Chappell Ellison, a design writer in Brooklyn, listened to the episode of Through Process I was recently on, and wrote up a thoughtful piece responding to and expanding upon a lot of things Mitch, Namdev, and I talk about in the episode.
I always get really self-conscious about talking about design criticism and Chappell made me feel a little better about it:
Also worth adding, we too often fall into the trap of asking, “Who wants design criticism?” This is maybe the worst thing we can do. Maybe. Can you imagine if Galileo sat around asking himself, “Who wants to know about stars?” Or if Beethoven was like, “Who wants symphonies?” They just did it, and now we can’t imagine living without knowledge of the stars or the 5th Symphony. Asking whether or not people will even want what you have to offer is maybe the quickest path to failure.
She also has a nice bit on the importance of design criticism, articulating in a way much clearer than I could, by comparing it to Project Runway:
I will never get tired of seeing someone’s unique interpretation of an assignment. It is nothing short of magic to give a set of parameters to a person, only to have them compute, process, and transform that input into a visual form. What is it in their brains that triggered such a response? How does their experience of life and culture lead them to that particular finished product? This gets at the heart of why I study design criticism; it is a lens I use to translate a designer’s thoughts and processes into a narrative that explains the choices made by creative humans, and why these choices matter.
Her whole piece is great and a nice compliment to our episode. I’m so glad she wrote it.
The Five Obstructions
A few months ago I watched The Five Obstructions, a Danish film by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth. The film is a documentary that see von Trier approach Leth with a challenge to remake Leth’s film The Perfect Human five times with various constraints—or obstructions—imposed by von Trier. The movie follows Leth’s creative process as he is forced to remake his film over and over. It’s an interesting study on constraints and a fascinating look at the creative process. After watching it, I couldn’t help but draw connections and influences for my own design work.
In a recent episode of the Sway podcast, I mentioned to Rory King that I thought The Five Obstructions could be an interesting framework for a class assignment by having students remake one of their projects five times with various constraints and rules put on them, forcing them to experiment, look at their processes, and start to think of designing in a different way. After discussing it some, we realized that we could do it ourselves and over the following few weeks, we conducted our own version of The Five Obstructions.
What Do We Want From Design Criticism?
“So what exactly is graphic design criticism?” asked Rick Poyner in 1995 in a conversation with Michael Rock, “Who practices it, or ought to practice it, and what are its aims? And can it, in the sense that we might talk about art or film criticism, be truly said to exist at this point?”
The call for graphic design criticism began a decade earlier when Massimo Vignelli penned the forward to the 1983 Graphis Annual, stating decisively, “Graphic design will not be a profession until we have criticism.” Vignelli called for a greater discourse surrounding design to not only frame our theories and processes, but also to look toward the future and set a course for the profession:
It is time that theoretical issues be expressed and debated to provide a forum of intellectual tension out of which meanings spring to life. Pretty pictures can no longer lead the way in which our visual environment should be shaped. It is time to debate, to probe the values, to examine the theories that are part of our heritage and to verify their validity to express our times. It is time for the word to be heard. It is time for Words and Vision.
Vignelli’s call was prescient as the years following proved to be a pivitol time for graphic design. Designers started to see their work as part of the cultural zeitgeist—artifacts interacting and living amid a general public. As designers struggled to find their place in this new global landscape, design criticism started to blossom in an attempt to canonize the field. In 1994, Michael Beirut, William Drenttel and Steven Heller published the first book in the Looking Closer series, an anthology of the best design writing of the past few years. Over the next decade, the series would grow to include four more volumes. Publications like Emigre (founded in 1985, but reformatted in 1995 to be a critical journal),Eye (founded in 1990 by Poyner), and Dot Dot Dot (founded in 2000) also sought to bring a higher level of discourse to the profession. Even mainstream magazines like Print and I.D., traditionally only publishing designer profiles soon started including op-ed and investigative reporting pieces within its pages. And in 1996, Ellen Lupton organized the second major graphic design exhibition with the show Mixed Messages at the Cooper Hewitt.
Amanda Thomas, writing for The Walker Art Center blog, captures a lot of what I’ve been thinking about (and writing here and here) on the idea of critical graphic design:
The design discipline of the late 2000s—an amorphous blob akin to the Ghostbuster’s Marshmallow man—ballooned to a vast array of practices: motion graphics, font design, info graphics, web design, systems design..the list goes on. This fur ball of practice weakened the idea of a coherent discipline and, moreover, no forms of practice gave the discipline running room for critical discourse. Waging a war on too many fronts, design had no strict focus, and no foundation for critical discourse—no methods of designing that better defined or strengthened the discipline.
This reflects a lot of what I was thinking about when I wrote What We Talk About When We Talk About Graphic Design—the field has grown and changed so much over the past decade that our focus as practitioners has weakened and it’s harder to direct our attention to where we can move the profession forward. Thomas looks to critical graphic design as a possible solution:
I sought ways to immaterialize design, and to show that the doing nothing aspects of design—like research, writing, and organizing content—are viable parts of practice. I explored immateriality in two ways: 1) as a research-based process that enables me to bring new ideas to my practice and share them with others; 2) as immaterial design, forgoing a designed artifact for a designed experience, that permits a community to participate in my project. Inspired by relational design, I sought to eliminate disciplinary boundaries of my university (a school of art and design) to permit a cross-disciplinary dialog about graphic design.
I love everything about this. This is what Rory and I have been experimenting with on Sway and the idea of taking a critical look at design through designing feels like it could be the next graphic design revolution we are looking for.
Read the whole essay—I had a hard time pulling out what parts I wanted to quote here; the two I used above are just a small sample.