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Book of the Month: Impact – interview with Teal Triggs

Over the last few weeks we’ve been posting to Instagram some of the great cover designs that feature in Impact 1.0: Design magazines, journals and periodicals [1922–73] and its sister volume Impact 2.0 [1974–2016]. As our Book of the Month, we’re happy to share Adrian Shaughnessy’s interview with academic and writer Teal Triggs, which appears in volume 1.0. Here, Teal discusses the differences between UK and US design magazines, the impact of online on design journalism and how the design press has represented the work of female designers.

Adrian Shaughnessy: What was the first design publication that caught your eye?

Teal Triggs: It would have been Domus (1928–present, Italy) in the late 1960s when I couldn’t have been more than ten years old. My dad was a graphic designer and I distinctly remember the Italian magazine stacked neatly on the living room floor next to his favourite Eames reading chair. The covers attracted my attention – the use of bold graphics, photographic detailing and playful illustrations. By the 1980s, when Ettore Sottsass took over as editor and Postmodernism became de rigeur, I was hooked.


AS: As an American designer and writer who has lived in the UK for many years, what is the main difference – if any – between USA and UK design publications?

TT: I guess their editorial emphasis. In recent history, mainstream USA design magazines such as Communication Arts (1959–present, USA), Print (1940– present, USA), I.D. (1954–2009, USA) and How (1985–present, USA), have tended to operate as showcases for trade or commercial design. Whereas in the UK, design publications such as Design (1949–99, UK), Blueprint (1983–present, UK) and Eye (1990–present, UK) have traditionally had a strong sense of the historical, cultural and social contexts in which design operates. Trade magazines such Portfolio (1949–51, USA) and Word and Image (1985–present, UK) were notable exceptions.


Other exceptions, of course, include periodicals that were key to influencing new ways of thinking about graphic design, but also impacted on the visual language of design: in the USA, there was Wet (1976–81), Avant-garde (1968–71), Interview (1969–present), Spy (1986–99), Emigre (1984–2005), Beach Culture (1989–91), Ray Gun (1992–2000), and so forth. And in the UK, popular culture and lifestyle magazines such as i-D (1980–present) and The Face (1980–2004) influenced a generation of designers internationally.

From my experience in both countries, publications that have been mouthpieces for professional design organisations have tended to provide platforms for writing and criticism which encouraged authors to look differently at design and often be more experimental in how they approached their subjects: for example, the AIGA Journal for Graphic Design (1947–present, USA), Icographic (1971–78, UK), Circular (1993–present, UK) and Typographic (1969–present, UK), amongst others. Some of the same authors writing in the UK would also write for US publications, providing readers with cross-cultural design perspectives.

AS: What is the role of design journalism and critical writing at a time when everything can be seen free online?

TT: The role of design journalism and critical writing is even more crucial now that content is readily available online. However, the role of the critic as an arbiter of taste has shifted to that of a navigator – leading us through a plethora of information that tells us what to think about design. There is always a space for critical writing to keep the profession from being too introspective. And in order to be critical you need to be informed and alert to what is going on. Today everybody is a critic – but not everybody can be a good critic.

I would suggest that more broadly, the role of the design magazine as a space for debate is losing its position as a place where designers might question and critically engage with the profession. Debates are moving online, either through Twitter or personal blogs and websites, or emerging in hybrid print and digital forms with alternative, independent small press magazines produced and edited by designers. That New Design Smell (2011–present, Canada), produced by Michèle Champagne, and Modes of Criticism (2015–present, UK/ Portugal), by Francisco Laranjo, are cases in point.

AS: How have design journals influenced your role as an educator and academic research leader?

TT: As an educator it’s important to help our students engage with current research in the field, but also to be able to position their practice within a historical and theoretical framework. Academic journals are important as forums for inquiry and critical discourse. Journals inform and shape our field professionally and intellectually and, in doing so, help establish a future for the study of design.

Visible Language (1967–present, USA) – edited until recently by Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl – was an early academic design research journal, which influenced my thinking about the potential for design and typographic scholarly research. In particular, an issue from 1978 on the theme ‘French Currents of the Letter’, designed by four graduate students from Cranbrook Academy of Art – Richard Kerr, Alice Hecht, Jane Kosstrin and Herbert Thompson, with the then co-Chair of Design, Katherine McCoy. This printed issue clearly evidenced the potential for how research and typographic experimentation could be integrated into an academic space.

Whilst academic publishers have tended to become more conservative in their approach to the design of journals (in part fuelled by constraints of online publishing), the introduction of the visual essay has been a regular feature that my co-editors and I have used on the journal Visual Communication (2002–present, UK) to encourage alternative formats for disseminating visual research.

Equally, in my role as Editor-in-Chief of Communication Design (2009–present, UK), we are seeking to provide new and relevant platforms for emerging researchers in graphic and interdisciplinary design practice: for example, the introduction of the specialist archive section and the visual essay format complement more conventional forms of academic writing. My involvement in these and other journals has been important in raising my awareness about new research in the field, which ultimately informs the way that I teach and support students in their learning.

AS: You have a strong interest in the role of women in design. How have design journals advanced – or hindered – the cause of a feminist graphic design culture?

TT: Design journals merely reflect the status quo of its editors and readers. As such, the absence of coverage by the design press of the work of women designers is nothing new. An identifiable male-orientated canon for graphic design is the result of who and how the press has historically covered the field. The cause of a feminist design culture has been hindered by the continual perpetuation of the gaps in raising awareness about women working in the field.

Occasionally, however, it must be said that design magazines address the issues head on. Notable examples include Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s seminal essay published in Icographic 6 (1973), which was one of the early essays to raise awareness about a feminist graphic design culture.

Later in the 1990s and early 2000s design publications such as Emigre and Eye gave pages over to an emerging discourse around the canon in design, with key writings by Ellen Lupton, Laurie Haycock Makela, Liz Farrelly, Martha Scotford, Bridget Wilkins and the Women’s Design+Research Unit (WD+RU). Yet, even today, most of the awareness-raising is taking place online.

Teal Triggs is Associate Dean in the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art. As an editor, academic and writer, her work focuses on graphic design history, feminism in visual communication and design criticism. This interview appears in Impact 1.0: Design magazines, journals and periodicals [1922–73], available now from the Unit shop. Impact volumes 1.0 and 2.0 are also available together as a bundle for £50.00, here.