Convention was disrupted last Thursday night in New York City at Designism 2:0 when the sometimes "self-congratulatory" nature of the Art Director Club's social conscience-raising event was upended by Vanity Fair media critic Michael Wolff's unforgiving critique of design's do-goodery. The convention in question might be called "critical etiquette": When is it appropriate to publicly attack design and designers for work that is largely intended for social good? Usually acerbic commentary about design is left (often anonymously) to blog posts, while well-meaning public forums, such as Designism 2:0, are comparatively free of critical jabs and barbs out of respect for their socially redeemable intentions. Yet after observing presentations by educator Elizabeth Resnik about "The Graphic Imperative: International Posters for Peace, Social Justice & The Enivronment 1965-2005," ad person Jane Kestin on her "Dove Campaign for Real Beauty," and designer Milton Glaser on his Darfur and Iraq awareness initiatives, Wolff was asked (by me as moderator) to comment on the efficacy of the work.
Michael Wolff responded by branding everything as "banal," "trite" and "unoriginal."
Then Wolff railed that design (and designers) were incapable of challenging issues or changing minds because their collective arsenal of alternative clichés, which has not changed in decades, is the same as mainstream ones which they sought to subvert. He further admonished the audience against doing anything if the result was not extraordinary. Instead, he said, just "read books, lots of books." The thud of 200-plus jaws dropping was audible throughout the audience.
Known for a sharp tongue and strident critiques of media and media-makers, Wolff was relatively unknown to the design audience who came to Designism 2:0 to be, at least in part, inspired into action. Indeed this was an evening devoted to individual and collective activities that marshalled design to aid rural communities, voice political frustration, challenge common stereotypes, and attack the outcome of the current war. (Other coverage of the event is here and here.) Rather than play along, however, Wolff sprayed buckshot, hitting various targets. He also voiced dismay that designers have not moved very far in their socio-political discourse. Yet with the notable exception of praising the 60s and 70s (the anti-Vietnam, pro-civil rights and feminist eras) as the wellsprings of design acuity, he provided no alternatives, prompting one audience member to exclaim: "Its easy to criticize!"
This statement had validity, given Wolff's wholesale indictment of designer pieties without an iota of what might be called "constructive criticism." But in fact, it is not easy to criticize at an event like Designism 2:0 or other such venues where designers gather to, well, feel good about their intentions and accomplishments or where, in this case, the goal was to motivate greater action in the public sector. Wolff had the temerity to ignore all virtuous motivations and brazenly attacked a few of the more iconic, if not heroic, results.
For Wolff it was easy to criticize he had nothing to lose he is not part of the design community. Yet it is doubtful anyone within the field (or in the audience that night) would have had the nerve to level such a public critique without issuing the requisite caveats and apologies for possibly stepping on colleagues' toes. Although Wolff opened the door for a few audience snipes at the Dove beauty initiative (including the main one, that the girls in the commercial were "not ugly enough" to really change deep-seated attitudes about self-esteem), the rebuttals were mostly impassioned defenses of design. Nonetheless, a number of post-event bloggers welcomed the opportunity to address the elephant in the room (how effective designers can be in the world of social concern) and were grateful for unfiltered criticism. Even Milton Glaser, who eloquently and convincingly addressed (rather than defend) his rationale for his long history of using design as a frame for communicating social concerns (he said he acts almost solely on a personal need to do so), agreed with the more pragmatic aspects of Wolff's analysis.
Wolff's provocative warnings about the danger of resting entirely on self-satisfaction if the end products are ordinary had resonance for some in the audience, while others clearly took umbrage. But the fact that he said it at all was, frankly, rejuvenating. The organizers may not have known at what level of intensity Wolff was going to engage these issues (and as moderator I was surprised by his initial barrage), but they understood it was necessary to trigger debate and knew that only an outsider, free from any intimacy with the design community, could accomplish the task.
The question raised by this is not whether or not design with social and political intent or any design or advertising projects should be critiqued and analyzed, but who at this stage is capable of raising such criticism free from seeming to be self-serving. Even "design critics" generally do not want to run afoul of designers lest they lose access to them. Valid and needed criticism from within the field is often seen as tainted by overt prejudices, which often results in vituperative argument on blogs and elsewhere. So the most "constructive" aspect of this public critique was the fact that despite Wolff's acerbic, take no prisoners tone, issues were raised, myths were challenged, and, most important, civility reigned on the panel and throughout the audience. Criticism did not kill the discourse, instead it gave it new life.