An Interview with Rick Poynor
By Mr. Keedy
This interview was first published in 1995 in Emigre #33.
Mr. Keedy: How did you get involved in design writing and criticism?
Rick Poynor: By a very roundabout route, though looking back there was a certain consistency to it. I always thought in a fairly critical way, even as a teenager, and I was concerned to make judgments about music, visual art, film and literature, although not consciously at that point about graphic design. Now, when I think back, I remember all those logos in my childhood that appealed to me, in a mysterious way. So the seeds of interest were embedded a long time ago.
MrK: I could say very much the same thing, and I became a graphic designer. While you, by contrast, became a writer and critic.
RP: During my teenage years, I was interested above all in two things: literature and art. I was obsessed with language and writing, but I was also aware of the world of images and I visited London galleries and museums regularly. I was unsure which direction to take and I remember having conversations with teachers telling me I had to go one way or the other. I’d studied English literature and I had a certain amount of skill in drawing and painting, so I applied for a mixture of university courses in art history, fine art and English. I wound up studying the history of art. It’s said that you’re either a visual or a verbal person, but for me both worlds are extremely intense, evocative, emotional and the source of different kinds of ideas. This is the underlying logic of what I’m doing today. I’m still obsessed with the visual, but I write about it.
MrK: At that time, were you making a distinction between design and art?
RP: Not a conscious distinction. The art room at school had a printing press and I slightly looked down on that idea. Fine art, the world of painting, sculpture and drawing, was such a revelation, and it took a long time to see everything, to read about it and assimilate it. It was not a bad place to start. It gave me the skills of looking and visual analysis that I’ve been able to apply elsewhere. It wasn’t until later, when I found myself working at a book production company in my early twenties, that I started to look more seriously at graphic design and to read practical books about typography. It’s almost a quaint idea now, but they had a couple of old-time proofreaders there, old boys steeped in print, using colored pens in the right way on the proofs. I worked in most of the departments and was fascinated by it. On the strength of this experience, I got a job with a big American computer consultancy in London, putting together brochures and house magazines using a CRTronic typesetter. This is how I came to understand, firsthand, picas and points and leading and how to organize a page. So I’ve actually done design work, but I make no claims for it whatsoever. It’s doubtless very amateurish stuff.
By this stage, in the early eighties, I was reading some of the professional magazines and all these interests were beginning to coalesce. But it took me until my mid-twenties to come to the blindingly simple realization that my ability to write was a saleable skill. For a couple of years I worked for two computer magazines, learning the basics of journalism. Throughout this period, I was also working on what was intended to be a biography of Brian Eno. I was deeply immersed in the subject, and since there was no book on Eno, I decided I was going to be the one to do it. I pestered his manager until finally I was granted an interview even though I had no track record. Through this I met the artist Russell Mills, who had been working on a long-promised Eno/Mills book consisting of a series of images depicting Eno songs. Russell, recognizing a fellow enthusiast, invited me to write the text. More Dark than Shark was a genuinely multi-media project that incorporated song lyrics, notebook extracts, imagery, design by Malcolm Garrett, and my commentaries on aspects of Eno and Mills’s work. It was eventually published in 1986. It was a lucky break, early in my writing career, and meant I could move into an area of journalism more in keeping with my background and interests.
MrK: And this is when you entered the world of design writing.
RP: Yes, and I’ve now been writing full-time about design, for various design magazines, for eight years. The first four years were pretty generalist. I wrote about architecture, interiors, furniture, industrial design on occasion, graphics and art. And for the last four years, since the launch of Eye at the end of 1990, I’ve been almost exclusively focused on graphic design, the area that interests me most.
MrK: And before Eye you worked at Blueprint ?
RP: Yes, I started there as deputy editor in 1988. I had always wanted to work on Blueprint and when I met them it “clicked.” Blueprint was a liberating moment for me. I had the freedom to write about anything I wanted within the design area, and to pursue my own interests. In graphic design I wrote about everyone from Hard Werken to Milton Glaser to all the young English people: Brody, Saville, Oliver, Why Not, and so on. As I was doing this, I was beginning to think about the idea of a new graphic design magazine. In Britain, there was nothing out there that really fitted the bill. And as with the Eno project, I got this crazy conviction that I should be the one to do it.
MrK: Did you feel there was a market for it? That it was a practical idea?
