This article by Steven Heller 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 article of their choice. Check back in a week for the next installment in this conversation between past and present.
“In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” —Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
Whoever said “Criticism is easy, art is difficult,” echoed the lament of many artists bruised by judgmental reviewers. Yet true criticism—in-depth analysis and incisive interpretation—is endemic to any public endeavor where the quality of ideas and execution requires scrutiny.
“Criticism is the windows and chandeliers of art,” wrote the critic George Jean Nathan. “It illuminates the enveloping darkness in which art might otherwise rest only vaguely discernible and perhaps altogether unseen.” Graphic design is indeed vaguely discernible—seen but not understood, consumed but not appreciated as part of a larger social, commercial, and cultural context. At least that’s the complaint practitioners who view themselves and their work as more culturally significant than their world (or their clients) gives them credit for. They clamor for a body of criticism that will help legitimize the graphic design profession as criticism did for architecture and industrial design. In turn, some editors and writers have rejected the conventional celebratory “journalism” in the trade press for the rigors of critical analysis, which looks through cultural and social lenses in addition to the aesthetic and business ones.
Yet the critical response to criticism has been mixed. Some veteran designers, who for years have been sheltered from criticism, have referred to it as name-calling. Younger designers insist that they want a cold eye, but in fact prefer a warm hand. Celebrating success and ignoring failure has been the prevailing editorial policy for years. Substituting a rigorous critical analysis, no matter how positive, does not compensate for the loss of flattering profiles that can be used as self-promotion. This ambivalence has essentially limited the potential forums for critical discourse. Most design magazines continue to showcase good work as primary content, and since relatively few publication channels are available, intelligent criticism is developing slowly. Although the quality of design writing has generally improved as journalism has replaced cronyism, the current level of criticism fluctuates between the astute and the sophomoric. Seasoned and neophyte writers alike are grappling with a problem of how to develop a unique critical vocabulary or adapt such existing methodologies as semiotics and French linguistic theory.
This leads one to the curious conclusion that there is both too much and too little graphic design criticism today: too much undisciplined rhetoric and too little rigorous analysis.
Yet for a profession that until recently had a dearth of critical discourse, save for the tacit disapproval that comes with rejection from annual competitions, it could also be said that any semblance of graphic design criticism is better than none. We now have the basis for a more viable discipline; editors and writers on graphic design are beginning to realize that analysis, argument, and debate are necessary cornerstones in building a profession out of this service-oriented field. But the true nature of graphic design criticism has yet to be adequately defined. Is it academic or journalistic? Who’s qualified to practice? What are the rules of the game? And what and who are fair game for critical investigation?
Without these basic, as yet unestablished, parameters, graphic design criticism is merely an amateur sport.
Most writers of graphic design criticism are capable, some are expert in their field of knowledge, but few are trained in historical or critical analysis. In fact, few if any design institutions seriously prepare students for such analysis. Many who write criticism are self-taught and engage in it as a sideline to their design or teaching practices. While practitioner-critics are vital to the discourse, they don’t command the same authority as professional journalists, who are paid to write about art, architecture, and industrial design, and by virtue of their “professional” status are afforded the necessary credentials. One might argue that, as in amateur versus professional athletics, salary, not ability, is what distinguishes the amateur from the professional critic. But the means to earn money is key to the development of healthy criticism. A profession that cannot support professional critics is in danger of perpetually noodling its navel.
So where do we begin? Critical discourse in literature and art is initially played out in the academic arena, often as an adjunct to graduate education, with journals and symposia as the primary media. The impulse toward graphic design criticism is currently stimulated at Cal Arts, Cranbrook, and Yale in the form of theses that challenge students not only to produce but to analysze their graphic design work rigorously. The process opens up students to the acceptance of criticism outside the academic environment as well. Yet, generally speaking, academic criticism, with its emphasis on formalism and experimental work, can be so arcane and involuted that it ceases to be a viable means of evaluating most commercial graphic design. Unlike fine art, which is essentially about formalism, graphic design is about form, intent, function, and context, and accordingly must be analyze through a wide-angle lens.
