Theory + Criticism

Michael Bierut
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mentor, Or, Why Modernist Designers Are Superior
Does a strict upbringing make you a better designer?

Jessica Helfand
The Karaoke Effect
The illusory bubble populated by thousands of fame-seekers who fervently believe in their own righteous, if highly fictional talent.

Rick Poynor
Exposure: Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman
The photographer as performer

Rick Poynor
Exposure: Brodsky, the Tie Seller in Paris
Every photograph is an enigma

Rob Walker
Object Vs. Object
The Re Made Plunger satirizes the Best Made axe — a great example of object-as-critique.

Alexandra Lange
Criticism = Love
Why you have to love design to be a critic.

Alexandra Lange
Year of the Women
A year-end wrap-up of my favorite stories. The common theme? Women and the making of design.

Rick Poynor
The Writings of William Drenttel
Essays from the Design Observer archive show the wide scope of William Drenttel's interests and concerns.

Rick Poynor
Collage Culture: Nostalgia and Critique
An interview with David Banash, author of Collage Culture: Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption.

Alexandra Lange
MoMA’s Modern Women
The Museum of Modern Art's new installation, "Designing Modern Women," could have made a bolder statement about the transformative role of women in 20th century design and architecture.

Alexandra Lange
Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, Freelancer
One of the incidental pleasures of Judith Major’s new book on pioneering architecture critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer is the glimpse it gives into the life of a cultural journalist at the turn of the past century.

Rob Walker
Scenes from the Crowdcrit Revolution
Assessing the crowdcrit revolution of the past decade, and what  it could mean for serious thinking about design.

Alexandra Lange
Learning New Tricks
Harvard doesn't have any design courses, but I've found new friends in "material culture." What it's like for a critic to go back to school.

Alexandra Lange
Praise the Partner(s)
Salute Denise Scott Brown because she deserves it, but let's not forget the other partners.

Alexandra Lange
The Fork and the World: Design 101
If you had to explain design to the uninitiated, where would you start?

Rick Poynor
The Practical Virtue of Works That Work
Works That Work magazine reclaims the word “creativity” from the stultifying embrace of branding culture and design thinking.

Alexandra Lange
Instagramming Around Australia
Lessons from contemporary Australian architecture, plus what I saw on Instagram.

Rick Poynor
A Dictionary of Surrealism and the Graphic Image
An alphabetical guide to graphic designers influenced by Surrealism and to some key Surrealist concepts.

Rob Walker
Branding By Numbers
Emblemetric backs its assessment of the American Airlines logo with "the data." Of course, that's open to interpretation.

Alexandra Lange
Kicked A Building Lately?
That question, the title of the 1976 collection of Ada Louise Huxtable’s work for the New York Times, embodies her approach to criticism.

Alexandra Lange
Bad Taste True Confessions: Erté
True confessions about my own bad taste. I loved Erté. Did you?

Michael Bierut
Style: An Inventory
Style: An Inventory by Michael Bierut

Rob Walker
Crowdcrit vs. Apple Maps
An instant Tumblr responds to Apple's maps app, and demonstrates the art of the creative takedown.

Rob Walker
Secret Lives Of Things
Ian Bogost explains why it's important to try to understand what it's like to be a thing.

Rick Poynor
What Does Critical Writing Look Like?
A report on work by the first graduates from the Royal College of Art’s Critical Writing in Art & Design MA.

Alexandra Lange
The Charismatic Megafauna of Design
Identifying the "charismatic megafauna" of design and the critical uses of their popularity.

Alexandra Lange
The Mother of Us All
Reyner Banham on Esther McCoy: "She speaks as she finds, with sympathy and honesty, and relevantly to the matter at hand." Could there be a better definition of the role of the critic?

Rick Poynor
The Closed Shop of Design Academia
Shouldn’t it be part of a design academic’s brief to communicate more widely with the design profession and public?

