Theory + Criticism
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mentor, Or, Why Modernist Designers Are Superior
Does a strict upbringing make you a better designer?
The Karaoke Effect
The illusory bubble populated by thousands of fame-seekers who fervently believe in their own righteous, if highly fictional talent.
Exposure: Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman
The photographer as performer
Exposure: Brodsky, the Tie Seller in Paris
Every photograph is an enigma
Object Vs. Object
The Re Made Plunger satirizes the Best Made axe — a great example of object-as-critique.
Criticism = Love
Why you have to love design to be a critic.
Year of the Women
A year-end wrap-up of my favorite stories. The common theme? Women and the making of design.
The Writings of William Drenttel
Essays from the Design Observer archive show the wide scope of William Drenttel's interests and concerns.
Collage Culture: Nostalgia and Critique
An interview with David Banash, author of Collage Culture: Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption.
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.
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.
Scenes from the Crowdcrit Revolution
Assessing the crowdcrit revolution of the past decade, and what it could mean for serious thinking about design.
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.
Praise the Partner(s)
Salute Denise Scott Brown because she deserves it, but let's not forget the other partners.
The Fork and the World: Design 101
If you had to explain design to the uninitiated, where would you start?
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.
Instagramming Around Australia
Lessons from contemporary Australian architecture, plus what I saw on Instagram.
A Dictionary of Surrealism and the Graphic Image
An alphabetical guide to graphic designers influenced by Surrealism and to some key Surrealist concepts.
Branding By Numbers
Emblemetric backs its assessment of the American Airlines logo with "the data." Of course, that's open to interpretation.
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.
Bad Taste True Confessions: Erté
True confessions about my own bad taste. I loved Erté. Did you?
Style: An Inventory
Style: An Inventory by Michael Bierut
Crowdcrit vs. Apple Maps
An instant Tumblr responds to Apple's maps app, and demonstrates the art of the creative takedown.
Secret Lives Of Things
Ian Bogost explains why it's important to try to understand what it's like to be a thing.
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.
The Charismatic Megafauna of Design
Identifying the "charismatic megafauna" of design and the critical uses of their popularity.
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?
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?
Frank Lloyd Wright + Katniss Everdeen
On photographing architecture as sculpture and telling stories via architecture.
John McHale and the Expendable Ikon
Artist, graphic designer, information theorist, architectural critic, sociologist, futurist: i
’s time to rediscover John McHale.
In Response to An Anatomy of Uncriticism
Alexandra Lange’s article in
about the sacred cows of graphic design sidesteps the issue it raises.
Read All That? You Must be Kidding Me
essay about reading and writing for
Graphic Design: Now in Production
misses some key points.
Another Design Voice Falls Silent
As design criticism takes off as a branch of academic study, design publications such as
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.
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.
Should We Look at Corrosive Images?
What do violent photographs of war do to us as viewers?
A Swedish Perspective on Critical Practice
, a recent book from Stockholm about critical practice, has some smart insights while missing the bigger picture.
My new blog collects the best arts & culture criticism, essays and reviews.
The House That Design Journalism Built
Printed design magazines continue to fail and close. Where does that leave design writing and criticism?
Books Every Graphic Designer Should Read
Designers & Books
website has published my list of 20 indispensable books about graphic design.
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.
Muddying the Waters
Explore New York's watery edges with the graduating class at D-Crit.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Cub
Is design strictly a set of rules?
ISO The Digital Sidewalk Critic
Why is it so hard to say, "I hate my iPad"?
Objects Fall From the Sky
What's more important: crediting a designer or the designer credited?
Where Is Art Now?
Leaving the art world to decide what art is doesn’t resolve the issue of quality.
Criticism Kerfuffle 2010
people trying to write their way to a future of architecture criticism. But it isn't just the writing that's the problem.
Design Writing: Vital Field or Museum Piece?
Is traditional architectural criticism dead?
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.
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.
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.
Degrees of Temporary
Interview with Claudia Zanfi, co-founder of the cultural organization aMAZElab in Milan.
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.
Lunch with the Critics: Park51 and 15 Penn Plaza
second critical lunch
, in the creepy climes of the Hotel Pennsylvania, we discuss the urbanism, politics and skyline posturing of Park51 and 15 Penn Plaza.
The Imperfect Imperfectionists
Last week I felt disgusted with myself for becoming one of those parents who no longer reads so I bought Tom Rachman’s
When Shopping Was Sociable
Design Research and Apple, a comparison of the two stores that have brought design to the masses.
On DO: Lunch with the Critics
Please weigh in on
and my new Design Observer feature, "
Lunch with the Critics
," in which we observe the new Lincoln Center.
Out of Love with Piano
After reading Reading Martin Filler’s
’s proposed addition to the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth
, I was struck again by how Piano’s critical reception seems to have curdled.
Whatever Happened to Architecture Critique?
Sometimes it feels like everything is shrinking: the magazines, the word counts, the outlets, and especially the critics.
“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.
Pomo Time Machine
I’m writing more about
, my favorite terribly wonderful or wonderfully terrible architect.
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.
What Should Design Critics Write About?
Address to MFA students in the School of Visual Arts' Design Criticism program, April 30, 2010.
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.
Jane Jacobs Is Still Watching
Despite my dislike of Jane Jacobs's beef with architects and planners, so many points seem strangely prescient.
On Archpaper: Saccharine Design
My review of
at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for
The Architect’s Newspaper
just went online and let’s just say I was not impressed.
Straw Men Redux
I can't help but compare and contrast Nicolai Ourossoff's opening sentences of his recent work.
