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.

Design Anarchy (Lasn, 2006) – Review

This is the unedited version of a review I wrote of Kalle Lasn’s new book Design Anarchy (ORO Editions, 2006) for Eye magazine.

He’s a West-coast sneaker marketer with one of the coolest brands around. He’s ironic and media-savvy, and he understands his target audience. He has a singular appreciation of the power of graphic design and advertising, and has a deep-seated suspicion of political movements.

The person I’m referring to is, of course, Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters. (You get half a point if your answer was Phil Knight, Chairman of Nike.) Lasn is the author of a new book called Design Anarchy which, if size matters, is clearly very important: weighing in at over 6 1/2 lbs and 416 pages, Lasn’s new tome is a veritable door-stopper. It’s the second monograph created by the co-founder of the Media Foundation and editor of its magazine Adbusters: Journal of the Mental Environment. His first book was Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America™, published in 1999. Predictably, the book with ‘design’ in its title is also the one with pictures where the words usually go.

Design Anarchy (ORO Editions, 2006) is chock-full of very disturbing eye candy, the voyeuristic gore-porn of the Internet age: an appalling world of degradation, deprivation, and devastation. Unfortunately it’s also rather familiar territory for anyone who reads Adbusters. Here, as in the magazine, Lasn reminds us yet again that graphic designers – yes, graphic designers – are the new political avant-garde; that it is we who will bring capitalism to its knees by, well, designing stuff in a really anarchic way. (One can only wonder what the Chinese folk who printed the book made of all this.) Lasn leads the charge over the barricades by rejecting grids, ditching the list of contents, working without page numbers, and recycling whole chunks of material from back issues of his magazine.

Let me be clear: I am entirely sympathetic to Lasn’s vision of a radically broadened political role for graphic design, distinct from its rather more routine subjugation to the commercial imperatives of capitalism. However, what I continue to find singularly depressing about Lasn’s political stance is that, in repeatedly writing off half-a-century of progressive movements – which between them created massive social change – he is unnecessarily hobbling what could actually be an exciting new development: a significant re-imagining of design practice.

And what is Lasn’s political stance? The most coherent articulation of his position appeared in the revised First Things First Manifesto in 1999. Since then we’ve been treated to an endless reworking of the same old graphic tricks: the juxtaposition of consumer excess alongside abhorrent images of war; advertisements modified, defaced or satirized; snippets of corporate hubris hung out to dry alongside pearls of literary or poetic wisdom; all of it (re)touched and (re)edited by an invisible hand clutching a muddy black pencil. Is this how far ‘design anarchy’ goes – messing with the conventions of magazine and book design as an act of dissent?

Perhaps this is graphic design’s very own, hyper-articulate language, unfolding before our weary eyes. Perhaps Design Anarchy is the storyboard for an imminent revolution, like the prescient graphic novel in the TV show Heroes. We’re left wondering, however. While Lasn has clearly picked up a lot of graphic tricks from Chris Dixon, the old art director of Adbusters who gave the magazine its most significant makeover, the results are in many ways as superficial as the lustrous veneer of the advertised life that he continually attempts to puncture. Granted, it’s a difficult trick to pull off, but even the most pedestrian of the familiar old adbusting ads we associate with Adbusters (‘Joe Chemo’; ‘Absolut Impotence’) achieved more clarity of thought than entire chapters of Design Anarchy.

At one point in Design Anarchy Lasn breathlessly tells us how he discovered that culture is important. Is this a new claim? Hardly. Even the US military is now getting hip to culture, according to a recent article in the New Yorker. And – so what if culture’s important? What can you do with this insight? Because of his own political phobias, Lasn ends up writing and art directing in a vacuum. To address culture on its own terms, where it’s at right now, would mean tossing aside the tired stereotypes that are his stock-in-trade. As long as Lasn sees ‘consumers’ (I’m guessing that means everyone who isn’t a culture jammer) as two-dimensional characters out of a stock photo album, he’s never going to convince those same ‘masses’ that they’re being misled. But then his primary audience is designers. And we’re different, right? In short, Lasn’s analysis would be vastly improved if he took other people’s thinking about culture more seriously.

Elsewhere, Lasn says (or quotes someone as saying, it’s not clear which): “What does design look like after all the commercial/ego pretensions have been stripped away?” I’m not sure I know, but ‘design anarchy’ sure isn’t the answer, either, at least not yet. I’ve met Lasn, interviewed him, even volunteered for him many years ago; in person, he’s a jovial, seasoned soul. So why does Design Anarchy feel like it was put together by a young male design student who’s really, really angry with the world (and his parents) but doesn’t quite know why; someone who’s ventriloquizing through some heady cocktail of first year media studies lecture notes, lots of ripped up fashion ads, and some seriously unpleasant photojournalism?

