It’s critical to success

Like any art form, design needs good critical writing. However, Rick Poynor is concerned that during the era of the blog we are in danger of losing the skill

Design criticism is a touchy business. Six years ago I wrote what I hoped was an even-handed, though critical blog for Design Observer about the Dutch design group Experimental Jetset. In an interview in a new book, Studio Culture, they recall this brief text – in their minds it happened just two years ago – as an unwarranted, hurtful ‘attack’. It’s always the negative bits, however mild, that stick in people’s heads, not the positive stuff.

Recently, design criticism has received a lot of attention, with commentators arguing that design will benefit from more searching kinds of appraisal. New design writing MA courses at the School of Visual Arts in New York and London College of Communication are now in their second year. This summer I was a judge for the Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing & Criticism, launched in 2006. The competition has prizes for professional and student writers (American only) and provides an opportunity to gauge the ambitions of budding design critics.

By a unanimous vote, an architecture critic, Sean Kenner, won the professional prize $10 000 (£6100). His writing is the real thing/ incisive, enlightening, well-informed, fearless and a gripping read. It was still, for me, a disappointing outcome. We already know that architectural criticism is more highly developed than design criticism. None of the design writers came close. There was some good professional writing, but most of it was intelligent journalism, reporting rather than criticism. Critical writing needs a deep engagement with the subject, an exceptional degree of experience and knowledge, an original position and a strong point of view. Reading a first-rate critic, you encounter someone’s sensibility and way of thinking about the world.

Outside the review pages of design magazines, where comment tends to be freer, criticism is more talked about than performed. Many of those writing about design, particularly graphic design, are designers, and there is a reluctance to say anything about colleagues, projects, clients or institutions that might cause offence.

While there is a place for inspirational reflections about the nature of practice, much of this writing is inward-looking and self-serving. Only an intellectually immature field could think this is enough. Criticism needs a degree of distance. Literature, art, music and film have independent critics who are not practitioners. Design needs more of them, too.

It’s not surprising that design criticism is still struggling when more established forms of critical writing have experienced a loss of status. Music, art and film magazines run features about the fragile state of criticism and a recent book by a lecturer in English is mournfully titled The Death of the Critic. The democratisation of opinion in the age of the blog has undercut the critic’s authority. It’s still possible, though, that some future Susan Sontag, Reyner Banham or John Berger will emerge through new channels. Without exceptional writers to think hard about the meanings of culture, our understanding will be all the poorer.

Will the design writing courses produce new critical voices with the necessary insight and literary talent? It’s too soon to know. They are certainly a step in the right direction. If design matters, then criticism’s role is to illuminate its every facet.

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  • Kevin Blackburn November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Designers who write about design are, all too often, too close to the subject matter to be objective. I’d have to agree that subjective opinions based on nothing more than personal persuasion seem to dominate blogs and writing on design – but its not all intellectually immature and I think the field would welcome such critism and debate from outside.

    Will a design writing courses will produce new critical voices with the necessary insight and literary talent to give design the critique it needs, I’m not sure. You’ll always have good designers and bad designers, I’m sure the same goes for writing – isn’t that the point? Shit in, shit out as they say!

  • Jim Northover November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Are designers too close to the subject to be critical about design? It’s a bit like asking whether artists are too close to be critical about art, or architects too close to architecture.

    Knowledge of the process and the practice seems to me to be fundamental to good criticism, but it can go in both directions. In the film world Antonioni, Chabrol and Godard were all critics before they became directors, while designers such as Paul Rand have written insightfully about design after years in practice. The big difference is that the non-designer critic can retreat to his critic’s shell, whereas the designer critic faces constant professional exposure of his practice every time his work is seen.

    Admittedly, I have an axe to grind here, as a practitioner with more than a few years’ experience, and as a part time design writing criticism student on the LCC’s course. An number of other students also combine study with practice and/or teaching.

    One of my reasons for placing a foot in both camps is that I feel the level of discourse about design is often too narrow, and, at times, superficial, sycophantic or elitist. I’d like strong critical voices to articulate the case for design better, but without losing sight of its many weaknesses in practice. There is no doubt that design has a lot to answer for. We need people to ask the right questions.

    Whether, as Rick Poynor hopes, the current courses in New York and London will produce insightful inquisitors remains to be seen. It’s a start though, in an industry that desperately needs to grow up.

