Rick Poynor | Essays

Where Are the Design Critics?

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.

Posted in: History, Media, Theory + Criticism

Comments [70]

Would you mind volunteering the names of any writers that you considered to be significant contemporary design critics?
William Mangum

Fascinating post, Rick. I am curious about one thing: do you, or did any of your colleagues on the panel, make any mention of the impact (or lack thereof) by critics who are also practicing designers? This seems a bit of a double-edged sword, to me — in the "Doctor, heal thyself" sort of way. Put another way: it would be easy to expect design practitioners to be the fiercest critics, but on the contrary, they (we?) may be the worst offenders. Whether this is because designers are not skilled in "autocritique" or whether they are simply incapable (or unwilling) to take aim at a fellow practitioner, I'm not so sure. But one thing I do know, and that is this: to the degree that everyone sees design as their business — and they do — design criticism needs designers as critics.
Jessica Helfand

Considering the frequency with which the above names (and a very few others) keep turning up at these panels, perhaps maybe the stasis is a bit self-induced? Do you have a responsbility as a public venue of more than one voice to consider the breadth and depth of critical positions represented here, or is it acceptable to call this only a blog amongst friends?

This would seem to be the ideal place to bring new voices, even if they weren't permanent. Having lesser lights write under the aegis of this 'publication' might enliven the debate.
Miss Representation

Thanks Rick for the thoughtful response to Friday's panel. I think you put your finger on the key point - what, indeed, do we mean by criticism? One of the subtleties that may have gotten lost in the scrum of the panel itself is the confusion between critique as opposition (the simple occupation of a negative, most obviously an anti-capitalist, stance); and the much more significant sense of the word criticism, as a discursive space in its own right. Mature bodies of criticism, such as those attached to literature, art, and film, do share a common ground in Marxist thought. But this is by no means to say that critical discourse is simply the discourse of cultural opposition. What, after all, could be less discursive than an automatically oppositional stance to the meanstream?

At one point in the panel, the question of ecologically motivated design came up, and there was perhaps some suggestion that insofar as it is allied with progressive politics, that would count as "critical." But this to me seems to be just an alternate form of promotionalism, albeit one that is allied with left rather than right politics.

Rather, I think what we were looking for in design criticism, mostly in vain, is a lineage of internal debate and theory that constitutes a space for distinctive and somehow "productive" thought. In art and literary criticism this took the form (to oversimplify) of an assertion of formalist values, in which the autonomous work of the artist or poet was the guarantor of the 'separateness' of the critical space; and then a repudiation of that model under the banner of feminism, postcolonial theory, etc. Because of this history, current day theorists in these arenas have a rich array of positions to draw upon in defining their own practice. In the case of design criticism this history seems to have been largely absent, which accounts for the present dilemma.

One last point I would make is one that I made at the panel, and one that perhaps addresses Jessica Helfand's question: is it possible that we do have a rich practice of design criticism in front of our eyes, in the works of contemporary artists who engage with design? One thinks of artists as diverse as Andrea Zittel, Jorge Pardo, Matthew Barney, Yinka Shonibare, and Takeshi Murakami as offering an account or use of design that is productively discursive. Alex Coles' recent book DesignArt surveys this activity usefully; Rick, in his review of the book earlier this year, rightly says that it "ends up confirming that art remains the dominant term in the relationship." It may be that this is inevitable, though--that when a designer or design theorist becomes sufficiently 'critical,' they pass inevitably into the realm of contemporary art and are otherwise unrecognizable to critics and the public alike.
Glenn Adamson

10-15 names voicing their opinions over and ove againr, in their well-meaning or self-promoting self-indulgence. How often the same names have to pop-out at Design Observer forums? Before we know it turned into mutual adoration club. "Fascinating post RicK", "Excellent entry Bill", "How interesting that you mentioned that Jessica", etc. Enough, please.

Yes, I think Miss Representation is right, now how can we make that design critical dialogue, more colourful, diverse and less incestuous? I really don't know but please don't censor my own entry as much as you may dislike it. Thank you editors.

scattered thoughts--

- I agree with the problems of overlapping promotion and "criticism"-- and would add the question of why the Arts section of the Times is dedicated to actual criticism while the Design sections (House and Home and the Styles) are fluffy pieces of consumerism (except for many articles by William Hamilton, like the recent Design for Disaster interviews).

- If you look for design criticism outside of the design press or shelter magazines, there are a lot of commentators who are talking about the broader social/cultural impacts. I'm thinking of things like Dolores Hayden's "Field Guide to Sprawl," parts of Mike Davis' "City of Quartz," even David Brooks' pieces on the exurbs and Bobo consumerism.

