In its latest issue, the British magazine Grafik has put together the most wide-ranging feature about design criticism — 14 pages — so far published in a graphic design magazine. It’s another welcome sign that the new design criticism courses at the School of Visual Arts in New York, the London College of Communication, and the Royal College of Art in London are making an impact.
I have just re-joined the RCA as Visiting Professor in Design Criticism and Research Methods, and I was planning to write a post responding to this special feature when the news broke on December 5 that Grafik had abruptly ceased publishing — its second demise after closing in 2010 and then rising from the ashes in February this year. Nothing could highlight more glaringly the precarious position of design publishing and criticism today. For the feature, the editors interviewed 11 figures with some sort of stake in design criticism. I have selected some quotations from the interviews that raise key issues and added some thoughts of my own. This post now also becomes an unanticipated tribute to yet another lost platform for design writing.
Excerpts from “Critical Voices,” Grafik no. 193, 2011
There’s a grim irony in the fact that design has finally got its first serious influx of specially trained critics at the point when writers across the board are struggling in the face of dwindling fees, shrinking editorial budgets and a dearth of in-house opportunities, particularly in the design press. The demise of Design Week earlier this year is just the latest in a string of closures that’s seen printed creative publishing shrink alarmingly in recent years; indeed, if I’d been writing this article a year ago, Grafik too would have been on the obituaries list. — Introduction by Grafik’s editors
There it is. Irony upon irony. As they say, grim.
I have very little patience for criticism these days. Either do the work or shut up. Critique with action, not words. Words are so twentieth century. [. . .] There may be a few people that still enjoy reading that kind of stuff, but I think for the most part design criticism (at least in graphic design) is dead, and that’s not saying much as it never really lived much. — Armin Vit, co-founder of Brand New
Can this be the same Armin Vit who created Speak Up, one of the most vital platforms for design discussion around seven or eight years ago (as he makes sure to remind us)? Vit’s is the briefest, most offhand contribution to Grafik. He sounds like he couldn’t give a damn and his dismissive remarks are symptomatic of a widely held and, for many now, unmourned assumption that the culture of the word is in irreversible decline. Such a belief must have profound implications for writers, writing, publishers and committed readers. There are naturally many exceptions, but graphic designers were always, it can hardly be denied, a group with little commitment to serious reading, and everything about contemporary culture reinforces and validates that enduring reluctance. Sad, regrettable but inescapable. Vit is at least half right. Writing focused on visual culture that includes aspects of graphic design might still have a place, and design in the broader sense looks secure as a subject for critical comment. “Graphic design criticism” as a free-standing genre appears to be fading fast.
We’re at an odd juncture. Early on in the days of blogs, it was easy to be “critical” as many people chose to hide behind a pseudonym. At the same time, the democracy of digital engagement pretty much levelled us all to the same playing field, and that led to a kind of parity that basically nullified criticism: there was this long period when nobody was critical, ever. In our view, to be a critic, you have to have an opinion founded in something other than subjective opinion, but it also means you have to be bold, willing to stake your ground and hold to it. — William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand, co-founders of Design Observer
I’m intrigued by the “nobody was critical, ever” observation: I’d like to know the dates for that. It has always been possible to rise above the supposed “parity” of the playing field if a writer has something considered and urgent to say. And it still is possible. But it will take some guts. That remains the central challenge for emerging writers: do they have the stomach for what the job should entail? Or is “criticism” being discreetly reconstrued, as it takes its place in the academy, as something more genteel, careerist, risk-free and fundamentally unchallenging?
At a time when everybody is a critic, it is more urgent than ever to ask what criticism is for. — Teal Triggs, course director of the Design Writing Criticism MA, London College of Communication
If everyone really were a critic — the popular phrase is surely ironic in origin — we wouldn’t need criticism as a consciously constructed discipline. Everyone would already be a deeply informed, highly reflective thinker able to render their thoughts in scintillating language. There would indeed be parity. Nevertheless, the purpose of criticism is the core question we must answer and I would love to hear what Teal Triggs thinks criticism is for. This quotation is her concluding sentence and she doesn’t say. If any LCC students or graduates are reading, please seize the opportunity of the comment box and let us know. Every student of design criticism should be able to answer this question.
