I just listened to the latest episode of Through Process, a podcast by designers Namdev Hardisty and Mitch Goldstein. This time they were joined by Jarrett Fuller, currently a designer working on Facebook for Business, to discuss design criticism. It was the best (and longest!) episode yet, but then again I’m biased: I studied design criticism as SVA, and previously studied graphic design at the University of Texas. The podcast brought up lots of #feelings that I’m grappling with on a daily basis.
Listening to Mitch, Namdev and Jarrett talk passionately about stuff that makes my world go round, I thought about why I made the decision to leave my graphic design practice and transition over to design criticism. I don’t know that I’ve ever attempted to articulate this life change. Because really, I love making things. But the only thing I love more than making things is seeing how other people make things, hearing about their choices throughout the process. I’m a decent designer, but it simply isn’t where my strengths and skills led me.
Why Would Anyone Study Design Criticism
I’m obsessed with Project Runway. This is odd because, though I own a sewing machine, I couldn’t give two cents about fashion; Vogue is the last magazine you will find in my home. As I’ve become obsessed with other competition shows over time, I’ve realized the subject doesn’t matter. It could be cake decorating, interior renovation, or hairstyling. I watch with rapt interest.
There’s one thing all of these shows have in common: the structure of the assignment, followed by the work, and finally the visual delivery. I will never get tired of seeing someone’s unique interpretation of an assignment. It is nothing short of magic to give a set of parameters to a person, only to have them compute, process, and transform that input into a visual form. What is it in their brains that triggered such a response? How does their experience of life and culture lead them to that particular finished product? This gets at the heart of why I study design criticism; it is a lens I use to translate a designer’s thoughts and processes into a narrative that explains the choices made by creative humans, and why these choices matter. I’m pretty sure there’s a much more eloquent way to say that. Or maybe that sentence just needs another comma or something.
Just as every designer will have a completely different response to a challenge, so do design critics and writers. When I was lucky enough to sit in Alexandra Lange’s class for a semester, nothing was more astonishing than reading aloud our 1500 word reviews of a building we had visited the previous week. From the same building, each writer managed to extract a unique story, one that is colored by years of experience or a specifically-trained eye. One student always wrote about the use of typography in the buildings we visited. Another focused on texture. Myself, I tended to write from a personal angle, relating the building to a deep memory. Though some were more well written than others, each approach was completely valid and always exciting.
Today, a good 70% of formal design discourse makes my skin crawl. Isn’t there some old principle about how attraction and repulsion come hand-in-hand? So while I take this stuff seriously, I can also say that my bullshit meter is constantly hard at work.
In this episode of Through Process, most of the discussion revolves around designers as design critics, rather than non-designers as design critics. The episode poses some meaningful topics. It began with one of my favorites, which regards the constant call for more design criticism. I laughed, because it made me realize the number of times I’ve sat in an auditorium while a design professional, usually from the old school generation, barks at the audience about this need for more criticism. Even worse, I went to a graduate program specifically for design criticism, so the faculty were constantly demanding more criticism from us. The general consensus on the podcast was one of wonderment: "What more are we looking for?….What is the situation you need to stop feeling marginalized?"
One of the biggest problems here is that design criticism is defined differently, depending on who you ask. When the generational olds give an imperative cry for more design criticism, they’re usually talking about the kind of stuff that fills journals, complete with dusty footnotes and citations. Or the kind of stuff found in MoMA catalogs. Or the kind of stuff that is only considered above-the-fold caliber for the Arts Section of The New York Times. And that stuff is good and incredibly important. We need that stuff. But the rest of us know it’s silly to define design criticism that narrowly.
There’s also this old school idea that organized criticism justifies an entire profession. And yes, the majority of things worth making are things that elicit criticism. But the more I’m in this field, it’s this idea that criticism will encourage people to take design seriously that seems misguided. Ever notice how the one person in the room who is most hellbent on being taken seriously is the one that becomes the target for every joke? And why is it an imperative that design be taken seriously? We live in a time where adults are addicted to a cell phone game in which brightly-colored candies are rearranged into rows. Where a YouTube video of a screaming goat is a prime topic discussed over dinner. There is a balance between demanding to be taken seriously, and doing things that make you happy and connect to society on a greater scale. Even if it’s crushing candy.
