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.