  • Katy Hetzeneder November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Being a graphic designer and design writing criticism student myself, I only can offer a very inward-looking point of view. I fully agree, that there is a struggle in design criticism and that it isn’t as developed as it is in other fields. However I don’t think, that blogs have a negative effect on it. As design criticism is relatively new, it somehow grew alongside the blog movement, which opened up design for a far broader audience. The common design reviews/magazines are usually only read by designers. Through the internet people outside the community can get easily access to design issues and therefore are able to join the discourse.

    The existence of design writing criticism courses is a logical consequence of the development within the discipline. Regarding Poynor’s final question I don’t think, that we can expect the courses to produce literary talent. They gan give the necessary insight and prepare students as good as possible. But the strength and effectiveness of criticism and overall the talent depends on the individual.

  • Anna Sinofzik November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    In agreement with what Katy just mentioned, I think that there is the need to look at the blog aspect in greater detail.

    There is obviously a huge amount of dubious information set out in writing on the web. But isn’t it important to keep in mind that questionable online publications are not specifically undercutting the profession of critical writing? They affect any field and discipline and are an inevitable part of modern reality. In that context, I think that blaming the oh so present blog culture for the decay of criticism seems like the easy way out in being a bit too simple and way too one-sided.

    Being closely related to the concept of democracy, the whole blog issue is multilayered and ambivalent. (And not only by bearing the potential of producing new Susan Sonntags and Reyner Banhams.) While blogs can certainly be taken as a curse and a hotbed for misinformation they should also be understood as a worldwide open discourse, engaging critical thought, active readership and individual opinion. While the reader of traditional publications knew right away to distinguish the value of yellow press articles from those published in high profile newspapers or technical journals, the modern user is much more autonomous. In many cases he is not given any concrete hint or framework to support his believe or disbelieve, so that he is pretty much left alone with the content itself. Accordingly, he is forced to deal with new responsibilities and must be a lot more active, selective and critical. In that sense I think that the lack of clear classification and validity on the internet should not so much be regarded as a threat on the critics authority, but rather as a stimulus for critical opinion. That is why I regard the blog culture not only as a potential springboard for new critical minds, but also as the essential groundwork for a new generation of contemporary design critics.

  • ellen zoete November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The reluctance to write about my collegues is not unfamiliar to me, though I do take special interest in writing about their work.
    As a writer and designer I am more than happy to elaborate my thoughts on a certain piece of design or the design field at large.

    Taking in consideration Poynors comment on writing by practicing designers being too inward-looking: these are not two sides of the same coin. This writing does not lack quality because the writers are too involved with the subject. It lacks quality because they are not able to distance themselves enough from their professional practise as designers. Which, to me, is key to being a good (design) writer.

  • Rose Gridneff November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    To argue that only professional critics should write about design is akin to suggesting that only chefs should attempt to bake cakes. This fear that everyone is a critic is reminiscent of the concern that everyone is now a designer, merely because they are in possession of a ripped-off copy of Photoshop.

    It is this insular attitude within the Graphic Design industry, which Poyner touches upon, that is in danger of making the design community its own worst enemy. Do we really want to maintain the current environment where design critics are writing solely for other designers? Whilst I agree that critics should be immersed in their field (just as you would hope that those who teach have highly developed professional knowledge), there is much to be said for opening up design writing and design thinking to wider debate and disciplines more divergent than our own. To achieve this we need to move outside the safe bubble where the subject is still often taught as a vocation, with universities churning out graduates at a rate far higher than the jobs available. In instilling greater critical debate amongst students beyond the stalwart “group crit”, and actively encouraging such blogs, perhaps the industry stands a greater chance of moving forward- and taking design criticism with it.

  • Jonathan Baldwin November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    For my money, too much design criticism focuses on technique and aesthetics. The Guardian, for example, puts its design writing in its arts section. Why?

    What’s sorely missing at the moment is design criticism which analyses design as an economic, social and cultural force. There’s a massive disconnect between what the design industry wants people to think design offers, and what old school design critics think design is.

    There’s too much “isn’t that pretty” or “let’s talk about the designer’s life” criticism and not enough critique. Less about the designer of the underground map, and more about the design of transport networks please.

    As for blogs being bad for design writing, erm… sorry, that’s rubbish. Two things seem to be suggested there: that there are too many people writing about design, and that writing about design on a blog (as opposed, say, to a small-circulation magazine aimed at other designers) prevents you becoming skilled in writing about design.

    It doesn’t take a genius to see why those two points are just silly. I thought the whole “blogging is killing writing” argument was dead and buried.

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