Rick Poynor | Essays

Where are the Design Intellectuals?

Is it a British thing or is the whole world becoming obsessed with lists of the best? For many years now, magazines have filled their pages with occasional lists of the 100 best movies, or albums, or album covers. More recently, TV has got in on the act, with endless marathons devoted to viewers' favourite this and that. The search for ever more subjects to list and rank and acclaim has led to a seemingly limitless array of subdivisions. So, in recent months, we've seen such amusements as the 100 greatest protest songs - a sure sign of the times - and the 100 greatest rock band front men. Coming soon: the 100 most devoted, previously unsung roadies.

Now, even the intellectual heavyweights have decided to join in. Prospect magazine - the British equivalent of Harper's or Atlantic Monthly - is celebrating its 100th issue by publishing a list of the 100 top British public intellectuals. The pantheon includes a couple of writers, activist and journalist George Monbiot and political philosopher John Gray, whose books are recommended by Design Observer, and a fair smattering of intellectuals well known outside Britain, such as novelist Martin Amis, firebrand journalist Christopher Hitchens (who lives and works in the US) and literary critics Terry Eagleton and George Steiner. Prospect acknowledges that those on the list are not necessarily the cleverest or most rigorous thinkers. "Rather, the emphasis must lie on a sliding scale between their 'public' and 'intellectual' roles."

Some have inevitably questioned why a serious publication should be dabbling in such parlour games and the list's oversights have drawn comment - for instance, it features only 12 women. Perhaps it does no more than confirm what we knew anyway, but visual culture is barely represented at all. Architect Richard Rogers and architecture critic Charles Jencks make the cut (it's not necessary to be British, only to make a significant impact in the country), as does conceptual artist and professor, Michael Craig-Martin. Brian Eno, who has worked as a video artist as well as a musician and producer, is one of the list's most inspired inclusions. Apart from that, art, film and - yes, you saw it coming - design are overlooked, while the policy advisers and social and political theorists who contribute many of Prospect's essays have a field day. Not a single area of British design endeavour has apparently produced a figure of sufficient stature to make it into the final 100. Even the most obvious candidate, ubiquitous design critic Stephen Bayley, fails to make the grade.

Would the result have been significantly different if the exercise had been carried out by an American publication? Probably not, when it comes to design, though perhaps the American equivalents of scholarly visual culture writers such as Peter Wollen, Marina Warner and Judith Williamson (all absent from Prospect's line-up) might have fared a little better.

The list is best taken, perhaps, as a useful reminder of the gap that continues to exist between designers' glowing self-image as vital shapers of the contemporary visual landscape and the reality of their position, or rather their lack of position, in the social and political debates that influence matters of public policy. The overriding challenge for designers and those committed to design's possibilities is to establish connections outside design. In September/October 2003, Step magazine published an article by Ric Grefe, executive director of the AIGA, arguing that "design is at a defining moment". "We may only be taken seriously if we can demonstrate our relevance to society's concerns with conviction," he noted, before going on to set out three areas - the economy, culture and the environment - where visual communication could act as a clarifying force.

All of this was as a prelude to the AIGA's last national conference. How we love our conferences! But while these talking shops do serve a crucial role, don't these conversations between fellow professionals too often tend to stop right there, endlessly restating what we already know to make ourselves feel better, instead of focusing efforts on taking the message into the public sphere? This is, of course, a vastly more challenging task. If Prospect or some other magazine were to produce another list of public intellectuals in five years' time and there were even two or three figures from the design world on the list it would be a sign that these connections were at last starting to be forged.

Posted in: Media

Comments [24]

For years, designers have been longing to see their significance recognized by the larger public. But, as you imply here, Rick, not only are we failing to have an inpact, but we don't even seem to understand how that influence might be exerted.

I wonder how some of my favorites would fare on a North American list of public intellectuals. Here in the United States, a few names that occur to me are writers Steven Johnson (who writes beautifully about communications theory in the digital age) and Donald Norman (our expert on how people use the things we design); cultural critics Thomas Frank (his book The Culture of Cool is a great assessment of the relationship of advertsing and consumer culture, and when Artforum wanted to review Tibor Kalman's monograph, he delivered the goods); and how about Naomi Klein and Stewart Ewen? Kurt Andersen has not written much about design but is a ubiquitous presence in the design world as a conference participant, radio commentator, and, now curator. Among the more infoluential architecture critics who occasionally write about design, we find the departing New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp and the New Yorker's Paul Goldberger. Finally, reaching a bit more, you might add Robert A. M. Stern, Virginia Postrel, and even Dave Eggers and Bruce Mau.

The thinking of these people has had an influence on me as a designer, and a surprising number of them, to Rick's point, have appeared at AIGA Conferences (Johnson, Ewen, Andersen, Stern, Postrel, Eggers, Mau).

