We graphic designers have a love-hate relationship with criticism. We say we want more of it and then complain when we get it. We want the general public to understand what we do, yet when they write about our work, we pick apart how they got it wrong. We say we want a seat at the table, to be respected by business, but then complain that all we get is a devolved ‘design thinking.’ For people who market themselves as clear communicators, we have a hard time explaining what it is we actually do, let alone articulate what the criticism we continually call for should look like. Ask a dozen designers what graphic design criticism is and you’ll get a dozen different answers.
This is the question writer Rick Poynor asked designer Michael Rock in the now-seminal dialog published in Eye Magazine in 1995, “What Is This Thing Called Graphic Design Criticism?” “Compared to art or film criticism, the term ‘graphic design criticism’ has an unfamiliar, slightly uncomfortable ring,” Poynor begins. “It is one that even the most avid reader of graphic design magazines and books will encounter rarely, if at all.” The two go on to discuss the relationship between design and writing and what type of design criticism they want to see more of. Where Poynor articulates a type of ‘journalistic criticism’ that frames a designer or designed object in a larger context, Rock was interested in applying cultural criticism, like literary theory or semiotics, to design writing.
The conversation was published in the middle of a kind of a design criticism renaissance. Poynor’s own Eye magazine was a leading design publication, along with Emigre, the Bay Area avant garde magazine from the eponymous type foundry by Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko. Around the same time, magazines like Print and I.D. (where Rock was a graphic design journalist) began publishing critical pieces on graphic design, as were the handful of academic journals dedicated to design. A year earlier, designers Michael Beirut, William Drenttel, and design writer, and historian Steven Heller published the first book in the Looking Closer series, an anthology of the best recent design writing that, over the next decade, would span five volumes. Indeed, this was an era of abundance. Photoshop 1.0—released in 1990 for $850 for the Macintosh Plus—lowered the bar for entry, speeding up the design process and allowing for more complex layouts and a new wave of typeface design. Debates raged between the modernists, who were skeptical of the new aesthetics emerging, and postmodernists interested in pushing the limits of this new technology. So it’s not surprising to find Rock optimistic about the future of criticism at the end of his conversation with Poynor: “We are perhaps the first generation of writers who consider themselves, as a form of self-definition, to be graphic design critics, and that sense of being at the beginning of something is extremely liberating.”
Yet when the two reconvened nearly 20 years later for a follow-up conversation, published in Rock’s 2013 monograph Multiple Signatures, much of that bright-eyed optimism is absent. “I don’t think we need too many more vague academic ‘calls’ for criticism,” Poynor says. “We need action. We need a lot more criticism and places to disseminate it.” Poynor’s language here is reminiscent of Massimo Vignelli’s, who, when asked to write a forward to the 1983 Graphis Annual, used his space to issue a call for a more rigorous design criticism:
“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 of Wisdom.”
Vignelli, trained as an architect, looked longingly at the discourse around architecture and wanted the same for graphic design. This desire seems to be shared by many, but if one were to look at the discussions around design criticism over the last 30 years, Poynor and Rock’s optimism feels like an outlier. There are seemingly perennial calls for more design criticism, much like Vignelli’s. Steven Heller, writing in AIGA’s The Journal in 1993 wrote, “A profession that cannot support professional critics is in danger of perpetually noodling its navel.”
The not-so-subtle message here is that the profession needs a critical discourse around it to be taken seriously.
Here’s Poynor again in 2005, in a post on Design Observer called “Where Are the Design Critics?”: “How are designers going to become critical in any serious way if they are not exposed to sustained critical thinking about design in the form of ambitious, intellectually penetrating criticism?” In 2012, Alexandra Lange wrote in Print magazine, “If design—graphic, product, interaction—needs criticism to make it whole and mature, it seems clear we aren’t there yet.” And here’s Khoi Vinh, writing in Fast Company in 2018, “Design, as an industry, has never been able to support a truly robust class of professional journalists and critics… even the idea of someone spending their days writing reviews of brand identities, design systems, app experiences, and the design of new products seems far-fetched.” The not-so-subtle message here is that the profession needs a critical discourse around it to be taken seriously.
