Last month I sat down and wrote a letter to the editor of PRINT magazine, taking their columnist Rick Poynor to task for a rather ill-considered article on the tired old debate about theory vs. practice in graphic design. The impetus for my letter was twofold: first, Poynor includes me in his indictment and, second, I actually spoke at a recent AIGA conference on this very issue. Clearly I wasn’t very persuasive.
Anyway, the most bothersome aspect of this episode for me was that Poynor is usually such a thoughtful and perceptive writer. Alas, the latest issue of PRINT (May/June 2004) sees Poynor once more giving himself over to the kind of straw-figure argument you could drive a bus through, this time on the topic of authorship. (He’s also been throwing stones over at Design Observer with entries such as this.) Anyway, since my letter to PRINT has yet to appear in print (as it were), here’s the unedited version, below.
Letter to the Editor – for publication in PRINT
Matt Soar April 30, 2004
In a recent ‘Optic Nerve’ column in Print (July/August 2003), Rick Poynor paints a dramatic picture of a perceived rift between design educators and ‘real world’ designers. His article certainly raises some familiar and contentious issues, but Poynor’s argument is seriously flawed; hence my late – but rather necessary – response.
In this piece, titled ‘Up the Academy: Design educators need to speak in a language that “real world” designers can understand’, Poynor sets up a very tidy binary opposition between academics on the one hand (who seem unable to function without reverting to jargon) and, on the other, hard-working, respectable (and respected) designers who are too busy earning a living to pay attention to such pretentious claptrap. In this scheme the middle ground is a no man’s land – except, that is, for Poynor himself. Positioning himself above the fray, then, Poynor becomes the Voice of Reason, untainted by either side’s petty sensibilities. (Thus he condescends to note that Kenneth FitzGerald and I, as ‘academics’ who write about design, are “two to watch” – if only we would get over ourselves and use vocabularies of which he approves.)
But wait: practically every ‘academic’ he mentions in his article is, as Poynor well knows, a practicing designer (eg Katherine McCoy, Andrew Blauvelt, Rudy VanderLans). And this list includes the entire “gang of critics” who contributed to Emigre’s recent ‘Rant’ issue – also a source of irritation for Poynor. Since when were designers who also teach (beyond ‘show and tell’) somehow less ‘real’? I’ve personally never met an educator who doesn’t also have rent and bills to pay. Interesting, too, that Poynor isn’t shy about pulling out his own academic credentials (five years as a Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art) when it suits, while remaining magically unaffected by them, whereas all of us in the ‘gang’ seem to be terminally tainted by ours. Hence our rather improbable status as “ivory tower designers”, to use Paula Scher’s odd phrase.
In his column, Poynor draws on a review I wrote for Eye magazine about Paula Scher’s recent book Make It Bigger. Tellingly, he begins by describing me as a “designer and educator”, but then in the same sentence specifically identifies me as an “academic” in the context of the review. Did I not also bring a designer’s sensibilities to bear on Scher’s book? Are the two roles (“designer and educator”) mutually exclusive? Quite why Poynor deploys my own review in Eye to argue that complex language is unnecessary and inaccessible, when I don’t actually use such language in the review, seems odd indeed. And, while he calls Scher ‘silly’ for responding to my review with a glib one-liner in the next issue of Eye, both Poynor and Scher sidestep the main points of my argument.
In my review I state very clearly that “It would be grossly unfair to heap all the shortcomings of these ‘big books’ at Paula Scher’s door, but it is also true to say that Make It Bigger, like most books in this genre, does very little to challenge them.” No matter that I also write of Scher’s “justly celebrated work”, and the fact that “Make It Bigger lacks the intellectual pretensions of a big book like Bruce Mau’s Life Style.” The chief irony is that a direct inspiration for my review of Scher’s book was a piece written by Poynor for the AIGA’s short-lived journal Trace, called ‘Battle of the Big Books’ (Trace 1(2), 2001). I’ll repeat once more Poynor’s sage observation about this kind of venture: “It mingles motivations – the desire for critical credibility, the need for self-promotion, the urge to show off to colleagues and cut a dash – that cannot ultimately be reconciled.”
For folks like Scher, it’s people like me who should just try working for a living. No matter that I spent four years as a full time designer and art director before going to grad school, five years as the in-house designer for a non-profit video production company during grad school, continue to practice as a designer now – albeit an undistinguished one, and actually teach media and cultural studies, not design. And what of the oft-repeated insinuation that ‘academics’ usually have their jargon-stuffed heads so far up their own intellectual asses that they’re unable to talk to ‘real’ people? It is educators who must daily face the very real classroom challenge of helping their students learn to think. And this is achieved partly by giving them access to a set of powerful critical tools that are the direct result of theorizing about the enormously complex world we live in. It’s telling, too, that while Poynor complains about other people not writing properly, Tim Rich, in a recent review in Print, describes the experience of reading Poynor’s book Obey the Giant as follows: “You sometimes have to go deep into the weave of these adeptly synthesized critiques to find traces of a person. Indeed, it sometimes felt as if I were reading the transcript of a lecture by a culturally-aware supercomputer.”
In ‘Up the Academy’ Poynor also strongly objects to Andrew Blauvelt’s use of the pronoun “we” – a rhetorical affectation that to my mind actually suggests inclusivity. Poynor also can’t abide Blauvelt’s use of the phrase “the continuity of discourse.” Is a sophisticated thinker like Poynor really unable to parse this rather straightforward phrase, or is he feigning ignorance in anticipation of the allergic reactions of a designer such as Scher? The term ‘discourse’ is hardly as alien as Poynor makes it out to be. For example, the eminently accessible Steven Heller happens to use it in all four of his introductions to the Looking Closer series of books on graphic design (each of which gathers together articles from such wildly impenetrable publications as Print, ID, Communication Arts, and The Village Voice).
I remain quite sure that Rick Poynor is thoroughly invested in keeping these kinds of debates moving forward, rather than contributing to the tired reiteration of stale, entrenched positions. Furthermore, given the sheer range of publishing venues for which he has written, he must also be acutely aware of the different demands placed on a writer when addressing distinct audiences, and for markedly different purposes (eg a strategic ‘think piece’ for Emigre vs. a regular, upbeat – even populist – column for Print). It is all the more surprising that in ‘Up the Academy’ he seems to suggest that we must all write, all the time, with at least one eye on some mythical Lowest Common Designer.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the rift that Poynor describes so misleadingly seems to me to be between designers such as Paula Scher who are actively anti-intellectual (by which I mean they are vocal about their intolerance for the incursions, real and imagined, of complex ideas or language, and/or the people who propagate them) and the multitude of ‘real world’ designers ‘out there’ who may have little to do with academia, but who deserve full credit for being rather less reactionary than Poynor imagines them to be.