- I like the idea that Glenn Adamson refers to above that many artists' works critique design. There are designers who have worked in this vein too-- Droog comes to mind in particular, poking fun (and sometimes seriousness) at the processes of design, production and consumption. Predecessors would be Archizoom and Studio Alchimia, maybe? Then there are more jeremiad-ish perspectives-- Victor Papanek wrote that there were few professions more harmful than his own (industrial design), and proposed some pretty serious changes. Are there voices that strident in current design practice? I don't see it among design students I have worked with...

In regards to a few of the previous comments:

(Please, feel free to correct me if I am out of line, my writing can be convoluted at times so if I am confusing I can certainly clarify.)

I'll articulate my voice in the way that Miss Representation has pointed out, that is—a voice that may really have no impact. I surely can't post new topics here, but I can reply in a thoughtful manner, and with that said I'd rather listen first than speak first anyway.
But for now I will speak from my experience as a student (in response to Bess's mention that she does not see a critical thread amongst students she has worked with). Many students I know of have some concern over the direction of the discourse around design and its adherents or have interest in the issues it tends to be involved in. These issues may include the ones mentioned above such as the much touted "consumerism" and concerns about ecological impact and social effects. A few of my fellow design students have interests that vary from political/social concerns such as colonization and conflict to things such as the critique of institutions and illusionary discourse. The problematic aspect is of course the "practice" of these ideals.

In response to Jessica Helfand's reply, yes I would agree that designers are sometimes the worst offenders, I would say I am a part of this list of offenders, I may start with the best intentions but it is refreshing to see at the end of the project that what I have done is a bastardization of what I hold for my ideals. It is very easy for me to point my finger at external issues and implicate them in the atrocities in the world; it is much harder to point the finger at oneself.

In response to the observation that design writing is deeply entrenched within the design field that Glenn Adamson fielded. First I would like to say that this is definitely a good point to engage with, and I respect the motivation to go further with this question. In Helfand's post she stated that "design criticism needs designers as critics" but I would not stop there, there is something much more important than being a critical designer, it's the act of being critical. The idea of being a critical person first and a designer second (if one feels so inclined to give yourself professional limits) strikes me as being more imperative.

(To illustrate, if I were speaking as a designer I would ask "Who is my audience?" if I were speaking as Abi, that being with my own voice, then I would ask "Why the hell am I calling these people my 'audience' as though degrading their ability to speak and relegating 'them' the role as spectators?")

In my mind criticism is not be limited by profession, or purely exist within one as a means of rationalization. By rationalization I mean things ranging from defense of the integrity of so and so design or even articles attempting to 'gain ground' for design. Under the pretense of expanding the 'field' of design some articles I have read have proclaimed new aims for design by expanding its purview; for example, design as sociology, design as writing, design as music, design as anthropology, design as (etc). This is not intended of course to deflate the validity of such statements or the important points that they might hold, but merely point out that these so called "critical standpoints" may be instead rationalizing a profession.

I would contend that there is a great amount of criticism about design to be found; a while back I too had noted the drought of thoughtful discourse over contemporary design. But it was not until I started looking outside of the design narrows did I find a wealth of what could be called "critical" but I rather like the term 'questions' instead, it feels far less limiting (but one could contend that this is just my imagination run wild and that 'critical' being merely an eight letter word means me no harm).

Truthfully, I feel that much of what passes for design in the contemporary 'practice' could use a few thoughtful questions that are not bred of the "form/content", "style/substance", "social/ecological" design-based variety. But really I should just leave this at "a few thoughtful questions". I don't think that's too much to ask of myself or anyone else.
Abi Huynh

What meta-contextual frameworks exist for critique of design? Are they accessible to non-designers?
Perhaps a suitably meta-contextual framework for critical discourse would be useful in terms of side-stepping the promotion/criticism deadlock.
I suggest we look across at other disciplines such as industrial psychology where the theory of Salutogenisis (borrowed from neuro-science, Dr Antonovski), I feel, has a lot of potential. It focuses on "Sense of Coherence" (defining characteristic of "wellbeing") and three criteria held forth as necessary conditions for it, namely Meaningfulness, Manageability and Comprehensibility. Transposing these into design discourse may yield some interesting results, e.g. let's look at this design's cultural/ethical context, user/media appropriateness, successful communication etc.
Just my South African 20c worth.

Thanks for everyone's comments.

Jessica, the subject of designers as writers didn't get much of an airing during the two discussions. That was an oversight because many of the most committed writers on design are, of course, designers. I think designers are, as you would expect, very good at practical criticism of the processes of designing and at critiquing the details of particular designs (much better at the latter than most non-designer design writers). However, designers are, as you say, reluctant to criticise the work of colleagues publicly, sharp as their views might be in private.