RP: I did think it was practical. I don’t like marketing-speak and I don’t want to talk in terms of market niches. My sense as a reader was that there was a kind of a discussion that wasn’t happening in Britain and a kind of publication that didn’t exist. We had two well established monthly titles, Creative Review and Direction, which were pretty much head-to-head (Direction subsequently folded). They were news-led and had a broad range of creative subject matter, including advertising. Features tended to be short, fairly superficial and were written, by and large, by journalists. I wanted a less parochial, more international approach, a keener appreciation of contemporary and historical context, and writing that came from a more analytical engagement with the subject. I realized that the designers, teachers and design historians who could provide this would not necessarily be skilled journalists and there would be a learning process.
In defining what sort of magazine Eye should be, I was also looking across to America. I was very aware of how Print, CA, Graphis and I.D. had written about graphic design, and Emigre was just emerging at that point as a source of graphic design commentary, using the interview format. We were defining ourselves against these publications, trying to find our own voice and style of doing things, our own areas of concern. It seemed to me that if graphic design had cultural significance, then it ought to be possible to produce critical writing about it, and American publications were some way ahead in this new field of “graphic design criticism.” In fact, I still haven’t heard anyone use the term in Britain. The approach I have in mind is best described as “critical journalism” - the kind of writing you find in the book review pages of a Sunday newspaper. It’s often written by academics who’ve made a pact with journalism. They understand the needs of a general readership, but they still write at quite a high level. The writing is uncompromised and it has authority.
MrK: What bothers you most about writing by outsiders?
RP: If you look at a lot of writing about graphic design, it’s a case of the “missing object.” You get no sense from the prose of what the design being discussed is truly like. The language is trite and unsophisticated. Things are “bold,” “simple,” “elegant.” Now it seems to me such writing is failing at the most basic level; it is denying you a sense of the design’s particularity. When I read a piece of writing about design, one of the things I want to know is what sets it apart or, alternatively, what makes it like other examples. To convey that, the writer must be very sure of its visual qualities in the first place and must have the vocabulary to express them.
MrK: Has Eye pretty much become what you initially hoped it would be?
RP: Yes, and I’m both surprised and delighted to say that’s the case. Starting a magazine like Eye is very expensive and an enormous risk. However much you believe in it, you don’t know what will happen. We began by publishing in three languages, English, French and German, to increase our chances of reaching a European audience. After four issues, we went down to two, English and German, and since issue seven, largely because I strongly argued for it, we’ve published in English only. A huge amount of effort and expense went into the logistics of translation and it was editorially limiting: articles were too short to get the depth I wanted. In truth, the magazine I envisioned in 1989, in discussion with the designer Simon Esterson - one of the directors of the original publishing company - was not multilingual. From issue seven, though, Eye has been much closer to the original concept. We can now see clearly how we should develop it.
MrK: Is there anything you feel needs improving, that you’re thinking about changing?
RP: I want the writing to get better and better, and I want to discover new writers. We have some very promising people. I’m hopeful there are people out there, just emerging, who perhaps haven’t published anything yet, but feel a passionate engagement with the subject and have the facility as writers to bring it alive. There are encouraging signs at the moment. That’s one of the excitements for me as an editor. Currently I’m using a lot of American writers and I think they’re terrific, but I didn’t discover them. I merely noticed that they were there.
MrK: Where on the scale from conservative all the way to radical, in terms of design magazines, does Eye fit in?
RP: It’s probably moved up and down the scale as we discover what we and our writers want to say. In my mind, I’ve always made a comparison with Emigre, because Eye and Emigre are nicely complementary. I always think of Emigre as the magazine that dived into the pool of experimentation, with whatever advantage of being right up close to radical material that brings. Emigre expresses this commitment through its physical form: it is what it talks about. But it also has the disadvantage at times of insufficient detachment. I see us as spending a lot of time hanging around on the side of the pool, but rarely, if ever, diving in. We know that important developments are taking place, we’re extremely interested in radical and experimental design, and we want to engage with it both supportively and critically. But it’s important to us to maintain a journalistic and critical detachment. In the same spirit of openness and critical inquiry, we’ve also shown work that would qualify as fairly conservative. We’re interested in the best and in some cases the worst of both kinds of work.
MrK: This broadness or openness, is that a kind of democratic ideal or an economic one?
