Rick Poynor on ‘Design Academics’: Having His Cake and Eating It Too

[This article was swiftly written as a provisional response to Rick Poynor’s article The Closed Shop of Design Academia which first appeared on Design Observer on April 13, 2012. The editors of DO had agreed in principle to publish my response, but shortly afterwards decided it should be confined to the comments section of Poynor’s article. There was simply too much to say, hence its appearance here. Update: reposted with updated links 22/3/14.]

Rick Poynor is one of the most important voices in contemporary design criticism. Prolific on- and off-line, Poynor’s writing can be insightful, provocative, even poetic. When I assigned his splendid book Obey the Giant (2001) as a required textbook for The Design of Dissent, a Humanities-based undergraduate course I created and taught at Hampshire College in 2001, many of my students appreciated the accessibility of his writing and the idiosyncratic ways in which he encouraged the reader to view with fresh eyes the constructed, commercial world. He’s also been a guiding presence for some important milestones in recent graphic design history: as founding editor of Eye and cofounder of Design Observer; as a leading participant in the resurrection of the First Things First manifesto (an initiative described and critiqued by me here); and, as a widely read and admired design critic.

It’s all the more disappointing, then, that he occasionally writes a silly, inflammatory article like The Closed Shop of Design Academia. Beneath its veneer of gentlemanly cajolery, and despite his subsequent qualifications in the comments section of his article on DO, Poynor’s article nevertheless depends for its effect on kicking everyone’s favourite straw corpse, the ‘academic’. Unfortunately for all of us, this parodic mixture of condescension and resentment is neither clever nor witty.

Never mind that Poynor has a graduate degree in design history, was a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art for half of the 1990s, was a research fellow from 2006 to 2009, and is now – once again – a visiting professor there; as a critic he’s clearly had an axe to grind about ‘design academics’ for years. Unfortunately, the picture he paints about what ‘we’ do is both inaccurate and insulting, even as he claims to be extending a genuine invitation to start a conversation – one that has already been happening for decades, albeit not on his terms.

The article begins with a puzzling anecdote about peer review, the time-honoured process by which the scholarly community assesses – most often anonymously – the relative value of a proposed contribution to a particular debate, which is inevitably premised on whatever has been argued previously. It’s also a way of ensuring that the premises of the author’s argument, the research methods used, and the conclusions drawn, are all up to snuff. It’s not a perfect system, and is obviously (and sometimes notoriously) open to abuse. That said, Poynor, having recently gone through the process of peer-reviewing an article for an unnamed academic journal, complains that it’s too efficient and impersonal, and not like the editing process he’s more familiar with. First, it’s supposed to be impersonal; that’s the point. Second, lucky him for supporting a journal that’s got its reviewing process down pat; it’s a rare thing, believe me. Third, peer-reviewing is not the same as editing; the reviewer provides feedback so that the editor can decide how best to proceed with the article as submitted. That’s generally how it’s done.

Another anecdote concerns the latest catalog from Berg Publishers. Reading through it, Poynor finds himself “exhilarated”, yet also “regretful that so little of this material is likely to make it into the field’s everyday discourse, let alone the public realm.” The blame, it appears, lies with ‘design academics’: “Venture outside the conference-circuit paper-mill and the peer-reviewed safety blanket, design academics! Everyday design debate needs your voices. You can make a difference.” I find this cheery call to action unbelievably patronizing. Indeed, while his full-time colleagues at the Royal College of Art, and other venerable institutions worldwide, may be doomed to paper-mills and coddled with safety blankets, none of the ‘design academics’ I talked to while preparing this quick response were able to recognize themselves in Poynor’s lazy parody of academia.

First, The Closed Shop assumes ‘design academics’ are a singular, homogenous category – easily defined as not-critics and not-designers, maybe even not-educators. As it turns out, Poynor’s been making these dubious, if convenient, distinctions for years, in spite of his academic pedigree. In one of his earlier ‘voice of reason’ rants in PRINT magazine about ‘design academics’ – Kenneth FitzGerald, Katherine McCoy, Andrew Blauvelt, and me among them – Poynor berated all of us for being out of touch with designers, neatly overlooking the fact that we are also… designers. (Poynor’s column appeared in PRINT August 2003, pp. 38, 118; a copy of my letter to the editor is here). How much less forceful would Poynor’s most recent DO article be, if he had to acknowledge that he, too, by most people’s definitions, is a part-time academic as well as a critic? I’d really appreciate him doing a better job of navigating the heterogeneity of this diverse and dynamic field – designers, critics, ‘academics’, and all points in between – if he really is genuinely interested in promoting discussion and debate, and not simply scoring points.

