Design Journalism is the First Draft of Design History
For years, I counted the late Herbert Muschamp as one of my favorite architecture writers. The former New York Times architecture critic’s classic Miracle in Bilbao, on the opening of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, is a text I’ve read and reread, thinking about its structures and its metaphors, the dazzling sentences and the moves from the personal to the critical, the historical to the cultural. It’s a text I assign to my writing students every semester.
When I was in graduate school, I found a copy of Heart of the City, a nearly 900 page collection of his writing, mostly from his tenure at the Times, but also chapters from an unpublished book and his criticism from ArtForum tucked away on a shelf at the Strand in New York. This book sat next to my bed since I got it, moving with me three times from Baltimore to Brooklyn to North Carolina. I’d open it when I was looking for something specific — I want to read everything he wrote about Koolhaas or how did he write about September 11th? — but I never actually sat and read it cover to cover until this year. Since the beginning of 2022, I’ve begun most mornings with Muschamp. Before anyone else got up, I’d sit in the dim light with a freshly brewed cup of coffee and read an essay or two before getting on with my day.
A few things very quickly jumped out at me, the least of which being how little of Muschamp I had actually read before. In reading his output in chronological order, the evolution of his thinking, interests, and style becomes evident. His early work has none of the flamboyancy he later became known for (Bilbao is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe! — or the endless superlatives (Zaha Hadid has built the most important building this century!) but you can see his pieces get longer, more personal, more packed with cultural references. More interestingly, though, is you are also reminded that Muschamp, foremost, was a journalist. He was writing on tight deadlines with strict word counts for a general interest newspaper.
Because he is responding to the zeitgeist — architecturally, politically, culturally — to read these essays today is to get a sense of what was important (or, at least, what Muschamp and a subset of the architecture world thought was important) at any given moment. This feels different than a book about history or a book that tries to explain a moment in time with some critical distance. Muschamp wasn’t writing for me in 2022, he was writing for his audience at his time. In reading the book from the front cover to the back cover, one gets the feeling you are witnessing on-the-ground reporting of architecture history being made, dispatches from the near-past. I feel like I have a better understanding of the modernism versus postmodernism debates in architecture from reading these essays than anything else I’ve read. I have a better sense of the controversies around rebuilding the World Trade Center or the forces behind the battles for preservation, new buildings, and urban development in New York City1. To read Muschamp’s series of stories, for example, over the battle to redesign 2 Columbus Circle is a fascinating document to another era.
This, of course, is the value of journalism. And it’s not a new idea; the saying goes that the news is the first draft of history. In my 2020 essay for Eye on Design on design criticism, Why Design Criticism is Everywhere—Why Are We Still Looking For It?, I ask why there have been so many vague calls for more design criticism over the last forty years. In the piece, I argue that there are more people talking about graphic design today than ever before, from major newspapers covering corporate rebrands to the ambient dialogues and debates happening on #design-twitter every day, from tech publications looking at how the design social networks contributed to the deterioration of democracy and the politics of the images. This is all, of course, a type of design discourse, a type of journalism, a type of first-draft of history.
In reading Heart of the City, I’ve been thinking more about the value not of graphic design criticism, but of graphic design journalism, of that first draft of design history we are making and recording every day2. There’s tremendous value in documenting how design is being discussed, debated, and dissected today. It’s these documents that will shape how this era of graphic design is remembered3. Eye On Design, where I’m also an editor, for example, thinks of itself as a journalistic site first — not an academic journal or a blog — but one that tells stories about contemporary design, sometimes through the lens of interviews and profiles, narrative pieces, critical writing, and more to make sense of what it means to be a graphic design today, here, now, in 20224.
I’m beginning to think that what is needed it not more people writing about design but more platforms where this writing can be archived, recovered, and reread. Our tweets, our debates, our stories today are the archival material for the future. The discourse — the journalism, the criticism, the events, the discussion — is happening. What we need to ensure is that it isn’t lost.
I wrote about this a bit before when I was reading Robert Stern’s memoir — reading these two books at the same time completely filled in the blanks for me of architecture and design discourse in the 80s and 90s. ↩
It should be noted that there are a handful of design writers who specifically refer to themselves as design journalists including Quartz’s Anne Quito and MOLD’s LinYee Yuan, among others. ↩
Furthermore, it’s critical that this documentation is saved. A foundational problem of digital publishing is the instability of archiving: links change, sites go dark, archives go offline. ↩
At the risk of grandiosity, this is how I think about my work at Scratching the Surface; I’ve often referred to these conversations as a record of what it meant to be a designer today. ↩