RP: The driving force is my own interest. I’m very lucky to be able to say that’s the case. I have a great deal of freedom to determine what my audience is and how to address it. On a personal level, I don’t want to lose touch with the more conservative end of design, because it all interests me. At the moment, I’m very interested in populist, mass-market, non-designerly design. It’s an overlooked area and something we want to analyze far more. But obviously, if you have a magazine that costs €12 or $18, it’s publishing pragmatism to try to appeal to as many people as you can. But you try to do it without compromising the core aims.
MrK: So it’s a broad area, but it’s not eclectic. The thing that holds it together is for the most part your point of view.
RP: Yes, I can’t argue with that. I’m an editor without any full-time editorial staff. My principal sounding board is Eye’s art director, Stephen Coates. We have a shared sense of what the magazine should be. We have an excellent copy editor, and the three of us are a team that goes way back to the days when we worked together on Blueprint. There are contributing editors and regular contributors and I’m in regular discussion with many designers. I’m trying not to impose my point of view to the exclusion of all others. But, historically, if you look at what makes a good magazine, it is a strong editorial point of view, which ultimately rests with the editor.
MrK: I’m going to read a quote from a recent I.D. magazine article you wrote titled “Building Bridges Between Theory and Practice.” It goes as follows: “A new set of critical yardsticks is needed for the new diversity of applications - many of them still emerging from new media with, as yet, no established conventions. It will be a slow process of trial and error that will mean abandoning our comfortable preconceptions . . . and responding to the particularities of context . . . And if, as observers and critics, we fail to understand the context, because it falls outside of our experience or sphere of expertise, we will have to leave it to those who do understand it. The accepted standards of one sphere will not necessarily apply in another.” What comfortable preconception have you abandoned, if any at all, and what falls out of your own area of experience and expertise?
RP: The preconceptions I have abandoned probably have more to do with art than design. As I said, I came to art first, at a young age. As a teenager I took art with a capital “A” very seriously and believed in the idea of the genius artist as a person apart. I shed that romantic view a long time ago and in my twenties swung the other way. I’m deeply suspicious of some of the junk peddled in the name of contemporary art and the vacuousness of some of the accompanying criticism, and I found the total commodification of art in the 1980s very off-putting - so much for all those sixties and seventies dreams of “dematerialising the art object.” I haven’t entirely given up on art, but I came to find applied forms of art - design - much more interesting. Much recent art looks visually impoverished by comparison. I liked the inherently more democratic, mass-production side of graphic design and the fact that the graphics themselves - bits of paper - could not be traded as commodities (though of course there is a growing market for historical ephemera). With graphic design, it wasn’t so much a question of shedding old preconceptions as learning about a new subject. Of course, there are areas of graphic design that interest me but fall outside my experience, especially historical subjects. But that’s one of the enjoyable things about being an editor - I can ask someone else to write about them for me.
MrK: What about the issue of Modernism vs. Postmodernism? Particularly in graphic design? It seems to me the European design community is still firmly ensconced in Modernism.
RP: Britain is different from continental Europe. I might have been mildly critical in print about the excesses of one or two Californian designers, but you should hear what some of the Dutch, Germans or French have to say. There you will encounter the very thing you as a Postmodernist would probably scorn - moralistic rejection. They think Postmodernism is wrong, that it’s frivolous, self-indulgent and doesn’t engage with real human problems. In German graphic design especially, Modernism as an idealistic project is still very much alive.
In Britain, with the exception perhaps of 8vo, it is not ideological. Here, Modernism is being recuperated as style: small sizes of Helvetica, acres of white space, asymmetrical compositions. To you, I know, the style signifies an utterly bankrupt corporate Modernism. In Britain, it can still - just about - signify progressive intention, at least in the aesthetic sense. Actually, in the mid-eighties it seemed rather fresh, and it hasn’t gone away in the nineties. Perhaps in Britain it’s best thought of as a kind of revival, a Neo-Modernism. Modernism never “took” here with the depth and rigor of the continent. Certainly, looking back, there were designers like Herbert Spencer with Typographica magazine and Anthony Froshaug at Central School in the fifties, who were influenced by pre- and postwar Modernism. I don’t want to say Modernism was “diluted” in British commercial work, because that sounds so dismissive, but it was a much quieter, more gentlemanly, less dynamic brand of Modernism. Eventually it petered out. No one in mainstream practice was talking about Modernism in the eighties. That’s why when 8vo suddenly put out Octavo magazine in 1986 and started to produce in a very assertive Modernistic style, to strike postures, issue manifesto-like statements, and declare the unacceptability of certain typefaces, that struck people here as extraordinary and radical.
