Eventually Everything: Conference Introduction

Good afternoon.

When I first began teaching in the D-Crit progam, a few people asked me what in the world was I thinking. Magazines were dying like flies. Newspapers were decimating their culture sections and firing their arts critics. The journalism world had become dog-eat-dog. As a dog with a job, did I really want to train people who might very likely replace me?

The answer was yes. Absolutely. Design is changing radically. Journalism is changing radically. But neither is disappearing. Instead, both are undergoing the same kind of transformation, detaching themselves from solid objects and surfaces and moving into an immaterial realm. We describe this realm as one of lightning-quick, electrical impulses, but that is just another way of saying that is all about intelligence. The designer who creates strategies and systems rather than products — as more and more designers do — is working in a medium of pure intelligence. And the journalist who tracks, explains and evaluates such efforts is operating in that medium, too.

We need intelligent journalists more than ever. And it has been my great fortune for the past three years to spend part of every fall semester in their company. In my D-Crit class on reporting tools, my students and I discuss the institutional and ethical challenges to design journalism, from cozy relationships between writers and their subjects to the obstructions produced by advertisers to the tyranny of the image in a world where eye candy is everything.

It is a cliché — but a heartfelt one — to say that my students regularly humble me. Take Vera Sacchetti, who graduated last year, after writing a thesis that challenged the value of contemporary journalism about social design. Vera was in an excellent position to observe this subject, having interned with me at Change Observer, the website I cofounded with Bill Drenttel that is dedicated to contemporary journalism about social design. Her skepticism was well founded, though provoking and utterly welcome.

As you’re about to observe from their presentations this afternoon, D-Crit students are deep thinkers. The students in this class awe me with their passion for their subjects. Along with the journalist’s concern for relevance, they have the burrowing habits of a typical graduate student, piling up information at the leisurely pace that an MFA education allows, so that they have achieved encyclopedic mastery. Ask Erin Routson anything about public housing. Or Barbara Eldredge anything about guns. Then sit back with a cool drink — or a pitcherful of them.

This class also impresses me with its sense of community. I met a tight group of colleagues last fall that has only grown closer through the ordeal of thesis research and writing. The ultimate mark of their collegiality was that, after months of monomaniacal devotion to their topics, they found echoes in each other’s work that formed the topics for today’s panels.

Writing in 1971, Victor Papanek urged that “design must become an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the true needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.”

Today, many designers are answering the call for creativity, cross-disciplinary approaches, research and rigor. But it is the design critic’s job to ensure that they are answering it effectively. Where designers go, critics must follow, through the airy, twitchy medium in which both are immersed. More educational programs have evolved to train design writers in this pursuit. I welcome every one of them, even if they do send me into an early retirement. And I particularly acknowledge the astonishing work of Alice Twemlow, who has added so many important facets to the conversation about contemporary design, not just by turning D-Crit into a training ground for the watchdogs and explicators of the future but also by organizing conferences like this that invite the public in, and keep our attention focused on the moment.

Finally, congratulations to the 10 graduates of this year’s class: Anna, Ann, Katya, Derrick, Erin, Cheryl, Julia, Amna, Tara, and Barbara. I am only one of your instructors and yet I dare your own parents to feel prouder of you.

It is now time for me to turn over the floor the first keynote speaker, Stuart Ewen, distinguished professor in the department of film & media studies at Hunter College, as well as a professor in history, sociology and American studies at CUNY graduate Center. He will be introducing the panel called “Calculated Nostalgia.” Stuart…

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