But I must add that I am constanty surprised by what I'm told is my capacity to overestimate the interest that design topics hold for the general public. Whenever I've pitched ideas to editors, for instance, I find out that things I think would be interesting to everybody are, in fact, tragically arcane and downright nerdy. Whether it's my own self-delusion or editors' short-sightedness, all I know for sure is that it's an uphill battle.
Michael Bierut

Cool Britannia should consider itself lucky to come up with a list of 100 public intellectuals. Anti-intellectualism is famously endemic in American life (if those offended can excuse the big words). Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag ... Anyone else? Keeping in mind the difference between public intellectuals and merely famous ones. We're watching but where are the Ramparts on this day? (On these topics, see works by Russell Jacoby and Richard Hofstadter, etc.)

Another measure of the field at present may be felt in comparing McSweeney's "Open Letters" to historically memorable exemplars of the genre (like those in La Révolution surréaliste no 3). Today cleverness too often passes in place of criticism, which is to say of the articulation of useful concepts. Ideas are thought to be impractical, best passed over in silence, etc.

Then again, much design writing concerns itself with practicalities: how-to books, monographs (i.e. how-I-did-it), and undigested collections of images from the pop vernacular. (Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller may be listed as a major alternate model of a means to expand design thinking and writing; Robin Kinross another...)

All that in mind, our outlook is positive. Institutionalized aversions to the serious discussion of commercial art, still widespread in the 1970s and 80s, are passing. Visual culture - combining aesthetic evaluation with anthropological inclusiveness - emerged as an academic "strategy" in the 1990s (see Mirzoeff). The tide is turning. Now, once again and in short, is the time for the discussion of design.

Michael wrote, riffing on Rick: "not only are we failing to have an impact, but we don't even seem to understand how that influence might be exerted." But designers do have an enormous impact on contemporary culture, whether they understand it, exploit it, or not. Designers - including graphic designers, architects, etc. - design culture.

Michael's final point however holds: Rick's challenge falls to the editors of design publications, and editors in general. The challenge: to seek, encourage and publish writing that pushes beyond the boundaries of (graphic) design as a discipline. How-to instructional manuals for students of design have their purposes. The challenge however embraces larger questions: communication (through design) is a question of culture.

Blithe journalistic commentary and turf guarding rants, however entertaining, fail to meet the challenge. Ric Grefe's suggestion that designers and design writers need to embrace their discipline with greater conviction (i.e. less ambivalence) is to our point.

Aside: Bruce Mau was the only graphic designer to place on Metropolitan Home's recent Design 100 list. A glossy, popular magazine, it's true, but as such another measure of the American mind.
Kendall | Corrêa

We're watching but where are the Ramparts on this day?

I recently saw the last interview given by the late Edward Said at the ICA. Alongside the feeling of happiness that I got from finally witnessing up front the humanity behind his work, I was deeply saddened not simply by his death, but by what it signified to me as a relatively young individual. The role of the public intellectual seems to be dying.

As far as representatives of visual culture go, my vote is for Jan van Toorn - though I wouldn't bet on it. It is shocking how few of my peers even know his work.
Kevin Lo

For those who are interested, Rick Poynor's article on Jan van Toorn can be found here.
Michael Bierut

This is a fascinating issue — perhaps the most critical issue raised on Design Observer to date: why are there not more public intellectuals whose work is concerned with design in contemporary life?

Long before the Prospect magazine article, this story was discussed and debated in America, in 2001, when Richard Posner released his Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline with a list of the 100 leading intellectuals in America. Both lists came under fire for their selection, criteria, and data. A closer look at either the Prospect or Posner list reveals, too, how many have university training and teaching affiliations. By its very nature, the concept of the public intellectual is to expand upon the notion of the academic intellectual — and few succeed at making this transition. (Susan Sontag is so rare precisely because she achieved her fame outside of academia.)

So let's take a step back.

For starters, the problem does not rest with our design magazines. Public intellectuals do not write merely for specialized publications: by definition, they have become "public" intellectuals precisely because they have transcended their respective disciplines. Oliver Sacks may be a neurologist by training, but it is through publication outside of the medical profession that his name (and by extension, his reputation) has become widely known. Like most of us, I first encountered Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker,not in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

The challenge, then — as suggested by Stuart Kendall — is not for the editors of our design publications, which are written for an audience of designers rather than for a larger, more diversified audience.

Michael's own list identifies a varied (if uneven) cast including Steven Johnson, Donald Norman, Thomas Frank, Naomi Klein, Stewart Ewen, and Kurt Andersen. He later adds Herbert Muschamp, Paul Goldberger, Robert A. M. Stern, Virginia Postrel, Dave Eggers and Bruce Mau. To my mind, this line-up is not only subjective, it is also highly suspect. Postrel, for instance, is a journalist whose latest book was panned by her own newspaper. Paul Goldberger is a more seasoned journalist (as a reporter for The New York Times, he won the Pulitzer Price in 1984) but his recent decision to take over as Dean at Parsons School of Design suggests that his interest may lie in more than just criticism, raising the question: is a public platform the same as being a public intellectual? (I wonder.) Others on Michael's list — Donald Norman, Thomas Frank, Herbert Muschamp and Kurt Andersen, to name a few — could evolve into public intellectuals if they so aspired. As for our esteemed colleagues Ellen Lupton, J. Abbott Miller, Robin Kinross, and Jan van Toorn, also mentioned in this thread, I would say only this: that despite their significant contributions to design journalism, one would be hard put to classify them as "public intellectuals."