MrK: Around that same time period, Gert Dumbar was the head of design at the Royal College of Art. How important was his influence on British design?
RP: Looking back on the late eighties, there were two schools of influence. You had the Swiss influence as evident in 8vo’s work, in Brody’s use of Helvetica, and some of Peter Saville’s work, and then the Dutch influence. We could argue about whether the Dutch influence is Modernist or Postmodernist, but either way it is a lot more anarchistic in its variations. Dumbar influenced the Why Nots, Siobhan Keaney and others who came into his orbit. But it was the Swiss inflected Modernism that had, and retains, the bigger hold. Dumbar’s stay at the RCA was brief. Who knows what might have happened if he had been given more of a chance?
MrK: It’s interesting you mentioned Peter Saville. He’s one of the few designers from the UK I consider a Postmodernist. He seems to be the only one in Britain who ever came close to understanding the ideas of Postmodernism, the ideas of appropriation, vernacular, pluralism. His work is very conceptual.
RP: I’m glad you said that, because Peter was one of the examples in the conceptual category in my book The Graphic Edge, which you argued against. For me, Saville is perhaps the most interesting British designer to emerge in the eighties. His work stands up very well. But I do question it when you say it was only Peter Saville. If you look at Malcolm Garrett’s “retrievalist” graphics - to use his word - they are Postmodernist. And if you look at a figure who’s not particularly familiar in America, Barney Bubbles, whom we featured in an early Eye, he was a Postmodernist every bit as sophisticated as an American contemporary such as April Greiman, perhaps more so. He fused his understanding of historical styles with sources from kitsch suburbia and strange conceptual puzzles. He’s never really had his due, although people like Malcolm and Neville have acknowledged his influence publicly.
MrK: With the articles and work you publish in Eye, it could be construed that you are trying to bring Postmodernism to the UK, yet I can’t figure out where you, as a critic, belong. Are you a modernist or a Postmodernist?
RP: The pages of Eye probably play out the unresolved tensions of modernism and Postmodernism in graphic design. I have to personalize this and say that it’s a tension I feel in myself. I recognize the “Postmodern condition,” and that I’m part of it. I can walk out of here, after we finish the interview, to Virgin Records, and every conceivable form of world music or film is there for the taking. That kind of instant availability of culture in the home changes everything. Not so long ago we didn’t have it, and within a short period of time, we do. What Baudrillard found so obscenely fascinating is just a foretaste of what we’ve got coming to us through the international web of media. You, too, can have 500 channels on your TV. And I’m a consumer like everyone else, so I buy the products and float in this sea of Postmodern possibilities.
The problem I have with Postmodernism is the relativism and nihilism that follows it. At times it seems as though the only “freedom” we can all agree on now is the freedom to consume. I have a strong sense of a younger self living in what felt like, broadly speaking, a Modernist world, with a belief in progress, a sense of the “perfectibility” of people and systems. The cultural ideas that were important to me when I was younger came from movements like Surrealism and Existentialism, which were to do with the potential of the human imagination and how we should live. I come out of this with a feeling that Postmodernism may be our condition, but it’s not enough. The human heart needs more. We may be living in a consumer paradise, but for most people in the world the fundamental problems have not been solved. So I recognize what you say; that there is, at times, in the way I write and the areas of design that interest me, a split between those two areas of thinking - an acknowledgement of one, and maybe a hankering after the other.
MrK: What are the problems specific to design writing and criticism?
RP: The most obvious problem is the need to decide on a critical perspective. Design is both a commercial activity and a cultural one. We need different kinds of criticism to sort out these issues. Criticism that engages with the semiotics of the object, and the way in which it functions within the web of mass-communications, explores the cultural side. But the fact is, with significant exceptions, most designs are created for a client. With Eye, though, the business side of design has not been a priority. We’ve been asserting the cultural side, partly because I felt there was an over-emphasis on design-as-business in Britain in the eighties.
MrK: Isn’t that curious, though? You say that most designs are created for a client, and therefore it is primarilly a business activity. Yet Eye is dealing with design mostly in a broader cultural way, almost in the way art magazines do.
RP: The business issues have been written about quite thoroughly in other British magazines. But I don’t mean to suggest we are completely overlooking these issues. In recent features on ReVerb and Bruce Mau, for instance, the writers talked to the clients about what they wanted, their experience of working with the designers, and the way the graphics met the needs of the brief. But this was within the context of a critical profile rather than as a separate topic.
