Eugenia Bell is executive editor of Design Observer, today’s leading international design blog. From 2007 to 2014, she was the design editor of frieze and her writing has also appeared in Artforum, Bookforum, New York, and Design Observer. She is a former publications and design studio manager at the Walker Art Center (2000–2001).
Hi. A lot of you may not know Design Observer or read it religiously, so I’m going to give a little bit of history about how we came about and who we are and what we do before I kind of get into the meat of the conversation.
In 2003, Michael Bierut, Bill Drenttel, Jessica Helfand, and Rick Poyner launched a blog at designobserver.com. They were interested in creating a space for independent, provocative, and serious conversation about design and the larger world and to bring that conversation to an audience that reached beyond the design community.
By conversation, led by four prominent graphic designers was open to everybody. Experienced professionals, curious students, sophisticated readers everywhere. We had a rich comment section that no doubt was visited by the worst tendency of the commenting world, but was also a legitimate and rich conversation in itself. Design Observer quickly earned and has sustained a reputation as the leading online magazine covering design. Its writers include Jessica and Michael, the prolific Steven Heller, Adrian Shaughnessy, Eric Spiekermann, Rob Walker (who many of you probably know for his work from Slate or Medium) writes for us from Savannah. Paola Antonelli, the poet Megan O’Rourke, the sound architect Nick Sowers, and the filmmakers Errol Morris have all written for Design Observer. Despite, or as a direct result of the success of this inclusionary approach over the course of the decade Design Observer expanded to broader topics. Ranging from citizen journalism to global healthcare, which was of special interest to our late founder, Bill Drenttel.
A grant in 2009 from the Rockefeller Foundation allowed us to spend two years covering social impact and design industry. More recently, very recently, I’ve only been with Design Observer for about nine months, we enter add two-year publishing initiative with the online platform Blurb, which some of you may know about and may even use. We’ve launched a publishing in print called Observer Additions, which will collect essays from the website and also generate new content. We have established an online platform for international BFA and MFA, called the Thesis Book Project, and we hosted our inaugural conference last February on design and sound, this is an endeavor we hope will become an annual event.
To a certain extent Design Observer’s original mission has been completely fulfilled and to go by social media numbers if people care that audience has been widely reached. We have 800,000 Twitter followers, over 500,000 Facebook followers and a million subscribers to our podcast on Soundcloud. We’ve been nominated numerous times for Webby Awards and with a core staff of five people, only 4 of us are part-time. Only one full-time person, I think it’s fair to say we’ve accomplished a great deal and continue to do so. Yet, unlike the cultural climate that characterized Design Observer in the early years, design coverage is now everywhere.
Conversation about design has emerged from its insular bubble to become a central concern and how we talk about culture, education, technology, business, let alone the lifestyle, shelter, and food coverage that has always lived at the margins of increasingly 24-hour design news cycle can be full of highly visual pieces that are free of commentary and ideas. In this new environment of abundance, 12 years after its initial launch, Design Observer is still dedicated to its original initiatives of inclusion, while amplifying designs, critical signals in a noisy world.
We are elevating the conversation about design on and off the Internet now. From traditional publishing ventures like the books I just mentioned and also a magazine that we will be launching this summer, to alternative projects like our podcast that we already do, and videos. And some face to face encounters like seminars, our conference and salons like the ones that we’ll be doing at AIGA national conference this fall. We are not afraid to ask tough questions. Why do you only “like” an announcement of a friend or family member on Facebook? Nor do we shy away from typical topics, like is Lululemon inherently antifeminist and why do cities reject the homeless? We’re eager to debate and disagree and we think there’s a role for humor, inquiry, scrutiny, for art, commerce, politics, and film.
As design becomes not only a common cultural currency, but a truly international language, we’re committed to extending our reach even more broadly than we already have. While sticking to our core competencies as educators, and practitioners and editors, and most importantly as global ambassadors for design, Design Observer is positioned at the nexus of the cultural and the critical, the social and the commercial, like many of the publications and websites present here today probably. So this might be a natural lead-in into talking a little bit about financial stuff.
