One often hears a pair of weasel words bandied about wherever design-media types congregate: “sponsored content.” Corporate-subsidized journalism—be it urbanism websites funded by carmakers or lifestyle blogs owned by bottled water brands—is not exactly new. All publications rely on sponsorship, and the line between “church” and “state”—editorial and advertising sales—has always been blurrier than either side has cared to admit. But now, if decisions by two celebrated architecture firms are any indication, there appears to be a different kind of sponsored content afoot.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and New York’s SHoP Architects have recently made moves that threaten to cut out the journalistic middleman altogether. Longtime design magazine hand Jenna McKnight, who’s worked for Architectural Record and database-cum-blog Architizer, became SOM’s new digital editor in May 2013. Scarcely a year later, SHoP announced that its newly created post of editorial director would be held by critic Philip Nobel, whose byline has been a staple of The New York Times, and Architectural Digest for almost two decades.
McKnight’s duties thus far have included re-launching SOM’s website, creating content for Tumblr and Instagram accounts, and readying the launch of a firmwide Twitter account—writing editorials for print publications may fall within her future bailiwick. “They just needed somebody in an editorial position” to guide the firm’s online presence, “establishing a voice, creating a style guide, sifting through thousands and thousands of images,” says McKnight. Her goals include not only burnishing SOM’s exterior image but keeping the sprawling firm in touch with itself, using digital media as a common forum for staffers spread out across three continents.
Nobel, on the other hand, has a more nebulous job description. Certainly it entails writing: “I’ve written more words since I’ve been here than I’ve written as a journalist in the last 10 years,” he claims, and his “deliverables” run the gamut from supplementary text for client proposals to high-minded essays for books on design theory. But what SHoP needs Nobel for most is to act as a kind of hybrid critic and cheerleader, a philosopher-at-large with license to drift from project meeting to project meeting, offering advice. “My allegiance is to the ideals of the firm,” says Nobel: Namely, this means to SHoP’s image as an earnest practitioner of socially conscious design.
Neither McKnight nor Nobel want to displace traditional forms of design reportage. “I’m looking to other media organizations as inspiration,” says McKnight, “not as competition.” Nobel, meanwhile, intends to remain active as a writer outside of his work at SHoP, and sees the emerging role of the company sage not as limiting the purview of the critic but as extending it—“an opportunity in this new media world for people to tell their own stories in a different way.” He even sees a future where design offices routinely keep someone like him on retainer. “Every architecture firm that has some kind of mission to begin with should put someone on the job to make sure that it’s met,” he says.
Whether other firms will follow suit will hinge on the tangible results that firm editors like Nobel and McKnight are able to produce. As McKnight says, “Our engagement and our followers are skyrocketing,” which could be a result of her writing sensibility—though whether prospective clients will be swayed remains uncertain. Objective metrics at SHoP, meanwhile, are cloudier still. The firm’s upcoming suite of projects doesn’t quite suggest that it’s lost its scrappy, small-studio soul—but even if it did, would that mean Nobel had failed? Publicists can demonstrate that their public relations has garnered press for their clients; but what kind of pudding bears the proof for these new in-house editors?
And there’s the hitch: the possible danger of this new demi-trend is less about the damage it could do to the vaunted independence of design journalism. It may simply expose (for any who didn’t know it already) how tenuous the position of design thinkers and critics really is, and how indeterminate their effect on practice can really be.