For some of you, the very decision to study design stems from a dislike for, or at least ambivalence toward, writing. And yet, more and more design programs are requiring that students write essays and theses as part of humanities or liberal arts classes—classes that in the end can account for up to a third of a student's credits. Some students are finding, to their surprise, that when it's directed toward something they are really interested in—themselves and their work, for example, or the world seen through a design-tinted lens—they are actually pretty good at writing after all.
Some students are finding, to their surprise, that when it's directed toward something they are really interested in—themselves and their work, for example, or the world seen through a design-tinted lens—they are actually pretty good at writing after all.
The designer who writes is hardly a new phenomenon, however. The tradition extends all the way back to design's emergence as a discipline. In Carma Gorman's anthology of writings about industrial design, which spans the years 1851 to 1999, none of the extracts featured are by writers who make their living by writing alone. Some of the pieces are by politicians such as Nixon and Krushchev, or manufacturers such as Henry Ford, but most by far are authored by designers. From Christopher Dresser and William Morris in the late 19th century to Le Corbusier, Eliot Noyes, Dieter Rams and Charles Jencks in the 20th, these designers expressed opinions and theories about their own work and their profession through the medium of writing.
Today, the vehicles for design writing and criticism are more abundant than ever before. As blogs, magazines, academic journals and newspaper column inches devoted to design proliferate, so do the numbers of designers who consider writing a key component of their toolsets. In addition to these publishing venues, there are other initiatives that aim to improve the quality of design writing and enrich design discourse. Among them are the Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing & Criticism, now in its second year and announcing its winners on September 19, and a new clutch of graduate programs in design writing and criticism in the US, Sweden and London.
As designers you can use writing in a multitude of ways. Here are just three:
1. Writing about design. It is sometimes necessary to explain or to promote your own work. Apart from the immediate benefits, writing about what you do can also sharpen your ability to think critically and help to clarify your stance in relation to other design work and to the larger social and political issues with which it engages. On another level, writing about design is also a way to contribute to the larger body of theoretical, critical and historical knowledge that surrounds your chosen discipline, and thereby enhance the discourse.
2. Writing into design. Writing not only provides a way for you to examine design and its contexts, it is also an important device within your design process and can help inform a design solution. Thinking through writing differs qualitatively from thinking through designing. Articulating thoughts in a linear fashion where elements are examined sequentially can help to point out logical problems with an approach or help define a narrative sequence.
3. Writing with design. As many graphic designers know, sometimes the copy a client gives you to work with is just not up to par, and you'll need to edit it, and perhaps even rewrite it. With more designers initiating their own projects and creating their own content, the need to write well about topics beyond design is only accentuated. Graphic designers' sensitivity to letterforms and language, coupled with access to a wide spectrum of designer-writer models such as J. Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton, Denise Gonzales Crisp or Andrew Blauvelt, means they are particularly well suited to experimenting with formats that fuse writing and design.
Design writing is a rapidly growing field of practice. In addition to its increasing territory in the national press, new journals, awards, graduate programs, and conferences have been initiated, dedicated to fostering the genre. It's an exciting time to get involved in design writing; those who do will be instrumental in shaping its formats, directing its priorities, and negotiating the ways it is encountered by its many publics.
Alice Twemlow is a writer and the recently appointed chair of a new Design Criticism MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She is also a PhD candidate in the design history program run by the Royal College of Art and the V&A Museum in London.