I’ve heard variations of these calls for more criticism time and again when talking to designers for Scratching the Surface, my podcast about design practice and criticism. On my worst days, I’ve said it too. I came to graphic design through writing. As a suburban teenager who had never met a graphic designer before, my introduction to the field was the then-new blog Design Observer, founded by Poynor, Drenttel, Bierut, and Jessica Helfand in 2003. The internet had helped usher in a new wave of design publications; alongside Design Observer, there were sites like Core77 and Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio’s Under Consideration, a blog empire that included Speak Up, Quipsologies, FPO, and the most famous of them all, Brand New. As a teenager I ate them up, pouring over new posts as soon as I got home from school.
This is when I started writing, too. Yet despite this endless stream of writing, it felt like I had missed my moment to be part of the design discourse. Ever so slowly, the excitement around deep dives into identity systems and behind-the-scenes process posts dried up. The writers who led the pack returned to practice—there was never much money in criticism, anyway—as the print magazines slowly fell away. Emigre stopped publishing in 2005. I.D. closed shop in 2009. Last year, Print ceased publication (it’s since relaunched as online-only). And as social media emerged, the blogs slowed, too. SpeakUp shut down in 2009 as Vit and Gomez-Palacio focused on Brand New, the output on Design Observer slowed to a trickle, and dozens of other design blogs fell dormant.
And yet! There are more people talking about graphic design today than ever before in history. “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 to Poynor back in 1994. “The selection, description, and reproduction of designed artifacts in books and magazines, for instance, is the work of theory.” If we accept this definition of design criticism, then the type of criticism Rock was thinking about is, indeed, everywhere. There are graduate programs around the world devoted to design writing and criticism. Podcasts like 99% Invisible consistently rank in top downloads. When a company rebrands, discussions about the new look push the company into Twitter’s trending topics (yes #DesignTwitter is a thing). Even Netflix got in on the game with Abstract, its Chef’s Table-like docuseries on celebrity practitioners. And this doesn’t even include the countless social media feeds engaging with deep criticism (Rock’s own @microcritique on Instagram connects design and politics, and Alice Rawsthorn’s feeds are a wealth of thoughtful design history) or the variety of new publications emerging around the world focused on graphic design like Bricks from the Kiln, Modes of Criticism, and Back Cover.
To ask why there isn’t more design criticism is to ask the wrong question.
The irony in so many of these calls for criticism, of course, is that they’re mostly given at design conferences, or written for academic design journals, or published in design magazines intended for a design audience. (Look, here I am, writing about design criticism for a design publication!) To ask why there isn’t more design criticism is to ask the wrong question. Perhaps the better question is why we fail to acknowledge the great writing happening all the time around graphic design?
These calls for criticism generally fall into two camps: writing about design for designers, and writing about design for the general public. Both of these feel nostalgic for an era that is no longer possible. The design field has only gotten larger and more complex, with different designers interested in different issues. This type of criticism largely happens on Twitter, in Slack channels, at events, or with smaller groups and deeper discussions.
For the general public, it’s easy to point to the architecture critics—architecture being a field much older than graphic design with a longer history of writing and theory—as proof that graphic design isn’t taken seriously amongst the other design fields. (Think about this: in the eighties, The New York Times had not one, but two full-time architecture critics with Ada Louise Huxtable and Paul Goldberger.) Graphic design can have just as much influence on the public as a new building, so why aren’t there more graphic design critics? But criticism, too, is in a moment of crisis as publications consolidate and lay off critics, journalists, and writers. In many cases, unfortunately, the architecture critics are some of the first to go.
“This kind of discourse is harkening back to some idealized, romantic notion of a media landscape where people would read a newspaper from front to back in material form, or where there is a central public conversation,” Alice Twemlow, design lecturer at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, told me. “This is a kind of lazy nostalgia.” Training her former students at SVA’s Design Criticism program (an MFA program she previously co-founded and chaired) for possible jobs as critics at newspapers felt like a “fool’s errand.”
When I asked Michael Rock about why we continue to call for more criticism, almost 30 years after his conversation with Poynor, he also described a veneer of nostalgia. “I wonder if part of these calls is actually a feeling of loss,” he said, “of losing a center where we had something that we could point to and say ‘this is our criticism.’” Rock doesn’t think this loss is simply about a changing media landscape, however, but rather about the changing nature of graphic design itself. “I see graphic design as something that began in the 1920s and died in 2008,” he continued. “It doesn’t exist anymore. And the reason it doesn’t exist is because it’s completely infiltrated everything.”