Alexandra Lange
Frank Lloyd Wright + Katniss Everdeen
On photographing architecture as sculpture and telling stories via architecture.

Rick Poynor
John McHale and the Expendable Ikon
Artist, graphic designer, information theorist, architectural critic, sociologist, futurist: it’s time to rediscover John McHale.

Rick Poynor
In Response to An Anatomy of Uncriticism
Alexandra Lange’s article in Print about the sacred cows of graphic design sidesteps the issue it raises.

Rick Poynor
Read All That? You Must be Kidding Me
Ellen Lupton’s essay about reading and writing for Graphic Design: Now in Production misses some key points.

Rick Poynor
Another Design Voice Falls Silent
As design criticism takes off as a branch of academic study, design publications such as Grafik keep closing.

Rick Poynor
On My Shelf: Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series
The 33 1/3 books about classic albums are a perfect example of how design can help focus an editorial idea.

Rick Poynor
Did We Ever Stop Being Postmodern?
Like it or not, argues the V&A's exhibition about postmodernism and design, we are all postmodern now.

Rick Poynor
Should We Look at Corrosive Images?
What do violent photographs of war do to us as viewers?

Rick Poynor
A Swedish Perspective on Critical Practice
The Reader, a recent book from Stockholm about critical practice, has some smart insights while missing the bigger picture.

Alexandra Lange
My new blog collects the best arts & culture criticism, essays and reviews.

Rick Poynor
The House That Design Journalism Built
Printed design magazines continue to fail and close. Where does that leave design writing and criticism?

Rick Poynor
Books Every Graphic Designer Should Read
The Designers & Books website has published my list of 20 indispensable books about graphic design.

Rick Poynor
Paul Stiff, the Reader’s Champion
For the late Paul Stiff, design educator, writer, editor and skeptic, typography must never neglect to serve the reader.

Alexandra Lange
Muddying the Waters
Explore New York's watery edges with the graduating class at D-Crit.

Andy Chen
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Cub
Is design strictly a set of rules?

Alexandra Lange
ISO The Digital Sidewalk Critic
Why is it so hard to say, "I hate my iPad"?

Alexandra Lange
Objects Fall From the Sky
What's more important: crediting a designer or the designer credited?

Rick Poynor
Where Is Art Now?
Leaving the art world to decide what art is doesn’t resolve the issue of quality.

Alexandra Lange
Criticism Kerfuffle 2010
There are people trying to write their way to a future of architecture criticism. But it isn't just the writing that's the problem.

Mark Lamster
Design Writing: Vital Field or Museum Piece?
Is traditional architectural criticism dead?

Rick Poynor
Adventures in the Image World
This is a blog about visual culture. It reflects my interests, enthusiasms, concerns and bêtes noires across the spectrum of visual phenomena.

Rick Poynor
Design Writing from Down Under
A new issue of The National Grid arrives in the mail. You’ve never seen it? You are missing a treat.

Leonard Koren
Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean?
An excerpt from Leonard Koren's new book Which “Aesthetics” do You Mean?: Ten Definitions

William Drenttel, Jessica Helfand, and AIGA
AIGA Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing: 2010 Recipients
AIGA and Winterhouse Institute announce the two writers selected to receive the 2010 AIGA Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing & Criticism — including a $10,000 prize and a $1,000 student award.

Jade Dressler
Degrees of Temporary
Interview with Claudia Zanfi, co-founder of the cultural organization aMAZElab in Milan.

Alexandra Lange
An Honor Just to be Mentioned...
It's all about etiquette, as I find myself included with the likes of Edith Wharton and Jane Austen.

Alexandra Lange
Lunch with the Critics: Park51 and 15 Penn Plaza
In my 
second critical lunch with Mark Lamster, in the creepy climes of the Hotel Pennsylvania, we discuss the urbanism, politics and skyline posturing of Park51 and 15 Penn Plaza.

