Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

David Barringer

A conversation with David Barringer, published on Design Observer, 05.28.2009.

EL: You wrote novels and short stories before writing about graphic design. Your voice as a design critic is narrative, conversational, and literary. What moved you to take on design as a subject?

DB: The short answer is: my job and Emigre.

Years ago I worked for a small design company in Detroit. We undertook a variety of projects, from books and magazines to exhibits and a ride simulator. My main task was to write all the articles for an internal automotive magazine, but as I traveled to auto plants across the Midwest, I took on additional duties. I conducted the interviews. I photographed people on the line. I sketched layouts for the magazine. My boss typically handled these tasks, but as I grew more confident, and our prepress department grew busier with other projects, I took over just about everything for this quarterly magazine.

The graphic designers showed me how to use PageMaker and, later, InDesign, but I had to learn a great deal on my own. I subscribed to design magazines and bought graphic-design books. I never felt I was entering a broad, new field. I was driven by the narrow need to complete specific projects. I had to lay out the next issue quickly, period. I did not know enough to call what I was doing art direction. I never took a seminar. Designing the magazine was urgent and fun, a nice break from writing the articles.

In 2003 I read Emigre 65 and, later, Emigre 66, and everything changed. I had never read graphic-design essays that were this groping and personal, this broad and emotional. Who knew people argued about graphic design? (And this from a guy who lived near Cranbrook Academy during the Nineties; I had no idea.) Some essays were sloppy, some were rants, and some were case studies that depended on jargon. That’s when I felt graphic design expand beyond the realm of the small, urgent, discrete task into the world of thinking, creating, writing, and living. I’ve always been a writer first and a designer second, but those Emigre essays allowed me to see that I could best contribute to design by writing about design. Basically, I saw a white rabbit pop into a hole, and I followed. I also realized that as culture and technology evolved, design would evolve with it, so there would always be something to write about.

EL: Your book includes an argument between a design professional and a self-taught designer. As someone with informal training, do you ever feel that you are poaching on the territory of others or passing off lesser goods to your clients?

DB: No on both counts. I don’t sit on the bleachers and let other guys dance with my girl just because they took a few classes at Arthur Murray. The pressure on professional graphic designers to increase the value of their contributions is not coming from a few undegreed designers making flyers for their uncle’s car wash or painting flames on their cousin’s dirt bike. It is coming from free, massively distributed, user-friendly software templates that enable consumers to be their own designers. Consumers know a heckuva lot more than they used to, they have access to all the tools, and they’re not afraid to use them to save a few bucks. Most creative types have enough instinctive self-doubt in their own value. I think what designers need most today are business partners who know best how to value the designer’s work in the marketplace.

EL: How about writing? People don’t assume that writers go to “writing school” to learn their craft (although many writers do). Do you consider yourself a self-taught writer? Are professional writers under threat from blogging software or bootleg copies of The Elements of Style?

DB: I get paid less now for my writing than I did in 1992. Forget about education (which is still very important for writers who want to be teachers, academics, and journalists). My experience and track record, my credits and books, they count for nothing. Every day I start from scratch, like I was just born with an ergonomic keyboard and an email account. We’re under threat from every direction, and in many senses it’s a war on labor, even creative labor. I was just at a literary festival in Chicago this past week, and the topic on everyone’s mind was how to get paid for one’s writing in a world of failing magazines, failing newspapers, and failing publishers. No one knows quite what to do, and no one knows quite how to get paid. It is possible today to envision a future in which 99% of writers are not paid at all. They will have to find other jobs, seek out advertising or other support for their online ventures, regard writing as charity work to be performed in service of a niche community, or work in some model yet to be devised. I can see a model in which, say, a magazine needs a team to collaborate on its next issue. They need a designer, a photographer, and a writer for one or several articles. No one is on staff. They are all freelancers. Using an online find-and-track database, a team coordinator could assemble a team in Dallas, a team in Detroit, and a team in Dubai. Each team meets to research, photograph, and even design the print/web pages, submits the work, gets paid, and then disbands. Each freelancer then awaits the next call from a new team leader, who also may be a freelancer. It’s cheap, flexible, temporary labor leveraged by computer technology, and it can be used for editorial, business or creative outlets, for magazines, books, newspapers, online ventures, whatever.

