What Do We Want from Design Criticism?
“So what exactly is graphic design criticism?” asked Rick Poynor 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 Poynor), 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.
So in 1995, when Mr. Poynor asked Michael Rock about design criticism, he was asking after a decade of increasing awareness of the importance of dialogue within and around the profession. “While we might not recognize it as such, design criticism is everywhere, underpinning all institutional activity—design education, history, publishing and professional associations,” Rock responded, “The selection, description and reproduction of designed artifacts in books and magazines, for instance, is the work of theory.”
Looking at the design landscape when this conversation was published, it would appear Vignelli’s desire had become reality—perhaps graphic design could now be considered a real profession. Many designers turned to writing, building their careers as designer-critics, practicing professionals who also spent time writing about the field.
Yet, despite the plethora of blogs and publications, regular lectures and roundtables, and design criticism graduate programs at New York’s School of Visual Arts, The Royal College of London, and the Royal College of Arts, designers are still calling for greater critical discourse. In an interview with Prem Krishnamurthy as part of an exhibition currently on display in New York City, the topic of discourse came up:
One of the things about graphic design that, for us, has always been a shame is that architecture has a rich dialogue around it, a historical discourse; it has people who write about it. It has people who really look at the questions of history and intentionality that are at play there. Graphic design doesn't quite have that discourse and I think, for us, one of things that would be really exciting is to somehow play a role in getting people to write about graphic design in a way that we ourselves would love to read—and to see—the work of our peers and really interesting graphic design being examined with the same kind of criticality that other disciplines have.
It’s been thirty years since Vignelli declared it was time for “words to be heard” yet we still find designers calling for richer dialogue surrounding the profession. What more are designers looking for? Perhaps the question is less about why there isn’t more design criticism and more about what we want from it.
Krishnamurthy’s comparison to architecture feels especially apt to me. Unlike film or music, architecture, like graphic design, is primarily created in service of something else: for a client, for the public, for the community. “Buildings are everywhere, large and small, ugly and beautiful, ambitious and dumb,” writes Alexandra Lange in her piece for Design Observer, How to Be an Architecture Critic, “We walk among them and live inside them, largely passive dwellers in cities of towers, houses, open spaces and shops we had no hand in creating. But we are their best audience.” Such is the same for graphic design: large and small, ugly and beautiful, graphic design is everywhere—largely invisible—interacting with people who have no knowledge of design, yet are still its best audience.
The challenge in writing design criticism is the temptation to remove the audience; by taking out of the equation the very people who interact and live among it. By isolating graphic design—whether in a critical journal or a museum show—it’s removed from its environment, rendering it work that can only be discussed on its aesthetic qualities. Unlike a work of art, an album, or a film, design must interact with the real world, rubbing up against the cultural vernacular.1
For years publications like The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker have had full-time architecture critics on their staff publishing regular columns. Why has graphic design never had anything like that? Why hasn’t our profession seen this kind of mainstream audience? In an essay for Design Observer—ironically warning of a possible death of architecture criticism in the near future—Thomas Fisher notes why architectural criticism is necessary:
Architecture criticism is in danger of disappearing at the very moment when we need, more than ever, a searching and sustained critical conversation about the built world. That conversation should try to help the larger public understand the designed environment not simply as an economic abstraction or tourist attraction, not merely as a matter of privileged amenities or rarefied aesthetics, but more fully as a continuous and immersive environment vital to social well-being and national identity. Demystifying architecture, and powerfully articulating its extensive impact, will ultimately help us understand how to deleverage it.
What architecture criticism has done well is it has made it about something bigger than just architecture—they’ve turned it intoa critical conversation about the built world. The best architecture criticism places the reader in the center of a world they’re familiar with and puts the building in a context that means something to them. Architecture, like graphic design, lives outside the white cube and must live and breath and grow with its audience. Good criticism can help that audience make sense of it.
In his 1923 essay The Function of Criticism, T.S. Elliot wrote that the role of the critic is to decide “what is useful to us and what is not”. By framing the discussion of the present, the critic assembles a canon of work—aesthetics, positions, and theories that are meant to be remembered. “An historical canon is perpetually generated,” Michael Rock continued, “a canon that will influence the next generation of designers by indicating what work is of value, what is worth saving, what is excluded.” And in developing this canon, the critic gives design a history which, to paraphrase Andrew Belvault, implies it also has a future.
Design doesn’t need reviews like albums or films or books. Design doesn’t need critics simply writing about what is good and what is bad2. What design criticism needs is writers telling us what is important, why it matters, and what it means in its larger context. In a piece for The New Yorker on the art of criticism, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote that all criticism is based on a simple equation: knowledge + taste = meaningful judgement. “The key word here is meaningful,” Mendelsohn writes, “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.” Despite the plethora of avenues for criticism, perhaps it is this meaningful analysis that is lacking in graphic design. Aside from some incredibly talented writers like the aforementioned Steven Heller, Rick Poynor and Ellen Lupton, much of the design writing available to us comes from designer-critics, working designers who often find time to write about the field in their spare time (practitioners like Michael Bierut, Rob Giampietro, and Lorraine Wild come to mind). While these designer-critics have added a lot to the profession, graphic design also needs dedicated writers, drawing on their knowledge and taste, to further the discourse. As Poynor continued in the conversation, “The critic can only learn what is possible by constantly writing.”
For graphic design criticism to succeed and to cultivate the dialogue designers have been calling for for thirty years, it needs to view graphic design as more than objects needing reviews but as cultural artifacts that teach us about the larger visual world; it needs to cultivate a canon of the design work that changed and advanced the field to prepare us for the future; and it needs dedicated writers who can provide deeper insight and analysis to tell us why it is important.
Nancy Levinson sums it up nicely in her essay, Critical Beats:
But it seems fair to describe good criticism as criticism that strives not only for an immediate, personalized response but also for a richly informed and insightful understanding of the state of the discipline and how it both reflects and shapes the larger culture. It's criticism rooted in deep experience, comprehensive knowledge and (yes) love. How can you make others care if you don't care?
The best criticism comes from a place of love—love for the field, love for the work, and love for the audience. It’s about caring. In caring about the craft, the writer can build a world that invites others to care as well. ✖
I think the same challenge exists for technology and web culture at large—apps, social media, etc. There have been calls for greater discourse surrounding each of these mediums and the challenge is to critique them in a deeper way. It shouldn't be surprising then that tech sites like The Verge and Gizmodo are expanding their coverage outside of just gadget reviews. ↩
That's why logo blogs often read so dry. Reviewing a logo out of the context from which exists will always be a shallow discussion resulting in nothing more than debate over colors and typography. As a profession priding itself on being more than visual artists, this type of criticism does nothing to advance the field. ↩