I’ll keep it brief because I think we’ve agreed that a lot of the meat of this discussion is really going to happen in our panel discussion and from questions from you guys. But I will tell you what I can here. It’s probably a bit of a stretch to suggest that Design Observer operates on a really sophisticated financial or business model because we don’t and we never have. We are kind of in this foggy middle ground where we’re not a for-profit, we wish we were, but we’re not a 501(c)(3), either, though we have a component of the Design Observer group which is a foundation that has a writing award. For some time early on, the site relied on really goodwill, and the urgent desire of contributors and our founding editors to expose and expand the dialogue around design and that often meant not paying people, including me in the early days.
In the first few years Design Observer has this modest stipend from the school of visual arts from New York and it helped cover some operating costs and computers, and programming, and a little bit of contributor’s fees.
That wasn’t contingent on much, but we’d already had an established relationship with the school of visual arts because a lot of our contributors taught there or lectured there and it made is sense to work with SVA as like educational partners and the educational component was a big part of our mission. The programs were broad around progressive and Sympatico with Design Observer’s mission and you know, mere inches of subtle ad space from a school didn’t and still doesn’t feel like a principle-breaking act, so we happily partnered with them. But since those early years we’ve attempted other things.
We have an active job board, it generates about $15,000 a year for us. That doesn’t sound like a lot of money, it isn’t. But it goes a long way in helping pay contributors and our occasional interns.
Occasional grants of short-up special projects and topical coverage like the Rockefeller Grant from a few years ago and more recently we’ve been taking sponsorships from companies like MailChimp who underwrote our—one of our blogs, the observatory that Michael and Jessica do. The printing company Moo and blurb as mentioned earlier who will be printing our magazine this summer.
You know, it’s kind of a more commercial take on the public radio model, I guess, you know, in having these sponsors for discrete areas of the site. Podcasts in particular, because we have to hire producers and you know, people to really help on those, and it makes a lot of sense for us. Especially after our redesign last July, going after this kind of medium-sized funding support for the special projects and podcasts, to help build support, and staff that those initiatives require. It also means I’m happy to say that I get to pay every single one of my writers. And the occasional intern.
By web standards we pay pretty generously, though, unlike Veken, we only publish two or three times a day so it’s a slightly simpler model, but you know, I come from print, Design Observer is the first website I’ve ever worked at. By print standards, web pay is horrific. So when I first joined observer and I was sort of given our rates for writers, I was totally scandalized and there were people that I thought I couldn’t approach because I thought those rates were so low, and then three months into my tenure at Design Observer, I was talking to somebody who had worked at the newyorker.com who told me what their rate was and it matched ours and all of a sudden I felt completely legitimized and I could go to people and say we pay what the New Yorker pays and it felt incredibly edifying. So we’re currently testing the waters about new funding possibilities.
The most important thing for us is to find ways of combining our principled approach which models that complement our mission.
Or its earlier paid subscription, you know, really resonates with me, because it’s something that’s come up a lot at Design Observer and we want to believe in it, but you know, Design Observer is 12 years old and walking back something that’s been free for 12 years and that has an incredibly deep archive that people use, you know, we get emails from instructors and professors who are making course packets out of our archives which is fantastic and that’s probably something we should be helping them do and you know, charging for, but you know, it’s—you know, like Orit, I’m not envious of the first person who’s going to do that, because it’s going to be complicated.
Some conversations that we have internally involve not just embracing new topics and the revenue generating possibilities that those things might imply. But methods of distribution, as well, you know, is the web, one question we always have, is the web, for a site like ours, which you know, that publishes original writing and excerpts from new books, is the web a place of origin still or is it just a place of dissemination? So these distribution models also come into our mind and you know, especially what it means to be publishing serious design observations on the web anymore.
We don’t have the answer and I don’t think we’re going to answer it this weekend, but I’m really grateful to Susannah [Schouweiler] and Paul [Schmelzer] for organizing this, and giving us the opportunity to talk a little bit more about it. I’m also grateful to Andrew [Blauvelt] for inviting Design Observer to the conference and me back to the Walker. Thanks, and I hope we have an active conversation about this in the panel. And the question and answers. Thank you.