To achieve the designation of "design intellectual" would require a shift in the culture of design, in its dissemination outside the field, in the way we talk about design in the humanities, across other disciplines, beyond our studio walls.

First, it should be said that in general, design education, oriented as it so often is to the philosophy and structure of the art school, is focused on turning out designers, not intellectuals. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that designers who write intelligently about design are so few and far between. Put another way: if we want to cultivate a generation of intellectuals who understand and speak knowledgeably about design, we need cross-disciplinary university programs that foster such intellectual development at all levels.

Second, public intellectuals tend not to be defined or limited by a single topic. One quality that makes a public intellectual is precisely the capacity to embrace multiple areas of expertise, to think across disciplines: what was once described as a "renaissance" man (or woman) might today be better termed a polymath. Jonathan Miller is both a physician who has created a BBC series on the human body, and an opera director who interprets historical periods — and even these two descriptions only scratch the surface of his multiple talents.

As Rick has suggested, the goal is to find and encourage "design" intellectuals. Susan Sontag wasn't trained as a "photography" intellectual, yet she's made huge contributions to the critical photographic discourse for more than two decades. She wasn't a "medical" intellectual, yet she's helped define a new language for discussing the meaning of "illness" in contemporary culture. Our greatest public intellectuals are generally not defined around single topics: rather, they define issues through their articulation of Ideas — whether it's Susan Sontag writing about war and photography, or Isaiah Berlin writing about nationalism and morality, or Oliver Sacks looking at pathology as a creative tool. Their role as public intellectuals is a function of their intellectual capacity; their powers of description; their love of language; of narrative; of analysis; of reflection; of ideas — many ideas — not their association with a single topic.

These are arguments worth debating. In the meantime, the idea of the "public intellectual" who is concerned about design is unlikely to surface anytime soon. It will not happen within the pages of our design magazines, in our design schools, or even within heated debates on Design Observer. It will happen when a significant writer with true intellectual depth engages the issue. And not a moment sooner.
William Drenttel

American design intellectuals? She might take offense, but I'd put Karrie Jacobs at the top of my list.

Thanks for this, Bill. I share your view that it is an absolutely critical issue and I introduced this topic as a challenge to Design Observer's designer readers for that reason. Designers need to be crystal clear about what is required to build credibility and presence for design as part of broader intellectual discussion.

I differ from your analysis, though, in some crucial respects. Sontag - a hugely inspirational figure and a moral force as few public intellectuals today aspire to be - is perhaps not the best paradigm. She is unusual in having such broad cultural interests and in deciding early on in her career to pursue those interests outside the academy in which she could clearly have excelled. Such a course is even harder now than it was in the 1960s when she started. Sontag is a rare example of the kind of independent public intellectual more common before that decade.

While the most stellar public intellectuals may be able to span disciplines in a productive way, this is not necesary to qualify as a public intellectual. Most public intellectuals emerge from within a particular field and this is true of the majority of people on the Prospect list. In the Guardian article about the list, which I link above, Prospect editor David Goodhart makes the point that before someone can become such a figure he or she will need to achieve a leading position (he says dominance) in that field and this takes time. That is why few people on Prospect's list are under 45. The crucial thing is not to have opinions about everything, but to be able to talk about your specialism in a way that engages and enlightens a broader public.

This makes sense and it means that there is no reason why such figures should not emerge from within the specialised field of design, so long as they have the ability to make crucial connections between design and broader public discussions. They will also need a burning desire to participate - to compete - in public life in this way. The design figures you mention, esteemed as they are, have not so far shown this desire and have not built on the earlier advances they made in their writing. At a certain point they have drawn back - into design. That doesn't mean that other figures can't or won't do it. (For anyone who does have the ambition there is some witty advice in David Brooks' book Bobos in Paradise - Chapter 4 "Intellectual Life". New York Times columnist Brooks was on British radio at the weekend, talking about American politics: he was exhilaratingly good.)

I also differ with you, Bill, in your suggestion that we will need to look outside the design field for a public intellectual who can adequately deal with design. All the evidence suggests that such figures never know enough about design even to find it interesting, let alone to attempt a complex imaginative synthesis of design and other disciplines. Isn't this one of the problems with Postrel's The Substance of Style? At times it feels so wide-eyed and, despite its cleverness in places, lacking in deeper understanding of the subject. I'm not sure I would call Naomi Klein a fully-fledged public intellectual, though she might be getting there, but it was revealing to observe the way that, despite attempts to engage her in design debates, her interests rapidly moved in other directions.

