Critical state of writing

When are we going to get some more graphic design critics? asks Adrian Shaughnessy. It seems they could be too busy listening to boy bands…

Hollywood movies, boy band CDs, novels, TV programmes, computer games and art exhibitions are all subject to critical scrutiny by sharp-brained and knowledgeable critics. In fact, very few creative endeavours avoid critical scrutiny – which makes it odd that there is almost no graphic design criticism. Graphic design is omnipresent, ceaselessly demanding our attention and colonising our environment. More people are exposed to it than listen to boy bands or read fiction, yet boy band CDs and novels are reviewed, and design is ignored.

The design press reviews design books and exhibitions, yet only rarely offers any sort of formal criticism of the vast amount of work they feature. There are a handful of journals – usually aimed at a scholarly audience – where graphic design is critiqued, and nowadays there are lively blogs (usually US-focused) where graphic design is discussed in an intelligent, dispassionate and critical manner. But there is little or no appetite for developing a real critical discourse around graphic design in non-professional media – or for that matter, within design itself.

I’m usually told by designer friends that criticism exists to support consumer choice; its purpose is to answer such questions as which movies to see, which books to buy, which galleries to visit. Graphic design is a service industry, I’m informed, paid for by clients and not by the public. Therefore there is no point in critiquing it. End of story.

But it’s a narrow view of criticism that says it is only worth critiquing something if it can be purchased by the public. Take architecture. You can’t buy it over the counter, yet architectural criticism exists – as my fellow Private View columnist Hugh Pearman proves in his entertaining and informative Sunday Times articles. And the subject is frequently discussed intelligently in newspapers and on TV, despite the fact that it is a purely ‘professional’ activity.

The consequences of a critical framework developing around architecture have been dramatic; the subject demystified and elevated. Britain is no longer an insular and traditionalist architectural cul-de-sac, and today, clients are less likely to commission lousy buildings and are more aware of the benefits of good design. How wonderful if graphic design could engineer such a transformation in its public image.

But is graphic design ready to submit itself to the searchlights of critical investigation? My guess is not. We’re all a bit sensitive. Most professional designers would baulk at the thought of their work being critiqued by dispassionate reviewers. It’s not hard to imagine the objections: How can critics be expected to take into account the countless professional frustrations that occur at even the highest levels of design?; criticism is irrelevant because design decisions are made for pragmatic reasons, not artistic reasons; design is a business, not a cultural activity.

It is, of course, naive to think design is alone in being at the mercy of intense commercial demands. The movie business is one of the most commercially driven. Very few directors can make movies without studio interference. Yet this doesn’t prevent the vigorous culture of film criticism, and no reviewer is blinkered enough to think even great directors like Martin Scorsese are above commercial pressure (how else do you explain Jude Law in The Aviator?).

The benefits of putting graphic design under the critical microscope seem obvious. Designers constantly bemoan the lack of ‘design education’ among clients, but just think how much designers would be helped in this if clients saw their output assessed by astute critical voices capable of dissecting the social, business and aesthetic effects of design? It would make designers fight harder for better design, and make clients shy about commissioning work that might earn them a kicking from a beady-eyed critic.

Yet the emergence of genuine design criticism seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. Where would the critics come from? We can’t rely on fellow designers for impartiality – friendships, as much as professional enmity, preclude this. And design’s current obsession with dull, I-speak-your-weight branding, means the job is unlikely to attract the sort of lively-minded ‘independent’ brains required.

But unless design succeeds in attracting critical scrutiny from independent critical voices, the benefits that have accrued to architecture are unlikely to come design’s way. Instead, graphic design will remain on a par with knitting – a craft practiced with great love and dedication by those who do it for a living, but ignored by everyone else.

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