September 2nd, 2010 | Published in Interviews
As I am about to venture into the field of design criticism, I decided to seek advice from established design writers. I was very fortunate to be in touch with Alissa Walker, who kindly spent the time to answer some of my questions.
Alissa is an LA-based freelance writer for GOOD, Fast Company, Dwell, Sunset, Print, The Architect’s Newspaper, LA Weekly, Metropolis, Wired, Design Observer, Core77, Coudal, ReadyMade, I.D., Eye, HOW, and STEP Inside Design. She is also the associate producer for the radio show, DnA: Design and Architecture. She also loves gelato, which makes me admire her even more! I first came across Alissa’s writing on GOOD, and soon became more aware of her work over the Internet, so I am very glad I have the opportunity to learn and share Alissa’s experiences here as I figure out my own.
As a design writer, why do you feel design matters and why is it important to write about it?
My feelings about why design matters has actually shifted since I started writing about design. I used to think it was important for me to act like a translator for designers—to educate non-designers about design by explaining things like typefaces and buildings to them in a way that they could understand. In the last few years my eyes have been opened to the very real ways in which designers can improve—and are improving—our lives. Now I need to help get the word out about exciting projects, and open up a discussion with my audience about whether or not they work.
What is it like writing for so many different publications, and how does your voice or the material change for each of these?
These are such good questions! I try very hard to keep my writing fun and approachable but I definitely have to shift my voice a bit when writing for different publications. Not only between publications, but also if I’m writing for the web compared to print. I tend to use a lot of exclamation points! And random punctuation. You can’t do that as much in a magazine, which still has a certain formality to it.
What sort of things influence and inform your work?
Most of my inspiration, either directly or indirectly, comes from walking around the streets of Los Angeles and taking lots of pictures.
How did you begin writing and speaking about design?
I began my illustrious writing career as a copywriter, trying desperately to get hired after the dot-com bubble burst. When I didn’t get the full-time job of my dreams, I took a job at a production company, and tried to write on the side, which we all know doesn’t really work. When I finally decided to get serious about the writing, I just started pitching the stories I was interested in, which were basically what was all around me—talented designers, smart ad campaigns, cool animation, beautiful buildings. I started by reaching out to people at publications I knew, and a year later I got a job as editor of the design blog UnBeige—after I was there for a few months, editors started reaching out to me. I also went to every single design conference I could afford and made a lot of friends. I think that was probably the single most important investment in my career!
What are the perks and peeves of being a freelance writer?
There have, of course, been some very scary moments, most of them at the beginning, where I definitely wasn’t making enough money, and I worried all the time. But after the fourth year—I swear, it only takes four!—I had regular gigs and I didn’t have to worry about money anymore (or, shall I say, as much!). Now I think the hard part is making all the choices about what’s right for my career. Choosing which jobs to take and which articles to write is stressful, and I always worry that I’m not making the right decisions. Or taking jobs just for the money that I’m supposedly not worried about.
Most people probably will say that working alone sucks but I am so, so thankful to be able to work at home, by myself, on my schedule. If I ever go to work in an office I spend the whole day wondering how anyone gets anything done at an office. Plus with things like Campfire, IM, and Twitter, it’s not nearly as isolated as it used to be. And besides, if I ever get lonely, I just go out for a walk.
In the emerging field of design criticism, what opportunities or areas would you like to see more writers explore?
I would hope that young writers especially can help strip away the jargon-heavy, self-important pretense around design writing. Write about real life and real people. Using real words. Write about yourself and your own opinions as much as you can. I used to be terrified to write about architecture because I was worried I’d get all the terminology wrong. It’s not about that at all. It’s how the building serves its users, and connects to the community, and fits into the fabric of the city.
I was relieved to learn that I was not the only one who feared writing about architecture! Architecture seems so different to graphic design, and knowing so little about it made me really nervous. But knowing that writing is really about understanding the interactions and experiences that take place within the buildings makes me feel much better.
Thank you for your time, Alissa!