This article is in response to “Criticizing Criticism: Too Little and Too Much,” by Steven Heller, which originally ran in AIGA’s The Journal in 1993 (vol. 11, no. 4). It’s part of a series in which we invite a new generation of design critics to page through our archives and respond to an unresolved design issue.
I still remember my first encounter. Eye magazine, issue 62, 2006: Rick Poynor first takes Vogue’s advertisements to task for fusing high fashion and brutish behavior. Pages later, Steven Heller demonstrates how the Nazi party exerted its cultural dominance through calligraphy, letter, and type.
As a then journalism student who dabbled with Photoshop and InDesign in my spare time, I was sold. Instead of switching careers to become a graphic designer, I could write about it instead. No one told me what Poynor and Heller did were examples of design criticism, but how they dug into what looked cool to reveal connections to history, society, and culture, opened my eyes. The only problem? I was in Singapore, where there was no specialized graphic design magazine. But through a stroke of luck, I met a group of local graphic designers eager to create one. The bi-annual journal never made me much money, but it kept my interest in writing about graphic design afloat.
Fast forward eight years, and I’m about to graduate from the School of Visual Arts’ Design Criticism program co-founded by Heller and Alice Twemlow. I even had a workshop with Poynor last year. I should be ready to produce graphic design criticism—but what does that really mean today?
This was the conundrum that Heller and other design critics tackled in “Criticizing Criticism: Too Little and Too Much.” That their discussion on the nature of design criticism—from how it can be practiced to who it’s for—still read fresh to me was both heartening and worrisome. Their discussion happened 20 years ago, right about when the idea of graphic design criticism emerged.
So much and so little has changed since.
The same names continue to dominate graphic design criticism, except they’re now less prolific. There are still little professional opportunities to practice criticism, despite a flood of new media outlets covering design. The conversation remains dominated by Europe and the United States, even though graphic design has flourished outside the West.
Is design criticism today facing a stasis? Or even a crisis?
The kind of in-depth and critical writing that got me hooked is certainly in short supply. But the fixation with this written form seems archaic amidst the diversity of contemporary media. Films, podcasts, infographics, and live (and virtual) events are increasingly the communication channels of our times. While the media industry is investing in these forms, design criticism has yet to fully exploit them. The success of design podcasts such as Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible, and the growth of design film festivals around the world show the viability of these alternative media for delivering thoughtful commentary on design.
The need to rethink the form that design criticism takes also responds to shifts in the economics of media creation. Even as the rise of “branded publishing” (a.k.a. self-published monographs) and “native advertising” (think celebratory profiles on designers) distract design writers from criticism, there are also new opportunities to seek direct support for its existence. New British design magazine Dirty Furniture was successfully crowdfunded on the promise that the publication would take design out of the glossy showroom and write about it in a wider context. Another example is Peter Bil’ak’s Works That Work, a magazine about the impact of design on our everyday lives. Working with its readers to fund, contribute, and distribute the magazine, Bil’ak has reduced the need for advertisers and even aims to eliminate them completely.
While independence is important to create a safe harbor for fostering design criticism, it needs to reach outside of design for its writers and readers, too. To help the public—and that includes designers—critically understand this thing we call design, design critics should build platforms, not just media, that facilitate critical discussions. Case in point: Paola Antonelli’s ongoing Design and Violence project for the Museum of Modern Art. By getting experts from various fields to respond to design projects, this online exhibition has generated much critical discussions around the destructive potential of design.
If there’s any stasis in design criticism at all today, it’s the preconceived notion that it stops at writing.
But just as design has permeated all aspects of life today, so must this thing we still call design criticism.