City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Design Observer

Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.

As with our sustainability panel earlier in the week, some issues call for multiple voices onstage. A hugely successful design weblog, with multiple writers who are also professional designers or writers, is a decent example. So Geoff and I find ourselves hosting a session with some key personnel – Michael Bierut, William Drentell, and Tom Vanderbilt – from the excellent Design Observer website on day 4 of Postopolis!.

Design Observer pretty much hit the ground running when it emerged a few years ago, contributing excellent articles from the start. It moved quickly beyond the ‘design supergroup’ model by introducing other voices into the mix, yet retaining quality throughout personnel changes. I’ve personally always appreciated the site’s commitment to raising the bar in writing about design online, and enjoy the style of lengthier, considered mini-essays. This style of ‘original contributions to the internet’, rather than merely pointing and commenting, has helped shape the weblog form for the better. So it was a great pleasure to invite them to Postopolis! to represent another angle around design.

Drentell begins by taking us through the origins of Design Observer, recalling how he, Jessica Helfand, Bierut and Rick Poynor had prototyped some essays a few years back. They’d all “shared certain frustations” with what it was like to write for magazines. They’ve set up the group weblog such that they only post typically 2 or 3 essays per week, though they’re “pretty finished essays” circa 1000-2000 words. Initially, he says, they found it “funny that people come back”. Rick Poynor dropped out after a while, partly because, Drentell says, he was finding it difficult to reconcile “making a living as writer where a third of writing is for free”. They slowly added other writers to the point that there is now around 7 or so writers in the group.

While on the structure of the blog, we talk about the value of comments. As with the sustainability panel earlier, they note problems with quality. They reckon only about 30-50% comments offer anything constructive (and they’re probably being generous here.) The longer they go on, they’re less tethered to original piece, with positive and negative results. Bierut suggests that it is incredibly rewarding for the writers, but Drentell confirms that “comments isn’t a priority for our blog”, though they won’t be turning them off.

On the difference between writing for print and writing for weblogs, Bierut has written about this in depth recently, on the announcement of his new book. He says he initially found he had very irritating traits reinforced by writing for print, chiefly one of procrastination. Having worked on magazines, he knew that the “deadline I’ve been told wasn’t the real deadline. There was some other deadline.” So he’d leave it all until the last minute. Then having rushed that, it wouldn’t be published for weeks, months. Finally, there was “no evidence that anyone on earth had read this thing.” In contrast, with writing for blogs, he’d “hit publish, and all three of those things are eliminated:”

Design Observer

Design Observer

In terms of quality control, and working without the print infrastructure of sub editors etc., Drentell notes that they’re now effectively their own editors and “typically take more care” on that sort of thing. There’s a “different sense of responsibility that we subject oursleves to”, which is in some way more engaged. The essays often don’t come in as finished pieces – with some exceptions like Julie Lasky, who delivers a perfectly finished piece. So they edit too. Sometimes pieces take weeks to finish – particularly their own, they groan. There’s some clearly envious discussion of how quickly Jessica Helfand can write a good piece. Being acutely aware of the size of the audience on the end of the writing also affects things too. They certainly take more care as a result.

However, some differences between magazines and group weblogs can be more problematic. Rick Poynor, having worked in magazine editorial (notably as a brilliant stint in charge of ‘Eye’) “always got a sense that he was missing something”; that there must be some regular editorial meetings or something, as per magazines, that he couldn’t be at. The sense that Design Observer was, in Bierut’s words, “this funny thing that just kind of accrued”, could be maddening. (I wonder about this also, working as I do at Monocle in London, and about to work remotely from Sydney.)

We also talk about writing about design for non-designers. They think there’s definitely a responsiblity in their writing to explain things. Bierut recalls Andrew Blum earlier talking about having to explain the Pritzker price; in Bierut’s piece on the evolution of the AT&T logo, he notes how careful he was to provide a brief mini-history of the logo. We discuss the inherent facility for links within online writing, and how useful that can be from a contextual point-of-view. I recall Steven Johnson’s ‘Interface Culture’, and his early work on Suck and Feed, and the dense inter-textual referencing possible through links. Sometimes links would be dropped in to add semantic weight to something; some links not even intended to be clicked on – merely to suffuse with irony. Geoff trumps us all by claiming that he has sometimes added links to the *spaces in-between words* on BLDGBLOG!

The conversation sidesteps into one of branding of the urban environment. Bierut tells us about his “loquacious cab driver” he had while taking a taxi to the Storefront through a crowded downtown Manhattan laden with distressed type, both original and faked. Drentell and Bierut both recall working with Tibor Kalman, who was “obsessed with issues of authenticity” and tried to avoid the “too slickly designed”. Both now feel that it’s near impossible to “be authentic” with this urban branding, ad don’t know how to solve that problem. (If indeed it is a problem.) I mention Tobias Frere-Jones’ talk earlier in the week, and about the layers of history that can be perceived in NYC signage and lettering; about how this lettering was as important a part of the muscular, confident character of New York as the accent people spoke with, or the architecture. But given this is fading, or inauthentic, where is that character expressed now?

