A Conversation with Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand
For the introduction to Culture is Not Always Popular, the new Design Observer anthology, I interviewed the site’s founders, Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand. Part of the interview was excerpted for MIT Press’s website and included below. I also served as the book’s managing editor and designer. More images from the book can be found here.
Jarrett Fuller: I think a good place to start is to look at what the world was like fifteen years ago, because I think both the world at large, and the design world specifically, look very different than they do today. What was the cultural context that Design Observer was born into?
Michael Bierut: In the biggest context, those days felt very post-9/11. There was a heightened awareness of America’s role in the world and the fact that there was a big, interconnected world out there. I think there was a lovely, comforting insularity from the Clinton years but suddenly, with a single traumatic incident, America’s place in the world was repositioned. So it really did feel a little bit like a greater purview. I’m not saying that that motivated the founding of Design Observer but I do think that provided a little bit of a context.
Jessica Helfand: When you asked that question, Jarrett, the first thing I thought of was also 9/11 and how the world—certainly the Western world—felt an increased sense of vulnerability following it. The design world was not inured from that.
MB: And certainly the Internet had been around for a while, but I can still remember really clearly getting an email from Bill [William Drenttel] saying he wanted to do something that in those days was called the “blog roll,” a list of sites that we liked and just wanted to co-promote. I remember being stymied, trying to think of websites that I visited a lot. There just wasn’t a lot that was interesting and even the esoteric sites made a fairly short list. Even though the Internet is a limitless purview and real estate is free and it just can stretch in all directions infinitely, it’s funny how much that territory felt like a small pioneer town. It really did feel underpopulated.
JH: I love that answer, Michael, because it makes us sound like swashbucklers! I can’t look back at the design world and divorce it from technology. In 2003, Rob Walker wrote this piece for the New York Times Magazine called “The Guts of a New Machine.” It was all about this thing called the iPod and how we were we were still dealing with MP3 players and that we still had CD covers. So when I think about the blog roll and vulnerability and why we felt a moment had come for blogs as a community destination for design criticism and culture, I think that we saw ourselves as part of a tapestry that was about more than design—that it included technology, politics, and all these other things. I think all four of us founders were intellectually restless. My concern was that design blogs were going to only cater to the design community.
JF: So how’d the site come together? What did the first inkling of that idea look like?
JH: I think I can actually take credit for naming it. We had a long list of names—some of them were too newspapery, some of them sounded too pretentious, some of them sound- ed too design-centric—but I loved the idea that observation was at the core of what we all did, that there was this tacit commitment to a visual and cultural scrutiny that would bind us together as a community. I think a big part of the draw for starting something amongst these four friends—William Drenttel, Rick Poynor, Michael, and myself—was very much fueled by the community incentive. It’s hard to explain now how exciting it was that people were really having these multi-layered conversations in real time, through commenting.
MB: It really was you and Bill who had the original idea, right? Do you remember the moment it arose and what specifically provoked it?
JH: It was one of those things that was fueled by the fact that we lived in the middle of nowhere. Bear in mind, this was long before social media! I think particularly for Bill, who was an incredibly social person, the idea that we could be at the epicenter of a conversation that was conceivably global was just the most intoxicating concept. So whether that was driven by ego or hubris or loneliness, I can’t really say. We were also really interested in having a practice that involved writing, publishing, and engaging in a written testimony around ideas, and this idea that writing could become its own catalyst for critical engagement with the design community. When blogs came along and they had this fundamental writing component, that was a big thing.
JF: I think there were three main things that really made blogs unique. The first is tone and how there was a certain conversational style to blogging. Then there was a freedom to it. For the first time, you could write something that was one-hundred words long or ten-thou- sand words long and you weren’t paying for printing and paper. But also freedom in that you could write about any topic that you wanted to write about. The final one was this immediate feedback—this community—in that as soon as you hit “publish,” you could get a response right away. I’m curious how these things—tone, freedom, and community—influenced the early days of the site?
JH: I love that you broke it down that way, and I think you’re absolutely right. And, of course, those things branch on to other things: freedom, as you say, is about economics, but also an economics of means by which you choose to articulate things. If you think about how we traffic in social media today—in the currency of “likes”— this was not so different. We would routinely refresh our screens to see who was logging in to read what we’d written, but their responses weren’t just thumbs and emoticons. They were real content. They were actual disagreement.