EL: Is that a dystopian vision of the future, where everyone is a freelancer? Do you see any kind of answer for authors in self-publishing? Designers are often in awe of writers, but it seems that writers are in even worse shape than we are.

DB: It’s one possible model, clearly not the only one, and it’s not new so much as it is an extension of the present direction the freelance model is already headed. And it’s not dystopian; it’s inevitable. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence from friends in other industries, including banking and the law, that this freelance or flex-time model is growing. Larger companies are realizing the benefits of flex-time arrangements. A working parent with an advanced degree and relevant experience can work from home, be with the kids, and not have to be paid benefits like health insurance. This is what freelance writers and designers have been doing for decades. A writer recently said to me that he feels pretty strong in this new economic environment, because he never had it good in the first place. It was always tough. It’s just everyone else who is finally struggling the way he always has.

Writers and designers will obviously continue to work in a variety of ways in a variety of models. It’s a big world out there, and the market never sleeps. Writers and designers will have to be entrepreneurs or partner with entrepreneurs, creating new ways of working using collaborative software, networking sites, and all the rest. It’s a transitional time, no doubt about it. It’s a good time to try something new.

Self-publishing today depends on the development of faster, cheaper digital presses. I’ve thought about the dynamics of this a lot, namely how the lines are blurring among bookstores, publishers, and authors, with everyone technologically able to produce, market, and sell their own books and magazines. One day the digital press that can make a book will fit on a table in my office. My future grandkids will probably turn in homework in books printed at home, with a digital page in the back that plays video.

Now imagine the equivalent of the cheap digital press arising in other sectors, like, say, a factory-in-a-box that can crank out affordable, quality products in limited runs. You upload the files from home, the iFactory spits out your chair, lamp or soap dish, and a box of ten arrives on your doorstep. Suddenly, everyone is an entrepreneur, a self-publisher, a self-manufacturer, a creator and consumer both. Digital presses allow me to write and design my own books. But imagine future product designers who create, design, produce, package, and sell their own products using cheap iFactories. I think that future is what is most fascinating to consider.

EL: One of your books is available on the Kindle—We Were So Ugly We Made Beautiful Things (2003). I bought it for $1.99 and read it on Amtrak. As someone drawn to the physical fact of print, how do you feel about ebooks? Are they a promise or a threat for writers? How about for designers?

DB: Eduardo Recife of misprintedtype.com illustrated that book and designed the cover, so hopefully you were treated to his work as well. I have no ill will whatsoever for ebooks or Kindle or whatever comes next. I think it’s like watching TV on Hulu.com or music videos on an iPod or images on a View Finder. Flexibility and portability are good things.

I do think that ebooks are a step backwards, however. It’s like the fax. It’s not flexible or useful enough. Handheld computers should have greater power, and the Kindle instead has less. You should be able to access encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other searchable resources, just like we can on the computer or the iPhone. That’s where the real benefit of portable handheld units are. Who cares about downloading Twilight? I care about having access to entire online libraries of reference works, maps, and encyclopedias.

I was also caught for days in a blackout in New York back in 2003. It’s amazing how much goes out of your life when the power goes out. I learned a lesson about the value of books, as well as the ethereality of ATMs.

Some people argue that books are becoming more like art objects, released from the pressure to convey a narrative and liberated into the world of wacky dimensionality. Sure, it would be fun to attach half a beach ball on the front cover, the other half on the back cover, and inflate them both for the ultimate beach book. But I’ve seen many friends who are avid readers turn toward their shelves of books and regard them as they would a photo album of their own lives. We take the contents of books into our imaginations, and our personalities are influenced by them. Looking at the books on my shelves, I feel memories bloom, my own life come back to me. Books are triggers for remembering where we have been, and who we are. A book is like a body part, and when you die and your connection to the book is broken, the book dies a little, too.