Alexandra Lange
When Shopping Was Sociable
Design Research and Apple, a comparison of the two stores that have brought design to the masses.

Alexandra Lange
On DO: Lunch with the Critics
Please weigh in on 
Mark Lamster and my new Design Observer feature, "Lunch with the Critics," in which we observe the new Lincoln Center.

Alexandra Lange
Whatever Happened to Architecture Critique?
Sometimes it feels like everything is shrinking: the magazines, the word counts, the outlets, and especially the critics.

Alexandra Lange
“We Can’t Really Pay”
All of you print people who scorned bloggers but have moved into blogging and helm publications that “blog,” earth to you: You don’t pay.

Alexandra Lange
Pomo Time Machine
I’m writing more about
Warren Platner, my favorite terribly wonderful or wonderfully terrible architect.

Alexandra Lange
My .02 on the Whitney
Everyone has taken their shot at outrage regarding the Whitney's move to a Renzo Piano building at the base of the High Line.

John Thackara
What Should Design Critics Write About?
Address to MFA students in the School of Visual Arts' Design Criticism program, April 30, 2010.

Alexandra Lange
The Anti-Enthusiasts
Design Blogs: The Vacuum of Enthusiasm, my Design Observer manifesto on what the world of design on the internet needs, lives on in the comments.

Alexandra Lange
Jane Jacobs Is Still Watching
Despite my dislike of Jane Jacobs's beef with architects and planners, so many points seem strangely prescient.

Alexandra Lange
On Archpaper: Saccharine Design
My review of
Marcel Wanders’ exhibition Daydreams at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for The Architect’s Newspaper just went online and let’s just say I was not impressed.

Alexandra Lange
Straw Men Redux
I can't help but compare and contrast Nicolai Ourossoff's opening sentences of his recent work.

Alexandra Lange
What I Learned @dcritconference
D-Crit Conference is just a memory, so as a tribute to the afternoon presentations I saw, I offer a set of tangents.

Alexandra Lange
Confessions and Criticism
I am not a fan of TMI, the confessional mode, or the sense one gets that the best way to make it as a woman in the media business is to write about yourself.

Alexandra Lange
Junior Critics
One of the pleasures of teaching is when your students actually surprise you.

Alexandra Lange
All in the Execution
Ian Baldwin's review of The Grid Book calls out the coffee-table book format and it's middlebrow achievements.

Mark Dery
Bunker of Broken Dreams
Review of "Landscapes of Quarantine," Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York. March 9–April 17, 2010.

Alexandra Lange
Anthony Lane Fugs Too
Anthony Lane pans The Clash of the Titans.

Alexandra Lange
Texts Without Context
I keep thinking about Michiko Kakutani’s piece,
Texts Without Context, that begins the discussion of what is being lost to culture by the supremacy of the web.

Alexandra Lange
Tearing Down
At the end of a session at the Architectural League's On Criticism reading group, the non-journalists in attendance began to ask the journalists whether architecture critics had any power.

Alexandra Lange
Serious Fun
I am headed to California this week, and realized I might be passing by the Nut Tree, a roadside restaurant on the highway from Sacramento to San Francisco.

Mark Lamster
Overkill, Design Publishing Dept.
I have a piece out in the new issue of Dwell, a peek at a modest kitchen reno in Brooklyn. It's not online yet.

Alexandra Lange
More! Women! Architects!
A lot of attention — in Chicago, at least — has been given to the fact that Aqua is the tallest building in the world designed by a woman.

Alexandra Lange
I Heart Huxtable
Ada Louise Huxtable is still the most knowledgeable, elegant, thoughtful critic out there.

Alexandra Lange
Size M
Nicolai Ouroussoff, Paul Goldberger, and Ada Louise Huxtable may live here in New York, but in general they have become too big to pay attnetion to the small stuff.

