30 June 2009

Blogs and hubris

A colleague commented today that blogs take too much time and in any case you have to be a narcissist to start one. This reminded me of the Roman penchant for valuing criticism because it counters hubris, thus forestalling the wrath of the gods. It also made me wonder about self-expression in general. Isn't it really a mix of motives? And self-expression seems hardwired. A point my colleague may be making is that effective communication benefits from considering the medium as well as the message. Established media (if operating effectively) provide an editorial filter that can strip out hubris before it hits the streets. Blogs, tweets, etc., don't do this. Another point may be that an audience is assumed, but isn't this also part of what makes us human? It gets wrapped up in ego, of course, but the impulse predates ego's construction (if I'm reading Donald Winnicott accurately).

28 June 2009

NYT Sunday mag revisited

This Sunday's NYT mag opens with letters from readers uniformly praising the redesign. Several point to the trees saved by the decision to shrink its size, but doesn't this beg the question of dropping print (on paper) altogether? I feel that we're on the brink of a new medium, to which the Kindle points, that will let this happen. If it does, what does this mean for the NYT itself? A possible analogy is the switch from the "studio system," where the talent was on the payroll, to today's project-based filmmaking, where studios are gathering places of freelance talent. The business model question that vexes the Times is just as pertinent to the talent that generates its content. Rupert Murdoch's assertion that people will pay for content may be true, but who will they pay - his company or the talent directly? A model from the past that may be relevant to this discussion is the publishing house that Mark Twain established, which gave authors a much bigger stake in their books' fortunes than was then customary (and rescued the family of General Grant from penury, owing to the success of his memoirs).

27 June 2009

Readers from afar

In his SMPS talk, Rick Klau suggested using Google Analytics to track blog readership. So I loaded the tracking code into the main page of "Writing & Design," and was interested to see a few minutes ago that I have readers in Finland, Japan, and the UK. This is the aspect of web communications that I really like. The fact that Twitter became the means by which Iranian protestors organized their activities also seemed very apt. Just a few weeks ago, I commented to a colleague that "the revolution will not be twittered." I was wrong. It turned out to be the perfect medium.

26 June 2009

Monocle as a model

The monthly Monocle has a new issue on cities. It feels like the editors are pushing hard to be relevant in print and at the same time connect with advertisers (and clients of the editor-in-chief's Winkreative) to get branding assignments (even from cities), not just print ads; and to readers through web features (including online films) and (virtual and real) stores. It's a model, potentially, of how magazines can extend their tentacles into many different things in order to have an impact and make money. Magazine resembles the French word for store (magasin), and that may be an apt analogy for Monocle. (Actually, it's more of a grand magasin.)

25 June 2009

The illusion of a break (2)

To create the illusion of a break, you have to do something, however briefly, to get beyond a previous draft. Normally, I would just put it aside (overnight is ideal) to get some distance, but the press of things doesn't always allow for this. The reason that ego is out of bounds is that you have to write in the present (from being), letting things unfold rather than getting stuck on a particular artifact. (That said, keep everything. You never know.)

The illusion of a break

In a communications or marketing role, you sometimes feel like a vending machine of prose. The other day, I was asked to recast a text in light of comments from two different parties, not especially in sync in their suggestions. I'd been working on it for most of the day. To do this, I had to create the illusion of a break: enough distance from the previous text to be able to scrap it and start anew. This was the second time I'd done this. It's helpful not to become attached to a draft, or to take personally someone else's dislike of it. He or she is the audience, whether it's a paragraph or something longer. Attachment in this context just causes friction.

24 June 2009

Institutional memory

Something happened today that brought home how easily the history of a design firm's work slips out of its collective consciousness. Marketers and rainmakers alike come and go. In an established firm with newer offices, knowledge of the work can be quite shallow. This may be exacerbated by the transition of photography from transparencies to digital files - not everything made it across. What got left behind, even if documented in print, risks being entirely forgotten. Perhaps the solution is to provide an accessible, visual walkthrough of the firm's legacy projects, noting especially the counter-traditions (genre vs. modern, for instance). Then make this part of the learning process when people are hired or promoted - make sure they know it.

23 June 2009

Reviewing Arcade

Tim Culvahouse, the editor of arcCA, asked me yesterday to review four issues of Arcade, the Seattle design quarterly, on "waste." I'd seen one of the issues, which a colleague from LINE kindly sent me. Part of the slant I may take is to discuss what a journal can do vs. what a magazine can do (there's a difference, I think) vs. what can be done online. (I'm thinking here of Planetizen, which often covers topics like this in brief, but I'm sure that there are numerous sustainability sites and blogs that do the same.) I should really compare Arcade's thematic treatment with the "line 'em up" nature of selected blog entries, to see what I get and what kind of sense it makes. I think editing a blog is more curatorial than the traditional editor's role in a journal. This might be a question to explore, although not necessarily in the arcCA review.

