I’ve been trying to kill off graphic-design criticism as it presently stands since I started writing such criticism way back in ’89. I didn’t know that was what I was doing then, but by the time I wrote “TypoBlog” for Print, boy, did I ever. The whole point of the story was to alert the dinosaurs (print, Print) about their successors in the evolutionary line, the mammals (blogs). And lo is it coming to pass.

I’ve said this all before, but nobody noticed. Now some news that nobody noticed either. (Emphasis added.)

First graduate-level program in the U.S. dedicated to design criticism

School of Visual Arts (SVA), New York City, will offer the country’s first graduate-level degree program dedicated to critical writing about design, beginning in the fall of 2008.

The Master of Fine Arts in Design Criticism will prepare graduates for careers as design critics, journalists, curators, educators and design managers, by providing the intellectual tools for researching, analyzing, evaluating and chronicling all aspects of design. The program was developed by design authority Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA Design Department at SVA, and writer, critic and educator Alice Twemlow, who will chair the new MFA Design Criticism Department. […]

Then they list the faculty:

  • Kurt Andersen
  • Paola Antonelli
  • Michael Bierut
  • Ralph Caplan
  • Peter Hall
  • Jessica Helfand
  • Steven Heller (inevitably)
  • Karrie Jacobs
  • Julie Lasky
  • Cathy Leff
  • Phil Patton

In other words, the faculty will consist of one polymath (Andersen), two writers who know the future is online and are already there (Bierut, who is kicking and screaming to some extent; Helfand), a sinecurist-curator (Antonelli), and a pile of writers whose livelihoods are threatened by free online criticism. (Where’s Rick Poynor [“Poyner”]? Couldn’t get a work visa?)

Who’s heading up the whole shebang? The man who has spent decades cornering every market for design criticism he can, and, not incidentally, using those outlets to minimize and deride the few markets he didn’t own. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is another corner of design criticism in which Steven Heller is standing there waiting for you, outstretched hand holding a double-spaced manuscript typed on a Selectric.

Remember, Heller is the man who distrusts design blogs – but certainly not because they undercut his market for an article in alternating issues of every design magazine and a new book every nine months. He also derides the nascent genre of design autobiography – but certainly not because somebody else thought of it first and made it work. Anyway, Heller’s new site even threatens to include a blog, and he actually writes what amounts to one at Print’s technically atrocious Web site, where even the URLs are ugly.

All that should mean that he couldn’t beat ’em, so he joined ’em. It should also mean he’s a hypocrite. (We knew that already. Steven Heller needed Rudy VanderLans to tell him “I think blogs are making a lot of design magazines obsolete.”) But that isn’t what it means.

It means Heller is hedging his bets that the kind of graphic-design criticism that he – and the same friends who are now on his faculty – used to practise really has a future. They don’t like the stuff that’s out there in the wild, so they’ll retreat to the Academy to propagandize it to master’s students who are old beyond their years and are still a bit scared of Internet Explorer. From their university setting, they will define reality out of existence.

These students won’t be anything to worry about. (How many master’s students are?) We’ll leave them in our dust, too. Because the whole enterprise of art criticism applied to graphic design is dying before our very eyes.

Let’s check what is listed as the last-ever volume of the Looking Closer series (either “Five” or “5,” depending on where you look). This book of graphic-design criticism again has no pictures and is typeset in a thin, grey, but ever-so-classy Bembo (long-tailed R). The series’ demise is something its editors (Bierut, Drenttel, Heller) could not quite bring themselves to admit.

The existence of blogs does not… create writers; writers will emerge slowly and infrequently, as individuals take the time to write with the kind of critical perspective that sheds new light on history, theory, and practice. The true promise for these writers lies in curricula provided in our schools and universities, where critical modes of discourse must continue to be encouraged, and from which the next new generation of writers will undoubtedly emerge.

In other words, writers writing blogs aren’t real writers. We’ll decide who they are, and only after they take the courses we decide to teach. If it sounds like what they’re teaching you is how to set hot-metal type after desktop publishing has already been invented, it should.

Heller is at least more honest. (Well, he arrives at honesty eventually; he starts out with his familiar efforts to smother the future with a silk pillowcase.)

Perhaps the new Web-based venues are the next big thing, but it is still too early to calculate their collective consequence. Popular response… suggests that interest in reading and writing about design and related issues prevails among students and practitioners…. While much online writing has yet to reach a consistent standard, the blogs… will have to reach a more sophisticated level [for me to take them] seriously. […]

[T]his will be the final edition of the series, at least in this book format…. [I]n the long run the Web may be a more viable archive… As design writing of all kinds… [is] increasingly available as PDFs

Heller so hates the Web he wants the print medium replicated in it. (“I think the Web is great. I can export from Quark right to PDF and post that!”) But I digress.

and other downloadable documents, various repositories for design authorship are sure to emerge along the information highway.

No. No, I don’t think so. We’ll all be doing our own thing, you’ll have to keyword-search for us (or just subscribe to our feeds), and what we’re doing will be design writing even if you don’t think it is.

Now, who else is being honest in Looking Closer Five/5? Lorraine “Kids in America” Wild.

One of the problems [with Poynor’s insistence that design] be viewed through the scrim of theory is that he imposes an artificial order where there really wasn’t much. This results in the work seeming more programmed and much more dependent upon the influence of theory than it really was….

I just don’t believe that Poynor really thinks that the graphic design he is describing was instigated entirely be designers obediently reading and translating theory…. I mean, who wants to see theory illustrated, anyway?

Design criticism has fallen apart – into pieces as tiny and scattered as the design objets we chose to write about in the first place. There never was a there there.

Graphic-design criticism has already received its last kick in the can. Somebody tell Steven Heller.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.09.30 18:37. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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