I also think it is probably essential to find ways of discussing design in a much broader way, moving between 2D and 3D design - Postrel does this well.

Rick Poynor

Several things came to mind as I read Rick's post, and the responses of Michael and Bill in particular. If we're naming names (and thinking about 2D and 3D design), let's not forget the parade of public intellectuals who have seen fit to speak at the International Design Conference in Aspen over the past fifty years, including Dwight MacDonald and C. Wright Mills. (Incidentally, Mills, the author of books such as The Power Elite and White Collar, spoke at Aspen in its early years about the designer as the 'man in the middle'.) By the way, how many times does a public intellectual have to talk about design to qualify as a 'design intellectual'?
In addition, there are emergent and established public intellectuals whose areas of interest and expertise are closely related to design (even if they don't actually name it, and/or they talk about it in ways that aren't immediately recognizable or agreeable to 'us'). One example that comes to mind is Jean Kilbourne, an American public speaker of the first order who writes and lectures tirelessly (and humorously) on the negative effects of advertising on women's self-image.
As I write, it also occurs to me that one reason graphic design doesn't get talked about more often in the public sphere is that (to borrow an analogy) it's rather like trying to talk to fish about water. It's all around us but also completely invisible.
Finally, I was mortified to see that Stuart Hall's name was missing from Prospect's list. He is a hugely influential figure in contemporary cultural debates about race, modernity, photography, representation, etc., and has spent a lifetime addressing all kinds of audiences through his lectures and writings (and is a mesmerising speaker to boot).
Matt Soar

Interesting to see Matt mentioning Dwight MacDonald and C. Wright Mills, who both hail from the fifties, an era that David Brooks calls "a golden age of nonfiction." In addition to "real intellectuals" like Hannah Arendt and Reinhold Niebuhr, Brooks names influential thinkers "who would not have been considered intellectuals in that day" such as Jane Jacobs, William Whyte, Better Friedan, Rachel Carson and Digby Baltzell. Jacobs and Whyte, for instance, each had a more profound effect on urban planning than anyone else of that era. As Brooks points out, unlike the more rarefied strata of academic intellectual, "they gained an audience." In the world of applied arts -- that is, design -- the audience matters.
Michael Bierut

Rick, I suspect this is another instance where we are not so much disagreeing as jostling to refine the argument and where the edges are.

I accept your point that "While the most stellar public intellectuals may be able to span disciplines in a productive way, this is not necessary to qualify as a public intellectual." Yes, a public intellectual could emerge who was an expert on design. I agree with you that "there is no reason why such figures should not emerge from within the specialized field of design, so long as they have the ability to make crucial connections between design and broader public discussions." I hope such a figure will emerge from our ranks.

It's just that I do not see this person, even their shadow, on the horizon.

And my larger point, about academic orientation, is that we are not training design intellectuals in our schools. Unless the shifts in media are more seismic than they already have been, let's be clear about another point: we are talking about writers. In the majority of cases, the reputation and role of a public intellectual occurs through writing — even when they are also adept at using other media. Certainly, our design community, even broadly defined, is not turning out writers, much less public intellectuals.

I see no reason, though, to back down on my argument that a design intellectual might emerge from other areas of inquiry. Many of the best ones do cross disciplines — "not to have opinions about everything" but because they have expansive, educated minds and become experts in other areas. From the Prospect list, Jonathan Miller stands out as a doctor who became a theatre and opera director; Simon Schama as a scholarly historian who became a popular art critic for The New Yorker; or Amartya Sen, an economist, comfortable in philosophy, who can write for educated readers. In America, Oliver Sacks is as comfortable with chemistry and ferns as he is with neurology, and writes about both beautifully.

I come back to my example of Susan Sontag. Her work on photography cannot be so easily dismissed. In the 1970s, photography was not an academic subject, and was barely taught in traditional art history curricula. In other words, there was no definition of the discourse. There was only one tenured position in America where photography was taught in an art history department (Peter Bunnell at Princeton). Yet, Sontag, a philosophy and literary scholar, tackled the history and cultural importance of photography in a way that would define the subject matter for decades — and still does. Her impact happened simply: five articles or so in The New York Review of Books. Twenty-five years later she would bravely revisit the same terrain, re-evaluating and modifying her own positions in Regarding the Pain of Others. I see no reason why such a intellect might not discover design in 2005. The subject-matter opportunist that he was, Roland Barthes would have been a likely candidate to do so.

While one might emerge, I see no reason to assume that a "design intellectual" need come with a knowledge of design. She has unfairly been used as an example in this thread (a lesson to Michael Bierut not to use friends as examples), but the problem with Virginia Postrel is precisely that she lacks "a deeper understanding of the subject." She is no Susan Sontag, either as a writer or an intellectual, who was able to "attempt a complex imaginative synthesis of [photography] and other disciplines." If design within our visual culture is as important as we think it is, I believe an intellectual will eventually insert "design" within those brackets.

