“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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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?”
Dave Eggers, from a 2000 interview in The Harvard Advocate:
There is a point in one’s life when one cares about selling out and not selling out. One worries whether or not wearing a certain shirt means that they are behind the curve or ahead of it, or that having certain music in one’s collection means that they are impressive, or unimpressive.
Thankfully, for some, this all passes. I am here to tell you that I have, a few years ago, found my way out of that thicket of comparison and relentless suspicion and judgment. And it is a nice feeling. Because, in the end, no one will ever give a shit who has kept shit ‘real’ except the two or three people, sitting in their apartments, bitter and self-devouring, who take it upon themselves to wonder about such things. The keeping real of shit matters to some people, but it does not matter to me. It’s fashion, and I don’t like fashion, because fashion does not matter.
What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips’s new album is ravishing and I’ve listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who’s up and who’s down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.
Michael Bierut—speaking words of wisdom—has a fantastic piece on the rise in criticism from the general public on design, most notably, logo rebrands (we’re looking at you University of California):
Few things in the design world sound as sad as “the client made me do it.” Nor do I argue that the final result shouldn’t be held up to scrutiny. We should be judged by what we make. But perhaps the question in these logo discussions could be more than: could I do better? Perhaps we could also ask: what was the purpose? What was the process? Whose ends were being served? How should we judge success? But we seldom look any deeper than first impressions, wallowing instead in a churning maelstrom of snap judgments. Should we be surprised when the general public jumps right in after us?
This is something I think about a lot and part of me is always saddened when a company returns to their old logo after public outrage (i.e. Tropicana, UC). “Logos inherit meaning,” said Simon Manchipp at this year’s Brand New Conference, “but are born useless.” Like Bierut points out, what would we say if Nike or Target unveiled their beloved logos today? Are we perhaps losing out on new iconic images because our snap judgements tend to fear the new?
(Roman Mars’s excellent podcast 99% Invisible also did an excellent episode on the UC logo, offering another voice of reason in a sea of criticism.)
Daniel Mendelsohn has a great New Yorker piece on what it means to be a critic. To him, a critic isn’t just someone who shares their opinion, a critic profoundly understands what a particular piece of work—be it a film, a book, a song, a poem—means in the context of all art:
For all criticism is based on that equation: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (This is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.) Like any other kind of writing, criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for, and the people who have a knack for it are those whose knowledge intersects interestingly and persuasively with their taste. In the end, the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in—a new TV series, a movie, an opera or ballet or book—hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.
Merlin Mann has said multiple times that the reason he likes reading Daring Fireball is because John Gruber does three things when he writes about a piece of Apple news: 1) he tells you what’s happening, 2) he tells you why it matters and 3) he tells you what he thinks about it. This is how the critic operates, they tell us about the work, they tell us what they think of it, and then they tell us how it fits into the stream of creative work and why it matters. I want to read more criticism like that.
“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.”
“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”.”
“Don’t ask for critique if you only want validation. If you want a hug, just ask.”
I completely devoured this 2005 New Yorker profile of architect Rem Koolhaas this morning. I was somewhat familiar with his work but didn’t know anything about this process, operation style, and thinking. I just wanted to pull out a few quotes from the piece I really enjoyed.
On how Koolhaas’s studio, OMA, operates:
“People think that Rem creates everything, but he doesn’t. He often reacts to the creations of his staff.” Joshua Ramus, the partner in charge of the Seattle library project, said, “The remarkable thing of which Rem is the author, explicitly, is the office’s process. A thousand years from now, that’s what people will say was truly new about Rem. What the oma process focusses on is not the creator but the critic. In our way of working, the important person is the one who is shown various options and then makes a critical decision. The result is better architecture.”
On his dislike of the word “interesting:”
To survive this process, OMA architects must be verbally as well as visually dextrous. Koolhaas becomes impatient when a colleague’s language is wan or imprecise—“I really dislike the word ‘interesting,’ ” he told me. When an associate cannot give a clear explanation for a design decision, Koolhaas chides him by saying, “You are not fully exploiting my intelligence.” Late one night, after a frustrated associate who was battling a tight deadline pleaded, “I’m tired, I can’t keep playing Ping-Pong like this,” Koolhaas responded tersely: “Make it perfect. And then the game will be over.”
On the skyscraper:
As always with Koolhaas, creation came out of critique. Seven decades after the birth of the Empire State Building, the skyscraper had, he concluded, become a shopworn form. Moreover, although tall buildings had enlivened tiny Manhattan, they had deadened spread-out cities like Bangkok, where isolated towers were engulfed by giant parking lots. It was time, Koolhaas believed, to “kill the skyscraper.”
If you’re looking for some good Sunday afternoon reading, I recommend giving this piece a read.
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.
“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.”