Then there’s the problem of the audience’s reception of the design. How do you explore that? Like many of our readers, I have mixed feelings about the value of such an approach, a suspicion that too much emphasis on “market research” will have dire consequences for creativity. Yet one’s aware that, by and large, the audience is ignored in this kind of writing, and not just in Eye. And there are cases where I suspect it’s ignored by the designers, too. The interactivity of new technology will oblige us all to pay much more attention to the audience.
MrK: To what extent do you think you’re shaping design practice?
RP: I don’t see it as my mission to reshape practice, but I do accept that professional publications, by privileging some work and holding it up as an example, must have this effect. One could argue that the writing we have is in many ways too tightly bound to practice. It proceeds from a position of advocacy. The writer is on the side of the designer, writing for an audience of designers or design sympathizers, and advocating the discipline for industry, economic productivity and social well-being. But to take the stance of advocate is to limit what you are able to say. Even if you are critical, you still proceed from the point of view of advocacy. There is a bedrock of support.
It’s very interesting to see what happens when people write from outside the camp of graphic design, which occasionally happens in the British press. A writer who is visually literate approaches our subject and tries to come to grips with what it seems to be saying. The tone may be deeply skeptical. There’s no underlying bedrock of sympathy. Why should there be? It doesn’t matter if the writer offends every designer reading the piece, because the writer has nothing to lose. That kind of writing, which is aimed at the ordinary intelligent reader, is free to say fundamentally different things. It doesn’t have to bother about the kind of concerns we have in design. It doesn’t have to care about the issues of form or style. The writer might see similarity where we, as insiders, see difference. The design’s impact on its audience - its social effect - is likelier to be the overriding concern. Even if you want to function critically as a writer on the inside of design, you’re aware that there’s a need for caution because your readers quite understandably expect you to be on their side as professionals. And why would you spend so much time writing for a professional audience if you weren’t?
MrK: What about the fact that you are not a practicing graphic designer and might not be aware of some of the difficulties inherent to the process of making graphic design?
RP: I’m deeply immersed in graphic design. I’ve worked closely on book and magazine projects with a wide range of designers. I’ve done a little bit of design work, just enough to be able to sympathize with the processes and problems involved. However, we don’t expect the reviewer of novels to be a novelist, or the film critic to be a filmmaker. It might help, and there are, for instance, filmmakers who have written well about film, but it’s not essential to be a practitioner in order to understand a cultural form. As long as you can learn a certain amount about the practical processes, and talk the same language, I think it is possible to penetrate the work. I also think it’s valuable, in any area, if critics come in from the outside - it’s a measure of the subject’s wider interest and relevance. What would it say about graphic design if the only people who wanted to write about it were practitioners? If we are to develop graphic design as culture, it has to be subjected to the same range of analysis that any other cultural form is expected to sustain.
MrK: Is there an audience for design criticism?
RP: The graphic design criticism we currently have is read by graphic designers. It’s not read by a wider audience. By contrast, there is a large audience for writing about art outside the narrow world of the professional art community. And the same is true for architecture. British broadsheet newspapers have architectural columnists and sometimes as much as a whole page devoted to architecture. So architecture has established itself as a public discourse. Graphic design is nowhere near establishing that kind of beachhead within the national press.
MrK: Are you doing anything to rectify this situation?
RP: I sometimes write about graphic design subjects for the newspapers. What may begin to open up this subject is that the design tools are now available to everyone. People are creating their own newsletters and desktop publications, using different fonts, manipulating text and coming to understand what design is. It’s no longer transparent in the way that it was. When this reaches a certain point, where people understand and play with the visual codes, they will have the keys to the graphic landscape. Then it will be much easier for the writer to address those issues for a non-professional audience. In ten, twenty, fifty years ’time, when electronic media are second nature and people have access to communication tools we can only imagine, perhaps everyone will have views on this subject just as they do now on architecture or advertising. By then we may be calling it something different from “graphic design".
MrK: Recently, in an article for the British art magazine Frieze, you wrote that, “For many designers, the primary concern is not with what they are saying, or why, but with the ‘graphic language ’through which they are saying it. In this sense, designers have not changed as much as they might assume: the profession has long been thought of as a neutral service for others, with no messages of its own.” What is it you feel is lacking?
