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  Design in the Popular or Quality Press (or Design Culture or design culture? Part Two)
Guy Julier 26/09/05

Of the many events of the London Design Festival of 2005 was a seminar on the relationships of design history, journalism and criticism, organised by Rhode Island School of Art and Design and hosted by the Royal Society of Arts. A heavyweight panel of Glenn Adamson (V&A), Rick Poynor, Chris Rose (Brighton University), Dawn Barrett (Rhode Island)and John Wood (Goldsmiths) met on Friday 23 September to provide articulate and stimulating debate that ping-ponged between 'criticism as critique' (of design in capitalism) and 'criticism as either design observation or, heaven forbid, design promotion'.

Rick Poynor was heart-warmingly positive about the growth of incisive writing and writers in graphic design over the last 10 years, while, from the floor, I pointed out that the number of Design History courses in the UK has nose-dived. Furthermore, I expressed my frequent bafflement as to why so few design historians tackle contemporary design subjects. (The stock answer is that history of the past is much easier to deal with. I don't accept this for one milli-second.)

Chatting with Rick Poynor afterwards, I blithly claimed that the popular press (but I really meant quality press although there is sometimes a fine line between them) was dealing with everyday design (Coke bottles, Garfunkels, Happy Eater etc.) with increasing frequency and insight. Rick expressed considerable consternation at this wild declaration.

Okay, so it was late on a Friday evening after a long week, so maybe I ought to go back and check my facts.

A review of some UK broadsheets through the weekend following (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times) showed plenty of articles on subjects such as the constellation of food elements in chain-restaurant meal or the time consumption of a 40-something mother of three. So, yes, the intersections of value, practice and circulation do emerge as something worth talking about in, albeit, the most anecdotal way.

But these are lifestyle observations and promotions. They take place in the format of commodity-media that require a certain readership of a certain self-image. They count, but in a very particular way.

To return to the'Design Culture or design culture?' debate I've been having with myself, it seems that we have an example here of the latter. This is criticism that exists within the context of its own subject-matter. The question is, how do you get out of this?

And another thing...

Rick Poynor also told me that he found an article I had written in 1998 (with Viviana Narotzky) suprising. Entitled, 'The Redundancy of Design History'), the piece argued that it was time to leave behind an either/or with regards production or consumption focused studies and begin to trace the relationships and interactions between the two. (I was ramping up to write The Culture of Design at the time.) Towards the end we wrote, 'We do not question the value of history as discourse, particularly following the era of Thatcher's ignorant historicism or during Blair's stifling of historical consciousness in ‘New Britain'. But we do ask design history to return to its roots and bed itself with practice. And in doing so, the fascinating reflexive nature of design will be revealed'.

Rick Poynor supports the idea of a free-standing discipline of design history. I would too, if I felt that it could keep up with the contemporary meanings, significances and day-to-day practices of design. But I have personally found great nourishment in working alongside design practice students and academic colleagues. Maybe this is why I don't see writing a history of contemporary design to be any greater a hurdle than writing about the past. As long as I'm writing about design promotion and not just writing design promotion.

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