The starting point for my previous post, “How to Say What You Mean”, was the continuing tension between practice-based and academic ways of talking about design, and these positions emerged clearly in the discussion that followed. The greatest polarity can be seen in the exchanges between Tom Gleason and Michael Blowhard. Gleason suggests that, “although the philosophical avant-garde has evolved to a certain point, designers have not assimilated these evolutions into their understanding.” And he goes on to argue that, “Our design thinking needs to be brought into conversation with other thinking-on-thought in order to produce a new kind of knowledge that is directly relevant to our work.” This undertaking will require an effort to engage with theoretical writing – Gleason cites writers like Habermas and Derrida – and complex thought may sometimes require an unfamiliar vocabulary.
Blowhard is sceptical. “Has anyone ever really, truly run across an art thought (or an art-crit thought) that couldn’t have been expressed in comprehensible, relatively clear and plain language?” he asks. “I’ve been following the arts for 30 years, and I haven’t.” For Blowhard, all this theorising is “green goo” peddled by people who are adept at making it appear fascinating, edgy and chic, and it always seems to lead to the same left-wing conclusions about gender, race and class. Blowhard draws a distinction between Theory of this kind, which he sees as a pernicious influence on impressionable students left unable to think or write clearly, and theory with a lower-case “t”. “People have been coming up with theories about the arts forever,” he says.
It might seem that these positions are irreconcilable, but they can be understood. Gleason writes as a young, verbally gifted designer, not long out of design school, who is now engaged in a passionate process of personal inquiry and copious amounts of blogging motivated, it seems, by the desire to find a direction. Blowhard, on the other hand, writes as a seasoned arts journalist, now turned super-blogger. I first encountered his work under his actual name in the early 1990s in the influential, sometimes controversial, but long defunct British publication The Modern Review (tag line: “Low Culture for Highbrows”). Gleason’s and Blowhard’s views might be seen as representing the difference between an idealism yet to be modified by much personal experience and a realism based on years of watching how people behave in different situations and reflecting on their motives. There is truth in both points of view. (I readily admit that I am being a journalist here. At a certain point I become curious to know who these disembodied voices are. I believe this will enable a more accurate assessment of what they have to say.)
Blowhard’s distinction between Theory and theory seems particularly germane and it’s the latter I want to pursue here. In the 1970s, like a lot of people with an arts perspective, I was fascinated by the music and thinking of Brian Eno, and this led eventually to a book. Eno was a brilliant small “t” theorist who used interviews with music journalists as a way of exploring his ideas, which he did in long, tireless, beautifully composed and measured explanations of just about anything his agile mind alighted upon. When questioned about his unusually theoretical leanings, which few rock musicians have ever matched, he pointed out that theorising did not precede his practice as a musician – it followed it. It was Eno’s way of trying to understand and learn from the work he had done: he wanted to formulate operational principles for future action. This wasn’t entirely accurate, though, because in this quest he also drew on the ideas of people who could perhaps be described as theorists with a “T” – for instance, literary critic Morse Peckham in Man’s Rage for Chaos (1967) and cybernetics thinker Stafford Beer in Brain of the Firm (1972). Beer had a line about the need to organise a managerial system only up to a point – “you then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go”. Eno cited this often and it became a linchpin of his compositional method.
I am not a musician, but Eno’s reflections on music making always seemed to me to be full of wider implications. The “dynamics of the system” concept became something of a personal credo: it has innumerable uses. Many designers engage at some level in this kind of theorising and a few designers consciously use published writing as a way to facilitate their practice. “I write to understand and process new ideas and to think through certain positions,” says Andrew Blauvelt. Tom Gleason, too, speaks of making intellectual discoveries that are “directly relevant to our work” as designers. But design, as a form of aesthetic and structural thinking and planning, is potentially of relevance to everyone. Might there be a way of discussing some of these issues that would capture the attention of a wider public? I don’t see why not, but I also don’t see too many designers of any kind attempting to do this, except on endless fatuous home make-over TV programmes.
My own concerns as a design writer were most closely reflected in a contribution made by Stuart Kendall, who asked: “I wonder how much of this writing and reading engages with or questions the role of design in contemporary culture?” This, as opposed to matters of creative process, which are best dealt with by practitioners, is what I seek to write about. Kendall went on to question how much design writing helps “designers understand what they are doing every day, and why?” I support this aim, too, because designers should, of course, reflect on the implications of their practice, but that task is secondary for me as a writer. I believe that a critical writing determined primarily by the need to shape practice will be restricted in the cultural insights it can offer and too much constrained by its place within design, and this is the last thing design writing needs when ways to address and engage a broader public may be opening up. The design writer, like any kind of critic, should be as independent as possible. As Kendall notes, “While the Fine Art tradition no longer has any appreciable impact on the ecology of everyday life, the design disciplines certainly do.” That’s exactly right. It presents a huge opportunity and we should try to keep this understanding at the heart of any strategies we develop to talk about design.