There were a few other highlights from the podcast that caught my attention, listed here for your eyeballs:
On Designer As [Fill in the blank] : “Designer as Author, Designer as Curator…How does it help us to use another profession to describe what we do?”
I blame a little bit of this on the business of higher education. Not pointing any fingers (cough) but many schools relaunch basic design degree programs with flashier names. There are just so. many. design programs now and so. much. money involved, that niche specialization, even if the title doesn’t totally make sense, is sort of a thing of the moment. And design seems to get away with this because it has become a super cool profession, thanks to its tangential relationship to the tech industry. I do fear we are watching a design education bubble in the making.
It’s important to remember, however, that design has always been in the midst of an identity crisis. One of my heroes, design critic and writer Ralph Caplan, tells a great story about being on an airplane in the 1960s, and striking up a conversation with the passenger next to him. When the fellow asked Ralph what he does for a living, Ralph found it easier just to say, “I’m an astrophysicist.” Ralph concluded that people had an easier time fathoming astrophysics than design criticism.
"I want to hear more about what [designers] are doing, and not in this bullshit language."
Absolutely. My favorite homepages for designers are the ones that include blogs with process notes. I know Jessica Hische is an extreme example, but she posts about her decision-making process, how she made a certain drop shadow, and even what she charged someone. That stuff is valuable not only to other designers, but to people looking to understand how this industry operates and why it’s relevant.
Unfortunately, too many designers think that, since they can’t write on a professional level, they shouldn’t even try. But as I tell young students when I lecture, just do anything. Start a Tumblr, write two sentences in it about what you made that day. Write why you hate the assignment your teacher just gave you. Write about why you’re NOT going to use DIN on your portfolio. Just do something, start somewhere. And use all the Kanye gifs you want to illustrate your points. Be real. Be honest. In the end you will understand more about yourself and your profession.
"More people could be writing graphic design criticism, simply by writing about their process."
This is sort of true. There’s a different between design criticism, and self criticism. A designer who writes about a poster they created doesn’t always have, or simply doesn’t always use a larger knowledge about the practice and field of design. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important in a lot of other ways.
"I see both writing and design as a way to form ideas…but then give your ideas form…I think writing is the simplified version."
YES to the first part. That’s why I’ve felt my transition from designer to writer made sense; my approach and processes for each are almost the same. The output, however, is different. But writing is rarely a simplified version. In fact, writing can make everything worse, much more complex and dirty. So, I guess that’s a warning to designers who do want to write.
"Who is criticism for?…What is it supposed to enrich?"
Someone once asked Alexandra Lange who she felt responsible to when she writes a piece of criticism. She responded simply, “Myself.” This profession is so specialized, and often unemployable, that if you aren’t in it to make yourself happy, you best get out. At its best, criticism enriches all humans to think broader and to make and do better things. Whether these humans are designers, or even just my mom.
Also worth adding, we too often fall into the trap of asking, “Who wants design criticism?” This is maybe the worst thing we can do. Maybe. Can you imagine if Galileo sat around asking himself, “Who wants to know about stars?” Or if Beethoven was like, “Who wants symphonies?” They just did it, and now we can’t imagine living without knowledge of the stars or the 5th Symphony. Asking whether or not people will even want what you have to offer is maybe the quickest path to failure.
"We need non-designers to write about design."
We’re trying, though I can’t say it’s always easy. The Internet has changed my perception of design criticism and writing, and I can’t say this has been a positive change. I’ve written about it previously, but non-designers writing about design can lead to some pretty terrible stuff these days. There’s a lot of disingenuous garbage out there, and I can’t tell you how much my blood boils when I see a poorly written, supposedly critical design essay, followed by the author byline which includes: “Lover of grilled cheese, windsurfing, and my dog Munchie.”
The Internet shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and really, who am I truly to wrinkle my nose at a byline? But I’m protective of design and how it’s discussed. And if anything, the Internet has pushed me to become less of a design critic, and more of a critic of design writing and criticism.
So really, settle in, and give this episode of Through Process a listen. But if nothing else, my design friends, go write something!