News slowly travels up the brontosaurus’s tail to its brain. But there’s a lot of body to get through en route. Yes, graphic-design “criticism” is dying, but not without some really fancy pallbearers.

  • Rebecca Cottrell attendedThe State of Graphic Design Today,” a lecture series.

    The trouble is the very idea of “criticism.” It implies personal taste, which is fine for art criticism and literary criticism. The “arts” are full of ambiguity and subjectivity.

    Design has something more objective about it: something well-designed is something that works. Unfortunately, writing critically about design is more complicated than this. It’s somewhere between something that works (science) and something that appeals to taste (art). Much of the “criticism” I’ve read about design seems to be more along the lines of historical documentation….

    [A]long with all of its other troubles, perhaps the main trouble with “design criticism” is that many of the writers are art historians, not technologists and designers.

  • There was a fawning article about the eye of the hurricane, the new MFA in design criticism program at the School of Visual Arts (q.v.), in Step Inside Design (né Step-by-Step Graphics). The program’s name is D-Crit; is the hyphen an é?

    It is claimed, as if with a straight face, that a program of study for intellectuals “aims to extend design criticism to the masses.” Inevitably, Heller and Twemlow parody themselves: Their statement of the problem they wish to solve is a statement of the reason their program should not exist.

    “We’re looking at the critic as a critic of design, who can be a journalist, poet, curator, filmmaker,” explains Heller, who began conceiving the program, nicknamed “D-Crit,” [so he’d have a job after leaving] the Times in summer 2006. “We’re trying to say there are many platforms on which to evaluate design and many different ways to evaluate design….” [T]hey might curate a museum exhibition, produce a radio segment, create a multimedia blog or write an essay.

    Step Inside Design and its competing design magazines, many of which are owned by a single company, survive almost exclusively on contra deals with paper manufacturers and, of course, advertising. You could delete all the “criticism” from their pages and the feature well would be left with a healthy residue of showcases and designer profiles.

    “Classic” design criticism existed only because a scarce and expensive medium, the design magazine, paid for it. It seemed prestigious. But blogs have knocked the knees out from under design magazines. We know now that not every topic in design requires 2,000 words and six pages, and it is now evident to everyone, not just experts, that design is too workaday to stand up to “criticism.”

    “So much design criticism has been done by designers themselves,” observes Peter Lunenfeld, professor in the graduate-level Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design. “As interesting as I find it, I think it’s limiting. It’s been very much concerned with how practitioners involve themselves in the craft of making and often too little about the production of meaning. My eyes glaze when I read various disputes about fonts.”

    At some point, the students in the D-Crit program are going to have to realize there will be no market whatsoever for their services. At least if they were art-history majors they could get a job answering phones at a gallery in Chelsea.

  • A transcript of Q&A at a D-Crit open house included a few zingers. Heller just can’t get past the fact he’s being left behind by evolution.

    [M]ore magazines, more newspapers, and certainly more internet sites are engaged in design writing. Some of that is criticism, some is journalism, and some of it is just blogging.

    Of course. “Just.” (Heller described all those as “jobs,” by the way. How many of them pay? How many might actually pay if Heller didn’t write or cowrite one-third of the design books published every year?)

    [T]his conference is not only about presenting but it’s also about getting feedback, and not just on the Web, where most feedback is coming from now.” (Emphasis added.) Freudian slip?

  • And finally, there was a giant conference the other week entitled New Views 2: Conversations and Dialogues in Graphic Design. This conference conformed completely to the stereotype that design conferences can’t produce legible designs for their own conferences. I challenge you to read the conference program (PDF). I printed it out: Critical occurred 60 times, criticism 16, discursive five. -Based as a suffix is now the new darling of critical jargon (26 occurrences). Foucault is in there. (So is Hrant.)

    I saw a couple of potentially interesting discussions of self-directed work, which has been possible in graphic design for Peter Saville in the 1980s and for anyone now with the Web and for no one else at any other time. There are at least six papers based on real research that I will request. (Did you know design students are under continuous camera surveillance in Singapore classrooms? Is that a surprise?)

    But as a conference on design criticism? The centre cannot hold, kids.

Is anyone ever going to realize that designers are designers because they aren’t that good at writing, let alone “writing critically”? Does it follow, then, that design writers are lousy designers? I mean, I am.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2008.07.27 13:33. 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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