Mark Lamster
Criticizing the Critics
The two men who controlled the architectural conversation in New York (and hence America and the world) for better than two decades have recently published collections of their criticism.

Alexandra Lange
The Women
While Manohla Dargis rants about the lack of women in charge in Hollywood save for Nancy Meyers, Zaha Hadid similarly represents the dirth of women in architecture.

Alexandra Lange
Paper Revelations
Reading a lot of architecture criticism for those same classes, I also start to develop a running mental list of the writerly tics of critics like Paul Goldberger.

Mark Lamster
Ron Arad at MoMA
I'm not sold on Arad as an architect, but his material experimentation is certainly admirable

Mark Lamster
Delayed Gratification: On Architectural Criticism
Caught up in the formal design aspects of a building, critics like Nicolai Ouroussoff overlook the social context.

Alan Rapp
Personal Space
Robert Sommer’s Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design was published in forty years ago, and its compact title concept — an invisible but perceptible security zone surrounding an individual — caught on. But where is Sommer now? A recent study in Perception finds that listening to music on headphones alters our sense of sociospatial relations. Until these more contemporary strands of inquiry result in a truly new analysis of how we perceive our interpersonal zones today, Personal Space is now available in a new edition, with some additional commentary by Dr. Sommer, from Bosko Books in the UK

Denise Gonzales Crisp, and Rick Poynor
A Critical View of Graphic Design History
Now comes yet another historical survey, Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide by Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish. Denise Gonzales Crisp and Rick Poynor have been marking pages, making notes and exchanging views...

Matt Soar
Fail Again, Fail Better
So, what of productive failure with respect to graphic design and typography? The idea of failing again and again for a reason? Does it somehow help to define the limits of professional practice?

Alice Twemlow
Some Questions about an Inquiry
“Critical design” is design that, through its form, can question and challenge industrial agendas; embody alternative social, cultural, technical or economic values; and act as a prop to stimulate debate and discussion amongst the public, designers and industry. As critical design gathers momentum, where is graphic design?

Alice Twemlow
When Did Posters Become Such Wallflowers?
What was odd about many of the posters Alice Twemlow judged in a recent competition was that they didn't promote an idea, event or product; their only purpose seemed to be entering numerous annual poster competitions.

Jessica Helfand
I'm Not Ready to Make Nice

Justin Good
What is Beauty? Or, On the Aesthetics of Wind Farms
What is beauty and how does it relate to ecology? A look at contrasting aesthetic intuitions about wind farms reveals a paradigm shift in how we understand beauty.

Michael Bierut
Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content
Design is that it is almost always about something else. The more things you're interested in, the better your work will be.

Michael Bierut
Wilson Pickett, Design Theorist, 1942 - 2006
Wilson Pickett's advice on hitmaking, "Harmonize, then customize," would make good advice for any designer.

Dmitri Siegel
In his classic story of Wall Street,
Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville recounts the tale of a humble copyist employed by the story's narrator. Could Bartleby's perfectly crafted refrain be the appropriate response to a world where every choice and configuration has been designed?

Rick Poynor
Emigre: An Ending
Issue 69 of Emigre will be the last. In its heyday, it was the most consistently interesting design publication produced by anyone, anywhere. By 1990, it was one of those magazines you simply had to get hold of and read straight away.

Rick Poynor
Where Are the Design Critics?
There is no reason why design criticism shouldn’t take an oppositional view of design's instrumental uses and its social role, but few design writers seem motivated to produce this kind of criticism.

Rick Poynor
Mevis and Van Deursen: Rueful Recollections, Recycled Design
In their self-edited monograph, Dutch graphic designers Mevis and Van Deursen turn their backs on their professed commitment to ideas and treat the book mainly as an opportunity for undemanding aesthetic play.

