Humility and Authority

After a reading of Armin Vit’s “Speak Up: Now What?” blogpost (and all its comments), Rick Poynor’s “Easy Writer” text, M. Kingsley’s “Rick Poynor: Ipse Dixit” response to that (plus an even louder cacophony of complaints and pats on the back) and again Poynor’s follow-up/reply, I can’t help but feel these people should get out more.

Graphic designers – and American graphic designers in particular – have a tendency to talk much more about their work and their problems than their product design counterparts. Working with (by definition, someone else’s) text and pictures has probably made them regard their profession as naturally worthy of discussion and reflection. And there is nothing wrong with that, for graphic design (and all other areas of design) deserves better criticism, writing and history. However, opinionated talk is not criticism.

If Speak Up was founded as a discussion forum on graphic design, I would say it owes more to the local bar/pub tradition than to the Athenian agora: this is where graphic designers go to talk, complain and discuss ideas. That’s great. But when it proclaims to be aiming at something higher – which Armin Vit did, opening this Pandora’s box – that’s where the fragilities of blogging instead of (edited) critical writing are exposed.

There is an uneasy small town, parochial mentality to all of this: It’s not exclusive of graphic designers or Americans; bloggers from all professions, languages and countries suffer from it. Just because you have a searchable, free and worldwide platform accessible to millions of people – instead of the soapbox of before – it doesn’t mean what you say matters. Your “community”, as we now hear in blogspeak, is exactly that – a posse of followers. It does not make you an instant universal authority. It doesn’t even make you universal.

That’s when the self-proclaiming authority of bloggers – and their naïve quest for universality – gets scary, for it takes some humility to recognize that good critical writing, and good writing on design, is not only about expressing your opinion. It’s about looking further (even further from your national borders!), learning not only from your peers but from your elders. It requires investment, research, maturity, experience and an appropriate venue. Speak Up’s contributors must be humble enough to realize that just because they exist, it doesn’t mean they “have arrived”.

And that is what Poynor is saying: his defense of edited, paid, professional, often researched writing in authoritative publications does not rule out personal, free, unprofessional and carefree blogging. But it does draw the line on where one ends and the other begins.

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This post was written for Emily Gordon’s segment of the Print Meets the Web course. We were asked to write a comment on the Armin Vit/Rick Poynor debate about Writing and Blogging in the aforementioned websites, plus Khoi Vinh’s considerate observations on the subject on his own blog.