Second, academic conferences can be crushingly dull and predictable, it’s true, but so can professional design conferences and exhibitions. Peer-reviewed journals can be cloistered and myopic, but so can interminable ‘special’ issues of PRINT, Communication Arts, and Creative Review, or ‘daringly outspoken’ blog posts on Design Observer or Speak Up (RIP). Why is any one venue more ‘real’ than the other? Give me a sustained book-length ‘academic’ argument about design, any day, over a hundred atomized voices – mine included – from the Looking Closer series – to take just one example.

Third, after three years spent studying what Poynor calls ‘everyday design debate’ for my thesis on the politics of graphic design (which also led indirectly to this and this), I concluded that the ‘debate’ – fragments of insightful writing mingled in with interminable reviews of studios and ingratiating profiles of individuals, and cloying presentations of portfolios and prizes, is, in many ways, narrowly focused, shallow, repetitive, even petty. As much as Poynor might distrust scholarly writing, if he’s looking for depth he should also look to writing that is rooted in, and necessarily responsive to, intellectual traditions that will still be around long after the detritus of any given decade’s ‘everyday design debate’ has more-or-less washed away.

Fourth, who is Rick Poynor to claim that so-called ‘design academics’ don’t already ‘make a difference’? How many of us did he include in the research that led to this conclusion? Are critics exempted from providing evidence for their claims? ‘Design academics’ are most certainly not. Sure, he and I might be able to think of some examples of ‘design academics’ pointedly not making a difference (lord knows there are plenty of clueless critics out there, too), but to make the generalized claim that ‘design academics’ – presumably through a lack of both awareness and wit – don’t address audiences beyond ‘academic’ conferences and ‘academic’ journals really is beyond the pail. Again, this is not the rhetoric of someone who wants to build bridges.

Here’s the most troubling statement, which is at the heart of Poynor’s article: “It’s striking how few of the names identified with academic writing about design — people who speak at academic conferences, write peer-reviewed papers for journals destined for libraries able to pay expensive subscriptions, and publish learned books with publishers like Berg — make any effort to seek and address wider audiences.”

Leaving aside the blatant contradictions in this claim (Poynor’s most recent book Communicate, published by the hallowed Yale University Press, was, according to their website, “selected as one of the 2006 Outstanding Academic Titles by Choice Magazine”; has Mr. Poynor noticed the international subscription fees for Eye or Creative Review recently?) how, exactly, does Poynor know this to be true? Is he including AIGA Design Educators conferences or DesignInquiry, for example? Or is his goal simply to create a reaction, some comments on the DO blog? After all, this isn’t a reasoned claim backed by evidence. Further, the library at Mr. Poynor’s very own Royal College of Art is full of journals and ‘learned books’ (like those in the Berg catalogue); are they all completely inaccessible? Be the change you want to see, Mr. Poynor. Lead by example, rather than empty accusation. (And if you really are doing the former, there’s really no need for the latter.)

Tellingly, there’s a longer pattern at work here. For example, in 2004, Poynor described in PRINT magazine what he saw as an attack on ‘traditional’ design history: “Barthes, Foucault…and a platoon of feminist art historians are usually brought in… to demonstrate how deeply oppressive it is to know the names of the people who designed the artifacts we use.” (PRINT May/June 2004, p. 34) I challenged him then, and I challenge him now, to find a single, employed art historian – feminist or otherwise – who has ever suggested as much. Another example: for Poynor, a central problem is that ‘design academics’ purposely speak in a language he can’t – or doesn’t want to – understand. Indeed, this Master of Philosophy has publicly struggled in the past with apparently impenetrable phrases such as “the continuity of discourse” (PRINT August 2003, p. 118). Is this the voice of someone who genuinely wants to listen to what ‘design academics’ have to say? Further, if this is what Mr. Poynor means by the “rough and tumble of more public forms of scrutiny and comment”, no wonder he’s disappointed with the lack of engaged response.