Jessica Helfand
Extremely Young and Incredibly Everywhere: The Public Art of Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer's emergent body of work includes film and video, public art installations, theatrical collaboration, expressive typography, and a fairly prolific jumpstart as a writer. Cumulatively, all of his projects — which range from collecting empty pages of famous writers, to constructing parabolas in a public park, to collecting anonymous self-portraits — seem to look for ways to formally address time and space and the human condition.

Rick Poynor
Dot Dot Dot Dot Dot Dot Dot Dot Dot
Dot Dot Dot is the most stimulating and original visual culture magazine produced by designers since Emigre's heyday in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.

Rick Poynor
Why Architects Give Me the Willies
No matter how central graphic communication might be to our lives, architecture always dominates press coverage because it is very expensive, expresses the conditions of power, and is just plain big.

Michael Bierut
Authenticity: A User's Guide
Graphic designers take pleasure in simulation. This makes defining authenticity a tricky thing.

William Drenttel
Chris Marker: La Jetée
For years, I've owned a copy of La Jetée, a book about the film by Chris Marker, the experimental filmmaker. Designed by Bruce Mau and published by MIT Press/Zone Books in 1993, this is one of those design books that has ascended into the realm of rare bookdom...

Michael Bierut
The Comfort of Style
The design process at the World Trade Center site has attracted enormous interest on one hand, and marginalized the role of designers on the other, as described in Philip Nobel's book Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero.

Rick Poynor
The I.D. Forty: What Are Lists For?
How do we measure one kind of achievement in design against another to arrive at a ranking? The truth is we can’t. The real purpose of I.D.’s list was to underscore the magazine’s position as selector and taste-maker.

Jessica Helfand
Code (PMS) Blue
Hospital rooms are architectural oddities: they're all function with no form. To the extent that, in matters of critical care, timing is everything, why should it matter? Then again, why shouldn't it?

Jessica Helfand
Time, Space and The Microsoft Colonialists
If Microsoft displayed its marketing genius by introducing "Spaces" three weeks before Christmas, its failure as a compelling editorial product — as evidenced by its restrictive format, its templated narrowcasting, its uninspired design parameters — illuminates its ultimate weakness: these spaces have nothing to do with space, in all its rich, fascinating and deeply human complexity.

Jessica Helfand
Am I Blue
Bumper stickers and lawn posters aside, Americans showed their concern on election day 2004 by standing in epic lines at polling centers around the nation, but also in certain subtle, discreetly visual ways. From dressing in all blue (or red) to wearing "I voted today" buttons, there has been a kind of silent visual communication effort steadily in play for the last 36 hours.

Michael Bierut
What is Design For? A Discussion
Rick Poynor and Michael Bierut discuss the purpose and promise of graphic design, in a conversation moderated by Creative Review editor Patrick Burgoyne.

Michael Bierut
Barthes on the Ballpoint
Roland Barthes disliked ballpoint pens, suggesting that there is a "Bic style" suited for "writing that merely transcribes thought."

Jessica Helfand
Annals of Academia, Part I: What I Didn't Learn In Graduate School

William Drenttel
Learning from Las Vegas: The Book That (Still) Takes My Breath Away

Rick Poynor
Critics and Their Purpose
Pulling a 1960s art magazine from the shelf, I opened it at random to find a long list of thoughts about art criticism assembled in 1966 by students at the Royal College of Art in London. Many of these ideas apply to design.

Jessica Helfand
One Person, One Vote, One MRI?

Rick Poynor
Theory with a Small "t"
A critical writing determined by the need to shape practice will be limited in the cultural insights it can offer. This is the last thing that design writing needs when ways to engage a wider public could be opening up.

Rick Poynor
How to Say What You Mean
There is a crucial difference between subtle and complex ideas and needlessly convoluted forms of expression. The challenge now for design writing is to move outwards into a world in which design is everywhere.