22 June 2009

The DEGW model

In the early 1980s, I met Frank Duffy of DEGW in London - a friend of a friend. Even then, the firm was well known for publishing data-filled accounts of its work. I asked him why they did it, and he said that they wanted clients to have heard of them when they called on them. Later on, I saw how good a job DEGW does of documenting its work, so that the case studies they produce have the assets they need - performance data, for example - to tell an effective story. That takes discipline and a willingness to invest in documentation. Most firms don't see the need for this, and then wonder why they're short of proof statements about their work.

21 June 2009

The Times Sunday magazine

While I know that cost considerations drove the NYT to shrink the Sunday magazine, I think it was a mistake. The old oversized format made the Sunday edition special, and the new one makes it feel like the Chronicle magazine or (your city here). There's a loss of cachet. I know the Times is struggling, but cutting costs shouldn't mean gutting the brand. The FT soldiers on with the wonderfully named How To Spend It, and the WSJ is also getting into the game. Both have terrific production values. Having twice urged that Dialogue be shrunk, I take it back - and am grateful that others argued at the time for leaving it where it is. We did reduce it from a larger to a smaller tabloid, which makes it easier to read, but it's good that it's big. Size matters.

Providing local content

In his column, the Times public editor noted reader complaints about the paper's dropping of local coverage (of NY's Westchester county, for example). That's an issue that design firms face, too, if they operate from multiple locations. From a communications standpoint, I think you have to devolve the responsibility - hand it off to people you trust and let them address local markets as they see fit. The blog format may lend itself to this. Design firm websites now typically let users home in localities as they check out credentials. What a blog can do is speak in detail about what the office is really doing in the community, and who's doing it. The firm at large can decide whether to wrap these blogs up directly (by linking to them) or to quote selectively (as content for web features). Meanwhile, the local blogs gain some measure of credibiity and authenticity by being rooted in a place.

The Sunday NYT shrinks

The NYT's public editor devoted his column today to the cost of the Sunday edition ($5 to $6) and its shrinkage (the Sunday magazine is now letter size, for example - too bad, because the old size was better). As a constant reader of the Times and two other papers (FT and WSJ), it's interesting to watch how they're evolving in their print and web versions. None of them have really worked it out. The Times' website is the best in covering the waterfront of what's actually in the paper. The others focus on the big stories. If Apple succeeds in delivering a Kindle-killer that makes it feasible to ditch print altogether (and pay to subscribe, I assume, to get full content as it's posted), this may finally let these "papers" stop printing and embrace a new format. What it looks like is still hard to imagine, but it's clear that there needs to be a way to pay the freight for content (including the architecture critics), or it will soon be amateur hour.

20 June 2009

As our world goes flat

Part of the interest of this moment is the speed with which communication vehicles are changing. It's not just print vs. digital, but a broader spectrum of possibilities. They make communication a flatter proposition within firms - more "open source." As this happens, who is "us"? That's going to be harder to decide. "People under 30 make no distinction between work and the rest of life," Rick Klau said at the panel I attended. "People over 30 do." As those boundaries disappear, the top-down nature of communications will at least have to coexist with grassroots offerings. Some design firms are sanctioning blogs (and twittering), while others just let it happen. My sense is that both approaches have their purposes. Experimenting seems valid, too. People should try things out. The main danger is looking silly. And except possibly for adolescents, that's not life-threatening.

Turning LINE into a blog

LINE (www.linemag.org) is a design webzine, founded in 1998. It started off in print, and now it's being relaunched as a blog. The SF designer Jeremy Mende is developing the look and feel, with WordPress as the platform. Several of us involved with it met with Mende and his colleague this afternoon to review it. It's gorgeous. LINE currently has a magazine-like structure - a feature well and departments. The blog format invites us to let go of it, opting instead for themes and topics that accrue over time. What it will retain from the past versions is our ambition to make it really good. The blog format also makes it easier to broaden the net of contributors. LINE at its best has been a collaborative venture, and the blog format plays into that.

18 June 2009

First post - idea of the blog

I owe thanks to Rick Klau of Google for getting this blog going. I went to a panel in SF earlier today and he showed us how to do it. He also mentioned that blogs benefit from having a specific focus. I work as an editor and writer for the publications group at Gensler, a global design firm headquartered in SF. Although I'm trained as an architect and planner, I've always worked as a writer, first in marketing and then in communications. I've done this since 1972. Along with that, I published a journal of ideas on design (Design Book Review) and have also worked on a design webzine (LINE) that's about to relaunch as a blog. I'll be drawing on my continuing experience to comment on writing and editing as it relates to design. By that I mean architecture, interior design, retail design, graphic design, and planning, plus allied fields like structural engineering and construction. Because I have a day job, the posts will be episodic.