Criticism certainly depends on design but it’s not its sole job to service design, nor even to be its social conscience. Design can be taken as the point of departure for a critique aimed at society and the world. And this is where things get really interesting in my opinion, and where it’s possible to bring both design and design criticism into mainstream public debates. — Alice Twemlow, chair of the Design Criticism MFA, School of Visual Arts
A critique aimed at society and the world. This is one of the most powerful possible answers to the question, “What is design criticism for?” As I have argued elsewhere, a social criticism of design is one of the most crucial tasks for design writing, but this kind of intervention remains a rarity. Why should this be the case when there is so much out there to critique? I hope that the design writing courses will address this challenge, but let’s not underestimate the hazardousness of biting the hand of the industry that feeds you at a time when there is less bread to go around. It will require fiercely held convictions and a strong sense of critical purpose to enter the fray.
[T]here’s another kind of criticism — classical criticism rather than the newspaper variety — that doesn’t seek to change events but to find meaning in them. This search for meaning is more compelling. At its height it raises the work of criticism above mere commentary on an event and into the event itself. I see this as a creative act distinct from the social act of crusading criticism. — Justin McGuirk, design critic, The Guardian
Justin McGuirk is one of the most trenchant contributors to the Grafik special feature. As a former editor of Icon who writes about architecture and design, he knows what he is talking about. Refusing to accept that words have had their day, McGuirk would like to see long essays about architecture and design of 5,000 to 10,000 words and he is developing a publishing program for the Strelka Institute in Moscow that he hopes will facilitate writing with the expansiveness of the New York Review of Books or London Review of Books. Certainly we need new outlets for more discursive and even literary forms of writing, and for architecture some do exist — Harvard Design Magazine, Log, and DO’s Places — but where (other than non-paying, peer-reviewed academic journals) are the outlets for long-form design essays? McGuirk used to publish occasional 3,000-word essays at Icon, but the magazine appears to have given up on even this modest length of essay. Meanwhile, even dedicated readers often struggle with long texts presented on screen.
As design criticism is relatively youthful in comparison to architecture, art, film or theatre criticism, independent publishers are in a position [to] create new territories and modes of writing in which design criticism can operate. — Andrew Slatter, design educator
Is the next generation interested in reading about their profession? On the one hand, I see many hopeful signs. The flourishing of independent publishing among publishers and artists indicates that there is a real interest in writing and producing texts. It’s not clear, however, what sort of market these texts have or how much dialogue they succeed in instigating. Some of the books I pick up feel as if they were created as artifacts and evidence rather than as reading material. — Ellen Lupton, design educator and author
Easy to pronounce that independent publishers are in a position to create “new territories and modes of writing,” but where is this happening and what kinds of audience does the writing engage? Ellen Lupton’s cautious assessment is more to the point. As self-publishers, graphic designers tend to be more committed to design processes and material form than to the excellence of the written content. I can’t see a venture such as It’s Nice That as an advance in terms of content, writing and criticism on more established publications (though in the current climate we should cherish any publisher able to hang in there). Unit Editions and Occasional Papers — to give two more British examples — are fine projects, though neither is focused on providing a platform for critical writing. Robin Kinross’s independent Hyphen Press remains a benchmark for editorial quality, but again the development of critical writing is not its primary goal. Somewhere out there, there could be emerging forums for inventive new modes of design criticism. If you are aware of any, then let us know.
You can learn a lot by editing other writers, and by being edited, but this is often not understood, either in the “post my rant” world of blogging, or the “publish my thesis” zone of academia. — John Walters, editor of Eye
For me, this insight remains a fundamental truism of ambitious writing and publishing, though it’s one that designer-writers often resist. I’ll end with a point that bears repeating. For sure, we need more committed design critics, but we also require experienced and knowledgeable editors, who see editing itself as an act of criticism and are able to create imaginative, sympathetic and flexible platforms for critical writing. I hope that graduates of the new design criticism courses will think seriously about the creative and cultural possibilities of editing and publishing and will find ways to build viable new spaces for design writing. There can be no advance in design writing and no new readership without these outlets. As design publications continue to founder, this is a massive practical, financial and intellectual challenge for the next generation of design writers and critics.
What Is This Thing Called Graphic Design Criticism? (1995)
The Time for Being Against
Where Are the Design Critics?
The Death of the Critic
The House That Design Journalism Built