They also seem to be less good at producing a cultural criticism of design that steps back from their professional involvement and relates designing to design history and to broader social developments and patterns. To do this effectively, it would probably be necessary for a designer to concentrate on writing. This career move is quite common in architectural writing. Robin Kinross is an example of a qualified designer whose persona, for a number of years, was more that of writer than designer. In my view, he has produced some of the best informed and most illuminating writing about typographic design in the last two decades. As I have said elsewhere, the most engaging writing will display an individual sensibility in addition to anything else it achieves. Design needs to become a literary subject matter like any other. That's the only way there will ever be a broader public readership for design writing.

Glenn, "negative" can be a misleading word: just because you oppose something it doesn't mean you are negative. To maintain a consistent critique against the prevailing view requires an extremely positive outlook. Is, say, British activist George Monbiot, who writes for The Guardian, negative? He seems positive -- concerned, motivated, passionate, argumentative -- in the most inspiring way. The anti-capitalist critique is "simple" only in the sense that we know what it is against. The solutions to the problems it highlights are hugely complex.

Although I have chosen to highlight the lack of oppositional design criticism because it is so rarely discussed, I fully accept the usefulness of a spectrum of writing concerns, from the straightforward reporting of design news, through every shade of critical journalism, to the most engaged kinds of critical practice. I agree that we need a "lineage of internal debate and theory" and I would suggest that this is slowly emerging in the area of visual communication (this site's primary focus). It may well be more advanced at this stage than in your own field of interest, three-dimensional design and crafts. The suggestion that "when a designer or design theorist becomes sufficiently 'critical,' they pass inevitably into the realm of contemporary art and are otherwise unrecognizable to critics and the public alike" seems to close off the possibility of design ever developing a more rigorous internal sense of critical awareness. The irony is that it is often designers who have been the first to shout "Art!" and seek to expel these critical intruders from their midst.
Rick Poynor

...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.

This wide regard sometimes seems to be more like wishful thinking. In fact, isn't the problem that design (particularly graphic design) remains marginalized, a subject not worthy of serious discussion among serious critics? Those few that have glanced in the direction of graphic design, like Susan Sontag, have been suspected of slumming. My favorite American "public intellectual" who has written (very occasionally) on the subject, Thomas Frank, probably would be dismissed as "too popular" by the assemblers of the Prospect list.

At any rate, I suspect that the laws of supply and demand prevail in the marketplace for critical writing as they do in graphic design. Despite great claims made for the "power" of design by its practitioners, the business world and certainly the general public are largely oblivious.

Until the granters of university tenure and the editors of culture pages are convinced that graphic design is something important, it seems unlikely that a critical mass of design critics will emerge. That leaves the question: who will do the convincing?
Michael Bierut

Just to clarify one point raised by Michael's comment. The focus of these debates was not on graphic design -- it was on design in general. Out of seven panellists only two of us had any graphic design involvement.

The other panellists involved in the education debate were: Dawn Barrett, dean of architecture and design, RISD; Chris Rose, academic programme leader, three-dimensional design and materials practice, School of Architecture and Design, University of Brighton; and John Wood, reader in design futures, Department of Design, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

I think it would be better to keep the discussion as broad as possible here and not to over-focus on graphic design and its recurrent insecurities, which have had plenty of airings on Design Observer.
Rick Poynor

Forgive me if my observation is deemed impertinent, but I'm having trouble deciding whether the issue, as expressed here, is one of the lack of design criticism or one of the lack of criticism of capitalism. Is the problem that our community lacks enough published design criticism or that it lacks enough solcialist rhetoric?

Rick, as for your statement that, "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," I would have to say rather that it is no wonder that design occupies this position in a system (capitalism)where success is important.

Good design works. It is the purpose of design to exploit human perception and behavior in its effort to solve problems of communication and interaction. Why should there be any problem with the fact that participants in capitalism should seek to employ the proven effectiveness of design?

And with all due respect to Mr. Keedy, his observation about design's default position in capitalism is shallow at best and inaccurate at worst. More accurately, design's default position in capitalism is to harmonize the aims of producers and consumers - to make both parties happy.

Of course it's much easier to criticize something after having characterized it.

As I've explored grad school and looked at combining my interest in anthropological theory and my fine arts education, I've come across many different forms of criticism that are springing up in graduate programs around the world as well as in the U.S.

So if the schools are producing more critics, where are they going? What has the current crop of publicly accessible critics done to assure that the voices of the newer critics are heard? This goes to Miss Representations comments.

