May 17, 2013

Design Writer Caroline Tiger: Passion for Design, Prose and Philadelphia

Caroline Tiger is a journalist who is fascinated with design. Among her many design-writing activities, she is a contributing editor to Contract Design magazine. Her immersion in two worlds—journalism and design, particularly rooted in Philadelphia—and blending them into coherent stories compelled me to interview her. Here, she elaborates on her journey toward becoming a design writer, an emerging role in our creative culture:

Where are you from?
I grew up in northern New Jersey, and I’ve lived in Philadelphia for almost 20 years.

“What Is Philadelphia design?”: A postcard announcing a blog series on local design

You work in the area of “design journalism.”
What is a “design journalist”?
Is this the same as “design writer”?
It’s pretty much the same thing. I use “writer,” because I also write books, develop book proposals, and perform other editorial tasks, such as writing the occasional whitepaper, crafting journalistic content for design clients’websites, and developing and editing special publications.

Objectorialist: A blog that looks at objects either designed, made, or found in Philly—an exercise in analyzing the city’s design profile

The Winterhouse Institute formerly held a competition for
design writing. How is design writing different from 
other kinds of writing?
In 2012, I participated in the School of Visual Arts’ D-Crit Summer Intensive. The fall, prior to that program, I attended D-Crit’s Open House and heard Massimo Vignelli speak. I learned about the Call for Criticism he wrote in 1983 that argued for more thoughtful writing about design (kind of like the dialogue that had already evolved around architecture). Since reading that article, I frequently go back to it and particularly to the following quote as a guiding principle for design writing:
“The main function of criticism is not that of providing flattering or denigrating reviews but that of providing creative interpretations of the work, period or theory being analyzed. Out of those creative interpretations a new light is cast on the objects, and new nuances and reflections are brought to our notice.”
Note: Criticism doesn’t mean critical in the negative sense—it’s more about a thoughtful, contextual consideration of design, be it product design, interaction design, graphic design, etc.

When did you start your fascination with design?
How did you turn this fascination into a long-term passion?
Objects were cherished in the house where I grew up, and they were assigned a power I didn’t quite understand at the time. I think that’s where the fascination started. My grandmother was a talented interior designer, and my parents have always collected art and antiques. So there was this recognition of the history, craftsmanship and meaning of objects from the very beginning. As far as writing about design, that began a few years out of college when I was on staff at Philadelphia magazine. I was assigned a lot of shelter, i.e. “house and home” pieces, and the design seed grew from there. It’s taken a while for it to evolve into my currently all-design-all-the-time career, but it’s where I was always headed.

Design map of Philly that Caroline Tiger wrote for New York Times’ T Magazine

Piece that Caroline Tiger wrote for Entrepreneur Magazine on design trends influencing business

How did you steer your career path as a journalist
toward writing about design-related topics?
When I started in magazines, I wanted to be an investigative reporter, but I learned very quickly I didn’t like asking people tough questions. I wrote as a generalist, because my general curiosity seemed to defy specialization. I wrote a lot of profiles and went through a travel writing phase—I went to France. A lot. As my interest in design grew, I started writing about it from every angle (profiles of designers, design travel, business stories with a design angle), and editors started thinking of me for design assignments. Eventually, it became all I was pitching and writing. It helps that I live in Philadelphia where there’s significant design heritage and a growing design scene. I’ve written many thousands of words about Philadelphia design!

Are there desgn writers you look up to? Who?
So many. Alice Rawsthorn, Ralph Caplan, Karrie Jacobs, Justin Davidson, Paola Antonelli, Inga Saffron, Alina Wheeler, Alexandra Lange. And many more.

Are there design-related topics that you particularly 
enjoy working on? Why?
Right now, I’m working as a content strategist at Bresslergroup, an industrial and interaction design firm in Philadelphia, to launch their blog, social media strategy and websites around their areas of expertise. I’ve been interviewing designers for a long time about inspiration and process, but I’m enjoying seeing how that works from the inside. Right now, I’m also really interested in experience design. And one of my ongoing topics is regional design and exploring how regional design identities are formed and how they evolve.

Writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called
“Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?”
Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy at?
I’m pretty new to content strategy, but one thing I loved about it right away is the good number of women leading the industry.

What is your definition of bad design?
Design that neither functions nor inspires.

You participated in the Design Writing and 
Research Summer Intensive at the School of Visual Arts
New York City. What is this? How was this experience?
What particularly did you discover/learn/relearn?
Yes! I attended the inaugural summer intensive. The experience is a design writer and design junkie’s dream. I got to work with writers I’d long admired, like Karrie Jacobs and Jennifer Kabat. Frankly, I had been cyber-stalking D-Crit since first hearing about them. I was very excited about this program that seemed to validate what I was trying to do in my own writing. The intensive expanded my vision of what design writing can be. And two weeks to work on writing for myself and not for an editor—and to get feedback from the likes of Alice Twemlow and Steven Heller—was the ultimate luxury.