Regarding specific names, it is interesting that you mention Naomi Klein, a non-design writer who came close to raising the bar in terms of public discourse about design. I am glad to see Matt Soar in this dialogue too. Jean Kilbourne is an interesting candidate. In both cases, we are talking about design's larger impact and influence, not an insider's perspective on our own history.

Having posted a piece tonight on Edward Tufte, and I hate to say it — but he comes pretty close to being a "design" intellectual. He's a respected, even revered, academic statistician. He's a best-selling author. He has his road-show circuit. He's on national governmental panels about why our shuttles keep crashing (bad graphic design). And he's a trendsetter, ranting with David Byrne against PowerPoint. Is this what we wanted?

[Journalistic integrity requires that I acknowledge that Jessica Helfand, my partner, wrote a highly critical review of Virginia Postrel's recent book for The Los Angeles Times, noted in the Recent Writings by Contributors section of this site.]
William Drenttel

This reminds me of an article I once read by Ariel Hirschfeld, an Israeli literature professor and art critic. The article was about the layout of the first page ("gate" in Hebrew) of the book of Job in two different editions of "Mikraot Gedolot" (a grandiose publication of the bible with classic commentaries).
Hirschfeld, a literature scholar who teaches at the Bezalel academy of art and design, addressed the two versions of the layout as a point of reference from which he extracted the story of the book itself, and demonstrated how smart design not only visually enriches content, but also enhances it, in essence.
To me, an article such as this, published in an Israeli daily newspaper, is an example for a public intellectual who writes in the context of design - unforunately a rarity in my country.
Meir Sadan

Would someone like James Victore be considered as intellectual? Niemann? Blechman? "Intellectual" carries with it a certain snobbery not shining brightly in the bible belt, where publications find they drive ample subscritption rates (I know, I was one).
felix sockwell

I agree with Bill's point about writers. Writing about design at the level we are talking about requires a high level of dedication, like any kind of ambitious writing. Designer-writers' tendency to revert to being mainly designers as careers take off has a limiting effect on the writing's development. It becomes an aspect of building a career and a profile as a clever designer rather than a goal in its own right.

Only when design history and design studies courses become widely established, creating an intellectual climate in which sustained design thinking and writing can flourish because they are the main event, as in art history, is the situation likely to change, though there will still need to be a desire to take discussion into the outside world. (I think it's true to say that Britain is further down the line than the US in introducing these courses.) In time, the emerging discipline of visual studies will also produce people with the motivation to study design topics at an advanced level.

It's early days but the body of design writing and reflection produced in the last 15 to 20 years has helped to lay the groundwork for developments to come. What will these future Sontags of design draw on, Bill, if not this body of work? I was a little surprised by your references to Design Observer. Wasn't it our hope to help to encourage a discussion of design beyond the professional boundaries of design? It happens sometimes. Why shouldn't it develop?

It ought to be possible to be primarily a designer yet still become a public intellectual. I come back to the example of Brian Eno, one of the more farsighted inclusions on Prospect's list. His position is based not on writing, but on a combination of musical practice and talking. He used the medium of the interview to create a large body of reflection and he was an influence on a generation of people who entered design in the 1970s and 1980s.
Rick Poynor

Unlike other conversations on DO which consider ideas, discourse, arguments, real people, here our profession's intellectuals discuss the potential future possibilities of a currently unsung or perhaps non-existent person. I find this intellectually indulgent. What is the value of this? Considering the subject matter, I see only irony.

For my part, until the phrase "design intellectual" is relieved of its obvious oxymoronic tinge at the level of greater practice, speculation on a design/designer equivalent to the public intellectual seems groundless and useless. We've only recently been granted the privilege of a history and now we're requesting public design intellectuals? Re-channel these ambitions and return to this question in a generation.
Will Temple

Good lord, but how about the bunch of you? Don't y'all qualify as high-class design intellectuals? What makes you think something or someone greater than you is needed? Y'all do a great job! I mean, even granted that you're a little obsessed with academic baloney and questions of respectability.

Is what bugs you the fact that the kinds of discussions you conduct and encourage don't find a larger audience? I guess I can understand that. So why don't you do a little more to play the blogging game? Link a bit more. Write some shorter postings. Do a little p-r for yourselves. Create a little controversy. You do sort of sit over here, chatting rather formally amongst yourselves. Why not reach out a bit more yourselves? Why not get a little downer and dirtier?

I guess I see the "public intellectual" thing a little more ... I dunno. Practically, maybe. In the first place, is it automatically a good thing for a country or a culture to have a bunch of public intellectuals forever sounding off? And if so, why? I could easily make the case that what's cool and groovy about America is that it's like a bucking bronco that no intellectual can ride for long. You might disagree, but it's a case that can be made.

