If the term “design criticism” brings to mind long, rambling essays that pale in comparison to their accompanying images and layout—you know, the serious, yawn-inducing stuff most word-averse designers feel duty-bound to plow through anyhow, this crop of recent sites—The Passable Designer, The Message is Medium Rare, and Reading Design—will jolt you out of your endless-scroll stupor and show you how critical writing about design can be smart, funny, and unexpected.
Imagine The Onion on design. The Passable Designer is a satirical news site that offers “breathtakingly honest coverage of the world’s least self-absorbed industry”. London-based product designer Zander Brade began the site in October 2015 when he got tired of his daily life as a designer.
“I was far more interested in writing prose or singing songs with my guitar, which still remains the case because that’s really cool, but Passable became a healthy vessel for projecting my professional disdain—an incestuous, slithering marriage of my interests in design and literature, a love story for the ages,” he said in an e-mail interview.
From a report on how boring a group of designers’ conversation about Comic Sans is to another piece on an incredibly talented female designer being turned down for a job because of “some reason that’s not obvious at all,” Brade delivers some serious critique that hits home after you finish laughing at how ridiculously true the situation is.
Contrary to his fears that readers will be offended (he says he prefers to be punched in the face rather than sued), he says people actually like what he’s written. “I fear it could all be a grand (though rather depressing) prank, and I’ll leave my apartment one day to hundreds of designers in button-downs and overpriced jeans laughing at me for using the wrong grid system on the site,” he says.
While Brade delivers critique with satire, Christopher Simmons (a member of AIGA’s national board) uses burgers instead. The San Francisco designer and his colleague Nathan Sharp at design office MINE™ started reviewing burgers two years ago as a way of dishing out criticism on advertising and design. What started as critiques of the burgers they ate for lunch turned into the renowned blog, The Message Is Medium Rare. Each post starts with a mouth-watering shot of a burger, followed by Simmons’ food review and a related takeaway on advertising and design.
After eating a pricey burger, for example, he might muse on how creatives should price their services. Encountering a burger restaurant that offers tomatoes as an option only when they’re of good enough quality reminds Simmons of an award-winning annual report design that almost came undone because of low-quality pictures. All in all, Simmons shows how “there is no creative problem that can’t be solved by eating a hamburger.”
In an interview with venture capitalists The Designer Fund last year, he said “I’m always interested in the essence of things—about their true nature. If a burger is on an English muffin instead of a regular bun, is it still a burger? What if it’s pork belly instead of ground beef? The more I thought about it, the more I found parallels to design and creativity in general.”
The literary approach that Brade and Simmons have taken to critiquing design may be fresh, but it’s not entirely new. Reading Design is an online archive of critical writings about design started in 2015 by the Financial Times’ architecture and design critic, Edwin Heathcote, and he’s uncovered several surprising pieces. Alongside well-known writings, such as industrial designer Dieter Rams’ manifesto on good design, you can also read Oscar Wilde’s thoughts on house decoration and Edgar Allan Poe’s philosophy on furniture.
Reflecting on finding philosopher Thorstein Veblen’s chapter “Conspicuous Consumption” in the archive, publisher Tim Abrahams wrote on Medium that Reading Design “has shown how diverse in origin the texts which constitute important, well-written design writing is.” Some have argued that Veblen’s proposal that design generated its own field of knowledge amongst the leisure class form a founding principle of design theory.
If there’s one thing that these websites teach us it’s that opportunities to think critically about design are all around us—we just need to look hard, and maybe even start writing some of our own.