Autumn 2019

In search of dialogue

Culture is Not Always Popular: Fifteen Years of Design Observer

Edited by Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand, with Jarrett Fuller. Design by Twenty-Six Design. MIT Press, $39.95, £30

The Design Observer (DO) blog was launched in 2003 by William Drenttel, Jessica Helfand, Michael Bierut and Rick Poynor, apparently with a mission no more clearly defined than to publish ‘writings about design and culture’. By last year, the site had posted 6700 articles by 900 authors and generated 30,000 comments, producing a legacy that, by the editors’ admission, would be impossible to capture in book form. Instead of an ‘authorised history’, they suggest that Culture is Not Always Popular: Fifteen Years of Design Observer should be considered ‘a combination of primer, celebration, and survey, and – perhaps – valediction to a certain moment on the internet’. Judging by the fading visitor interaction with the comments section on DO, that ‘moment’ appears to have been a time when an independent website could facilitate in-depth conversations about design (largely) without the risk of them degenerating into the abusive exchanges that have come to pervade the now dominant forms of social media, to which much design commentary has now moved. Could it be that, in its early incarnation, DO made good on the promise of the internet as a space for genuine dialogue – and if that moment has passed, where might those interested in reading and discussing design criticism congregate now?


Top. Cover of Culture is Not Always Popular: Fifteen Years of Design Observer. Design by Twenty-Six Design.

J. P. Hartnett designer, writer, lecturer, London

Read the full version in Eye no. 99 vol. 25, 2019


Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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