“Manhattan,” from Prettymaps, a series of interactive maps that pushes the “limits of modern browsers and the aesthetic boundaries of traditional cartography.”
Dialogue: Alissa Walker
Wednesday, June 8th, 2011
On any day, Los Angeles-based writer Alissa Walker could be writing about gelato, her love of walking, or tracking distraction. As a contributing editor for GOOD, she recently helped launch GOOD Local, an initiative that aims “to build communities by covering and partnering with the people, and organizations there that are moving the city forward.” Walker believes that design writing is at its best “when it's entertaining, jargon-free, and holds its own alongside other smart ideas from a range of industries.” Maybe being all over the place isn’t such a bad thing.
Whether you are writing about going out for a beer, going on a walking tour, or architecture Barbie, you seem to effortlessly slip design into all of your writing. Design permeates your prolific work, but you’re not in anyone’s face, which makes me want to know if you think design writing can, or should, be defined?
I used to call myself a design writer, which I suppose was helpful to define myself at one point. But you're right, now I'd much rather use design as a lens to look at all the other subjects I take on. If you can make writing accessible, especially when it comes to particularly wonky things like architecture and design, the better you'll serve your audience. But I do think that writing about design all these years has allowed me to see the world in a different way — maybe a way that allows me to look at almost anything as a problem in need of a creative solution. I'll quote Michael Bierut in one of my all-time favorite essays: "Not everything is design. But design is about everything. So do yourself a favor: be ready for anything."
You have been walking in LA for a while now. How has this changed your understanding of LA’s designed spaces?
I think that experiencing LA's urban spaces as a pedestrian is really important because you can see if the designers and architects truly considered everyone when they were creating it. So much of LA was designed poorly, without any consideration for our lowest-income residents, or people in wheelchairs, or even families with children. I think being a pedestrian has made me more sympathetic to those issues.
How has altering the way you get somewhere shifted your approach to writing?
I see details that I never would have seen, but because I'm not in a car or driving, I can also take the time to stop and take a photo, or ask a question, or learn more about what I'm seeing (Or hearing. Or smelling! Walking is great for smells!). That alone makes you a better writer, because you start to think about everything as part of this larger narrative, this journey that you get to embark upon every day. Getting to slow down and become more aware of the city around you like that is an incredible gift.
What challenges do design writers currently face?
Design writers spent the last decade trying to prove design's relevance to business, social issues, and government in the hopes that "design" could be thought of as something more than chairs, drapes, and carpet (not that those things aren't important but you know what I mean). I think for the most part we can stop beating that drum ("can design thinking solve everything," "can designers save the world") and just focus on telling these vibrant, irresistible stories that engage people in the smart, timely solutions that designers create without making it all about why you should appreciate "design" and what "designers" are doing for you.
Snapshot: Alissa Walker
Anything lately that has made you look twice? Everything that Candy Chang does is incredibly fascinating to me, but her project, Before I Die, combines so much that's relevant in today's urban landscape: gentrification, public space, giving people voices, building communities.
What designer or studio should we have started watching yesterday?
By far the most exciting design studio to me at the moment is Stamen Design up in San Francisco. Not only have they transformed the fields of data visualization and mapping, they're creating applications that help people engage with their cities in these beautifully enriching ways. Best place to get things done: My desk in our house in Silver Lake looking out over Los Angeles.
Best place to get nothing done:
Oddly enough, the same place!
Best exhibition you’ve been to lately:
The most exciting show I've seen in a long time is the Art in the Streets exhibition at MoCA here in LA. I spent almost an entire day there for the opening and I still didn't get to see it all. It's exuberant, messy, confusing, inspiring. And it made me feel proud to live in LA.
Favorite person to follow on Twitter:
Maria Popova (@brainpicker) is probably the best Twitter account on the Internet right now, but she has so many followers that you probably already know that.