I can be driven as nuts as the next person by America, but let's face it: part of what distinguishes our culture is the fact that it's so unruly. And, perhaps, hooray for that. Our lack of respect for the intellectual class (by comparison to France, say) can be annoying, but it's also part of our glory. It drives many intellectuals (and those with dreams of converting the States to some kind of centralized Euro social democracy) nuts. It can drive me a little nuts. But screw 'em/us all. What have they/we added to the culture anyway? Anything to compare with, say, surfer style, or the delta blues? To speak of two superfab American art-things that never had any need of intellectuals.

For another thing, good lord, look at the diffs between the '50s (everyone's idea of a great time for American public intellectuals, I guess) and now. In the '50s, you could live in NYC on not much money, hobnob with arty friends, and have time and energy to think and write.
Back then, people read; print was central; big-scale magazines really covered the arts and took them seriously, in however square a fashion. That world is long, long gone. Thinker-and-writer types these days wind up in academia, where too much of their energy goes into academic infighting, or in the media, where they spend too much of their time fighting media battles.

I'd love to see today's New Yorker feature regular discussions of visual culture too, perhaps by one of you, but I'm not surprised it doesn't. No one else does -- it isn't part of what today's magazines do. Let's hope that changes, I guess, although I seem to dread much more than the bunch of you do what'll happen when too, too much attention is being paid to work that perhaps thrives on not being paid all that much attention to. But maybe some Malcolm Gladwell/Oliver Sacks type will come along, and some resourceful editor will take note and run his thoughts.

I'm not holding my breath, though. Let's imagine there's someone out there who's good and who has a lot to say and who has the writing chops to say it with. What's he or she supposed to do? How's he or she supposed to pay the bills? To whom he or she peddle his/her writing? How even to get started? These aren't minor questions.

So we have the web, and we have blogs. Amateur, spare-time media, at least for criticism and thought. But is that a bad thing? I'm rather cheerful about blogs as a venue for culturechat myself. They're informal, catch-as-catch-can, undignified, and I think they rather suit the discussion of American culture. And it seems to me that a whole new way of discussing the arts is beginning to evolve that's much more direct than traditional arts criticism. Less of a college/lecture situation and more of a cafe-chat situation, which I often find far more stimulating. I don't really care about the superstars. I think the buzz of real interest among real people that counts for much more. And the web and blogs are demonstrating that a ton of real people really care about culture. When they notice things they want to gab about them and compare notes. I don't think they're all that eager to sit quietly in an auditorium while some new Sontag proclaims from on high.

So perhaps instead of griping about the big boys (trad magazines, colleges), we might consider reveling in these swift new ways of bypassing them. Perhaps our era isn't some sad non-echo of the great '50s; perhaps it's an artchat golden era of its own. Perhaps the '50s style public intellectual has had her day. Hats off to her -- but why bog down in mourning her? We've got blogs to surf, including Design Observer.

Incidentally, I can't resist: am I alone in thinking Sontag's a bit of a hoot? A SoCal girl so very, very determined to be serious -- I mean, I've always found it quite a giggle-inducing spectacle. I admire her ability to put it over, but most of her "ideas" ...? An example: years ago I took in the talk she was touring during her Leni Riefenstahl phase. Showed the movie, then talked for two hours. Her point? That it was a fascist movie. Another example: I remember her championing the films of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg. What made them such a radical new kind of thing? The fact that they took as long to watch as a book takes to read. (A "serious" book, I guess.) Whew!
Michael Blowhard

But I should be more helpful, no?

Here's a visit by a Seattle blogger to Koolhaas' new public library there. I think it's first-rate. Good comments on the posting too:


Michael Blowhard

I give gabbing about design the occasional amateur try myself. Here's one example:


Here's another:


27 comments on that second one, many of them really perceptive. Like I say: people care, and want to gab. A good thing, no?

Michael Blowhard

Michael, thanks for the posts and the links. For me, at least, there are two things at work here in this yearning for "design intellectuals." First is the genuine stimulation that I get from hearing from smart people about anything, but particularly about design. It can be a radio interview, a news story, a big fat book from the library by a dead white guy, or a post by someone I've never heard of on a blog I've never visited before.

The other, perhaps more embarrassing, factor is the craving for self-validation that drives people like graphic designers (or at least me): engaged in work that we think is interesting and even important, yet practically invisible to the general public, and culturally marginalized to the point where the slightest glance in our direction makes us swoon like a maiden in a Harlequin romance.

At the first AIGA conference in 1985, Tom Wolfe gave the keynote address. He is a great, lively speaker, and he had done his research (it helped that his wife was then art director of Harper's), so he was able to pepper his speech with names of designers, names of typefaces, and convey a practiced ease with the arcane world of graphic design (that for all I know he had just crammed for a few minutes before showtime.)

The effect on the audience was electrifying, to say the least. With each reference --Lucien Bernhard! Massimo Vignelli! Futura! -- people were practically twitching in their seats with pleasure: this important guy not only has heard of what we do, but he acts like talking about it is normal!