Poynor seemed to be listening attentively enough when I had the pleasure of speaking at the AIGA Looking Closer conference in New York in early 2001. I had gamely taken up Steve Heller’s invitation to talk about (in his words) “the difference between academic-speak and real language” (oi!). (This presentation later appeared as the short essay ‘Theory is a Good Idea‘, in Looking Closer 4). I still stand by what I said and wrote at that time but, based on a close reading of Poynor’s latest article on DO, nothing much has changed. If he’s genuinely interested in promoting an accessible debate that involves ‘design academics’, here are several suggestions for Mr. Poynor:

– Stop trading in tired old stereotypes about ‘academics’; they’re not only inaccurate and indefensible but offensive, too. He’s been doing it for years, and I’m asking him now to just stop.

– Desist from carving the world into convenient but woefully misleading binaries, eg critics vs designers, academics vs critics. (In the DO article he presupposes that academics are not critics; in the past he’s claimed that academics can’t really be designers.)

– Put more energy into taking positive steps to encourage the kind of discussion he appears to want, instead of playing to the Design Observer gallery, if such a thing exists. How exactly might we “seek and address wider audiences” in a way that he would find satisfactory? My own work has been presented at academic conferences, design conferences, weeklong workshops like DesignInquiry, public events, in scholarly journals, design magazines, newspapers and blogs. (My PhD thesis, which I believe to be accessible – Rick may of course disagree – is all about the politics of contemporary graphic design, and has been available online as a pdf since 2008. He’s even quoted in it.)

– Make an applied effort to understand what ‘design academics’ are actually doing. I emailed about a dozen of them the weekend after Poynor’s article appeared and got all kinds of inspiring responses. (It really was that easy.) These are exceedingly committed and busy people doing all kinds of imaginative things that at least I think qualify as contributions to ‘everyday design debate’. While Poynor loves to decry the notion that ‘design academics’ speak in tongues most of the time, he would do well to actually read and review some of the vibrant, insightful, well-reasoned writing that continues to emerge from ‘design academics’ all over the world, and not just to peruse the catalogues in which they are listed. Or to go to an occasional AIGA Design Education conference simply to listen.

– Use the platform of PRINT or DO to encourage medium- and large-sized design studios to cancel one of their expensive design magazine subscriptions and switch to an expensive journal subscription for Design & Culture, or Design Issues, or something cerebral and esoteric like Cabinet or Public or Spacing.

– Name some names; lots of them: people, institutions, (more) publications. Who’s he thinking of in particular when he writes about ‘design academics’? Is he willing to acknowledge that many of them also teach studio courses; are also designers; write as critics as well as scholars, or some other permutation of activities that might threaten his reductive binaries?

– Take note of the realities of contemporary academia. Academics don’t spend years slogging through MFA or PhD programs because of the lure of tweed jackets and oak-panelled common rooms – and certainly not because of the financial rewards. Most of us do it because we’re passionate about research, and teaching, writing, and designing, or some combination of the above. These are all valid activities – just not the kind of ‘everyday design debate’ Poynor lionizes. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to land ourselves a tenure-track job with a reasonable teaching load and health benefits, though many end up in postdoctoral research positions, or temporary staff positions, or nothing ‘academic’ at all.

– Realize that there is no ‘private’ or ‘closed’ academic ‘shop’. Most, if not all, of us have multiple service commitments aside from research, studio practice, and teaching, meaning we help run our institutions and departments: on committees for hiring, or resource management, or admissions; as thesis, project and internship supervisors; as program directors; as grant applicants and research directors; as journal editors or editorial board members; as peer reviewers and conference organizers; as tenure-case reviewers and external assessors; as referees for grad school applicants; as jurors for granting agencies and galleries; as liaisons for open days and student recruitment and parental inquiries; as computer lab managers and software wranglers; as writers of petitions over defunding or excessive copyright or access to education; as fellow protestors over huge tuition increases, as picket-line negotiators. (And, by the way, could you quickly redesign the department website, and design a little brochure for the grad program, and a poster for a visiting speaker, and a cover for my new book?)

But Mr. Poynor knows all this, because he is not just an eminent design critic; by my reckoning, he’s also a design academic. So, why pretend otherwise? Surely if the intent is to build bridges one should start by focusing on commonalities, not differences? Finally, then, I implore Mr. Poynor to make a genuine effort to take stock of the myriad things that have already been achieved outside of his own immediate purview, even stuff he’s not entirely comfortable reading, and then to focus on specifics; in short, to stop merely provoking, and instead to critically engage.