It’s a troubling editorial approach because the victims of famine or war or poverty are once more hauled out and exploited in service of someone else’s agenda; they cannot speak, they cannot protest their inclusion in this sumptuous, US$65 coffee-table book (sorry, this “revolutionary design manual”). It’s tragic because Lasn doesn’t – won’t – draw on a history of debates about anarchy or syndicalism to illuminate what he means by the title of the book; he won’t tap into the arguments over culture and identity that have been raging for years all around him. In effect, he excludes himself a priori from all kinds of existing debates for fear of… what, exactly? Losing his franchise on culture jamming (a term he himself borrowed from Negativland)? Having his singular vision sullied by the legacy of the movements and moments that make a book like Design Anarchy possible? (Sure, he likes to reproduce their most recognizable protest graphics, but what about their politics, their ideas, their people?)

It’s a very masculinist, sexist, even misogynistic thing, this ‘design anarchy’. For now, at least, it’s the cutting, tearing, slashing, and burning of images of mutilation, suffocation, humiliation, torture, massacre, genocide. The men we see are fighters, soldiers, rioters, protesters, street fighters, body builders, generals, presidents. The women we encounter are overwhelmingly victims, corpses, bimbos, anorexics, zombies, pin-ups, sex objects, beauty queens. Sure, Lasn is showing us the world as it is, at least according to the media. But instead of repeating and reinforcing this parade of sick stereotypes, wouldn’t it be more anarchic to show us a bunch of photos of women and girls (hey! how about photos taken by women and girls!) challenging all those received ideas? No? Why not?
Part of the problem here is that because we all (more or less) live inside consumer culture, anyone who criticizes it can be labeled a hypocrite. This is a point made with glee by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their book The Rebel Sell: Why the culture can’t be jammed (2004), a sometimes smug critique of the culture jamming movement, at least as it is promoted by Lasn, and Naomi Klein, author of No Logo. Klein gets hers for writing her bestselling book from the safety of a yuppie loft conversion; Lasn gets his for being the capitalist entrepreneur who gave the world the Black Spot sneaker. This kind of critique is easy (as I demonstrated in my smug first paragraph) but it’s also disingenuous. Clearly, Lasn’s and Klein’s arguments resonate for many people, which begs further investigation. It’s that thing called ‘culture’ again.

I agree with Heath and Potter when they suggest that Lasn’s view of consumers is unrealistic and unhelpful. Indeed, it’s hard to look at Adbusters or Design Anarchy without concluding that the consumer, as a sociological category, is little more than an undifferentiated mass of zombie shoppers whose best chance of salvation is to be shocked out of their collective stupor with a strong dose of wittily subversive ad jams. Alas, the evidence is all around us that advertisers long ago caught up to the idea that consumers are cynical, detached, and ironic, which might have something to do with why their advertising is often cynical, detached and ironic.

On a fresh note, perhaps, Lasn has just started flagging Adbusters’ masthead with the legend ‘Blueprint for a New Left’. As Lasn says on his editorial page in issue #70 (March/April 2007): “After years of taking a trouncing in many parts of the world, we on the progressive left now seem poised for a major comeback.” Excuse me? Does this mean that the feminists, environmentalists, sundry lefties, and communications professors (hi mum!) he spent much of the 1990s blaming for the state of the world have been forgiven? I can almost feel the waves of relief spreading through the ranks.

There’s more: Apparently “our” problem has been “timidity.” “While the neocons have any number of fired-up ‘thrashers’ who delight in mocking and lambasting us, we don’t seem to be able to muster a single spokesperson (maybe down the road, Obama or Spitzer?) with the assurance and intellectual clarity to take on a Negroponte, Wolfowitz or Perle. Where is our ability to kick ass?” Where is Lasn’s political compass? It might be uplifting to imagine supporting an Obama or a Spitzer, but they’re hardly champions of the Left, new or old (or old-new, or new-new, or Adbusters Lite).

During this, the long, appalling reign of George W. Bush, I have often found some comfort in the actions and antics of folks like Michael Moore, Steven Colbert, Amy Goodman, Jonathan Adelstein, Jon Stewart, Seymour Hersh, Barney Frank, Al Gore, Al Franken, Naomi Klein – hell, even Billy Bragg. They may not be anointed Republicans or Democrats, but they give us hope. The pattern is clear, however: If Lasn can’t see it, it doesn’t exist; if it’s not in Adbusters or Design Anarchy it’s not culture jamming; and, in Lasn’s world you’re either for culture jamming or you’re for the military-industrial-advertising complex. Narrow grounds indeed to launch something as ambitious as ‘design anarchy’.

Your name in PRINT

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.