“When you talk about Cranbrook or Cal Arts you must talk about the formal quality because that’s what’s there,” says Karrie Jacobs, critic-at-large for Metropolis. “But when what’s taught there gets out into the world and turns into the mainstream, then you have to start looking beyond the formal quality.” Jacobs argues that design criticism is too introspective, and says that the only way to write about design intelligently, “at least in a satisfying manner for me, is to look at it from the other end—from the outside in. I don’t feel that I can do formal analysis and make a point anymore. There’s always a client relationship there. So I don’t think one can sit back and say, “This is the most beautifully credited serif on the face of the earth.’ Well you can, but it just doesn’t mean much.”
Writers of graphic design criticism agree that formal issues are but one part of the equation. “I’m not very interested in talking about how beautiful a new Chermayeff poster might be,” says historian Philip Meggs. “Right now graphic design criticism needs to address the problem of values. What does graphic design mean in terms of the evolution of culture and our ability to confront our environmental and sociological dilemmas?” Yet design criticism, whose focus is on moral and ethical values or issues of political correctness, can also be too rarefied, at times ignoring the design itself. While context is important, the act of designing is still governed by an inherent logic rooted in form. “I think you can criticize some critics for veering away from the actual act of design,” counters Michael Rock, who writes a column for ID and is a design professor at Yale. “But I don’t see it as a problem because these issues draw out the idea that besides being a mediating factor, design is important in popular culture.”
Compared to architecture criticism, which is naturally concerned with the function of a building in its environment and its relationship to people, there hasn’t been a compelling need—particularly given the criteria of the beauty pageant shows—to analyze graphic design in other than aesthetic or tactile terms. What you see is what you get, and what you get is simply the manipulation of forms with the goal of problem solving in mind. So before delving further into the nature of graphic design criticism, one must decide whether it’s fundamentally necessary to push the conventions outward. Kathy McCoy, who directs the graduate program at Cranbrook Academy and encourages her students to explore the process and result of their work, argues, “The stakes are equally high in graphic design [as in architecture]. Information and communication are the substance of our economy and culture, and we’re in the middle of it. So we have a cultural imperative to take ourselves seriously in any way possible. It’s important that professionals periodically engage in self-criticism and dialogue, too.
One of the key stumbling blocks, according to Karrie Jacobs, in developing acceptance for design criticism is that “designers don’t see outside of their design brief and expect that design criticism should focus, indeed merely report, on their problem-solving role.” “The critic doesn’t understand what went into my work” is a common refrain among designers who are placed in the critical spotlight and feel wronged by the mini formed critics, usually defined as one who either failed the grasp the intention of a work or did not discuss it directly with its creator.
While understanding the goals of the design brief and intention of the designer is useful, indeed necessary in some cases, it’s not essential to the development of an informed analysis. “Historically, criticism doesn’t need any kind of validation from the person who actually produced the work,” says Michael Rock. However, while a theater or film critic doesn’t interview the creator before reviewing a performance, for more incisive overage such encounters may be beneficial, if only to the critic. As an example, for an ID article, Rock found, after interviewing art director Fabien Baron, that the way Baron portrayed his work and Rock’s interpretation of it didn’t align. “That doesn’t mean that he’s right and I’m wrong, or vice versa, but that the work has a life outside of the person who made it…that doesn’t have to be intended. The job of the critic isn’t to report on what the person who made it thinks, but to explain what the work does.”
The critic is a interpreter, sometimes an ally of the creator, as Clement Greenberg was to the Abstract Expressionists, or as an enemy, as Hilton Kramer is to anything the slightest bit new. Philip Meggs sees a paradigm for graphic design criticism in the work of Guillaume Apollinaire, “who in the early years of Moderism helped the Cubists define what they were all about. I think we need that level of criticism in graphic design, and it’s not yet happening effectively.”
Ellen Lupton, the curator of the recent “Mechanical Brides” exhibition (a critical examination of advertising and product semantics) at the Cooper-Hewitt, believes that graphic design criticism is progressing nicely in its early stages, and says that it works on various interpretive levels. “On one hand, a critic might try to get inside the mind of the creator. One the other, the critic attempts to take the position of the receiver, or audience, of the work and is less interested in what the designer intended and more in what the cultural uses and meaning have to be. Criticism moves between the two. When you only talk about the cultural meaning or function, you lose design. On the other hand, you can really reify our practice into something that’s pure style and gesture by not talking about culture.”
