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Friday, 23 March 2007 04:56

Design Blogs | icon 017 | November 2004

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photo: Tom Wood

words Alex Wiltshire

Don't bother reading icon if you want to find the very latest news on product design and architecture. Our lead times are way too long.

Even the weekly design press can’t keep up with the pace and sheer number of developments going on all over the world. Print is just too slow. Only the internet provides a medium that’s reactive and interactive enough to show what’s happening in architecture and design literally today.

This fact is being exploited by a growing band of bloggers who are using expert Google skills and digital cameras to document new buildings, product designs and exhibitions. They’re having an increasing effect on the way that news is disseminated: instant information on developments on a global scale makes them a valuable source of stories for publications like ours. For example, we first found our story on Patrick Jouin’s chairs on a Dutch site called Reluct.com. By circumventing the traditional routine of PR, interview and exclusive, they’re beginning to question the current role of print media.

0lll.com, a London-based architectural photography website, regularly publishes pictures of new buildings and exhibitions – it published photos of the Libeskind exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery the day after its private view. Dezain.net, based in Japan, publishes information on updates to design and architecture websites around the world and tipped us off about Toyo Ito’s Tod’s building in Tokyo long before we saw it at the Venice architecture biennale.

The blog, or weblog, has risen to great prominence over the last couple of years. Formatted like a reverse diary, with the most recent entries at the top, it’s a platform that requires little maintenance with the use of publishing tools like Blogger and Moveable Type. Entries are usually filled with hyperlinks to other sites to help explain and cite terms and references. They also frequently link to similar blogs to form large communities of people writing about similar issues, and this, combined with a common capacity for readers to post comments to entries, allows blogs to be a powerful means for debate.

Media corporations don’t run these websites; they’re usually edited by people in their spare time for no financial gain. Eizo Okada, the editor of Dezain.net, works as research assistant in product design at the Kyoto Institute of Technology. He uses a web browser function that automatically checks for newly updated websites and magazines (including icon), but says that now many companies, architects and websites inform him directly of new developments. It’s a sign of how significant Dezain is becoming. About 5000 pages are viewed a day – 90 per cent of them by Japanese visitors – and the total is rising.

“When I started Dezain in 1999, it was very difficult to find where nice online sources on design and architecture were, and when they were updated, so I decided to make a list of these resources to help me and other people,” he says. “It is daily research and a memorandum for my study, and also what I think many people want to know.”

Dan Hill, editor of City of Sound, set up his blog for similar reasons. Hill is the design and technology manager for BBC Radio Interactive: “My blog is partly a response to the informational overload from working in an insanely fast-moving industry. It’s a time characterised by exponential rates of change in terms of culture, architecture, cities and design practice in general. City of Sound is an indexed notebook I can store concepts in and can refer back to easily. It’s a personal information tool as much as it’s a publishing device.”

Utrecht-based Joost van Brug established Reluct.com as a portfolio for his product designs (by day he is an art director for a marketing agency), and started the blog to help promote it. The blog took over, however, and he now gets around 4,500 page views a day, but because there’s no advertising Reluct.com doesn’t actually make him any money. But advertising is no guarantee of financial return: Thomas Angermann’s site, Angermann2, has earned $31 in total from his GoogleAds – from an average of 400 visitors a day.

MoCo Loco, a contemporary furniture design blog, is more commercially minded. Its Montreal-based editor, Harry Wakefield, was the general manager of Canada’s Citysearch city websites and online Yellow Pages directories when he set up MoCo Loco – in part because he saw a need for speciality directories with a unique focus. MoCo Loco attracts an average of 7,800 page views a day, though it’s still done in his spare time and only covers its running expenses.

Even established websites like Archinect.com, a large architecture resource that uses the blogging format for its news coverage, aren’t fully commercial concerns. While Archinect has “recently begun focusing more on financial sustainability with a variety of sponsorship and advertising relationships”, most of the 20-30 strong editorial team have day jobs or are students.

Paul Petrunia, Archinect’s founder and director (he’s the creative director at a web design company by day) sees the development of blogs as positive for architecture and design. “The increased information distribution from blogs helps keep the community better informed, and at a faster pace. Increased awareness can only be a good thing.” He enjoys the fact that this increased distribution also allows people outside the industry to learn about it, and be able, via the comments systems, to get involved.

Joost van Brug from Reluct.com thinks this is very valuable: “Being a designer, I know there is nothing more important than user feedback. They are the ones who buy and enjoy your products.” The same goes for journalists who are also writing blogs. Rick Poynor, ex-editor of graphic design magazine Eye, is one of the four contributors to a blog called Design Observer. “Intrinsic to the way I want to explore blogging is the possibility of feedback and interaction from readers. Writers have to have that, and I find it exhilarating. The downside is that a lot of it isn’t necessarily good – that’s the stuff that editors remove in print – but if you create the right tone you can get the good responses.” For Poynor, the element of debate is invaluable: “I felt real frustration as a journalist because print publications tend to ignore competitors, which limits the extent to which they engage in full debate. Blogs offer a breadth of discussion.”

Dominic Muren intends for his site, IDFuel, an American industrial design blog, to become a powerful forum for design by using this ability for discussion: “I hope it can become a cross-pollination point for the different design-related communities – architecture, physical science, engineering, art and social science – so that they can all be discussed and re-formed into the ‘greatest new designs of our time’.”

If blogs can offer incredibly wide distribution, great speed in reacting to new developments, enable more people to get involved in debate and discussion and encourage greater interaction between disciplines, what can the value of print be? How can we keep up? As already admitted, icon has run stories found on blogging sites, and the bloggers know it: “When I open a magazine and see something I posted weeks or months ago, I can’t help thinking that they read it at Reluct.com.”

Dan Hill, who wrote the essay on adaptive design in icon 012 that we originally saw on the Core77 website, feels the same way: “I have a conspiracy theory about journalists increasingly reprinting blog entries in the papers – I keep finding myself reading things a second time around. Difficult to prove though!”

But bloggers don’t think print is doomed; rather, they see that the relationship can be reciprocal and that both have their strengths. “I’m sure there’s still a role for traditional media,” says Hill. “The internet has allowed magazines to rediscover everything unique about the magazine format in the last five years or so – tactility, portability, finish and all that.”

Dominic Muren agrees: “The act of reading a physical magazine on a bus, in a waiting room, in your studio, and then storing it for later, then re-reading, is deeply valuable. Web-based media is inevitably one-time reading material because it’s so ephemeral.” And so does Harry Wakefield: “It will take a long time for digital media to replace print, if ever. Each has a role to play. Digital is good for immediacy. Print for the experience. Both are good for advertisers.”

In Rick Poynor’s words, blogs are still in their honeymoon period: “They have the glamour of newness and maybe they see print as being a bit comfortable.” Bloggers are still learning how best to use the format and how to communicate effectively. “I’m not sure how powerful these voices are at this point – it’s ‘early adopter’ days still,” says Dan Hill. “But they do seem to be affecting the media’s ecosystems directly now. As a designer working in new media, I’m almost tempted to ask, ‘However did we do without them?’”

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