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?
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 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.
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.”
I was recently asked by Sarah Handelman, a contributing writer for Design Bureau if I’d be willing to answer a few questions for her Dialogue column. The interview has now been published and is available to read in its entirety here.
Sarah asked some great questions and really got me thinking about some things I hadn’t thought about before. One topic I really enjoyed discussing was criticism on the web and how it can become a gift. I said:
In Lewis Hyde’s seminal book The Gift, he writes about the idea of gift-giving within community. The entire community is exchanging gifts, to each other, constantly passing them around and making them agents of change that expand the reach of the community. I think that’s how Dribbble has created a community where design criticism and feedback can act as gifts. The entire community is exchanging feedback. In turn, designers can provide better design to a larger audience.
That’s just a small sample, but I hope you read the entire thing. I had a blast doing it and a big thanks for Sarah and Design Bureau for including me in the series.
“I think critique is great. Critique is the cornerstone of improvement for a designer. But, you cannot critique in 140 character anonymous tweets on the internet. That is not critique, it is just negative, pissy sound bytes.”
• The purpose of a critique is to make the design better. • Be supportive. • First, figure out what the designer was trying to accomplish. • Offer direction, not prescription. • Humor and metaphor work better than criticism alone. • Accept multiple styles. • Know the domain. • If you don’t understand it, be cautious in critiquing it. • Don’t take it personally.
This is absolutely fantastic. I sit through critiques a few times a month and I hate to say it, but I don’t find them very helpful anymore. I’m not saying that out of arrogance, I simply feel like students don’t know how to offer up valuable suggestions when looking at other people’s work. And that is why I find these principles so great; not only are they a way to offer advice to make a design better, they also put pressure on the one critiquing to understand what it is they are looking at and that is probably the biggest problem with the critiques I’m involved in. I see this as the perfect way to enter into a critique and I will surely be using these in the future.
“The creative act is no longer about building something out of nothing but rather building something new out of cultural products that already exist.”
That is from Wired Magazine’s 7 Essential Skills You Didn’t Learn in College section on “Remix Culture.” I’ve been thinking about meta content recently; work that is based on preexisting frameworks and products. How many people make a living and spend their time writing critiques on movies and music and books? How many people spend their free time writing fan fiction based on their favorite television shows? How much art is built on preexisting works?
This bothers me. It frustrates and unsettles me. Is there nothing new? Are we simply left with dissecting work that’s already finished? I wonder how much time is spent (wasted?) making fan art, producing work that honors old content, or reviewing and critiquing new work that could be spend crafting new original art. I guess this is why I’m blown away when Sufjan Stevens writes a 25 minute song or a show like LOST comes along or that at half way through, I still can’t put down East of Eden. It’s like a breath of fresh air. A wind of new and original feels good amidst a culture of meta content.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of work. There is a place for it in culture. I just pray to God that Wired is wrong and there are still people producing amazing work from nothing.
And for what it’s worth, the seven principles in Wired’s feature are fantastic. I think each one is important in today’s culture. It’s especially interesting to look at them through the lens of design. Each skill is critical to today’s working designer; more proof that the creative fields are needed now more than ever.
On May 29, 1913, Igor Stravinsky debuted his newest piece of music, The Rite of Spring, at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The composition was played to the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky. The Rite of Spring was different than the other classical music of the time; it was rhythmically adventurous and devoid of classic structure.
Midway into the performance, this shocking piece of music, when paired with Nijinsky’s equally radical ballet, a riot broke out. The often violent dance steps and Stravinsky’s ambiguous hamonies drew boos and yells from the crowd. This quickly escalated to yelling and fistfights. The Paris police were called in to calm the riot.
In 1913, this piece of music caused a full out riot in aisles but here in 2010, we listen to Rite of Spring as a classic.
There is a chance that when you create something new, your audience won’t get it right away. There is a chance that when you innovate—truly innovate—that people will criticize it, dissect it, pull it apart, and strip it of it’s life. And there is a chance that when you create something new and provocative and different, it just might be a little ahead of its time.
In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and theirselves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read, but the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
But there are times when a critic truly risks something. And that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night I experienced something new. An extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core.
In the past, I have made no secret of my distain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto “Anyone can cook,” but I realize only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.
Leave it to a Pixar film—an animated movie, a cartoon—to get me thinking about the relationship between artist and critic and even more, the content that fills this blog. Because in many ways, that’s what I do here. Somewhere along the way I’ve taken on the role of the critic—linking to someone else’s work but offering my thoughts on it.
Who do I think I am? Does having a blog that a lot of people read everyday somehow give me permission to offer up my critique of another artist’s work? “Does everything need to be dissected?” Frank Chimero asked in a recent post on his blog, “Doesn’t dissecting kill things that used to be alive?” The first time I read those words I nearly leapt out of my seat in excitement. I ran downstairs to find someone to share it with because it so deeply resonated with how I feel.
Is that how I want to spend my time—sitting around dissecting everyone else’s art? Killing things that used to be alive? That’s easy to do. Like Anton Ego states: the critic risks little. A critic thinks she somehow sits above the rest of us. A critic doesn’t have to do something new. A critic doesn’t face the resistance. A critic doesn’t have to worry about a little voice in his head telling him no one will like his work.
I’ve gotten too comfortable in the role of the critic. I find myself all too often dissecting the media I come across perhaps erasing it of what made it beautiful in the first place. So I feel like this blog is changing. I need to remind myself I’m an artist first, not a critic. I want to spend my time creating my own meaningful body of work instead, pushing forward, seeking the new instead of critiquing the brave few who are already doing it. I still want to share the things I find that make me excited but I don’t want that to be the focus. I want to start producing and sharing more original content again. I want to be friends with the new.
Anyone can have a blog critiquing and dissecting other people’s work. But work I produce, that can’t be found anywhere else. And that’s what makes this blog mine.