Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Communication Arts is Out of Touch

September 13, 2007

I confess I am a bonafide ’zineophile. I purchase and read somewhere between 10 and 17 magazines each month; many of them costing upwards of $30 an issue. Some might say that I have a problem, but it’s one with which I’m perfectly happy. For you kids born in the digital age, I’m talking about the paper kind of magazine; the kind you hold in your hand or put on a table and turn the pages in order to read. You know, real magazines.

(This means that I generally spend somewhere around 30 hours each month reading magazine articles. This is in addition to the books (fiction, non-fiction, instructive, etc…), online articles and news I read daily. )

The magazines I read typically fall into two categories: design-related and business-related. I regularly pick up a few, like Snow Board Magazine and Anthem, that have nothing to do with either of these two categories, but I purchase them for the quality of their own design and craft. These are magnificently designed and produced publications, worthy of study.

Among the design magazines I purchase, there is one that is becoming increasingly irrelevant and, well, just ridiculously out of touch with a large segment of the visual communications world. Of course I’ve written before about the inept, myopic, and blatantly partisan qualities of Communication Arts magazine and the partisan organization that uses this publication as its mouthpiece. Having touched on that topic before I would ordinarily be happy to not revisit it. But the latest issue of Communication Arts just begs to be taken to task.

It seems that columnists for Communication Arts have been asleep for months, or in some cases years.

The Sept/Oct issue of Communication Arts is the publication’s 13th interactive annual, showcasing what its lineup of judges deems to be the latest “winning” websites. It is worth noting that of the 33 websites featured, 32 of them are Flash sites. The lone non-flash website is a horribly marked-up site for Getty Images that “Demonstrates the power of static images can have on the Internet and redefines the way we look at the ‘boundaries’ of a Web site.” If only the Web craft for the site could have been better than grade school quality (yes, even my 10-year old son knows to include a DOCTYPE declaration).

But I’m really not writing to ridicule the publication’s choices for what constitutes a winning website. Rather, I’m writing to take CA to task for the continuing and increasingly irrelevant quality of its columns. Yes, I will write CA about this, but my hope is that if you agree that they’ve completely lost touch with modern designers, you might be compelled to write them, too.

The Rip Van Winkle effect

It seems that columnists for Communication Arts have been asleep for months, or in some cases years. For instance, columnist Kathleen Maher has written a conference review of the 2007 SXSW conference. Aside from spelling Mark Boulton’s name wrong, she makes no grave errors in the generally un-compelling piece. It’s clear, however, that she’s writing for people who have no idea what SXSW is or why it is worth writing about. The main problem for me, however, is the fact that she’s about 6 months late. The conference took place in March of this year. What she’s got here is not news for anyone who has any connection with the interactive design community.

And that’s part of my point. The timing, character, and content of the column clearly indicate that the target audience of CA has no connection or familiarity with interactive design or its culture. It makes one wonder why the publication chooses to do an interactive annual each year. Perhaps to show readers how some kids are playing at design with this new fangled contraption, called the Intarweb.

Then Maria Piscopo writes in her Freelance column about how a “blog” (and she goes on to explain what that is) can actually be a marketing tool for a business or for an independent contractor. Yes, I know, it’s a novel idea! Her column is little more than quotes from design and business professionals who use their own blogs to fuel their businesses. Perhaps this is because Maria is not all that acquainted with “blogs” and how they can be effective in that regard. I don’t know, I’m just speculating here.

Also in the Rip Van Winkle crowd is Sam McMillan. He writes for this issue’s Emerging Media column. His tip about emerging media is that there’s this thing called Second Life and it’s on the Intarweb, too. Apparently, CA readers missed the last 4 years of the media’s and the public’s (and therefore, advertising’s) fascination with Second Life. Sam McMillan thinks so, anyway.

Obviously, the common thread through this silly fabric is that CA is seemingly oblivious to how out of touch with modern designers the publication is. At the very least, the contributors are anywhere between 6 months to 4 years behind what every designer I’ve met knows, understands, and uses daily. This is a poor way for a respected and expensive magazine to serve its audience.

The in-crowd effect

According to Wendy Richmond, her Design Culture column, “Confessions of a Knee-Jerk Liberal” needn’t be about design because designer is just another word for liberal. So she’s content to simply write a liberal culture article and CA is content to publish it. For after all, we designers are all on the same team, if you know what I mean. Right?

In the end, I fully believe the latter. CA is, by their published words and behavior, not interested in the whole of the visual communications world.

Slant aside, Wendy’s sentiments are largely positive. In the end she resolves to “hope to look to the left and right of my position, and take a stand that comes form knowing instead of following.” Admirable, even if she acknowledges that she does not make a practice of this habit. But Wendy’s values and sentiments aside, also, I take issue with this article being published in the Design Culture column, for it has nothing to do with design. Why is it here?

And no, it is not as if it would satisfy that the column were entitled “Confessions of a Knee-Jerk Conservative.” The values expressed are not the relevant issue. They’re simply expressed in the wrong column. Further, the fact that CA is comfortable publishing this article in the Design Culture column clearly demonstrates its own ideals about designers and the design culture.

Communication Arts has chosen sides. It is a liberal publication as much as it is a design publication. And that’s fine. It is, however, ironic that Wendy Richmond expresses in her in purposefully mis-categorized article a hope to which CA is perfectly happy to offer the back of its hand. Or perhaps they have thought about it and are more interested in design clique than in design culture.

In the end, I fully believe the latter. CA is, by their published words and behavior, not interested in the whole of the visual communications world. They’re content to pay only fractional attention to the world outside of their strongly liberal, technophobic, old guard, print-centric, myopic cocoon. And that’s fine, too. But they should change the name of their publication to something else. Maybe Luddite Arts or Design Clique magazine.

They’ve lost touch with the design world at large. As the self-professed leading trade journal for visual communications, their current path is both embarrassing and irresponsible. If you otherwise enjoy Communication Arts, you might want to point this out to them.