What sources do you recommend for people
to become better writers?
If you can do D-Crit’s MFA program or summer intensive, don’t hesitate. But taking time out for school is difficult and if you can’t swing that, the best thing to do is read, read, read. D-Crit’s website has a terrific reading list for people who want to familiarize themselves with great design writing. Design Observer is another website to find design writing worth emulating. I keep a Pinterest board of design writing I like.

How does time factor into your work?
I need more of it. There’s so much to read, write and publish. I think Lena Dunham recently tweeted a proposal to add one day to the week that’s reserved for reading. If I were to run for President, that would be my platform.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly 
trying and how did you deal with it?
The point at which you’ve done your reporting, gathered your research, and you’re sitting and staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor is always the most trying part. My advice to people is to just start typing—throw up on the page—and worry about cleaning it up later.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas
and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
To be honest, I haven’t settled on a great tool. I’ve tried a few digital tools for organizing thoughts and notes, but I always go back to jotting in Staples notebooks and keeping running lists of ideas and to-dos using the Stickies application. I do use Harvest for tracking time and creating invoices for freelance projects. For projects where I’m collaborating with others, I’ve used Google Docs. Since writing a story on the Action Mill, a design firm in Philly who work partly on workplace efficiency and time management issues, I’ve kept a streamlined to-do list with three categories: backlog, doing and done. I like the challenge of editing the “doing” list down to a minimum of four to five things and also seeing what I’ve done and what’s on deck.

How do you stay creative?
What are some of your sources 
of motivation/inspiration?
Talking to designers about their work is really inspiring as is changing my setting. I’m motivated by learning new things, building something that’ll have a positive impact and collaborating with people who are generous in spirit.

What is your advice to people who aspire
to be a creative practitioner?
This is so corny, but go with your passion. Also, find mentors who have designed careers you admire and who conduct themselves in a manner you admire. Lastly, if you have an idea that seems crazy, find a collaborator who’s just as crazy as you are.

What is your advice to people who aspire 
to be a design journalist/writer?
It’s discouraging to be a journalist right now. I’ve experienced the industry’s implosion, and it hasn’t been pretty. The good news is, there are so many more ways to be a writer now than there ever were before. That said, Do Not Write For Free—unless it’s on your own site or blog.

You proactively participate in design-related activities
in Philadelphia. How did you start your involvement?
Why do you do it?
A few years ago, I started feeling the itch to expand my observer/commentator/writer role by participating in shaping Philadelphia’s design scene in a more direct way. Philadelphia has been a presence in my work all along. I adore this city and I want everyone else to recognize its design assets too. At some point, writing about it became, well, not enough. Also, when I started, I was one of very few people writing about Philadelphia and design. Now there are scores are wonderful, amazing bloggers and journalists discovering and covering the beat. So it seemed like a good time to venture into the next chapter.

Co-curators Royce Epstein (left) and Caroline Tiger (right) in front of Mod Plaid Textile by Dorothy Cosonas of Knoll and Indigo Pomegranate Wallpaper by Liz Galbraith of Galbraith & Paul. Photograph: Ryan Collerd

A view of the Four Corners exhibit. In the foreground is a Bench Dog Design table surrounded by chairs by six different designers; and pendant lamps by MIO. The photograph is from Chris Crisman’s Steelworker series. Photograph: Ryan Collerd

The Four Corners exhibition catalog, designed by Nicole Lavelle.
Photograph: Ryan Collerd

What were some design-related events in Philadelphia
that you contributed your efforts to? What are some 
upcoming events?
I co-curated Four Corners: Design from Philly Surrounds, an exhibition of regional design, for last fall’s DesignPhiladelphia. The owners of Minima, a beautiful two-story contemporary design store in Old City, were incredibly generous to let us take over most of their second floor. My co-curator was the amazing Royce Epstein and one of my D-Crit classmates, Nicole Lavelle, designed our catalog. It was exhilarating to gather all these local designers and manufacturers—we had about 50 objects and pieces of art in all—in one space and to juxtapose them with each other, so pieces by masters like Nakashima and Esherick were in conversation with current designs by Emeco and Toby Mcqueston, who makes chairs from recycled skateboard decks.

Last year’s Collab Journal, featuring 2012’s Design Excellence Award winners, Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast. Caroline Tiger is excited to edit Collab’s 2013 Journal.

A few months ago, I joined Collab, a group of 12 design professionals who volunteer to support the modern and contemporary design collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There’s actually no other group like ours at any museum around the world. Collab was established a little over 40 years ago and is partly responsible for the Philadelphia Museum of Art having one of the best and largest modern design collections in the country. Our job is to fundraise to support exhibitions and new acquisitions, and to organize events and programming that educate and promote design. Every fall, we give out a Design Excellence Award, and the recipient designs an exhibition about his or her work. I couldn’t be more thrilled about this fall’s recipient: Marc Newson. In November, he’ll be in Philly to receive the award, give a lecture, and celebrate the opening of his exhibition. There’s also an annual student competition that will be Newson-themed this year. You can like our Facebook page to keep up to date on Newson and all the other events coming up.

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Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Caroline Tiger.

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