Rick Poynor: At this point, the graphic designer has a real freedom to become a kind of author and, as I hope I’ve shown in the subjects I’ve written about, I am very interested in the possibilities this opens up. What sometimes surprises me, though, is that while authorship is in the air, and is taken for granted by students who expect to intervene in the work in some way . . .
MrK: There is no such thing as non-intervention. It is impossible for a designer to be there in the design as a creator, and not be there as a unique individual.
RP: I agree, but there are different degrees of intervention and I’m talking about the designer being present in their own work not just as a creative personality, but as a would-be author. Designers increasingly feel they should be able to say something of their own through the material and we have the design climate, and the critical and theoretical underpinnings, to make it possible. I support that. What I was trying to say in the article was that some designers, given this opportunity, don’t seem to have very much to say other than “Look at these pyrotechnics.” I was saying: move on to the next stage and find something more interesting to say. Or else we will get a showy kind of hollowness.
MrK: Are you saying that graphic designers, as authors, for the most part, have very little to add?
RP: Let me turn it around slightly and pose it as a question: what, ultimately, is the value of a piece of sales literature for a mythical widget, if you like, full of dubious claims, but given the most remarkable design? The actual message is not worth a damn. We don’t believe it and nor do the designers. But despite their complete disillusion with the client-given written content of the piece, the designers use the commission as the starting point for creating a piece of work in which they please themselves and explore certain formal issues that are of interest to them alone. This is not an honest way of working. It’s hollow at the center.
There’s a quote in Emigre #31, from Gunnar Swanson, that I really like: “Form makes a claim.” All these design effects make a claim for the content. Now, on one level I can enjoy the formal manipulation. If you’re talking from inside design, it’s easy to see that as a worthwhile end in itself. However, if you offer me a choice between the hypothetical widget literature, and something formally similar where the content is believed in by all the parties involved - whatever the content happens to be - then I will find that a more satisfying and honest creation.
MrK: But is that better design, or is that simply because it aligns better with your own personal, political and ideological beliefs?
RP: As a critic I’m trying to decide whether or not the content is true to the claims of the form. I’m not talking about politics or ideology and I haven’t used those terms. But, yes, I am bothered by the way in which designers sometimes create work on the back of messages they don’t believe in and thereby help to legitimize false claims. How do they justify it ethically? Having said that, I’ve talked to designers who are perfectly well able to live with this and don’t feel it to be a problem. They don’t recognize it as an issue at all.
MrK: Imagine this scenario: A graphic designer is willing to do work for what you and I would believe is a worthy endeavor, pro bono. But the designer doesn’t really care about the message and the idea connected to it. The designer does it for his or her own personal reasons, perhaps simply to add work to their portfolio. Does that immediately exclude it from being considered good design then?
RP: I’m talking about the critical problem of determining the authentic from the inauthentic. That’s not to presuppose anything about what category - commercial, cultural or pro bono - authentic work might belong to, or what it should look like. When the designer intervenes in a way that has nothing specifically to do with the widget, but creates a kind of excitement around the widget, the best you can say is that it attracts attention to the widget, and perhaps the designer.
MrK: Yes it does that, but the form and personal expression added by the designer is also communicating something about the moment, about today, creating a meaning of its own. Not in words; it’s not a specific message, but rather a kind of comment, perhaps a comment on the history of design, which is a cultural comment or critique. It’s a message to designers and those astute enough to see it. There are codes within literature and architecture, for example, which exist well outside and beyond the lay person, that are there for the insiders only.
RP: I’m not saying that form has no content of its own. Form may accomplish all of the things you are talking about, but for me, as I’ve said, that’s not particularly interesting or satisfying if the center is hollow. Something that strongly motivates me in my work is to try to reach some personal conclusions about value. There are certain problems that bug me and the reason I’m doing this, at root, is to decide for myself what works best.
MrK: Do you think that you can’t be critical unless you have distance from the subject you’re dealing with?
RP: Yes, you have to keep a mental distance. My conception of criticism is not that it’s a negative or destructive process - its conclusions might be entirely favorable and supportive - but that it’s a process that has to try to be as truthful as it can. And by truth, I mean being true to your own perceptions as a writer. Writing that denies that truth or declines to say it for reasons of diplomacy or career-building or a million little excuses is not the real thing and is not worth much. Having said all of that, there are subtle ways of telling the truth. A lot of British critical writing on other subjects makes brilliant use of irony as a way of establishing, to the acute reader, the author’s view of the subject, without having to sledgehammer it home.
