A couple of things happened this week that got me thinking again about the relationship between design, the public realm of ideas, and academia. First, I somewhat belatedly got around to peer-reviewing a submission sent to me by an academic journal. The procedure is quite rightly supposed to be “blind” so I won’t give any details, not even of the publication. It was a curious process because every stage appeared to be automated, from the original letter generated by the editor through to the final prompt, with a week to go, that my review was due. The reviewing process was also automated: it involved answering an online questionnaire and copying my review comments into a box. It was the most contactless editorial transaction I have ever experienced. Naturally, the instant reply thanking me for my efforts showed every sign of being automatic, too. These people run a tight ship.
According to every rule of thumb I thought I’d learned about editing, this ultra-impersonal touch is not the way to do it. What a nostalgist I am! I had the idea that a bit of personal contact was a valuable thing. The shift to doing everything by emails, which were at least crafted for the recipient, was already more than enough of a comedown from talking it through on the phone or face to face. (I’m not questioning the anonymity of the reviewing itself.)
The other thing that happened was that I received a copy of the Design 2012 Cataloguefrom the academic publisher Berg, which produces books and journals, including The Design Journal, Design and Culture, and Journal of Modern Craft. Berg, owned byBloomsbury Publishing, is a big deal. Its publications are nicely designed and their presentation in the catalogue is attractively sleek. In 2014, according to a full-page announcement, Berg will publish prof emeritus Victor Margolin’s years-in-the-making, three-volume, 2,400-page The World History of Design, which promises to be a landmark in design studies. If design philosopher Tony Fry’s last volume, the tremendous, ground-breaking Design as Politics, is any guide, then his follow-up, Becoming Human by Design(due in October), could be one of the year’s must-read design books.
As I checked out other recent and forthcoming titles, covering all areas of design, I felt both exhilarated by these signs of industrious scholarship, serious thought and intellectual commitment to design, and regretful that so little of this material is likely to make it into the field’s everyday discourse, let alone the public realm. Many of these writers will be familiar names to colleagues but unknown outside academia. Their books are written for students and fellow researchers, and that’s as it should be. But if this research deals with subjects and issues of more general importance, shouldn’t it also be part of an academic’s brief to communicate these discoveries and ideas more widely? It’s striking how few of the names identified with academic writing about design — people who speak at academic conferences, write peer-reviewed papers for journals destined for libraries able to pay expensive subscriptions, and publish learned books with publishers like Berg — make any effort to seek and address wider audiences.
If academics are (or are supposed to be) first-rate thinkers, then their participation in public discussions is vital. Naturally, this requires a willingness to exchange ideas, as well as the versatility to engage in commentary, analysis and speculation outside the immediate area of one’s specialist research.
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