Jessica Helfand
Regarding the Photography of Others

William Drenttel
Defamiliarization: A Personal History

Jessica Helfand
The Crisis of Intent

Jessica Helfand
You're Going to Hollywood, Baby

Jessica Helfand
The Span of Casual Vision

Rick Poynor
Notes on Experimental Jetset
Experimental Jetset’s argument that design should have a certain autonomy and an inner logic separate from tastes and trends makes sense, but as a rationale for defaulting to Helvetica, is it convincing?

Jessica Helfand
On Visual Empathy
In a world besieged by unpredictable atrocities, don't we all feel a little emotionally raw? Two recent articles in suggest that visual empathy may more critical to a productive imagination than we thought.

Rick Poynor
Those Inward-looking Europeans
Three American design teachers visit London and the Netherlands. European designers, they say, are not paying attention to design history. Maybe the visitors are missing local factors and broader global issues.

Jessica Helfand
Fatal Grandeur
Maybe design isn't going to kill you if it falls on your head. But if YOU fall, design is not exactly going to save you, either.

Jessica Helfand
Edward Tufte: The Dispassionate Statistician I

Jessica Helfand
The Real Declaration

Observed | October 21

More on ballot design and its many problems. [JH]

Design is the new currency. [JH]

If Hillary is elected, “’re going to have taco trucks on every corner”, warned Latinos for Trump’s Marco Gutierrez. Lana Rigby designs a citywide fleet of taco trucks that double as voter registration booths. [JH]

“Design is the art and science of improving the interface between human beings and their environment.” A new design incubator at MIT. [JH]

Observed | October 20

“Ignore the fads and go back to the typographic principles of print — keep your type black,” says Kevin Marks. More from Cory Doctorow on the web’s “plague” of grey type. [JH]

The Wall Street Journal on design books as eye candy. [JH]

The New Yorker on urban housing, inequality, density, democracy—and Le Corbusier. [JH]

Observed | October 18

Could bad buildings damage your mental health? [MB]

Dutch Design Week! Here’s the program. [JH]

Observed | October 17

Wine labels—and how their design impacts what we want to buy. [JH]

From India, a story on design mistakes for startups. [JH]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Zur Farbenlehre (“Theory of Colors”), 1810. [MB]

A call to action for design justice. [JH]

The eerie secret apartments of the New York Public Library system [MB]

“Not knowing what you’re doing is a skill you can’t teach.” An interview with Richard Turley (ex-Businessweek, ex-MTV) on his move to Wieden+Kennedy. [MB]

Observed | October 14

“How do you approach an art empty of figures and evident narratives?,” asks New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, writing about the late minimalist painter Agnes Martin. "How do you find out what, if anything, is in it for you? What do you do to make it your own?” To which Martin herself was known to reply: “You go there and sit and look.” A retrospective of Martin’s work is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through early January. [JH]

Magenta debuts! A new online source for design, cultural criticism, and more. [JH]

David Bowie had a vast collection of Memphis furniture. [MB]

Observed | October 13

Non-car designer designs non-car. [JH]

Democratic design—between cultures. [JH]

A day in the life of Tobias Frere-Jones. [MB]

Louise Fili, Goddess of typographic splendor! [JH]

Observed | October 12

Ice cream! Complimentary slippers! And design awards for a check-in counter! Highlights of service design for those traveling to (and from) Japan. [JH]

Philanthropists donate 8.1 billion for a new design center at Colorado State University. [JH]

Can happiness be designed? More evidence pointing to the fact that this is possible. (Bear in mind that “design” is used rather loosely, here—but is strategically positioned as an antidote to technology.) [JH]

Spy is back! [MB]

In a landmark patent case, Supreme Court Justices use Volkswagen Beetle as cultural shorthand for design brilliance. [JH]

Observed | October 11

Design in the age of globalization: what China does. [JH]

Today—for the first time in over a century—a design case reaches the Supreme Court. NPR reports. More from Reuters and from Bloomberg. [JH]

Mexican polymath Gabriel Orozco branches out—literally—into horticulture. [JH]

Jobs | October 22