During my on-going research, what I've seen, in design criticism programs springing up in art schools or within art departments around the U.S., is that criticism is often being combined with practice. So that a new area of critics are coming of age that are trained as curators and artists. The work they create/curate is a form of criticism.

Perhaps this is the problem between the old guard and the new: if the old guard are the writer/pundit/intellectual vain of critic and the new guard is the practitioner, perhaps the old guard doesn't even know how to mentor the new. They are in essence working in different mediums.

If the Keedy quote is the prevailing opinion, wouldn't it imply that a designer speaking critically of capitalism would be in a situation that's hostile at best? Has anyone considered the possibility that those designers might feel they have nothing to say to such an audience, if they'd want to talk to them in the first place? The first person that came to my mind while reading portions of this was Jonathan Barnbrook, and I've seen extremely few public statements from him.

How about starting with a Where Are They Now? of those who have definitely come out: The 2000 First Things First Manifesto. What are they all up to?

This discussion has made me think about how so-called liberal arts education and criticism IN GENERAL has taken a nosedive in the public consciousness. Remember when Susan Sontag was a celebrity? Self-awareness (let alone self critique) in the new 21st century "World is Flat" age has taken a back seat to an aggressive pursuit of personal comfort and wealth. At least that's what it feels like living in the so-called bluest of blue state cities San Francisco (median house price in the high $600,000 range). My thoughts then go to how much of this mentality was fostered (even if indirectly) by we the designers? Or is an increasingly ethics-free zone just the endgame of an ever more affluent society? Are the recent disasters on our own shores simply bumps in a road easily flattened by the pursuit of happiness-through-wealth semi-truck?

The irony is that it is often designers who have been the first to shout "Art!" and seek to expel these critical intruders from their midst.

This is very true, and I more than once have been guilty of such behavior, but only because it's hard for me to feel that art in contemporary society has much influence on anyone outside its increasingly isolated clique. The only time art seems to escape its rarified surroundings is when a collector buys it (and even then it's just being transferred to another rarified environment). It's popular culture that holds are sway and where much of current criticism (or lack thereof) focuses its energy now. Designers, for better or worse, play a bigger role in society because of this shift, yet our role is usually that of co-conspirator not critic—this is our means to a living. Thus I'm all for a more internal critique of what we do (hell, just a better discussion on UNDERSTANDING the effect of our work would be welcome). But this criticism has to focus as much on actions designers can take rather than simply pointing fingers at the main offenders. Art—and the critical design Rick speaks of—too often is simply self-righteous, naive polemic. That's a big reason why it often feels irrelevant to me. The role of a designer is a complex one, and the criticism needs to address this fact as well as illuminate possible alternate paths, not simply attempt to close some paths off completely.

Eric Heiman

Haven't we all already said all of this? Over the years and on this site? (The next question might be: why doesn't the discussion ever advance? What is it about graphic design as a field or graphic designers as personalities that shies away from the genuinely critical turn?)

Aesthetic criticism, as we've said before, tells us how an object is what it is; how it functions; what are its parts and how they are related; where, within culture, the object finds its supporting discourses, its sources of reference, relevance, meaning and value. Aesthetic criticism is equally sensitive to objects and to culture, to the efforts of the creator and those of the consumer.

Journalism, by contrast, might tell us what an object is or mark its appearance, whether with enthusiasm or not, but it doesn't need to tell us "how an object is what it is, etc.".

Criticism does not require anyone to "take aim at a fellow practitioner" or to take a political - certainly not a necessarily Marxist - position. The silence and disorder of the left in general is certainly a significant reality and concern in our day. But criticism may speak from the left or the right. The critical function is itself apolitical, primarily concerned with determining the nature of the object. Politics comes later.

In the case of graphic design, we lack even basic criticism, let alone politically oriented criticism. Here we're not talking about the anecdotal facts surrounding a given design object, which may be right or wrong. It's fun to hear about designers and to share personal anecdotes about the field, but that's not criticism, and it's certainly not political.

Writing about graphic design unfortunately tends to be imprecise when not wholly inaccurate. The moment a discussion requires a little precision, discussion comes to a halt. And this seems to be ok with everybody. Designers, it seems, would rather simply speak up than speak clearly or critically. Clarity apparently is a buzz kill.

Part of the fault lies with editors and publishers - including the sponsors of blogs - who continue to champion the same non-critical voices, flogging the same tired material, which is often merely self-satisfied pap. When a new voice does appear, it too often speaks in the same journalistic, chatty, and monosyllabic style. This familiar voice is safe - and careerist -to be sure, but hardly critical. Designers should demand more from their industry publications. Just stop buying the stuff. Look for alternative conversations. Look outside your design field. It's there if you're interested.

