6 August 2003
A community of bloggers
Some of today's most intelligent, entertaining and well written design commentary is being published on blogs. Critique by Rick Poynor
Web-only Critique written exclusively for eyemagazine.com
When it comes to reading blogs, I am strictly a dabbler. These constantly updated logs offer the same fascination and pleasure as diaries. They are direct and confessional and if they are done well, it’s possible to become absorbed by the musings of a total stranger. Too bad that any time you spend perusing blogs will have to be deducted from time reading other things. Blogs need to be unusually worthwhile to triumph in this Darwinian struggle of texts and justify your return visits. My favourite blog – for now, anyway – is Two Blowhards (perfect name – www.2blowhards.com), a collaboration by a couple of scarily urbane ‘eternal amateurs’, which is beautifully written, invariably entertaining and almost indecently well stocked with useful insights.
It’s often said that the weblog represents a new kind of journalism and it’s certainly the case that journalists are using blogs as an even more immediate way of delivering their commentaries. The key factor in determining the success of any blog is its ability to generate and sustain its own community of contributors and visitors. You don’t need to have any background or previous experience to do this. You just need to have something interesting to say. The most consistently rewarding design blog I’ve come across, Speak Up (www.underconsideration.com), has arrived out of nowhere. Just over a year ago, unless you were a friend or associate of its founder Armin Vit, there is no reason you would have heard of him. Now Vit, who readily admits that he seeks a ‘more public platform’, is energetically orchestrating intelligent debates and discussions that make the letters pages of most design magazines look painfully quiet.
Speak Up is powered by Movable Type, one of the standard, customisable publishing systems that have made the blogging phenomenon possible, but it’s been designed with typographic care and some stylishly discreet ornamental flourishes completely in tune with the new decorative mood in design. Vit provides many of the discussion topics himself, but contributions also come from his team of fifteen writers, each shown with photo and a short bio. The most unlikely participant, Debbie Millman, is a power-suited blonde in dark-framed glasses, who declares her undying love of brands (her line of work). Graham Wood of Tomato, now resident in Sweden, is the only contributor who isn’t based in North America. ‘Speak Up is the most inspiring design thingy I’ve ever seen in my whole life ever,’ he gushes, during a discussion.
Without this kind of passionate devotion, no blog will last. Topics often generate as many as 70 or 80 responses. Contributor Sam Potts’ opening critique of Emigre’s ‘Rant’ issue about the state of design criticism was legalistically thorough. Before long VanderLans felt obliged to defend himself, followed by Kali Nikitas, Kenneth FitzGerald and Shawn Wolfe, Emigre writers who had been criticised. Even for devoted readers, though, there comes a point when these strands are too lengthy and dense. Debates like this are best followed when posts are flowing thick and fast. If you consult the archived material after the event, you are confronted by the task of sorting the wheat from the chaff. You can search the archive by month or category (business, critique, web trends, etc.), but the redundant material, which would be removed in print editing, makes the archive less usable. On the other hand, to edit retrospectively – assuming anyone had the time – would go against the open-to-all-comers spirit of blogging. One of the impressive things about Vit’s project is that the standard of entries is so high.
Naturally enough, Speak Up likes to talk about itself sometimes and there’s a winningly frank vein of self-criticism – ‘What’s wrong with Speak Up?’ they ask – that print publications concerned to uphold their authority rarely allow in their pages. Some think that the blog’s design is too masculine and one of the regular writers, book designer Rebecca Giménez, notes the ‘proponderance of dudes’. Some visitors complain that the site is dominated by an in-group that ignores outsiders, to which one of the accused responds, perhaps a shade too tartly: ‘We’re all freaking geeks here.’ Some find the atmosphere too rarefied, with too much ‘big picture’ discussion, and ask for more topics they can relate to their everyday work (print magazines hear this moan all the time). For others, Speak Up provides a vital sense of belonging to a community and that’s no small service. Something genuinely new is emerging here.
Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.