“It is my fear than in our exuberance to embrace online publishing, we’re forgetting to use these same tools for the betterment of the design discipline, for starting our own conversations. We no longer have to worry about how, where or if design writing will be published — the audience and outlets exist. What we do have to worry about, however, is that the community that produces this work continues to feel supported, inspired, and connected.”

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.

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“I think that one goes through phases as a writer. Young critics are often more negative, more confrontational. I think that was certainly true of me. You think that there’s a sort of rot in the world and you have to get rid of it, attack it. As you get older you realise that criticism doesn’t really change things, time is what changes things; time sorts out the good from the bad.”

Graphic Design Needs a New Revolution

“Every generation needs a new revolution.” —Thomas Jefferson

In the early nineties, desktop publishing dramatically changed how designers approached their work. Typesetting and pasting together comps became a thing of the past. The work began to take shape on screens. But bringing desktop publishing to the masses also induced a fear that the careers of working designers would become irrelevant. The tools of the trade were now available to all, prompting designers to rethink their own approaches.

Around the same time, a surfer-turned-designer in southern California named David Carson started designing the alternative arts and music magazine Ray Gun. Never formally trained in design, Carson used desktop publishing programs to experiment with typography and layouts that matched the irreverance of the magazine’s content, including the now-famous article he set entirely in Dingbat. Looking at Carson and others’ emerging style built around this freedom the computer provided, Steven Heller wrote a scathing piece for Eye Magazine titled The Cult of Ugly where he wrote this new work had a “self-indulgence that informs some of the worst experimental fine art.”

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“In other contexts such as film, literature, and theater, often criticism is the equivalent of reviewing recent works. In the context of the internet, what would a comprehensive review of a website or a new app consist of? How has it come to pass that “usability” criteria are framed through the protestant-corporate idiom of Jacob Nielsen—and still remain unchallenged? Can we popularize highly technical software reviews? What would form a good app review, beyond a description of its functionality?”
“The place of the curator here is in the production of intellectual cultural criticism. Curating is not about organizing fancy events; it is about stimulating or preserving debate within a creative, dynamic space, one that is political and even contains the possibility for chaos. It is about trying to materialize an agenda, about producing difference or disruptions in the order.”
A Third Way, ArtAsiaPacific Magazine
“I think most people find it difficult to hear criticisms of things they love. We often translate “I do not like X” into “you are a moron for loving X”.”
Erin Kissane, How to Kill a Troll
“Don’t ask for critique if you only want validation. If you want a hug, just ask.”

Distance

Rembrandt’s The Artist in his Studio is one of my favorite paintings.1 I like art that shows craftsmen toiling away at their craft, but what I really love about Rembrandt’s is that the artist pictured has stepped away from his canvas. He’s taken a break from the actual act of painting to see his progress from a distance.

As artists, we sometimes tend to be too close to our work. This comes from intensely caring about what we are making and is the cause of those late nights and long hours. And in those long hours slaving away at our craft, it becomes very easy to lose perspective of the bigger picture. We can forget our work’s place in the world and how it relates to that which surrounds it. When we are close, we are concerned with the tiny details: the brushstrokes, the button states, the kerning, the exact word to use. But once we step back, we can focus on the whole work: the composition, the layout and flow, the user experience, the story. The creative process involves this act of switching contexts, of varying one’s distance with their own work in order to objectively judge it’s value and purpose.

Rembrandt’s painting reminds us of the importance of distance in our work. When we are too close to what we are doing, we fail to see the the bigger picture. By providing distance, both literally and figuratively, we can return to our work with fresh eyes and clear perspective. It is then that we can confidently continue working with a better understanding of why we do what we do.


  1. Wikipedia has a great hi-res version that you should see and zoom in to see the wonderful textures and brushstrokes. Distance! 

“You know where you missed and you know where you hit. So if a review comes out and it criticizes where you missed, all you can say, “Yeah, I know I did.” I think the biggest frustration about reviews is when they criticize your best bit. And then you go, “What the—?” I remember when I was a comedian, I’d get a bad review and they’d always fail to say that the audience was dying laughing.”