The client is another mitigating factor in graphic design criticism. Should critics focus on the problem-solving nature of graphic design and play down the cultural nuances? Or should critics transcend business to focus on the more art-informed aspects of design? In the related field of advertising, critics concentrate almost exclusively on function at the expense of form and aesthetics. The typography, imagery, and concepts of an advertisement are less important than how the problem was solved and its success or failure, particularly in terms of sales. The “creative” side of advertising is addressed as it affects marketability. Since advertising directly touches everybody’s life, this approach to criticism is found in the mainstream press and is more than marginally interesting to laypeople.
Graphic design, however, is harder to quantify in the marketplace and more invisible to the consumer.
A poster or brochure may stimulate awareness but not directly drive sales, and thus is harder to analyze in the same way as advertising. Yet the client does have needs and demands that govern how a work develops. Design critics haven’t yet figured out how to incorporate business issues into criticism, however.
The dichotomy between design as business and as art (or culture) may never be satisfactorily wed. According to Rick Poynor, the editor of Eye, England’s only critical graphic design magazine, “Criticism has been inhibited by the fact that designers are stuck at the ‘let’s perform a service for a client’ level, and the discussion simply revolved around how to be a professional.” Moreover, he continues, “designers want to control the presentation of their work. They can’t just step back from it and let the world react to and operate on it. And I see that as a real problem.”
Poynor agrees with most critics that graphic design criticism should be more about cultural than business concerns in order to elevate it in the public’s consciousness. “What I’d really like to do myself is critical journalism…which is something quite distinct from academic criticism, partly because it’s aimed at a wider readership than the kind of writing aimed at the specialist or student. We’re talking about making the material accessible, and to do that, you have to use journalistic techniques. You have to accept that the writing must hold attentions, and to a degree that it must entertain. If you’re unable to amuse the reader as well as to inform them for the length of a three- or four-thousand-word article, then you run the risk of losing their attention.”
Yet with all this reverent talk about culture, can we really assume that graphic design criticism has viability outside of the tiny business or academic words that Poynor and Jacobs believe are trapping designers and stifling the development of criticism?
At this early stage it seems unlikely that even the best graphic design critics are writing for a general audience. Phil Patton, who writes on industrial and product design for ID, Wired, The New York Times, and Esquire was able to place a graphic design story in Esquire only when it related to a decidedly popular interest. An article on Émigré fonts and David Carson’s typefaces was run only because the editor assumed that many readers owned Macs and were interested in these typographic peripherals. According to Patton, the magazine received many letters requesting more information, but this didn’t make it any easier to pitch later articles about graphic design.
“It’s hard enough writing on industrial design for the mass press,” he reports. “After all, what passes for art and architecture criticism is already watered down for a general audience.” By the same token, what few stories there are about graphic design in the mainstream press are usually about quaint stylistic phenomena by reporters who know little about the field. Limitations on mainstream outlets for graphic design criticism further contribute to the paucity of professional critics.
For the present, graphic design criticism will continue to be directed inward.
“The nature of the criticism is still being shaped by the fact that its main audience is other designers,” says Poynor. “So what you see, however tough and abrasive the criticism, is a profession talking to itself about itself, and that, in the end, is very limiting on what design criticism can accomplish.” Unless graphic design criticism is folded into broader critical studies of mass communications or popular culture, our potential pool of writers will be trained designers rather then trained outside critics whose perspectives are every bit as necessary as the insider’s. While this doesn’t mean that graphic design criticism is in a holding pattern—indeed, most critics agree that Eye, Print, ID, and the AIGA Journal are making it easier for those so inclined to get published—the level does need to expand beyond the imposed boundaries of what is graphic design. “We need to build bridges with disciplines outside graphic design,” says Poynor. But in terms of developing more viable graphic design criticism, Ellen Lupton puts it simply: “There has to be more of it—more people involved in it, reading it, and writing. It’ starting to happen, and that’s good.”