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HOW Conference: Is Design Blogging Good for You?

Daily Candy: Is blogging good for you?

Given my abject lack of experience with design and design blogs, I went to the design blogging panel (Daily Candy: Is Blogging Good for You, Or Is It Just Causing Cavities?) hoping to absorb some knowledge from people who know more about this stuff than I do. The panelists included Steven Heller (design writer and author of something like 95 books) Pentagram associate and Speak Up founder Armin Vit, Patric King (who designed most of the more recently launched Gawker media sites), Chicago Tribune media critic Steve Rhodes and Winterhouse partner and Design Observer co-founder William Drenttel.

Discussed in the talk: the inevitable “what’s a blog?” debate, that controversial Barbara Kruger thread from Design Observer a few weeks back, to value of comments, and long form writing on the web.

My rough notes and thoughts on the discussion:

Steven Heller: “This is a very serious group, I cant tell, so we’re going to talk blog talk…What constitutes a blog? What is the common trait that is bloggish? What do design blogs do for the design field?…” Heller quote my ex-boss, Nick Denton, as saying that blogs are designed to tear things down, not to build them up. “[Blogging's] popularity is unnerving because it’s a radical reformation of how criticism is made. What is a blog?”

Steve Rhodes: “I doubt you’ll be able to come up with a singular definition. It has to have a personal element from the creator and some sort of creativity.” Rhodes says he reads mostly political blogs and isn’t sure if they’re really blogs. “Is kausfiles a blog? Is Talking Points Memo a blog or not?” He’s not sure. [Ed.—I have trouble thinking of them as anything but blogs.]

Heller: Is Design Observer a blog?

Bill Drenttel: “I think what makes something a blog goes back to the software. The software basically allowed people to self-publish online. Secondly, it allowed for people to comment. It was basically the commenting function that created a sense of community. When we talk about the blogs we all run, they’re on a different level, but that doesn’t explain why there are 11 million blogs out there.”

Patric King: Patric says it’s the reverse chronological order, software. “Some of the earliest blogs I started reading—like robot wisdom—were just a list of links.” And when people started putting comments into their blogs, he adds, they were compared to bulletin boards.


Armin Vit: “The one thing that they all have in common is the back end technology.” Vit mentions that commenting functions are doing more for the design community than, say, UnBeige, which is just ‘hey, look at this, and a link.’” [Ed.—Ouch. But that's a totally valid criticism, and I suppose "bad blog" is easier to improve than "invisible blog no one knows about." We'd like to make UnBeige more useful to the design community, and I'm not entirely sure what that means at this point. I'm at this conference more because I don't know much about design than because I do. So if any of you UnBeige readers have suggestions, do send them in. Tell us what you want to see more of and less of. And while I'm add it, we're looking for a new permanent UnBeige contributor. If you've read this far into the post, I assume you're interested in design blogging. Submit resumes and URLs to unbeige@mediabistro.com. ]

Vit talks about a bit about Speak Up. He says he built the traffic by emailing people out of the blue and adding them to his subscription list and from referrals from other blogs.

Drenttel: (Heller asks about the impetus for starting Design Observer. “It was started by four writers. If there was an idea, it was that all of us are writers. Rick Poyner is a professional writer. The three other of us don’t make a living off of it. DO was conceived less around community and more as a publishing venture to publish our writings. None of us could afford the time to do this alone.” Drenttel points out that it added to four essays a week or16 essays a month, and that’s a lot of content. Everyone agreed to do it “because we wanted to do it together.” Michael Beirut had written before, but not every week, at that level of commitment.

King: mentions that he was excited about the launches of Speak Up, and Design Observer. “I was thrilled because I had never seen traditional design critics and writers would start coming online and publishing their work.”

The discussion turns to comments and community:

Vit: One of the better discussions on Speak Up: a thread about UPS rebranding its logo “Nobody had a clue what FutureBrand had done, the parameters of the project, but all of a sudden all this knowledge that people had” manifested itself.

Hellers asks about DO and comments.

Drenttel: “Well, I think on some levels, the site has become self-fulfilling. You earn what you get. DO was not created to create a community. I think DO could be a really great site if we took all the comments off. Maybe one out of 10 posts that have serious numbers of comments would you say that was really interesting. If something’s off topic—a recent designer committed suicide and it was removed immediately because that wasn’t the appropriate place for that news to be displayed. Early on we published a statement that said don’t come here and be nasty, don’t be negative. Have a healthy regard for others. [Don't come here] if you’re going to write 6,000 words.” But, says Drenttel, “We don’t get that many that just don’t belong there.” He mentions that there’s a tremendous focus on the quality of writing and that makes a difference.

