Lilly Smith | Interviews

Chain Letters: Jamer Hunt

This interview is part of an ongoing Design Observer series, Chain Letters, in which we ask leading design minds a few burning questions—and so do their peers, for a year-long conversation about the state of the industry.

In May, we examine the state of design criticism in a world where everyone’s a critic.

Jamer Hunt collaboratively designs open and flexible programs for participation that respond to emergent cultural conditions. He is the Vice Provost for Transdisciplinary Initiatives at The New School, where he was founding director (2009-2015) of the graduate program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons School of Design. He is also Visiting Design Researcher at the Institute of Design in Umea, Sweden. With Paola Antonelli at the MoMA he was co-creator of the award-winning, curatorial experiment and book Design and Violence (2013-15), as well as collaborating on the HeadSpace: On Scent as Design and The Design and the Elastic Mind symposium. He was the co-founder of DesignPhiladelphia, at that time the country’s largest design week, and he is one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People…Inspiring Leaders [who] are Shaping the Future of Business in Creative Ways.” He has published over twenty articles on the poetics and politics of design, including for Fast Company and the Huffington Post, and he is co-author, with Meredith Davis, of Visual Communication Design. He is currently completing a book manuscript on scale, complex systems, and everyday experiences for Grand Central Publishing entitled, Not to Scale: Design and Innovation in Unruly Times.

With the proliferation of independent mags and personal blogs, it seems that everyone’s a critic. Is design criticism as we’ve known it still relevant? If not, how can the field regain relevancy?

That we’re going through a phase shift where the traditional vehicles of design writing are evaporating doesn’t mean that design criticism is on its way out as well. I’m reminded of a photographer friend who—while admitting that the photography business model was imploding—exclaimed that this a great time to be in the image business! I’m a strong believer that we, the design community, will always seek out and reward great design writing. It just may be that writers need to become prolific, flexible, and opportunistic when it comes to finding new channels for disseminating their work and getting paid for it. Pining for the old won’t be the way forward. Nor will lamenting the fact that everybody’s a critic.

What are three rules that make for a productive discourse about design?

Know one’s design history. Know one’s politics. Maintain one’s sense of wonder.

How do you approach trends like “anti-design,” which throw aesthetics traditionally associated with “good” design out the window?

This “trend” has been around since the 1960s, so I’m not sure that we can call it a trend anymore. And I don’t believe that there’s any incommensurability between the critique of “good” design and a love of aesthetics. That “good” design represented a very narrow, normative, and privileged view of what constituted the “beautiful” or the “useful” is a position that now seems self-evident. And it’s likely the case that most design criticism today focuses on ideology more than aesthetics, as we’re going through a period of long-overdue self-scrutiny. But none of this, to my mind, obviates the need for design writing to engage with aesthetics. It just may mean that we have to radically recalibrate what we mean when we talk about aesthetics. Anti-design has aesthetic qualities as well, and we would do well to make those aesthetic investments part of the conversation, even if they don’t look like aesthetics as we knew them.
And it’s likely the case that most design criticism today focuses on ideology more than aesthetics, as we’re going through a period of long-overdue self-scrutiny.

What is the best design criticism you’ve read recently?

The work that’s being loosely grouped under the “decolonizing design” banner has been capturing my attention lately. It can be uneven in quality of writing, but through its collective impact we can begin to feel the tremors from a tectonic shift that has the potential to upend our institutions, organizations, and ways of knowing. By revealing the myriad ways in which privilege is woven into the fabric of our institutional cultures (and not just a result of unwitting individual decisions), the authors are opening up a space for reflection and action. Many of us have been silent accomplices in that ugly history and now is time to reckon with that legacy.

Bearing in mind our first question, can anyone be a critic?

There are important differences between a tweet, a like, an opinion, punditry, and criticism. Anyone can become a design critic, certainly, but not everyone is a design critic. Just because everybody can dance doesn’t mean we’re all dancers. In other words—and like dance—writing is a craft that takes time, experience, and the development of a voice.

But anybody who has strong feelings about design and loves to write should aim high. And we do have to be open to the likelihood that compelling new voices may emerge from within a fusillade of tweets. My hope is that the proliferating channels and lower barriers for entry will diversify the voices represented in design writing and that we will get a much more vivid sense of what design means to many different communities.
But anybody who has strong feelings about design and loves to write should aim high.

From Molly Heintz: Your work defines design broadly, including considering design as a system. How can we expand the general public’s perception of design, from the purely visible—the shiny object—to complex networks or processes that may less visible?

First of all, complexity can be dazzling to behold (think of the paintings of Julie Mehretu). But the question calls forth a larger one: How can we appreciate the formless? To begin to answer that, I will return back to the question of aesthetics. Systems and processes have aesthetic qualities: A collaboration between multiple stakeholders can be awkward or smooth; antic or subdued; accelerated or attenuated; out of proportion or exquisitely balanced. Processes and systems take form, they just do so in less visible, material ways…just like music. We will have to develop a higher level of attunement to the immaterial, first of all. It makes up more and more of our everyday experiences. But we also need to exuberantly embrace the fact that our ability to thrive will depend upon our capacity to feel at home within the whorls of chaotic systems.

Next week Jamer asks Lawrence Azerrad: One of the amazing things about music is our capacity to listen to it over and over again—in some cases hundreds of times. And our pleasure only seems to increase with repetition and familiarity. What do you think it is about music that allows for that expansiveness when so many designed experiences and objects seemingly degrade with each use?

Posted in: Chain Letters

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