What I Learned @dcritconference
is just a memory, so as a tribute to the afternoon presentations I saw, I offer a set of tangents.
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.
One of the pleasures of teaching is when your students actually surprise you.
Approving of the Approval Matrix
Now that Bravo just
bought the TV show
based on New York Magazine’s
, who says criticism is dead?
All in the Execution
The Grid Book
calls out the coffee-table book format and it's middlebrow achievements.
Please Join Us
I'm looking forward to the upcoming
on April 30, 2010.
Bunker of Broken Dreams
Review of "Landscapes of Quarantine," Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York. March 9–April 17, 2010.
Every Thing Design: Can I Play Too?
Alice Rawsthorn, whom I generally want to grow up to be,
writes in today’s T
Every Thing Design
, Dutch designer
’s latest book based on the collections of the
Museum of Design, Zurich
Anthony Lane Fugs Too
Anthony Lane pans
The Clash of the Titans
There’s a theme in the comments on my Design Observer piece on design blogs,
The Vacuum of Enthusiasm
, that there is little for me to say about.
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.
When I tweeted yesterday on the rumored short list for the San Francisco MoMA expansion competition,
called me sour!
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.
Not to be overly self-referential, but I have to highlight this paragraph of Places editor Nancy Levinson’s response to the comments on
Nicolai Ouroussoff piece
On DO: Why Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough
Well, it took me about six month to work up to this, but here goes: If the death of the architecture critic is nigh, we really need
than Ouroussoff occupying the top spots.
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.
Overkill, Design Publishing Dept.
I have a piece out in the new issue of
, a peek at a modest kitchen reno in Brooklyn. It's not online yet.
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.
I Heart Huxtable
Ada Louise Huxtable
is still the most knowledgeable, elegant, thoughtful critic out there.
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.
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.
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.
Making A List...
The New Yorker
has a rather expansive
round-up of lists
online and I particularly like Judith Thurman’s
memorable fashion statements
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.
Ron Arad at MoMA
I'm not sold on Arad as an architect, but his material experimentation is certainly admirable
Delayed Gratification: On Architectural Criticism
Caught up in the formal design aspects of a building, critics like Nicolai Ouroussoff overlook the social context.
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...
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?
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?
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.
I'm Not Ready to Make Nice
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.
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.
Wilson Pickett, Design Theorist, 1942 - 2006
Wilson Pickett's advice on hitmaking, "Harmonize, then customize," would make good advice for any designer.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
's heyday in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.
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.
Authenticity: A User's Guide
Graphic designers take pleasure in simulation. This makes defining authenticity a tricky thing.
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...
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.
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
’s list was to underscore the magazine’s position as selector and taste-maker.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Barthes on the Ballpoint
Roland Barthes disliked ballpoint pens, suggesting that there is a "Bic style" suited for "writing that merely transcribes thought."
Annals of Academia, Part II: Graphic Design and The New Optimism
Annals of Academia, Part I: What I Didn't Learn In Graduate School
Learning from Las Vegas
: The Book That (Still) Takes My Breath Away
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.
One Person, One Vote, One MRI?
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.
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.
Regarding the Photography of Others
Defamiliarization: A Personal History
The Crisis of Intent
You're Going to Hollywood, Baby
The Span of Casual Vision
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?
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.
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.
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.
Edward Tufte: The Dispassionate Statistician I
The Real Declaration
| March 30
Your afternoon distraction:
How TV opening titles got to be so damn good
A rabbit hole worth falling down:
Archivo Grafica Italiana
showcases Italy’s graphic design legacy.
the first ever Latvian design award
| March 29
one writer dives into the belly of the assembly-required beast:
How 12 hours in the biggest Ikea in the U.S. destroyed my soul
obsession with hula girls
almost wrecked Hawai‘i. [BV]
What author uses the most exclamation points? Or,
literature by the numbers
Trying to save you from yourself a
Dutch town installs traffic lights on the ground for texting pedestrians
. “They were looking down there anyway.” [BV]
| March 28
could ban Heineken‘s red star logo
over communism concerns. [MPL]
Annals of material culture
: the Bodlean Library at Oxford mounts an exhibit of ledgers revealing what famous people once paid for shoes. [JH]
New one-pound coin in Britain
is designed by a 17-year-old
Design as tourism :
| March 27
The smartphone with
a mission to be used less often
Ethics can‘t be a side hustle
. (Thanks to Ashleigh Axios.) [MB]
Target is redesigning
to take on Amazon. [MPL]
| March 24
A history of the zipper
Designer vs Developer: Google‘s YouTube and podcast series aims to
help bridge understanding
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak
on the early days of design at Apple
| March 23
Norway has redesigned its banknotes:
here’s a preview
. (Via Kevin Hicks.) [JH]
Gurafiku founder Ryan Hageman on
Japanese graphic design
How a photo of a tour van became a “lovely graphic tool”
in the hands of Harry Pearce
The US Supreme Court
rules that design elements can be copyrighted
... if you’re a cheerleader, that is. [JH]
| March 22
10 notebooks for designers
. (And they‘re not all Moleskines.) [MPL]
All of Frida Kahlo‘s anguish, beauty, and pain in, what else,
A collection of
East German beer and drink labels
"The standards of good design don’t change when designing for doing good.”
Why the Resistance doesn’t need another logo
“So now is a good moment to think about
how protest works and what it can achieve
An exhibition on the visual history of protest
opens tomorrow at the Imperial War Museum in London. [JH]
| March 21
Why Christopher Gray was
the witty architectural historian everybody loved
The Resistance has a
from the 70s and 80s. [MB]
Roman Mars ranks government logos
| March 30
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