My Observers Room colleague Alexandra Lange has an interesting piece in the latest issue of Print — for which I also write — devoted to the subject of power. Given our proximity, I was in two minds about responding, though we’ve never met, but her theme, the sacred cows of graphic design, is one that has always intrigued me.
It’s probably best to read Lange’s article, “An Anatomy of Uncriticism,” before continuing, if you haven’t already. Her essential point is that certain subjects in design appear to be immune from criticism, and she begins by quoting remarks that a commenter made after one of her posts to the effect that Apple can do what it likes because it has achieved so much. That was such a manifestly daft opinion that I’m surprised Lange makes so much of it, but she believes it encapsulates a widespread view of Apple, and perhaps it does.
Nevertheless, her article is in Print, a graphic design magazine read in the main by graphic designers (though others might come to it online), and it’s reasonable to expect that she would explore how deep-seated inhibitions about the sainted figures and celebrated institutions of graphic design are obstructing full and frank criticism. I’d heard the article was in the pipeline and I was agog to hear what she would say about the field’s self-congratulatory ways from her perspective as a visitor — her main beat is architecture and objects — rather than as an habitué. As I said, I have always wondered why it is that certain prominent graphic designers appear to hold a magic pass that renders them permanently exempt from criticism.
Weirdly, though, Lange almost entirely sidesteps the issue. In her first category of sacred cows, “living legends,” she namechecks Massimo Vignelli (whose 1983 call for criticism she cites), Chermayeff & Geismar, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and a bit later on, Paul Rand. “They are our collective influence, which makes it difficult to stand apart from them and critique.” This might seem promising — perhaps these stalwarts, far from deserving so much soft-headed industry acclaim, require a long overdue demolition. But Lange doesn’t say what the complaint might be and quickly moves on. The only other graphic designer to get a mention is Chip Kidd, who earns a mild rebuke for receiving a “revival-meeting level of enthusiasm on Twitter,” though Lange apparently shares the view that his work is excellent. Later, she mentions her brief Design Observer piece about minimalist posters, which made fair points but was hardly the most searing critique.
Most of the examples in Lange’s essay are peripheral to graphic design: Steve Jobs and NeXT, Bill Moggridge, New York’s High Line park, Gary Hustwit’s film Urbanized, industrial designer Yves Béhar, Tina Roth Eisenberg of Swissmiss, and Design*Sponge. If the article had been in Metropolis, Blueprint, Icon or Frame these would all be good choices — one or two seem like very deserving targets — except that this was in Print. I can’t have been the only reader wondering what this line-up had to do with the genuine dearth of criticism of designers, companies and institutions in graphic design. It would be like filling a think piece for Architectural Digest with references to graphic designers. The (I assume) unintended effect was to spare everyone’s blushes and let just about the entire graphic design field off the hook.
I’ll repeat that I support Lange’s contention. I believe that the lack of keenly focused criticism has long been a weakness in graphic design, but to be convincing, the case needs to be made with numerous telling graphic design examples. Of those Lange gives, only Kidd, as a highly visible mid-career designer reaping lots of glory, seems a pertinent case. Rand was certainly subject to plenty of criticism in his later years, and Vignelli was also in the frame for a while during the early 1990s legibility wars. (Personally, I’d fight to the last in defense of Glaser.)
Fifteen or 20 years ago, when graphic design was riding high, criticism based on close, contextual analysis of the field seemed like it could grow, though design magazines were never exactly clamoring for the chance to publish takedowns. It isn’t an easy path. I’ve had my own run-ins with famous graphic designers. So let bullish new writers take a pop at the latest design wave, if they feel strongly enough about it. In reality, few show any appetite for the task, and there is good reason to doubt that much of an audience for that kind of writing exists now — however beneficial for the field smart and cogent criticism might be.
Today, when people tire of the overexposed, their “critical gesture” is often to show and talk about the things they prefer instead. Lange calls this well-intentioned positivity “the power of happy” (see, too, That New Design Smell magazine) and I agree that it is no substitute for real criticism. By drifting off target, her essay undercuts its entirely valid argument while inadvertently adding to the impression that design interest has simply moved elsewhere.
Another Design Voices Falls Silent
The Time for Being Against
The Death of the Critic