In the RCA degree show, which runs until July 1, the Critical Writing students have a group display and it’s possible to pull up a seat and dip into their writings. Some of the final projects are screen-based — there’s a smartphone app about public art in London and websites devoted to a dictionary of design concepts and an educational resource for art teachers — but the outcome for most projects is a booklet. In deciding how best to embody their words for public presentation, all the writing students have to reach some kind of accommodation with typography and design. This might seem peripheral to a writing course and it isn’t part of the examination, where the students present their work as a standard academic manuscript. (If their project is an app or a website, they also submit a document describing its form and content.) After this, they have around six weeks to produce a displayable representation of their work for the degree show.
Some students already possess advanced design skills. Graphic designer Elizabeth Glickfeld’s Design Work Book, for instance, features some accomplished picture research and editing of photographs of designers in their workplaces. Some students have done their own thing, to mixed effect. Others have brought in designers to give form to their material. A particularly engaging collaboration can be seen in two matching booklets designed by RCA Visual Communication student Neringa Plange for Peter Maxwell’s project Almost Nothing about Mies van der Rohe’s unrealized proposal for the Mansion House Square building in London. Maxwell’s bravura discourse — his “critical fiction” tries to write the phantom building into being — gains added authority from perfectly measured columns of professional-looking type and a smoothly integrated picture section that meets the layout standards of an architectural monograph.
What this shows (though we already know it) is that design and production are inextricably linked to writing. This relationship doesn’t impinge greatly when reading drafts in the seminar room, though in a recent writing project with the first years I was struck by the unrequired extra effort some had put into designing their pages. When the writing and editing is done, at the crunch point of delivery in the hoped-for reader’s hands, writing will always be mediated by design, and the quality of that mediation is a factor in how the writing will be perceived, consumed, or perhaps disregarded, if the design fails to make an adequately appealing case for the words it channels. This is not to suggest that a writing course should attempt to take on the concerns of a graphic design course, at least not in any formal sense. But the issue of how best to embody the writing will always arise in the end. The obvious answer, where the critical writer is not an experienced designer, is to develop close working partnerships between the writing students and students from the Visual Communication course, which happened in some of this year’s most effective projects. This collaboration will be vital later in professional contexts, particularly when dealing with visual subject matter, and both sides of the partnership have a great deal to gain.
The same design savoir faire is on display in Useless, a paperback collection of writings by the graduating students ably configured by another RCA Visual Communication designer, Pedro Cid Proença. The text typography is eminently readable, the Dutch printing and binding are nifty (the book sits and flips comfortably in the hand), and the essays are adroitly intercut with black pages on a coated stock, which carry an illustrated “User’s Guide to Oxymoronic Machines” in a sequence of short sections. Useless had its own launch event and its playful clevernesss sets a high standard of editorial polish and production for future publications from Critical Writing. If the aim is to publicize these writers and attract potential hirers and commission-givers, then readability is everything. It was an odd decision, though, to go for a wordless front cover; that might work for Pink Floyd or Martin Amis, but I’m not sure it was a great idea for a new writing course hoping to find an audience in the bookshops.