Again as we've said before, graphic design magazines do not run critical columns and books on graphic design do not often include genuinely critical writing (as defined above). This is not to say that there aren't a great many very good writers on graphic design: Robin Kinross is just one model for all of us. Outside of graphic design, this issue, frankly, isn't one: there are all kinds of writers writing critically about architecture and the other design fields.

Why doesn't someone with access to publishers friendly to design, edit a volume of new graphic design criticism that is actually new and actually critical? Wherein each article performs the critical function? (The Looking Closer volumes, for example, are a great history of recent writing on design but they are not anthologies of critical writing in the sense we've defined it.)

That said, the people to convince of the importance of criticism are not tenure committees or cultural pundits: these people have already bought into design as one of the preeminent cultural forces shaping our time.

The people that who need to be convinced of the value of criticism are the designers themselves. And again as we've said before, this is ironic because designers are critics, at least to some extent, in every "crit". They do it everyday.

The world is watching. People outside the little world of graphic design are reading about design and beginning to collect it. Whether graphic designers wake up to the importance of what they are doing - and figure out how to articulate it - may ultimately be irrelevant.
stuart kendall | vanessa kanan corrêa

Lets be clear though. We're talking about Graphic Design critics aren't we?

There are many product designers and architects who have a true calling to "do good" as we might put it. It might be more intriguing to see how other design discipline's approach design criticism. Can we not critique a poster design as we would a building?

Perhaps the key would be to not use language to critique a design at all, but some form of instantaneous reaction vote, or a critique using recorded conversations on a piece, as opposed to intellectualised journalism - dropping quotes and aesthetic jargon.

If the forms of criticism were more varied and adventurous I think we would see more of it.

We need a New 'Design' Journalism.

Reading the comments of Stuart Kendall and Vanessa Kanan Correa, I was sent back to the first comment in the thread:

Would you mind volunteering the names of any writers that you considered to be significant contemporary design critics?

As a practicing designer, I am eager to attend to the thoughts of these critics. Outside of Robin Kinross (who I do admire), I have yet to hear any names put forward. Surely some must exist? Or are we simply speculating about unicorns?

As Kendall and Correa (who must know more design-committed cultural pundits than I do, by the way) said, "the moment a discussion requires a little precision, discussion comes to a halt." How about it? Names, please.
Michael Bierut

It's late here in the UK so I'm going to think about these points tomorrow.

In the meantime, Michael, you are co-editor of three volumes of Looking Closer that purport to offer the best examples of graphic design criticism in recent years (though Stuart and Vanessa are clearly unimpressed). So, from this vantage point, who do you think is producing significant design criticism?
Rick Poynor

Michael, some qualifications:

1. Significant. To whom? Designers, or a larger audience?
2. Critics. Are you excluding or including practitioners? As I think about a critical/theoretical split in architecture (though in many instances there is much overlap: may theoreticians are attempting critical practice, and many critics are interested in theory) writing, I also note that a number of those people do engage in other practice. Perhaps the problem is an inversion of significance, wherein youth is more privileged in graphic design. Folks like Diller/Scofidio and Libeskind were known far more as 'critical' practitioners for years before making buildings. And for many a generation, polemic preceeding practice (Venturi and Corbusier being two good examples). Since this has also to do with scarcity (in terms of work) young designers turn attention to criticism. But I digress: point being, excepting the issue of promotion alluded to in the original post, do we accept that young designers can be credibly voices in terms of invigorating critical dialog?

The first name I think of who is widely available, and I do believe takes a pretty wide, and informative, position on design (at least as it impacts advertising and consumer culture) is Rob Walker (currently a columnist for the Sunday Times Magazine). But I don't think his commentary is of much interest to designers, who seem hung up on formal pyrotechnics.

Lastly, I'm wondering where Rick is going with his comments/concerns vis-a-vis the list of public intellectuals. By and large, they all have stronger academic credentials, with extensive reseach and critical analysis. A number of the participants here are teachers: is it reasonable to offer a syllabus to (undergraduate) design students that included Terry Eagleton (Ideology), or Marshall Berman (All That is Solid Melts Into Air), or Deleuze & Guattari (Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia), and passages from Baudrillard, Bourdieu, maybe some Erving Goffman, the aforementioned Chomsky (all of whom I was assigned as an undergrad in liberal arts and architecture)? I honestly have no idea, but my general sense is that, aside from being poor typographers, current design students this the above is written in Martian. And without this sort of grounding, they have little hope of progressing to the level or Rorty or Geertz.
Miss Representation

Ok, let's name some names ...although this seems like a tactic to avoid the crucial questions. Hopefully, this will not devolve into list-making, with its attendant debates ... Rather, our focus should probably be on the nature of criticism, and its (alleged) dearth in the design disciplines, rather than on the work of any given pundit or design writer ...