Bierut mentions Frere-Jones’ font Interstate, as well as Gotham, as some kind of “perfect vernacular” typefaces – which he notes he was all over like a rash when they came out. (He may not have used those words.). He says, taking things like the Port Authority sign as inpsiration, that Frere-Jones and Hoefler have done an “exquisite job of rendering” this, but once it becomes a “commercial option that you exercise at will” it’s a complex scenario, and perhaps loses some of that New York character. He asks if people know the book ‘God’s Own Junkyard’ by Peter White, which he thought was the most “beautiful, romantic book in the world”, yet was intended to show the horror of the everday vernacular in the USA. So when this kind work can be so easily or carelessly subverted as nostalgia, shorthand or something entirely unrelated to its origins, Bierut seemed to be suggesting that it was difficult to talk about authenticity and character in branding for the urban environment, or even figuring out how the urban environment is expressing itself. He says contemporary corporate logos can instantly reference nostalgia – cf. American Apparel. It’s like his kids pining for the “great, early days of Nickleodeon”.

We riff back and forth about these invisible and visible layers of information within the city. Bierut mentions the incredible media visions created for the film ‘Children of Men’, ostensibly about tomorrow – yet not. He adds that with New York in particular “you have to wait till tomorrow, to characterise yesterday”, which I thought was a great point, beautifully put. He finds the city “hard to bring into focus in real time.”

Relating to “photographs of streetscapes”, Drentell mentions how this has almost become a “classic assignment” in graphic design schools, such that he was teaching in New Orleans recently and one of the existing classes was based around taking pictures of distressed letterforms. He pauses to note that this was New Orleans, and that there was “not a single assignment about the future of city” on the curriculum. He doesn’t think that would be true of an architecture school, but it is often sadly true in graphic design.

Design Observer

Design Observer

Bryan asks about images of fear and security within the landscape, mentioning Vanderbilt’s book ‘Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America’. Vanderbilt is currently working on a book about traffic, and he says can’t stop returning to that subject. He says the USA suffers 43000+ road fatalities in a year, which is the equivalent – in raw numbers at least – of a 9/11 every month. He thinks at least part of that number is due to increasing the number of people on the road; including through security alarms by the way. If there’s anywhere we should be directing resources, he says, if security is an issue then it should be onto making traffic safer. He says “Our way of life is more dangerous in general than the so-called threat to our daily life.”

Bierut takes another tack, noting there are actually very few expressions of urban fear in urban landscape. More expressions of amelioration or a kind of desperately numbing reassurance that everything is OK. After 9/11, he remembers the discussion that “Maybe we’ll never have any advertising any more”, as it felt strangely inappropriate. Well, he says, compared the the endless flags and articulations of national security, he’d rather have a big ol’ Calvin Klein ad anyday.

Jill asks a question about sustainability and graphic design, from the perspective of someone who was once a graphic designer. After briefly suggesting that only graphic designers care about effect that graphic designers have on the world, Bierut has noted a different. When he was educated in the 1970s, “he never had a single assignment that was social or cultural” in perspective. Now that’s different. However, with graphic design, it’s generally very closely aligned with, or alongside market forces, as an amplifying effect. “Graphic design is really only about someone’s message”, he says. And that message is almost always about, in broadest possible terms, trying to sell someone something. If you’re designing poetry magazine, you’re selling poetry. These are “the tools you have available”. Additionally, the “thing they do only lasts as long as the message is being transmitted”. This is a major difference with architecture, he thinks. Architecture grows out of particular situation and series of relationships between client and architect. Yet 5, 10 years later, the circumstances of that genesis get ever more obscure. Buildings begin to lose sight of their origins. Graphic design rarely has that ability – it tends to be rooted quite specifically in the moment, and often the client. (Of course some design has eventually drifted clear of its moorings – few now see, for example, a Josef Müller-Brockmann poster in the context of a specific live music performance on a foggy Zürich night in 1954. But in general it’s a really interesting point of difference that Bierut makes. Graphic design is either forgotten and discarded more rapidly, or carries its context with it, more readily than architecture. A 1933 broadsheet has more easily observed essence of its age, its creation and even the client than say a 1933 building, as evocative as it is to the trained eye. The reusability of architecture enables this in particular. I’ve written a bit about the importance of carrying context of creation forward, as its effects are still being worked out with digital media.)

Design Observer

Drentell takes this forward, by recalling all the discussions he had with Tibor Kalman about this, which good as they were, could tend to be overly simplistic. He thinks all models are getting much more complicated. One of Drentell’s posts on Design Observer, on Rem Koolhaas, created a huge amount of discussion. It centred around the environmental, cultural and political impact of both Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing and his flawed social commentary. A specific point was made around the amount of steel used in the construction steel of the CCTV building (see also Matt Clark’s presentation from Wednesday.) And yet, such is the nature of weblogs, someone took Drentell to task in the comments for his previous, allegedly unsustainable, work throughout the ’80s. It’s not easy to pick apart the issues in practice and teaching around sustainability and design. As Drentell says, it’s complex, perhaps too complex for comments on a weblog. (Funnily enough (!) that particular someone was Miss Representation, who would speak at Postopolis! a day later. The comment thread on the Koolhaas post is also a good illustration of ‘arc of comments’ that Mark Wigley would talk about a day later too.)

There were other things said. I’ve noticed the magnetic presence of the dynamic Mr Bierut to my immediate right seems to have skewed my notes in that direction a bit. There were many more nuances, subtleties and quite a few topics I missed altogether. There were also many more questions I wanted to ask, like why they rarely write about their own work there, or whether they would go beyond the occasional slideshow to extend what is a very literate blog into drawings, sketches or more photo-based work. But it’s difficult to follow a conversation between 5+ people at the best of times. Suffice to say Bierut, Drentell and Vanderbilt certainly exemplified the depth and authority of Design Observer in person, although they also threw in a dash of twinkling good humour for good measure. They should tour or something.


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