I remember writing sometime in the early 2000s about David Hockney talking about photography, and the comments were about “Is photography truth?” and “‘How is evidence truth?” and “How is evidence a point of view?” This was years before a national dialogue about fake news. Some of these comments were mini essays within the essays. We had conversations where some of the comments were longer than the original post.
MB: And that was blog culture at the heart of it. And one of the things that was intoxicating about blogs—particularly for the four founders of Design Observer, all of whom had written for print publication prior to starting the site—was their immediacy. If you got the assignment to write for Eye magazine or AIGA Journal, you’d spend time working on it, you’d submit it, some edits would come back, and you’d go back and forth, and it would be approved. Then it would be in this limbo state that could last as long as weeks. You’d write something and it could be a full two months before you’d see it in print.
JH: There was no way for it to be newsworthy.
MB: But with blogs, there was this immediate feedback loop.
JH: And sometimes the response was so much better than what we wrote! I once wrote a short essay about ampersands and here’s a quote that Dmitri Siegel writes in his comment: “Was there some cabal of grizzled typographers, who decided to leave behind the Latin letterforms despite the ink-stained finger-wagging of their colleagues and the accusations of blasphemous formalism?” That’s one sentence of a three-paragraph response that is so much better than what I wrote! The comments weren’t just idle chitchat; they were really content-specific and really laden with all kinds of wisdom and originality and voice.
JF: How long into the run of the site did you realize that the community forming around the site was as important as the contributors?
JH: Early. But, of course, there was a moment of reckoning when the comments were completely usurped by social media.
MB: I would qualify that by saying the four founders each had separate, slightly different ideas about the role the comments were meant to play in response to specific articles and in terms of the overall tone of the blog. I think Rick always had this utopian idea that these Socratic conversations would happen between informed people and he did his best to instigate that. He was a very faithful commenter on articles that we would write and would always raise provocative issues that would steer the overall tone to something that was pretty enlarging.
At the same time, it was obvious that as our readership grew to the hundreds of thousands, the commenters comprised a tiny, almost infinitesimal, fraction of the number of people visiting the blog. I think I would vacillate between thinking that the function of Design Observer wasn’t to provide props for spirited comment exchanges, but it was to get ideas out there; some of which would lend themselves to the commenting format, some of which would not necessarily.
JF: This idea of a community forming around the site is really interesting. I’m thinking about when I first visited the site and found a group of people talking about things that I was really interested in. Before, there hadn’t been a way for people all over the world interested in design and visual culture to find others who also liked these things. Design Observer was this place where people could come together and talk about them. It became this social thing.
MB: What I find interesting about that is that if you think about Design Observer and the other blogs that burgeoned in the same era, there was a very specific window that opened and then closed that permitted that to happen. I think the opening of it was the spread of the Internet and the availability of blogging software like Blogger, Movable Type, and Wordpress. They created the pretext for the community. What’s more, the community for that kind of robust exchange really benefited from this sense of insularity that designers felt. I think that people who came to the site, like you, like many people in the audience, and, I dare say, like me, felt this. These were things I care about. Hardly anyone I know talks about these things and I could count the people who like to have these conversations with both hands. Then, suddenly, there’s this large community all over the world of people exchanging ideas.
One of the things that happened at the far end of that window as it was closing—or was turning into something new, let’s say— wasn’t just the rise of Twitter and other forms of social media, but also that sense of insularity—that only we care about this—vanished. In the early days of Design Observer, when we’d write something that was reacting to the news, you could do it with the assurance that you alone would be meekly pointing out that such a thing might be interesting to a few other like-minded people. I’m always reminded of the very first piece I wrote. I was so confused about how to get started and Jessica said, “Pretend you’re writing a long email to a friend who you don’t get to see very often and you think this thing is cool.” I decided to write about the New York Times changing its headline style to a single typeface family, Cheltenham. I think I wrote about it a week or two after it happened and I am sure I was the only person that wrote about it other than the New York Times, who had a box where they announced it and a little article where they described it. But it was not commented on by anyone else. If that that happened now, there would be an article in Slate, there’d be an article in Fast Company. It might even escalate to the Huffington Post with an article about what the what the New York Times’ new typography tells us about Trump or something like that! It would get there within twenty-four hours and people would just be kind of weighing in. The three of us might get emails from various reporters trying to get angles on this bit of news. It’s based on this assumption that normal people are meant to care about design now. That certainly wasn’t the assumption fifteen years ago.
To read the rest of the interview, pick up a copy of Culture is Not Always Popular: Fifteen Years of Design Observer! ✖