This weekend I participated in a couple of panel discussions about design criticism jointly organised in London by the Rhode Island School of Design and I.D. magazine. The aim was to understand the state of criticism by first examining the relationships between design history, theory and criticism, and then discussing how criticism is handled in the UK press. Julie Lasky, editor of I.D., was co-chair of both panels, along with Jessie Shefrin and Roger Mandle of RISD. (The debates were recorded by the design blog Limited Language and will be podcasted in the next few days — I will post a note when they are up.)
The venues for these events said something in themselves. Friday night's discussion of criticism's role in design education took place within the sedate, establishment walls of the Royal Society of Arts, far from the hurly-burly of everyday commercial design. Saturday's better attended event about the design press, with Marcus Fairs, editor of Icon, and Vicky Richardson, editor of Blueprint, took place at the 100% Design fair at Earls Court in London. In the hall outside, throughout the discussion, we could hear the hum of fashionable young Londoners swarming over the latest floor tiles, wallpapers, top-of-the-range kitchen units and sofas. The conversations, as you might expect, took very different directions.
There was one fundamental question that neither panel really got to grips with, although the point arose immediately in opening remarks made at the RSA by Glenn Adamson, head of graduate studies at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Adamson observed that design writing was so deeply entrenched within the design field, so closely tied to its professional goals, that the writing's ultimate effect would always be promotional rather than critical. None of the other panellists engaged fully with this crucial point, but any discussion of criticism is bound to start here. What do we mean by criticism? There is a tendency, especially among journalists, to blur and confuse definitions of journalism and criticism. Journalism should, of course, be sceptical and critical; it should take nothing for granted, ask awkward questions and aim to reveal what is really going on rather than what those with vested interests want us to believe. Whether design journalism lives up to this ideal most of the time is another matter.
But criticism, in the deeper, historical, more self-aware sense that Adamson used the term, possessed a larger ideological purpose. Its role was oppositional and it was often identified with the left. It took issue with capitalism and sought the transformation of society. The point arises in the latest issue of Prospect magazine, which has followed up its list of the 100 top British public intellectuals, subject of an earlier Design Observer post, with a list of 100 global public intellectuals. As previously, the representatives of visual culture make a poor showing. Rem Koolhaas is the only architect, Robert Hughes the only art critic. There are no artists, film-makers or designers.
In an accompanying article, writer and television producer David Herman points out how different in emphasis the list would have been 30 years ago. An older generation of public intellectuals and critical thinkers identified with the political left — exemplified in the global list by Noam Chomsky — is now over 70 and has not been replaced, although Naomi Klein does make the cut. Herman suggests, citing the views of the late Edward Said, that "the great tradition of the oppositional intellectual" is coming to — or has already come to — an end.
Clearly, it is still possible to take an oppositional stance in regard to design and we see this most clearly in the sphere of visual communication. Designers who engage in "the design of dissent" do exist, but design's default position, which most designers accept, whether they create products or graphics, is to grease the wheels of capitalism with style and taste, as CalArts teacher and type designer Jeffery Keedy once put it. Design is deeply implicated. It is one of the ways in which capitalism is most obviously expressed, and never more so than today when design is widely regarded as a miracle ingredient with the power to seduce the consumer and vanquish less design-conscious competitors.
There is no reason why design criticism should not take a critical view of design's instrumental uses and its wider social role, or the lack of it, but there seems to be little motivation to produce this kind of criticism. In this respect, design writing appears to reflect the larger intellectual trend identified by Herman in his analysis of the Prospect list. Who, in Britain — since this is where these two panel discussions happened to take place — is producing an oppositional design criticism and where can we find it? The most revealing aspect of the debates was that none of the participants, on either panel, volunteered the names of any writers that they considered to be significant contemporary design critics. Instead, among the academics, there was vague talk about "criticality" as a desirable goal. But criticality in relation to what? And to what end? How are designers going to become critical in any serious way if they are not exposed to sustained critical thinking about design in the form of ambitious, intellectually penetrating criticism? If design educators think as critically as they like to claim, why aren't more of them producing this kind of writing in an attempt to shape public awareness?
There has to be a coherent basis for critical thinking, a considered position according to which a piece of criticism can be understood, and writing remains the best medium in which to develop this. Let's stop kidding ourselves. Without the writing, it isn't going to happen.