Heller asks about blogging credibility, blogging vs. mainstream media.

Steve Rhodes: I think the comment about blogs tearing things down instead of building things up isn’t necessarily what mainstream media doesn’t do.

Heller: says what bugs him about blogs, is that they’re not about work.

King: agrees that more work should be talked about, but the web is a reading medium, it’s more about investigating things.

Vit: talks a bit about how Speak Up has gotten more visual and says that it’s more or less organic.

Heller: [to Drenttel] on anonymous commenting on DO: “How do you feel about people who express themselves critically and you can’t tell what they do…do you want more credentials before they speak up?”

Drenttel: “Well, there’s a lot of people who comment. If someone comes in and makes a long comment and signs it JC, you have no idea who you’re talking to. The anonymity’s cool for the commenter [but not for us].” Drenttel brings up a recent case where Michael Beirut talked about a student who came in with a lot of work that looked like Barbara Kruger. “And there was a comment early on that turned into a huge discussion.”

King: “that was a really weird discussion.

Apparently, there was some question about who the student was and somebody did try to google the name and it turned into some small conspiracy theory.

Heller: “conspiracy theories start on the web.”

Rhodes: argues that credentials are not important because the value of blogging is that arguments stand or fall on their own merit, regardless of who the speaker is.

Drenttel: “It’s just an interesting [situation]. The goal of my site is not to create a community. Any given week we have 95,000 site visits. We have about 300 comments and of those 300, you’re talking 100 commenting. We get about 65,000 unique readers a month,” which he later points out is a higher readership than any design magazine in the world.

Vit: says he moderates comments.

Drenttel: “The immediacy of [blogging] makes one want to have comments. [But] I don’t care about the comments. I care about how many other sites link to it and pick it up.”

King: “but your commenting is really good, and it’s always really good.”

Drenttel: “There are people who I’ve never heard of before who are now members of the community” and also contribute to Speak Up. He says it’s interesting because their voice is different when they’re writing on Speak Up.

Heller asks the panelists about what they think of mainstream media using blogs to recruit new writers.

Rhodes: says he sees a lot of talent out there among people who are writing for blogs but even with newspaper struggling, they’re not ending up in newspapers.

Drenttel: says there’s something about blogging it every week—the frequency and the need to generate output—that turns you into a writer.

King: “They’re becoming aspirational. There are people who are starting new blogs because they want to become writers.” He talks about Choire Sicha as an example. “Nick’s [Denton] favorite thing to do is to poke holes in the establishment.” [Ed.—ha! No argument there.] King says Denton’s never had a business plan. [Ed.—well, slight argument there. When we launched Gawker in December of '02, there were definite target advertisers in mind.] “Gawker doesn’t care as much about the deals that were being made in Manhattan,” as much as if something interesting happens while the deal is being made.

Vit: says he doesn’t see a commercial business model for Speak Up.

Drenttel: “It’s very hard for me to request a piece from [a well known writer] if we have ads on the site. I just got a Robert frost poem from the estate for free, because we have no income.”

Back to the comments discussion…

Drenttel: “I think it would be a better model for DO if we had full-time people. Comments don’t get posted live. They get posted then they get edited… We have a lot of international readers. I went into a post that Jessica wrote and put “US” in front of “CBS” because I don’t know that that means the same thing.”

Long form vs. short form:

Drenttel: Rick Poyner says he likes short form better. Lawrence Wexler says there’s no place anymore for long form journalism.

There’s some short discussion of grassroots marketing via blogs, which everyone agrees is difficult, if not impossible to do. King says that Gawker branded blogs (i.e., the custom blog they did for John Waters’ “Low Down Dirty Shame” did okay, but there’s some uneasiness when they launch blogs with sponsors, and that the Jalopnik editor did a few negative posts about Audi just to prove they weren’t conflicted.)

Drenttel: says he’s been using blogs as intranet/project management tool, and sets up a new one for each client.

On responsibility of bloggers to have journalistic standards;

Drenttel: says he reported that the Aspen design conference was going to be cancelled and he had three separate sources, but they were pissed that he wrote about it. “They were even more pissed when the local newspaper in Aspen picked it up,” he says.

Heller: talks about the power of Google and what happens when people blog inaccurate information. Heller says he was Googling himself and found a site where “someone was accusing me of being a right winger—which cut me to the heart, and I wasn’t going to respond but when you find these things, they become the record.”

Vit: “Google is a powerful tool and its scary. It’s all about having a little bit of common sense and good karma.”

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