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.”
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.
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.