Design-writing by observation

In science there is a well-known quandary called the observer effect. Frequently conflated with the Heisenberg indeterminacy principle, the observer effect states that the very act of observing a phenomenon effects the phenomenon itself.

I think something similar occurs in writing about design.

When you read articles about design in the press, particularly the few that occasionally appear in the newspapers, the real subject of the writing is invariably one of two things: Art or business. Why?

Never mind business, which will continue to be written about no matter what I say, it's a lot easier to write about art than craft.

Craft isn't very sexy, in fact a lot of it is downright repetitious and while many people take a great deal of enjoyment from their craft, it's not very easy to write about.

With art - at least with today's definition of art - the subject is subjectivity itself, or if you prefer, the singular and creative impulses of an individual creator. Therefore, one can make broad, sweeping statements which are fun to write and can occasionally hit upon an essential truth in life.

Writing about craft? Not so interesting and a definite method of reducing your audience significantly, which in an age of precision audience-gathering information via the internet, is of increasing concern.

There is also the issue of bias.

A personal hobby-horse of mine is publication design. It's something I am very interested in; something I have been fascinated with since childhood. I see newspapers and periodicals as truly vital things - an essential method of communication and an arena for popular design.

Why then am I more inclined to write something about an arty publication than a more commonplace one? Bias?

I've never been particularly fond of the design of the women's weeklies. Mind you, I'm not overly fond of their editorial content either - and for the same reason. As a 28 year old male I am not exactly in the key demographic for such magazines. But does this mean that I am entitled to ignore them? Is there any justification for such snobbishness?

This brings me on to the greatest bias of all - the star system.

There is an inherent bias in the fact that most writing about designers is going to be about the famed and acclaimed. This is unavoidable and there are at least two good reasons for it:

First of all, Jamie Hewlett - or anyone else - winning the Designer of the Year award is news and hence worth writing about.

Secondly, who doesn't want to read the thoughts and opinions of those people who have scaled the heights of the industry to become acknowledged successes? Whether it's just a desire for industry gossip or to pick-up a few design (or career) tips, such articles are a response to demand, pure and simple.

However, I can't escape the feeling that such writing actually distorts the industry.

Let's say a designer working in Barton-upon-Humber produces an excellent piece of work, not only well-realised but stylish, for a local firm. The chances are, people like me will never hear about it, let alone see it.

What about the designers at the women's weeklies? I have no idea who they are, yet they dutifully and skilfully produce their magazines, week in and week out and they are bought, read and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people - more than will ever read my wafflings about design.

As a result of writing more about the great and the good of the design world, am I puffing-up the industry and obscuring the fact that a good deal of design work goes un-rewarded? Does this amount to distorting public perception of the industry, with me inadvertently becoming an unwitting public relations cheer-leader?

What should one say to a student on an over-subscribed visual communication degree course? That they will become a superstar if they work hard enough? Or that they'll be lucky to get a job designing adverts on the Worcestershire Post-Gazette and Sheep-Worrier? Or something else?

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