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.
Maria Popova linked to this wonderful quote from Susan Sontag today on the divide between “high” and “low” cultures:
If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky, but do I have to choose? … Happenings did not make me care less about Aristotle and Shakespeare. I was — I am — for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture.
She then compared this to Greil Marcus’s 2013 SVA commencement speech on the same topic:
I’ve always believed that the divisions between high art and low art, between high culture, which really ought to be called “sanctified culture,” and what’s sometimes called popular culture, but really ought to be called “everyday culture” — the culture of anyone’s everyday life, the music I listen to, the movies you see, the advertisements that infuriate us and that sometimes we find so thrilling, so moving — I’ve always believed that these divisions are false. And, as a result of trying to make that argument over the years, I’ve also come to believe that these divisions are permanent — they can be denied, but they can never go away.
This makes me think about Jesse Thorn’s fantastic NPR show Bullseye. In one episode, Thorn can go from talking about his favorite poem to recommending a video game to interviewing a guest about old movies or comic books. This is something I’ve thought about a lot—this division between high brow and low brow art. In my own life, I’ve wanted to erase that divide in the art I consume, hoping to seamlessly jump between them, giving them both equal importance.
I used to refer to my love of pop music as a guilty pleasure, going from listening to jazz to Katy Perry or Taylor Swift in a day can feel schizophrenic and jarring. But then I realized that these divisions are created by culture—there are no guilty pleasures. If you like something, why feel guilty about it? Maybe the differences between high and low cultures are the same—simply false divisions put upon us.
The stream of art in our culture is deep and wide and there is plenty of love to spread out. To echo Sontag, liking Katy Perry or Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t mean I like Miles Davis or Kurt Vonnegut less. You don’t have to make those divisions.
Company culture as interaction design
"Artificial cultures are instant. They’re big bangs made of mission statements, declarations, and rules. They are obvious, ugly, and plastic. Artificial culture is paint.
Real cultures are built over time. They’re the result of action, reaction, and truth. They are nuanced, beautiful, and authentic. Real culture is patina.”
—Jason Fried, You don’t create a culture
I’ve been thinking about office culture a lot lately—how to develop it, how to foster it, and how to create it. I’ve long felt that a lot of company cultures feel fake—that if a culture is mandated or initiated from the top they are actually inauthentic within the company.
I’ve started to think about culture in the same way I think about interaction design. And like interaction design, culture is not static, it is ever-changing and always moving. Companies are built by teams which are built by departments which are people by people and each new employee adds a layer to the culture and they bring their own perspectives, insights, and backgrounds into the fold.
A principle I return to often in thinking about interaction design is the idea of frameworks and platforms. Designing frameworks means the designer has the first word, not the last. It means the designer gets to start the conversation but leaves room for improvisation and for others to add and contribute.
Real culture isn’t rigid and can’t be mandated. You can start the conversation, but each employee brings their own experiences to the table. Each new employee, each new voice will change your company culture in a small way and that’s okay. That’s good! Trying to enforce a particular company culture will be fake and leave employees disconnected from their work. All you can do is add your contribution and create space for the culture to move and grow and evolve and patina.
What Your Culture really says
When Culture Turns into Policy
“The teaching of art is the teaching of all things.”
I’ve been going back and listening to some old episodes of BBC’s wonder In Our Time podcast. I really enjoyed this one on the famous Victorian art critic John Ruskin and this quote from Ruskin’s writing stopped me dead in my tracks.
I took four art history courses in school (two general art, and two design-specific) and found that the best art history courses always teach you more than expected. I think learning about art also teaches you about cultures and people and religion and politics. I’ve found the more I learn about art, the more I want to learn about everything surrounding it.
One of my favorite professors in school was my first design history professor and the reason he was my favorite was because I found the most interesting things I was learning were not the things inside my design text book. He had an uncanny ability to make connections between cultures and images making for a more holistic history course that guided by design movements. Think James Burke or John Berger. Learning about art is learning about the world.
“I think I continue to be engaged with design because it’s so tied to the rest of my world. Design is informed by music, culture, politics, and everything else that’s happening around us. Being involved and aware of these other things only makes our work better. It’s a good excuse for me to go out and live an engaging life outside of design.”
“[U]ndergraduate art education seemed overly concerned with ‘how to make’ and ‘what to make’ sorts of questions. I believed that the more important questions were why make and how does making fit within a context larger than the history of art.”
This was a fascinating interview with Randall Szott. He talks a lot about the philosophy of art and making things as well as how art fits into culture and what it can contribute. I nearly fell off my chair when I read this part:
[L]et me draw a parallel with cooking. I am a professional cook and have worked in some highly regarded “fine dining” restaurants, but I would never assume that this makes my cooking inherently better than a home cook. Likewise, I’ve eaten at some of the most refined restaurants in the country as well as some of the most humble. There is no inherently superior cooking. Sure professional cooking of the fine dining variety tends to be more refined or subtle, but home cooking has its pleasures too. The real question is what sort of meal are you looking to have? Does it taste good? Does it satisfy your hunger? There are plenty of food snobs to be sure, but most of the chefs I know are infinitely more flexible in their tastes and open to a wide world of culinary experiences, from Michelin starred restaurants to street vendors. I find it sad commentary on the art world that the same cannot be said of them.
Holy cow. Spot on.
Top 10 of 2010
TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2010
(Wow! What a year for music! It was very hard to narrow down this list.)
- Sigh No More - Mumford & Sons
- The Age of Adz - Sufjan Stevens
- Winter of Mixed Drinks - Frightened Rabbit
- Go - Jonsi
- Born Again - Newsboys
- The Suburbs - Arcade Fire
- Contra - Vampire Weekend
- All Day - Girl Talk
- Happiness - Hurts
Honorable Mentions: The Way Off - The Books, Disappearing World - Fair, Of Men and Angels - The Rocket Summer, Volume II - She & Him, LOVE - Angels and Airways, All Delighted People EP - Sufjan Stevens, Dark is the Way, Light is a Place - Anberlin, Write About Love - Belle & Sebastian, Brothers - The Black Keys, The Medicine - John Mark McMillan
TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2010
- The Social Network
- Toy Story 3
- Exit Through the Giftshop
- Crazy Heart
- Shutter Island
- Sherlock Holmes
- The Art of the Steal
- The Switch
- Robin Hood
Honorable Mentions: Alice in Wonderland, Date Night
TOP 10 BOOKS READ IN 2010
(I don’t read enough new books each year, so these are my favorite books I read in 2010 as opposed to books that released in 2010.)
- Lust for Life - Irving Stone
- East of Eden - John Steinbeck
- Proust Was A Neuroscientist - Jonah Lehrer
- Conversations with Woody Allen - Eric Lax
- The Sabbath - Abraham Joshua Heshel
- Linchpin - Seth Godin
- The Anthologist - Nicholson Baker
- How (Not) To Speak of God - Peter Rollins
- Art & Physics - Leonard Shlain
- Studio Culture - Adrian Shaughnessy
Honorable Mentions: Look Both Ways - Debbie Millman, What The Dog Saw - Malcolm Gladwell, Slapstick - Kurt Vonnegut, The Meaning of Jesus - Marcus Borg & N.T. Wright