MrK: You have contact with many of the designers you write about. How do you maintain a certain amount of critical distance, while at the same time gain access to the information you obviously need?
RP: Don’t turn design into your social life! Actually, you just put your finger on one of the key practical problems that any magazine dealing with visual subject matter will encounter. It’s not a problem that is special to graphic design writing; it applies to art, fashion, architecture, product design, and interiors. Without the visuals, you have no story. Clearly, when it comes to literary criticism, anyone can buy the book and nothing can stop the critical process. But without pictures of Michael Graves ’latest building, there can be no eight-page architectural critique. And the same thing applies to a graphic designer’s body of work. You could get hold of the pieces and photograph them - and sometimes we do that - but it’s an expensive way of proceeding. So there is a need to maintain relationships if you want access to the projects. But it’s actually much broader than that: there is a need to maintain relationships if you want to function as any kind of journalist.
MrK: Are these relationships easily jeopardized through criticism?
RP: There’s always a chance. Anyone who submits to the journalistic process crosses their fingers and hopes. I would hope that designers don’t become overly sensitive about this. You only have to look around at neighboring areas in the media to see the dangers. Look at what happened to celebrity interviewing in the American press. It’s now so predetermined by powerful people calling the shots that it’s almost valueless as independent commentary.
MrK: It has value as entertainment, not as journalism.
RP: It would be more entertaining if it were more truthful. Once readers know the rules of the game and that the whole thing is a set-up job, it takes away the fun. If you look back at earlier American and British profile writing, you see the most insightful things written about celebrities and movie stars who have now, as a breed, rendered themselves inaccessible. I firmly believe that critical writing has enormous value, that we all learn from it. No one wants to be on the receiving end of adverse criticism, but anyone in the public eye has to take the rough with the smooth. Some of the very few who do complain have had wonderful press for years. They have a paper mountain of glowing tributes. Their reputations are not in doubt and a few critical remarks by a writer are very unlikely, on their own, to change that. No single writer is that powerful. I don’t know any design writers who are trying to destroy by writing. The aim is simply to open up a discussion and try to discover the truth.
MrK: If it can’t change anything, if it’s not going to affect the designer’s business, if it’s not going to affect their relationships with their clients and friends, what then is the advantage? What is your criticism going to accomplish, other than annoy that particular individual?
RP: I don’t think about it in these personal terms. That’s not the aim of the exercise at all. Any change that might ultimately come about is subtler and less predictable than that. Over time, criticism will both chart and contribute to shifts of thinking, emphasis and orientation within the profession. It seems to me that critical reflection is as important to design as it is to any other discipline. There are many new ideas being explored within designers ’work and through the statements they make about it. What designers have to say is especially significant when it has to do with their ambitions for their work and its intended meaning in the larger culture. It is entirely reasonable when claims are being made for and through the work that we address those claims and examine them in the widest possible critical context. The danger, if anything, when you are on the inside, and acting as an advocate to some degree, is that you won’t be sufficiently tough. Someone who genuinely didn’t care about “designerly” considerations might be able to see the conceptual weak spot more easily. If graphic design is worth this amount of discussion, it can take these occasional knocks.
MrK: And if it can’t take these knocks, the profession is going to be completely trivialized.
RP: We simply can’t miss this opportunity. There are a number of very good writers working in graphic design criticism, or towards graphic design criticism, and it has the potential to become something much more sophisticated than it has been. We are still in the early days and if we give in to timidity, confusion over aims and motives . . .
MrK: . . . petty jealousies . . .
RP: You said it, Jeff. If we don’t stick with it, then the danger is that we will roll back to the good old boys approach of earlier years, where every “profile” was a tribute by one colleague to another, couched, on occasion, in the most cringe-making terms. What’s happening now is actually a measure of the profession’s growing seriousness and undoubted importance. It comes with the territory. It’s not a question of hurt egos. This is a grown-up subject and it’s beginning to get grown-up treatment, the kind of treatment we wouldn’t bother to question in better established disciplines such as art, architecture, film, and so on. This can only be a good thing.
MrK: One last question. You know that Neville Brody and I are about the same age. Who do you think is the sexiest?
RP: Neville, of course.
MrK: This interview’s over. Done, I’m turning off the tape recorder (click).