in a prestigious journal only read by other academics counts, on those terms, as a personal triumph. It may even be the only way to achieve promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer and beyond in a university or college that wants to be taken seriously as a center of excellence in research. Time spent on writing for non-peer-viewed publications, commenting on blogs, or speaking at non-academic conferences and events, is seen as time not devoted to academic duties and self-advancement.
In other words, the generation and transmission of knowledge, which ought to be a matter of wider public interest, has become thoroughly institutionalized within academia.
(The flipside of this empire of closely monitored, university-level research is the failure of professional, non-academic design publications and organizations to build more bridges to academia and to try to prize open its knowledge-bank. The tenacious habit of design-hero navel-gazing at international design conferences does the field no credit. Why aren’t there more presentations by researchers with penetrating ideas and new findings?)
I can entirely appreciate the appeal of the academic life as a relatively secure haven, even in these times of cutback, for people with intellectual talents and interests, and a thirst to think, research and write, as well as to teach. But I also believe that design culture is impoverished without the public participation — regularly — of those in the fortunate position of being paid to think for a living about the history, theory and practice of design. It’s hard not to suspect that some design academics nurture an ingrained reluctance to expose themselves to the rough and tumble of more public forms of scrutiny and comment. It has occasionally happened on Design Observer that a Renowned Academic has wandered into the lion’s den of the comment box (before things went eerily quiet), thought better of it, and beat a hasty retreat. Few make it a habit. The academic’s appearance of authority, like any expert’s, depends in part on the maintenance of mystique, and ours is a culture where all kinds of once enshrined position are now open to question. Safer, perhaps, to build a home in the enclave among peers regarded as equals, where the rules of engagement, and the illusion of detachment, can be preserved.Venture outside the conference-circuit paper-mill and the peer-reviewed safety blanket, design academics! Everyday design debate needs your voices. You can make a difference.