The cultural significance of design is, for the sake of this discussion, to be taken for granted. And DO already knows that design is important. The editors observe its appearance all over the place. But why should (graphic) designers express such surprise that design matters? Major art museums (MOMA, Denver Art Museum, etc.) are expanding their design collections; design education is growing by leaps and bounds nation-wide (Cincinnati's enrollment leapt by 80% in the last five years, for example); and even newspapers and magazines like the NY Times, Business Week and Time, to list only these, now have columns or regular features on design. Dwell has set the new standard for lifestyle magazines.

Writing about design across the design disciplines is on the rise, but graphic design writing is not keeping pace. The internet, for example, is the undiscovered country of our time and it is an entirely graphic space. Yet where are its eulogists?

Graphic design as a field needs to start taking itself a little more seriously. And taking its history more seriously. Some major design schools have even dropped their graphic design history courses; though not their histories of architecture or even fashion. Looking Closer is a great and crucial history of recent writing on design. (Rick misunderstands us if he thinks we're unimpressed with the collections.) But they do not contain criticism in the sense that we have defined it.

Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, Martin Venezky, Gerrit Noordzij, Fred Smeijers, Andrew Blauvelt, Johanna Drucker and Robert Bringhurst - to name only this very diverse body - are all great writers about graphic design. But that does not mean that Print publishes criticism or that it can be found even on blogs.

Victor Margolin and Aaron Betsky represent the kind of academics/historians whose broad and informed concerns span the design disciplines internationally and transhistorically.

The Writing Architecture Series at MIT publishes serious contemporary criticism of architecture and design culture. And, as Miss Representation observed, practicing architects like Rem Koolhaas, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright have contributed to the growth - and expansion - of their field, but writers on graphic design often lack a similar interdisciplinary ambition ...

Jean Baudrillard writes about contemporary culture, including design. Naomi Klein writes about design and economics. Hal Foster writes about art history, contemporary art, architecture and design. Peter Wollen writes about film, fashion and design culture. Allen S. Weiss writes about aesthetics, radiophony and landscape architecture. The late Jean-François Lyotard's writing on postmodernism and aesthetics include writings specifically about design as well as a mass of criticism applicable to design. Much more could be said here. Andrew Blauvelt, for example, put together a bibliography expanding this list a few years ago for the ACD ...

Design education is a big stumbling block here. As Miss Rep noted, when were designers last asked to read serious writing about culture or about the relationship between design and culture? (We should mention that Stuart teaches courses that do this for designers and non-designers alike every semester.) Designers who don't read won't be able to write critically. And by this we are not simply suggesting reading for "design ideas".

stuart kendall | vanessa kanan corrêa

Rick Poyner has raised this issue a couple of times here. And it would be great if he were to drum up some real support for the development of a body of design criticism. Will this work? Is appealing to designers (presumably this blogs largest audience) the right approach? Who knows. But it is a commendable start. There does seem to be some interest. But in answer to the question "Where are the Design Critics?" I would have to answer that they do not yet exist. I think everyone already knows this. Perhaps what he is mainly asking is "do you want them?" and "how badly?" and "are you going to help create them?" The answers to these seem to generate a bit of ambivalence, if not puzzlement or indifference. This is too bad. Because there isn't really a non-critical approach to design. Design depends on judgement and discernment - on the same kinds of questions and responses necessary for and inherent in criticism.
Trent Williams

I'm finding much of this conversation, starting with the original post, to be disheartening, and frustrating:

"Designers who engage in "the design of dissent" do exist, but design's default position... is to grease the wheels of capitalism with style and taste."

"Are there voices that strident in current design practice? I don't see it among design students I have worked with..."

"'Where are the Design Critics?' I would have to answer that they do not yet exist."

I have to argue that critical design (and yes, I mean design that is critical of design's social impact) does exist. And I think it is coming from a generation of students raised in a world where everything they've learned so far has taught them only how to make money - and somewhere along the line they discovered the hollowness, the deceit, and the compromises that this kind of a focus in life will demand.

Every war protester who carries a placard with an image of a distorted flag, or bastardized "I Want You" Uncle Sam poster; every graffiti artist who takes ownership of the side of a subway car; every coffee house with "Don't Say Grande" behind the counter; every culture jammer, adbuster, tagger, and zine-ster is critiquing design and its capitalist effects.

