Design Writing Out of Sight

I began this project nearly six years ago when I searched for written design conversations. There’s no lack of material. My archive grows with design-centered editorials, letters to editors, website comments, and social media snapshots. But these glimpses of design history aren’t so easy to locate. This patchwork of civic-oriented multilogues is generally well-concealed from search algorithms and databases. When did your Google or library search pull up a letter to the editor from a 1998 issue of Print magazine? Whatever happened to that great thread of comments you saw a few years ago and promptly forgot?

Recently, an article in The New Yorker drew attention to the pitfalls of a Google search. Using search engines such as DuckDuckGo or Marginalia could benefit this kind of research, particularly for historical texts of design. A friend once swore, with a chuckle, by the search engine Dogpile. But these texts are difficult to find in most searches. Some are born-online, a few published in print, with different audiences and various practicalities.

A common thread among these types of design writing may be their tendency to reside in out-of-sight places, but perhaps there’s something else. In an article on the differences between academic and journalistic design writing, Peter Hall observes that we are in the midst of a “sociological turn” in design criticism: changing from evaluating within a canonical orientation to investigating more pressing issues. Shifts like this rarely occur quickly, and discourse that eventually feeds design culture (and practice, criticism, and education) may begin in the written margins of water coolers, coffee shops, and late-night diners. In these inconspicuous design writing places, I observe the unfolding of a sociological turn. The challenge is to gather them for the dinner party.

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