The term “graphic designer” is widely considered to have been coined by William Addison Dwiggins in 1923 as a way to describe his work as a typesetter, printer, and illustrator. Surely this is the graphic design Massimo Vignelli was thinking about when he called for a criticism that would define the discipline, but graphic design has only gotten more complicated in the last century. It’s still typesetting and printing and illustrating, of course, but it’s also websites and apps and interfaces, brands and strategy and social media. It’s championed in business school and government, as framing architecture and fashion shows. As Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina write in Are We Human?, “The entire globe has been encrusted with a geological layer of design.” What do we do with design—and how do we talk or write about it—when it runs through all of culture?
A year before Rock and Poynor discussed design criticism in Eye, the designer and educator Gunnar Swanson published an article in the academic journal Design Issues called “Graphic Design Education as a Liberal Art.” In the essay, Swanson proposes that the tools of the designer could, and perhaps should, be accessible to everyone, arguing that graphic design is less an independent discipline, but a liberal art available to all:
We must begin to believe our own rhetoric and see design as an integrative field that bridges many subjects that deal with communication, expression, interaction, and cognition. Design should be about meaning and how meaning can be created. Design should be about the relationship of form and communication. It is one of the fields where science and literature meet. It can shine a light on hidden corners of sociology and history. Design’s position as conduit for and shaper of popular values can be a path between anthropology and political science. Art and education can both benefit through the perspective of a field that is about expression and the mass dissemination of information. Designers, design educators, and design students are in a more important and interesting field than we seem to recognize.
Swanson’s essay feels even more relevant today. Graphic design is a profession that exists (if it exists at all, ahem, Rock) at the intersections—a bridge that connects fields and professions. It is rarely about itself. Graphic design serves as a meeting point between culture and commerce, or, as Walter Gropius described it at the Bauhaus, between art and technology. (Steve Jobs borrowed this when he’d describe Apple as the “intersection of technology and liberal arts.”) Rock marks the end of graphic design in 2008 to coincide with the rise of the iPhone. Like the Macintosh before it, the iPhone radically scrambled what we mean when we talk about design. Here was a tool for creation, distribution, and consumption, all in a single, global device. This expansion of design is not one of colonization, of design moving in and taking over, but of democratization, shifting the power from the professional to the amateur. Today, the tools of the designer truly are available to everyone. “I’m becoming less and less dogmatic about holding onto this label of ‘design,’” Twemlow said. “When I first started working at KABK, I felt like an apologist for design. I kept going on and on about it, but I’ve stopped doing that so much. I just let it be without all these walls and forts built up around it.”
To be taken seriously is not to define graphic design as something separate, but to move it beyond the confines of the discipline.
Here lies the paradox of graphic design criticism. To be taken seriously, then, is not to define graphic design as something separate, but to move it beyond the confines of the discipline. “If you read that rhetoric, it’s very much about founding, establishing, and earning respect,” Twemlow adds, rereading Vignelli’s call for criticism. “That was an era of wall-building. It’s about the differences between design and art, and design and whatever. I think we’re a long way past that now.”
I asked Rock how he was feeling about design criticism today, seven years after his 2013 conversation. “Strangely, I’ve swung back around to optimism,” he told me. “What I missed then is this expansion of design into all these different fields, and with that comes tons of critical writing on what we don’t always recognize as design.” Take fake news and filter bubbles, memes and Snapchat filters; are these not also questions of design? Rock specifically mentions the meme—literally just text and image—as the clearest example of graphic design in popular culture today. Much like the debates that fueled so much design writing in the 1990s, the meme also raises questions about authorship, aesthetics, and identity, but on a much larger scale. In many cases, when graphic design is written about culturally, we no longer even consider it design.
“Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself,” Victor Papenek wrote in Design for the Real World, “runs counter to its inherent value as the underlying matrix of life.” As the world increasingly runs on visuals, writers of all kinds become more comfortable writing about branding and typography, user interface and style, in the business pages and in fashion magazines, in major newspapers and technology journals. And yes, in design publications, too. As Twemlow said to me, putting design in its own section of the newspaper was always self-defeating in fostering design criticism. “This has been the problem all along,” she said, “to see design as this arcane, esoteric thing.” Graphic design criticism is, indeed, everywhere, just as graphic design is everywhere. We just might not recognize it as such because we don’t even recognize design.