That this speech was nearly 20 years ago and I remember it with the clarity of a first kiss maybe says something about how pathetic I am, but also how rare those kisses have been. To a certain degree, like it or not, "public intellectuals" are permitted to set the agenda for what is important and what is not, and every now and then it's nice to pretend you're important.
Michael Bierut

Michael, Thanks for the very civilized response, which I probably don't deserve. I love following design myself and am grateful you guys are doing such a great job with this blog.

I do think the "are intellectuals good for us, and is intellectual scrutiny good for us" question is worth a lot more thought than you guys apparently do. Flying under the radar, you might have to live without the dignity you crave, but you may also be enjoying a lot more freedom and vitality than you'd ever have in a more heavily ...

Well, I was about to type "policed situation."

And maybe "policed" is a little unfair, but maybe it isn't totally unfair. Intellectual attention isn't entirely a positive. Intellectuals can serve some useful purposes -- make a little sense, call some attention to things, stimulate new ideas, etc. But they're also notorious for trying to take over and run the show. Unsurprisingly, most of them think it's really all about them -- the art serves their purposes, not vice versa. Quel shock: they're as out for themselves as anyone else is.

It's simply a fantasy to think that most, or even many, of them are modest people who are here to serve and help. Tom Wolfe's a really remarkable case, and very much the rare exception to the rule. He's got terrific respect for where and how art arises, for one thing. For another, while he enjoys having an impact, he's perfectly willing to let the art function (and not the intellectual function) take the lead. I'd point out that he's a rightie too, not that I'm trying to convert anyone to rightieness, just to draw attention to a fact that doesn't jibe with the usual "progressive" theory.

But most intellectuals in my experience don't just serve the arts in modest, enthusiastic, provocative ways. Most of them want to steer things -- they think they oughta be in charge. And most of them have little idea how and where the art-thing arises. Deep inside, they think the artists ought to be serving their (the intellectual's) agenda and purpose, not vice-versa.

Always worth remembering the impact our precious '50s intellectuals had on jazz -- they helped turn it into something no one wanted to listen to any longer. Was Clement Greenberg's impact on painting a good thing? It was intellectuals who kept the spotlight on atonalism long after the public got alienated from it. Has rock 'n' roll really been a better thing since the profs and critics started scrutinizing it? And the takeover of "literature" by the professors and writing-school industry has driven many perfectly intelligent readers away from the pleasures of literature.

Sorry to be so cloddish in making these points. I think it's sweet y'all want a little more respectable recoginition for what you do, and crave more in the way of provocative and helpful feedback. I'd love to see you get it. But I just think you're dreaming if you imagine that that's all you're going to get if and when the intellectuals start paying attention.


Oops, apologies again for getting a little overheated about these points. And many thanks again for conducting these great conversations here.
Michael Blowhard

I agree with Michael Blowhard. It's interesting that this post and the annals of academia, the new optimism post draw so many comments. And they're almost free-association, stream of consciousness. It's obvious that this stirs up a lot with designers.

I hope y'all don't mind a few more architecture analogies. We're all operating in the same general culture (most of us are in or around New York, I think), and there is undoubtedly overlap.

The New York Times had an interesting story a few years about the Advisors to the Advisors of government Bush. Top on the list was New York's own Myron Magnet, at the Manhattan Institute and the City Journal.

The gist of the story was that Myron is too much of an egghead intellectual to appeal directly to the broad public, but that his ideas are important, and the Bush's advisor's in the White House look to him constantly. AND tranlsate his ideas to a more palatable public level.

But, and this is an important but, it's important to realize that Myron's egghead ideas are not esoteric, increasingly abstract intellectualism that promotes figures like Foucault. Myron is an intellectual grappling with popular political ideas.

Architecture schools today are very esoteric. It's safe to say that architecture students are taught to appreciate the work of people like Tschumi and Eisenman. I'm NOT saying there's nothing in that work to appreciate. I AM saying it's esoteric.

Similarly, it seems to me, there is a neo-Marxist school of intellectualism which has lost most of its political content except for its deep seated belief that virtually everyone who is not poor must be punished, unless they take on this grim intellectualism.

I'm interested by Jessica Helfland's comment about students today and their attraction to Benjamin: I'll have to think about it. What I'm sure about, however, is that most of the misanthropic, nihilistic philosophy underlying the work of people like Tschumi and Eisenman is completely alien to most of the students. They buy the package because a) it's presented well, b) they're young and impressionable and growing up in the US today very often don't have much exposure to good architecture and urbanism (viz most of Long Island and most of New Jersey), and c) they don't really understand the package anyway, and just want to learn to make cool places and objects.

I think that most of us want beautiful places, and beautiful books and magazines as well. In my field, architecture and urbanism, we have gotten away from that. The emphasis of schools is on the creation of unprecedented places, often disturbing. When I pick up a magazine like Wired, I see the same impulses.

