An awful lot has been said and written about the new ways we consume design in the digital era. But although the rights and wrongs of design blogs have been well-covered, other platforms have received less attention as critical mediums and it’s always interesting to see new ways of engaging with visual content. Alice Rawsthorn is one of the best-respected design writers around, thanks both to her books and her articles for Frieze and The International New York Times.
On January 1 she began posting design-related imagery to her new Instagram account and this has evolved in recent weeks into themed explorations of topics ranging from film titles to feminism. Posted with articulate explanatory captions, she seems to have hit upon an enlightening and accessible way to talk about design. We caught up with her to find out a little more…
You joined Instagram at the beginning of this year; what prompted that? What do you like about it as a medium?
I’d wanted to join Instagram for ages. I so enjoy posting on Facebook and Twitter, and was curious to experiment with a new medium, not least as a lot of friends were early adopters of Instagram and loved it. The only thing that stopped me was time. I began a daily post on 1 January, and decided from the start to treat it as a project by posting once a day about a different aspect of design. Everyone talks about how much they enjoy the visual element of Instagram. I do too, though I also love its versatility. The challenge of Twitter, especially for a writer, is distilling a message into so few characters, and it is liberating to be freed from that constraint.
Recently you’ve started themed weeks whereby you focus on one topic (movies, feminism) and post photos and small texts about them. How did they begin? Why did Instagram feel like the right platform for them rather than say a blog?
At first I posted on an ad hoc basis, sometimes choosing time-sensitive subjects, like the campaign to save Spiegelhalters, one of east London’s architectural oddities, but mostly random ones, from my favourite soup spoon, designed by Arne Jacobsen, to an ingeniously customised tricycle-cum-workshop I’d seen in Beijing. The first theme was a week of Scottish design gems to celebrate Burns Night, including Dennis the Menace and the 19th Century economist William Playfair’s innovations in information design.
After that, I decided to adopt a theme each week. It makes the process more focused for me, because I pick a relevant theme – like feminism for International Women’s Day and movie title sequences for the Oscars – then root around for interesting examples. The template is determined by what feels right for me on Instagram: I’d do something different on a blog or any other platform.
How do you select the topics? Are they always hooked on something timely? How do you select the content for each week?
So far most topics have been timely, but I like to pick impromptu themes too. For example, I was in Mexico City recently so did a week of posts on interesting design and architecture I’d seen there, including a beautifully restored 1947 Luis Barragan house and an amazing taco at Enrique Olvera’s restaurant Pujol. Inevitably, I pick themes that appeal to me personally, like feminism and film titles.
Also, I’m a history nut so, typically, I’ll choose a range of projects spanning different periods. Welsh Design for St. David’s Day began with the equals sign, which was invented by the mathematician Robert Recorde in 1557, and ended with the work of the software designer and tech activist Alan Cox. I try to be equally eclectic in the choice of genres as the underlying theme of all my writing on design – whether it’s for The New York Times, in a book like Hello World or on Instagram – is to challenge the misconception of design as a styling device by demonstrating what a powerful tool it can be in so many different areas of our lives.
Do you think writers have embraced Instagram enough, or have they seen it as a purely visual tool?
One of the joys of social media is that each user can interpret it as they wish. I write fairly lengthy descriptions on Instagram, because that’s how I like to communicate, but some of my favourite Instagrammers barely use any words. It’s fascinating to see how different forms of social media evolve, like the Twitter poetry phenomenon, and the skill with which the novelist Teju Cole constructs narratives in his tweets, like little novellas.
What’s your plan for these themed weeks? Which topics would you like to cover?
I’m planning a week of brilliantly designed TV title sequences to celebrate the start of Season 5 of Game of Thrones on 12 April. I love the show and its opening titles are fantastic: they clarify the geographic context and political alliances in the series, and trace changes in the plot. Though I still feel sad whenever I see the animation of Winterfell’s charred remains. The following week I’ll probably do daily posts from Milan during the Salone del Mobile.
Another future theme will be Mancunian design in the week before the opening of the Manchester International Festival in early July. I’m a Manc and we have an incredible civic design heritage from the Industrial Revolution, to the first computer, and the social and sustainable design projects that are now being prototyped in Manchester.
Alice Rawsthorn’s latest book Hello World: Where Design Meets Life is available now.
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