A Design Writing Reading List
When I began teaching two years ago, someone who had been teaching much longer told me you need to teach a class at least three times to really get the hang of it. The first time you’re mostly just figuring it out as you go. The second time you make adjustments, knowing where you want the class to go so by the third time, you can truly be in the moment, responding to the particulars of that group of students. I don’t know if that’s true or not — I’ll finally being teaching a few classes for the the third time this Fall — but I’ve kept this idea in the back of my head each time I return to a class.
I’m constantly tinkering with my syllabi; never teaching a class the exact same way twice. There are always small adjustments to make: move this project earlier, give this project longer time, they liked this lecture so let’s spend more time with it, this critique method didn’t work. But after teaching Design Writing in the MFA program at Pratt Institute last year, I completely threw out my syllabus, completely rewriting it from scratch for this past semester. I felt like the class failed for a variety of reasons the first time around: I was unclear in what I wanted the class to be, I tried to teach like the writing professor I had, and underestimated certain challenges.
I had been trying to do too much, teaching too many sides of writing that we never went deep on anything. When I found out I’d be teaching it again this year, I decided to reframe the class around my own interests, focusing a bit more on design criticism. I broke the class into two parts: what we talk (write) about when we talk (write) about design and then how we talk (write) about it. The first part is about looking, analyizing, sharpening our critical perspectives and the second part is about voice, tone, structure, rhythm, story. The first part is about content, the second about form.
I was inspired by my conversation with Sam Jacob and adapted a framework he’s used in the writing classes he’s taught. For the first half of the class, the students had to bring in a single object, that cost no more than $30, to write about. Each week, they wrote about their object through a different lens: aesthetic/formal qualities, historical and contextual, and finally ideological. We weren’t too interested in voice yet, just how to talk about these objects and what they can tell us about design, culture, economics, etc. In the second half of the class, we used what we learned and added a variety of writing tricks to them: thinking about voice and tone, how can we play with structure, tell a new story. Throughout the semester, I was continually impressed with what the students brought — they took these objects they didn’t think they could write about and suddenly we were talking about immigration, class, identity, race, sustainability… It was so fun.
To be a good writer, one must be a good reader. While we spent most of each class reading each others’ essays — often line-by-line, out loud, together — to try and make them better, we also read a lot of other people’s work. Each week, I assigned a handful of readings related to the theme of the week. In addition to their own writing, I asked the students to present responses to the reading, encouraging close reading so we could figure out what and how these writers were doing what they were doing. I thought it’d be fun to share the reading list here.
If I teach the class a third time (I hope I do, I had a blast with it this semester), I already have adjustments in mind, including swapping out some of these readings. This list is obviously biased towards my own interests and proclivities and I selected pieces I’d read many times and felt comfortable talking about. I hope to expand and diversify this list next time around. I want to bring in more criticism from other fields and swap in some different pieces for the poetry and storytelling sections. I feel like my students really responded to many of these and I think we all learned something. Me, probably most of all.
Writing About Design
- Writing About Architecture (Introduction) - Alexandra Lange
- What Has Writing Got to do with Design? - Ann Burdick
- All Buildings Are Interesting - Kate Wagner
- What is Thing Called Graphic Design Criticism? - Michael Rock and Rick Poynor
- Why Write About Graphic Design? - Jessica Helfand
Form and Object
- I Hate ITC Garamond - Michael Bierut
- These are the best Scissors I’ve ever owned - Alexandra Lange
- Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport - Michael Bierut
Context and History
- The Miracle in Bilbao - Herbert Muschamp
- Castles Made of Sand - Lorraine Wild
- There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch - Jenny Odell
Ideology and Culture
- All That Is Solid… - Michael Rock
- This Is Not A Cigar - Michael Rock and Susan Sellers
- Welcome to Airspace - Kyle Chayka
- Against Neutrality - Teju Cole
- Energy & Rue - Brian Dillon
- Far Away From Here - Teju Cole
- Find Your Beach - Zadie Smith
- Some interpersonal verbs, conjugated by gender - Alexandra Petri
- The Best of the Prose Poem - David Foster Wallace
- Still Lives That Won’t Hold Still - Teju Cole
- The Medium is the Massage - Marshall McLuhan
- Can Do - Maira Kalman
- Sweethearts - Emmett Williams
- Spelling Poem - Margaret Atwood
- Parent’s Pantoum - Carolyn Kiser
- The Simplica Girls Diaries - George Saunders
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan