Tutorial 14th July 2011

Today I met with Teal Triggs, Course Director of MA Design Writing Criticism and author of the recently published Fanzines. I'd been keen to talk with Teal because of her involvement and enthusiasm for writing as part of design education - and through recommendations by various people. I'd also been looking at the MA Design Writing Criticism course website where I'd found some really interesting projects. It seems that food and eating are a big feature of the curriculum of the course; seminars often involve sharing food and the group attend cookery courses establish the idea of making and collaborative practice. Teal had invited me to a seminar last week, organised by students on the course, including Sarah Handelman who has several blogs around food, and with contributions from Jake Tilson and Love Da Pop. It was a great seminar and I enjoyed drinking beer and eating Japanese rice crackers whilst listening and asking questions.

I began our conversation today by explaining why I had initially contacted Teal and bringing her up to date with my progress so far. Writing is a major part of the MA Graphic Design at LCC. I've written texts before but I'm more familiar with copy-editing - I quite like to have something to react to, so the first essay that I wrote last year was somewhat daunting. Luckily, the course is very well structured so by the time I came to write the essay, I already had a position (naive, but still a position) and a set of references that I was able to structure into a (hopefully) persuasive argument. Writing the essay gave me confidence to continue writing which is just as well, as critical reflection and report writing is a major component of the course. As part of my final major project I've been looking at cook books. I decided that I wanted to write about the books that I had analysed because one of the main reasons for coming on the course is to be able to articulate more clearly what I think is going on in design(s) - to do this I think you need a good grasp of language and writing, for me, seems to be a good way of ordering thoughts.

I had sent Teal a copy of the text that I had written about John Pawson and Annie Bell's cook book Living and Eating. I wanted to get some feedback - not necessarily whether it was good or bad writing - but whether it was doing what I wanted it to do: which is to articulate what the design of the book is doing - how the typography instructs or directs the reader; how it establishes the brand or authorial voice; and how it addresses the audience. I explained my methodology, informed by Gillian Rose and by Cal Swann, which is to use the same structure to analyse each book; starting with the cover - looking at the dominant elements etc; noting the typefaces, the colours; and all the details that make the cover distinct from other covers before looking at the inside with the same attention to detail. Each 'review' then finishes with an overview which takes on a much more subjective position.

Teal asked me if I'd considered the tone of my writing; what was my voice? I explained that these texts had essentially been written for myself, as a way of gaining a greater understanding of design but, because I had posted them on a blog, they no longer were private texts. Aside from the problem of the distinct and over-familiar tone of voice that permeates many blogs, I had made a decision to make them public and there was an awareness that someone might read them, therefore they needed to be finished to a level that I felt comfortable with.

Teal then asked me whose writing that I admired. I really like
Catherine McDermott's and Jon Wozencroft's writings. The two books that Wozencroft wrote about Neville Brody explain, in an accessible manner, Brody's practice - in simple terms, Wozencroft writes that Brody wanted to do XYZ so he did ABC: cause and effect. I also like Robin Kinross's writings - for his directness and for the fact that he has a position and he sticks to it. You could say the same about John Kane. Essentially, I like to read texts that explain, without becoming too self-consciously theoretical (i.e. resorting to languages outside of graphic design), how a design is functioning, what it's transmitting.

Teal's next question was
who was I writing for and why? This was quite difficult. I had considered that there might be an audience and I had a vague idea who that might be but, in reality, the texts were written for me and the only 'real' audience I had thought about other than the non-specific audience of the 'blogosphere' is the tutors who will read these texts when they form part of my final major project hand-in. Teal suggested that a way forward could be to write a profile of my intended readership; this was an exercise that the MA Design Writing Criticism course took part in - a fun exercise and usually with constructive results.

We then had a look at the text I had written about Living and Eating. Teal asked me what I wanted to do with the text, where I wanted to take it. I explained that beyond making it into a book as part of my hand-in, I hadn't thought any further. She asked me if I would change anything for the book. I'd actually been thinking, when I re-read some of the texts before our meeting, that I would get rid of a lot of the detail: the details served a purpose at the time but, in terms of an engaging piece of writing, the interest was in the more subjective overview.

Teal offered some very constructive advice about how the texts could be improved: she suggested that I added a paragraph in front of the first level of detail, an introduction that sets up my position and gives a taster of what's to come. She agreed that some of the technical details could disappear. She thought that 'Interior', with its connotations of the domestic interior, was the wrong word to describe the inside of the book and that 'Inside the recipe' or some play on words might be better.

I acknowledged that 'Overview' was not right, coming at the end of the text, 'Conclusion' might be better but sounded too definite. Teal suggested that I preface this section with a short sentence that explained that, after looking at the detail of the book, these were my conclusions and observations, summing up what I'd set out in the opening paragraph.

This was all useful advice and I can see that, with a little tweaking, these texts will be so much more engaging to read - the danger is, at the moment, that you might lose the reader after the first few sentences - you need to let the reader know where you are going.

We then talked a bit more about cook books. I talked about my interest in them and how I'd been been looking at how the graphic language of the books of Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson had changed as the writers had become personalities: there is a shift from books that are almost purely typographic in the early stages of both writers' careers to lavish, visually led productions as they become famous. Teal wondered if there was any mileage doing a close reading of the language found in these books - what was the occurrence of certain words in these books? How does the language inform the typography? Teal thought that it might be interesting to take just one recipe, boiling an egg for example, and look at how language - and, by extension, typography - can explain this in different ways.

We talked further about the work I had done so far and about the problems that I have had with finding an audience. Teal said that the best audience was the one that you knew best - which is true, but in this instance, I think I need to think about another audience to remove me from my design comfort zone and push the project in another direction. I showed Teal the books I have made so far and she agreed that it could - and should - be developed further; she disputed my idea of cooking as a linear activity and suggested that it's perhaps more sequential, I think this could be an interesting way to move forward and ties in with the recent research I have been doing looking at diagrams, flowcharts, manuals etc.

It was interesting to have a different perspective on my work and to be made to think about questions that I had not considered. The conversation raised more questions than answers and, although it's daunting that there is so much to do - thinking, reading, writing and making - I left feeling a bit more on track.

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