We're here. We are gaining a voice. Rather than looking over our heads, it is the responsibility of the established voices to recognize this trend - and if not join it, if not support it, at least respect and applaud it.
Scott Ballum

At the start of this thread, William Mangum asks for the names of significant contemporary critics. Michael repeats the request. That's an entirely reasonable question and it's the starting point for this post, clearly signalled in the title. During three hours of public debate about design criticism over the weekend, scarcely any names were mentioned. (Frustrated by this, I did name some names - back to that in a moment.)

Now it may be that there aren't any significant design critics at all. I don't think that's the case, but I don't see much sign of design critics with a commitment to the left-wing cultural critique that Prospect suggests was typical of an earlier generation of public intellectuals. I also know that the cultural criticism that has been most significant for me, whether it deals with art, literature, music or film, has often been informed by this perspective. I have written about this at greater length here.

The London discussions dealt with the British situation and I'm addressing this from a British point of view. My perspective is also different from that of academics who are primarily involved in teaching and only write occasionally. I write for a living and the questions "Where can I write?" and "Will they allow me to write what I want to write?" are daily realities for me. It's easy to dismiss such considerations if you haven't tried to do this, but when you do, you discover what the practical, tactical and financial difficulties are going to be in developing a critical voice. Critical writing can only be as good as the outlets that exist to encourage it and this applies to both magazine and journal publishing, and book publishing. If designers want the standard of criticism to improve, there is a simple way to demonstrate support and encourage its growth: buy the publications and books that contain it. If you are a design educator, put any and every worthwhile text on your assigned reading lists and make sure your library takes out subscriptions and orders the books. It might sound banal, but I have seen how publishers struggle with this.

So, some names. I'll leave others to list American writers and concentrate on British critics. The design writers who were significant influences for me when I was starting out in the 1980s were mostly associated with Blueprint magazine, where I worked for a time, and they include Deyan Sudjic (its editor), Martin Pawley, Stephen Bayley, Janet Abrams and Rowan Moore, who are all still around, writing for newspapers, publishing books and directing institutes and foundations. They covered both architecture and three-dimensional design (though not graphic design) and were brilliant exponents of hip, irreverent, super-informed, critical journalism. They were also excellent prose stylists. This aspect of writing never gets much attention in discussions like this, but it is crucial if you aim to engage and - even harder - retain a broad readership. By any estimation, this is one of the most pressing issues for design writing now - for me, it's the key issue. Surprisingly, the only one of these writers whose articles have been anthologised is Bayley, though they have all done other books.

Among newer British arrivals, the best writer I have come across is Sam Jacob, who writes about design for Icon and Modern Painters. He's an exceptionally astute observer of design as popular culture and writes in limpid, bright-as-paint sentences that remind me of Douglas Coupland. His work can be read at his website Strange Harvest. See, for instance, his piece about MTV's "Cribs" show. Jacob, an architect, is involved in other projects and it remains to be seen how far he will want to go with writing.

The British graphic design writer whose work engages me most is David Crowley, whose sympathy with cultural debates issuing from the left is clear. Crowley's academic interests are wide-ranging and he is productive, too. Anyone interested in the development, possibilities and limitations of graphic design journalism and criticism in the UK should search out his essay "Design Magazines and Design Culture" in Communicate.
Rick Poynor

Towards the end of Rick Poynor's original post he talks about 'vague criticality'. It may be that this vagueness actually creates a space for alternative ways of looking at visual communication and design. Graphic design discourse has for so long been caught in the headlamps of critical theory which in itself is heavily influenced by French linguistic theory (in particularly semiotics). In the end this so often leads to simple binary oppositions: production/consumption; working class/bourgeois; male/female, symbolic/non-symbolic and of course the ultimate binary...the mythologising of Capitalism and how it is laid bare - demythologised - by its counter-critique, Marxism.

The idea that criticality must be staked out primarily in relation to a fixed other is increasingly untenable to a meaningful exploration of contemporary visual culture - for example, what is working class design? Queer design? etc.

It is true that writing is central to developing critical thinking. Yet, if the development of a 'considered position according to which a piece of criticism can be understood' is fundamental, then that considered position can be to not come from a pre-determined or essentialised position. This allows for a criticality which both accepts that design is a product of capitalism and needs to be addressed as such and, within that, can be responsive to the continuously changing dialogue between design and its audiences. In Design and Crime, Hal Foster quotes Edward Said as asking, "What is critical consciousness at bottom if not an unstoppable predilection for alternatives?"

This kind of 'criticality of alternatives', we feel, was alluded to by some members of the panel discussion mentioned in Rick Poyner's original post. These alternative narratives can come from, say, a phenomenological position or, to answer Rick Poynor's writerly concerns, in the work of Yve Lomax 'Writing the Image: an adventure with art and theory'.

