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The necessity for craft is equally true of another recent tendency, the “essay,”
which aims to readjust the conventional boundaries between writing and design and
allow the design to take a more active and discursive role in the articulation and framing
of the content. As a genre, such experiments are intriguing, but that doesn’t rule out
the critical appraisal of the results. A collaboration between a London-based design
educator and John Warwicker of Tomato in Emigre (still the main outlet for such
experiments) showed how the process can go awry. The piece’s claim, made near the
beginning, is that ordinary publishing formats and editorial frameworks would be
inadequate for what it has to say. The writer explains:design
I knew that it could not be constructed as a conventional interview. Tomato, and
John himself, had been instrumental in building a reputation for developing a
philosophy concerning new approaches to thinking about, design and communication.
To settle for a simple question/answer would not do. . . . We agreed
the piece should provide the “evidence” which mapped the developmental
process of discussion, through our individual and collective journeys.9
In terms of its informational content, the fourteen-page piece, constructed as a
patchwork of statements and quotations, contains little from Warwicker that is not
available elsewhere. A “simple question/answer,” skillfully conducted, might have
elicited new insights into his background and motivation.design (Anyone who imagines
there is anything simple about seeing an interview through from the formulation of
appropriate questions to its final appearance in print should try it.) But the main
problem lies not so much in the conceptual framework, which might have been made
to work, as in the unconvincing tone of the writing and the lack of critical distance
the writer brings to an undeniably timely subject. The pair meet in the Rose Garden
in London’s Holland Park, where the “tranquillity is shattered,” we are told, by the
arrival of “London’s infamous graphic design anarchist.” John—it is first-name terms
throughout—is wearing a pair of “all-essential” Arnett sunglasses, and he is in an
“upbeat and chatty mood indicating that things were going very well for him.” It
seems that for Tomato, the paragraph concludes, “everything is coming up roses.”
Even journalists who prefer to sit on the fence would have avoided a corny punch line like this.design
It is unnecessary, perhaps, to go into further stylistic analysis of this piece. A
much higher degree of writing competence is needed before such an exercise lives up
to its claim of offering forms of insight that are inaccessible—in some way that is
never properly explained by the author—to more conventional means. The brevity of
the individual text components calls for, if anything, a particularly concentrated and
specialized form of writing—almost a screenwriter’s skill. The larger question that
might be asked is whether real critical detachment is possible when a writer allows
the critical framework to be determined at the outset by the personal preferences of
the subject.design