Design and Wikipedia… work in progress or symptom of malaise?


If one wants an insight into the place of design in the contemporary culture, no better example can be found than Wikipeidia.

Wikipedia is the free internet based Encyclopedia, an eclectic jumble of information, sometimes unsourced, open to revision and amendment (although this depends upon the subject), hotly contested. While it is a genuine resource, whatever it’s limitations, for those of us who have to read and correct essays there is always that slightly depressing moment when one sees the familiar wikipedia url given as the reference to some piece of information or quotation.

And that is because the limitations referred to above are self-evident. As it is open to amendment it is prone to subjectivity, the inclusion of incorrect information, even on occasion deliberate distortion. The qualifications or credentials of those who write up entries are sometimes questionable, if not indeed non-existent. If one has any familiarity with a topic reading an entry can be a frustrating experience as one notes the misunderstandings, the omissions, the simply incorrect.

Perhaps this is doubly true of those of us with an interest in Visual Communications, Design, Material Culture or any similar areas. In most respects Design fares rather poorly on Wikipedia.

There is a grouping of entries based around Design which ranges from the cursory to the reasonably detailed. But, as with the piecemeal approach towards the creation of entries there are significant omission (although I should point out that many of those who have bothered to put material up, however lacking in depth it may be, are to some degree unsung heroes).

Go to the Designers category and you will be faced with further subcategories, “Designers by nationality”, “Embroidery designers”, “Industrial Designers” etc… and a further 39 pages which contain an eclectic mix of designers from Victor Papanek to Ruth Kedar (designer of the Google logo). And here we can see the strength and weakness of wikipedia. There is an enormous amount of information. But information requires time and effort to organise it into a functional format, time and effort which many of those who contribute to wikipedia have yet to lavish upon this area.

Alternatively go to the Graphic Design category and you’ll find an arguably even more eclectic mix which includes pages on Gestalt psychology, Page Layout and the Royal College of Art.

It’s not that any of those shouldn’t necessarily be there, just that the juxtaposition of them is unexplained.

Digging a little deeper one will find that Philip Meggs, author of the History of Graphic Design is given no entry. Nor is Jeremy Aynsley, author of A Century of Graphic Design. Ellen Lupton has a cursory one line entry which reads as follows: Ellen Lupton is a graphic designer, writer and curator. She is also director of the MFA program in graphic design at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. There is an attendant limited bibliography and a couple of links. Not much to show for a remarkable diversity of work, both practical and theoretical.

Eye magazine, arguably the single most consistently important design magazine in the visual communications area, is given an equally cursory overview:

Eye is a British graphic design magazine first published in London in 1990. The magazine calls itself “The International Review of Graphic Design” and new issues appear quarterly. The 63rd issue was published in Spring 2007 as Vol. 16, No. 63.[1]

Eye was founded by Rick Poynor, a prolific writer on graphic design and visual communication. Poynor edited the first twenty-four issues, from 1990 to 1997.

Max Bruinsma edited issues 25–32 (1997–1999). John L. Walters has been editor since 1999. Rick Poynor remains as writer at large.[2]

Frequent contributors have included Rick Poynor, Steven Heller, Robin Kinross, Richard Hollis, Ellen Lupton, J. Abbott Miller, Teal Triggs, Phil Baines, Alice Twemlow, Kerry William Purcell, Adrian Shaughnessy, Emily King and many others.

The magazine has had four publishers: Wordsearch, Emap, Quantum Publishing and Haymarket.

For information about issue publication dates and contents, see List of Eye magazine issues.

Somehow one feels that this hardly begins to engage with Eye magazine on any serious level.

Should one want to research some of the more theoretical aspects of design theory one will be disappointed.

Material culture is not given a page of it’s own on wikipedia, but instead is a subsection of the entry on Archaeological Culture. Now, in one respect this is understandable. Material Culture studies are relatively recent. But they’re not that recent. Nor is there any effort to really expand upon the meaning of the term or key texts within it’s remit.

Material culture

The term material culture refers both to the psychological role, the meaning, that all physical objects in the environment have to people in a particular culture and to the range of manufactured objects (techno-complex) that are typical within a socioculture and form an essential part of cultural identity. Human beings perceive and understand the material things around them as they have learned to from their culture. Manufactured items are especially meaningful and the relationship between object and meaning is usually what scholars of material culture study. Material culture as learned behaviour can be compared to cultural linguistics, (verbal culture). Archaeologists try to understand the general articulation of past human societies by inferring what the less permanent aspects of cultures may have been like from the material record they have left behind. Understanding aspects of the material culture of prehistoric peoples is the goal of some schools in archaeology as exemplified by cognative archaeology or contextual archaeology. Other schools of archaeology, such as processualism generally avoid attempts to study material culture as a mentalist phenomenon altogether.

Still, that’s better than the ‘history’ of Illustration which manages to compress thousands of years into 1,300 unreferenced words.

There is a self-selectivity to this. Consider the two Friedrich’s, Gary and Casper David. You may not have heard of Gary (and no, neither had I prior to putting this post together) but he is the author of a series of Marvel Comics books. The entry for him is well structured, clear, with accompanying information and books, footnotes and references. Casper David Friedrich, the 19th Century Romantic painter is similarly well covered, albeit in a short run through of his life, work and influence.

Consider by contrast English designer Peter Saville, who is poorly represented in yet another entry which eschews any structure, references or sources. Yet Saville isn’t merely a designer of imagery for iconic figures in popular music such as Joy Division and New Order, but has had a career producing imagery for the fashion industry and clients as varied as Yohji Yamamoto and Stella McCartney. It is telling that the images under the “Selected Works” heading are almost exclusively those belonging to the work he did for Factory Records.

Rather than a considered approach to a body of design work created over a life time it is the more obvious examples which are selected. And these are presented with no critique at all, no effort to consider Saville in a broader societal context, or even to consider whether Saville is particularly significant in contemporary design (perhaps a discussion for another post). And is it entirely unreasonable to suggest that it is the link into music and popular culture which informs this assessment on wikipedia rather than his role in design?

One might suggest that Gary Friedrich is better served by wikipedia because comic art is more central to our popular culture. And one might suggest correctly. Yet there is a degree of anonymity to the entry on Saville. His work, whatever it’s conceptual breadth, or visual ubiquity in the area of music culture, is concealed. So popular culture isn’t the determining factor, although it is a crucial one.

What is particularly surprising about this is that the internet is a key resource for designers. And yet, here, on it’s pre-eminent information source we find entry after entry, unstructured unreferenced, and without sufficient accompanying imagery. It’s important to note that wikipedia is not unaware of these problems as the helpful text box at the head of most of these pages indicates where citations are needed. Nor is it the ‘fault’ of wikipedia that designers, or those familiar with design in all it’s diversity, have yet to engage with it.

This speaks of a broader anonymity of designers and the design process as a part of the culture. And it is that which is reflected by wikipedia. As one of the most important resources on the internet it too can only reflect the preoccupations and concerns of those who are willing to shape it. Designers clearly are not that interested in doing so.

And beyond this is not merely a lack of information in wikipedia, but a more general lack of information on the internet about Design in all it’s areas. And beyond that again it points to – despite considerable progress in the last decade and a half – a dearth of literature in the field of Design.

Time for design historians, theorists and practioners to start hitting the keyboard?

Ciarán Swan

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