I perhaps agree with Jessica here. I think we've devolved to very narrow theory, which is often an impediment to the creation of places and objects people want. We need to get away from the teaching of theory that is an ideological rant for one way of doing things. We need to acknowledge that we live in a very eclectic time when some people want Wired while others want Country Life, and the designer who argues there is only one way to do things is saying a lot more about him or herself than society.

On the face of it, that sounds ridiculous. What designer would say there is only one way of doing things? Well, this reminds me of the Venturi discussion, in which many defended the designer forcing on the Venturi's a design they opposed. Or the graphic designer who recently told me I couldn't have symettrical stationery because "it doesn't work."

Last but not least, because of the DESIGN culture we live in (as opposed to the general culture), this all makes me sound like a cultural conservative. In fact, I am a progressive, card-carrying Democrat who wishes the party wouldn't swing as far to the right as it is now. I believe the general culture has already put the Modernist monoculture behind it, and the design professions are among the last to get the message.

Are there traditional designers? Of course. Are they more accepted than they were a few years ago? By some, yes. But others like Herbert Muschamp and even the New York AIA are rabid ideologues for one point of view.

We need to get that out of education.

And this all relates to this thread in this way: We need to get over the idea that intellectuals are people like Edward Said, Susan Sontag and Derrida. The ideas that people like Myron grapple with are important ones. The pity is that the Right has hijacked the issues as though they belong to them. Kerry is the wrong answer to Bush.
john massengale

It's interesting. During undergrad years and right after college, I was quite the Asian American activist. The sense of 'invisibility' described by Michael, as well as the sentimental overreaction to the tiniest recognition from the mainstream is something very recognizable to me as a racial minority. Of course, race politics and relations in the US and the social status of graphic designers are two completely different things, but there are comparisons to be drawn (sorry if the superficial comparison offends any Asian American activists reading this, I used to be one myself).

When one's story isn't told, isn't part of the public consciousness, one tends to feel a bit invalidated when viewing oneself from the point of view of the public eye. Everyone knows what a doctor or lawyer or teacher or nurse or engineer's role is in society, these are the professional practices most basic to society. Architects fit within this group as well, though are seen as less traditional than the other professions, and that could be why many graphic designers seeking validation in the public eye look to architectecture as a disciplinary and professional role model.

As a few graphic designers have written elsewhere, it is very hard for them to define what it is they exactly do for a living to even their parents. This lack of self-definition, because there isn't a publicly sanctioned language to articulate it, is something very similar to the experience of being an immigrant kid, not really belonging to the madre patria, but not exactly american either (ie, not exactly an artist, but not really an architect either), and not having a language available yet to describe that experience. To pursue this profession, and be intellectually reflexive about it, is probably even more difficult to define publicly.

For Asian-, Chicano-, African- Americans in the sixties, particularly ones in California, the solution was the formation of American Ethnic Studies in the university. While there are existing departments on many schools on the West Coast, AES are usually subsumed under American Studies, (except for a few schools with African American studies). The reaction to AES initially was that it wasn't a valid discipline, and this came from both ethnic minorities as well as 'mainstream' people within the academy. However, during the 90s (which the campus climate of PCness helped) a lot of very quality academic study and theory was written on the topic of American Ethnic Studies. Also, a lot of literature by ethnic minorities describing the world from a non-traditional point of view was published by small and major presses alike. This activity helped to establish AES as a valid pursuit that prepared students for public life as teachers, lawyers, writers, critics, academics, or any other professions associated with language. While not overturning the structure of society, I believe the establishment of AES in public unversities led to improved racial consciousness amongst Americans today.

The point of all this in relation to design is that for a discipline to be established and validated, as Rick Poynor and William Drenttel allude to, position within the academy is a good step. It also takes some individuals to pursue intellectual activity, such as informed discussion and writing about design, without the fear of being ostracized (putting aside the need to "be just one of the guys"). A wider body of knowledge that other designers with intellectual leanings can access needs to be available.

Just my couple of cents.
Manuel Miranda

28 July 04
Kim responds to angst in the field of design, professional and business class hubris and denial in a little ditty called Design Opine.


Kim McDodge

The results of the Prospect poll can be found here.
Rick Poynor

As a late-comer to this thread i would just like to add my 2 euro's worth:

It may an old-fashioned view, but i am still most satisfied when my design projects work without anybody looking for the credits. Instead of getting into the Guinness book of records with the biggest book or the coolest record cover, i prefer to make things like signs, typefaces, magazines that people will enjoy using. And the biggest kick is to know that "I did this" without anybody else even thinking "who designed this?". I could deliver all sorts of after-the-fact intellectualisation for my projects (and i do get asked to do so quite often), but i think about them before and while i work, not afterwards. As a practising designer you have to decide whether you want to leave good work behind or whether you want to be included in one of the many 100 lists. Even though i have been included in some of those fashionable "best-of" listings, at least in German magazines, i am always appalled at the shallowness of the writing and will no longer give information to journalists who have to cover design for the "Style" sections. They always write what they want to anyway.
erik spiekermann

Jobs | July 19