"Most Designers, Through No Fault of Their Own, Are Illiterate."

Or so my class was informed by a very good copyediting instructor, who I’m sure meant no especial disrespect. On some other day, I’d like to address why an editor might get this impression, but for now I’d just like to note that apparently Princeton Architectural Press shares this unflattering view.

I just finished reading Kimberly Elam’s Geometry of Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition (2001), and although I was certainly interested in this nerdalicious and very attractive book, which has color throughout and translucent! overlays! on some of the examples, I was also shocked by the chronic typos. Is the guy going to be called “Le Corbusier” or just “Corbusier”? I don’t care which, but do pick one. Is Mies van der Rohe to be shortened to “van der Rohe” or just “Mies”? Again, please choose just one. And when doing so, note that although perhaps in your head you’re on a first-name basis with the guy, in print it makes you sound like a name-dropper whom everyone avoids at parties.

I got the impression that they didn’t believe anyone would actually read the text—“It’s for designers. They’ll look only at the pictures!” I had other reactions to the book’s content—some “maybe I should try this,” for example, and some “what client would ever let you get away with this?”—but most were drowned out by the irritated harrumphing of the literate part of my brain. Harrumph.

And this is not the only design book I’ve seen that’s in such pitiful shape. Steven Heller’s Design Literacy: Understanding Graphic Design (Allworth Press, 2004) didn’t seem to have been edited at all. The problem wasn’t so much typos as that the book isn’t well written. I kept thinking, “Wait—did I doze off and miss something?” but when I read the page again, the transitions still weren’t there. Again, did they think, “Oh, the audience is designers; they won’t be able to make sense of it anyway”? So we’re supposed to seek literacy in design, but not in English? I’ll stick with English, thanks. I couldn’t make myself slog through the whole thing; it was like reading somebody’s drunken notes on napkins.

I’m picking on these two particular books because they’re handy, it’s late, and I’m tired, but there have been many other four-star-Avg.-Customer-Review design tomes that have sent my peeve-o-meter into the red. I don’t believe that designers are much more illiterate than your average nonfiction author, but some design publishers seem disinclined to put editorial resources into books by and for design professionals. Maybe it’s because they’re spending so much money on flashy stuff like translucent! overlays! and French flaps.

But then how do you explain all the butt-ugly books on design that are still poorly edited? Hmm.

3 thoughts on “"Most Designers, Through No Fault of Their Own, Are Illiterate."

  1. In the case of the Heller: I suspect it’s less that he can’t write (he can, and well), but rather that he writes too much! Guy writes like eight hundred books a year, plus magazine articles. Perhaps the pace is catching up with him.

    I didn’t notice the inconsistencies in Elam’s book, but then again, I was distracted by the pretty pictures. I mean, translucent overlays!

    I agree, though, that it’s frustrating, the assumption that designers only care about image, not content. It seems like it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: magazine and book publishers assume their audience don’t care about the text, only how it looks; this then conditions that audience to care less about the words. I do know and encounter many “designers” who are incapable of stringing a proper sentence together, which is both absurd and monstrously irritating, since we’re supposed to be in the business of effective communication here, aren’t we.

  2. Hallo, Derek. I like your blog, what there is of it—why nothing more recent?

    So, can you recommend a Steven Heller book that doesn’t suck? I had placed a bunch on my wish list but then took them all off again after determining that the one I had was crap.

    Mediabistro has been offering classes in design writing for some time (for instance), and I can’t decide whether I think this is good or not. I mean, if you’re already inclined to write about design professionally, it will probably help to take a class on the subject, but on the other hand, I’m not sure I’d want to encourage a lot of designers to start writing for magazines if they don’t already have a habit of writing in general. For the same reason I get nervous when authors want to design their own books. Some people are extremely good at both, obviously, and it’s a centuries-old tradition, blah, blah, blah, but others just think crossing over to one or the other is easy because they have no idea what they’re doing.

    I’m probably being a snob.

  3. Hallo, India! Yes, my blog’s fallen into disrepair. Partly I got fed up with battling the spam, partly I was too busy for the longest time to maintain it. I was managing a busy independent bookshop; a few months back I went back to school for graphic design, hoping eventually to get into book design, so finding your blog (via Kottke, like everyone else) is pretty dang exciting over at this end. I’m only just now getting more organized – installed the newest version of wordpress, etc. Stay tuned for more, as they say.

    Heller’s books: to come clean, I’ve never made it through one. His “Education of a…” books are all right, what I’ve read of them. I always enjoy his shorter pieces, though – maybe he’s just better suited to the magazine form? The sheer number of things he writes/edits/contributes to is a bit overwhelming. I’ve maybe just been lucky: on reflection I don’t see how someone with that prodigious output could be anything but uneven.

    You’re right, encouraging designers to start writing for mags if they’re not already so inclined is ill-advised; writing is a craft, like any other, and skill at design does not translate into writing skill (witness Chip Kidd’s Cheese Monkeys – which is also a good example of why authors shouldn’t design their own books!). But I think teaching design writing at the postsecondary level would be really helpful, in terms of helping people speak intelligently about their own work, and that of others, not to mention help with communicating with clients, etc. Any attempt to raise the level of discourse couldn’t hurt. (Famous last words, I know.)

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