This paradigm shift must be more than purely linguistic (ie. buzzwords). Its methodology needs to be investigated and sustained to be able to tangibly address some of the things Rick Poynor is asking for. We think this is reflected in young writers like Adriana Eysler who we have asked to write for Limited Language. She is just graduating from the MA in Design Futures at Goldsmiths, University of London that is headed up by John Wood, one of the panellists advocating 'criticality' last Friday.
limited language

I woke up this morning thinking about this discussion. I'm not sure if that's good or bad.

What I was thinking about was the difference in the way that Graphic Design is taught over those design/art disciplines with a more robust critical discourse, mainly film or architecture.

It's interesting that Eric Heiman posted above as he was my GD1 professor. I didn't take to GD (for various reasons) but one of my main points that I said at the time was that I thought Graphic Design was anti-intellectual.

I've thought about this since then and to me it comes to down to the way those initial years are taught.

For instance in film, which I eventually completed my BFA in, critical discourse via heavy reading in theory was integrated into the curriculum before we even started learning the tools, developing concepts or sharing our work.

We were first taught how to LOOK at film, how to deconstruct film language and the traditions within film (from Hollywood story telling to more radical forms).

First we learned to talk about it. Then, our projects slowly built up from there. More and more intensely to longer, self-directed work.

I previously studied Architecture (before switching to Anthropology and eventually moving toward a BFA at a different institution). Architecture is taught in a way similar to film. Before we really moved into the studio, we spent a semester in lecture about history, style and nature of beauty.

Once in the studio, we spent time looking at how shapes related to each other, tracing and studying the plans of great cities and buildings.

Somewhere in the second year (after I had moved to Anthro) did the Architecture students ever start working on design problems.

Meanwhile, I found graphic design to be sort of the inverse pyramid. Where the program starts with throw away projects about your favorite song, etc. And doesn't move into the really abstract, critical discourse until later years or even just in grad school.

This seems like an inverted pyramid and one that (as I told Mr. Heiman) I felt was anti-intellectual. Certainly, not what I had given up a career to return to school hoping to find.

So, I'm not surprised by the anemic nature of graphic design criticism in that sense. It's not taught as part and parcel to a graphic design education.


It occurred to me that the previous post might have been seen as an anonymous and overly critical comment on Eric Heiman. Please do not read it that way. Mr. Heiman is a talented designer and an excellent professor. The GD1 curriculum he was using was not written by him. I meant to bring up his name and his post as a way to show how my train of thought was working (or not working as the case may be). Thank you.

I think criticism is an art itself, and can we do without it me or u?

It is hard to take design criticism seriously when it is shoe-horned in the specialist press between advertisements for expensive furniture, fixtures and fittings. Don't get me wrong, I love shopping and object fetishism....love it! However, wall-to-wall office furniture crowds out the critique. Ditto ads for crazy paving and cladding systems in the architectural press. I think that there's no need to angst about it. We should just accept that the space in between the ads is booked for a higher form of advertorial. What's needed are flexible, nimble, critical individuals who can use the popular media quickly move on and leave us some form of trace and attitude which we can follow. Deyan Sudjic and Paul Finch do it brilliantly. Ditto Hal Foster. The late Gordon Cullen of Architectural Review did it quietly and left a lethal body of work.

David Barrie

Where are the design critics? Well for starters, Lorraine Wild, Michael Rock, Michael Worthington and Jeffery Keedy come to mind. It is understandable that the focus of their creative output has changed since the publication of their most notable essays. A number of the afore mentioned individuals have young families now and others are quite busy with large scale design projects. But this does not diminish the significance of their output. Their focus has shifted because their energies have shifted.

I am curious as to why these individuals were not thought of as critics? Surely they have written some of the most insightful material on the practicing of design, its history and culture. But why the reluctance to attach "critic" to their name? Keedy was accepted above as a "teacher and type designer," his words were referenced as meaningful, but they were apparently not sufficient to garner him the title of critic. [Freudian slip?] Robin Kinross is acknowledged but I wonder what he would say about the inclusion. Kinross is a historian who has written criticism. I know a number of architectural historians who would strongly object to being considered "critics." The rules of scholarship for historiography are much more stringent than those practiced in criticism. So while there is an acknowledged difference, can it be that the term "criticism" itself remains nebulous in this discussion?

Criticism does not produce a negative view of the object under analysis. Criticism is not negative (although it can be). It is a study into its historical and cultural context and this includes its social, political and yes, formal evaluation and contribution. Architects understand criticism because they are educated in culture and trained in technique; graphic designers are solely trained in technique (tho' some of us are working at changing that).

One of my favorite essays on defining criticism, and which is particularly appropriate to the design field, is Mark Linder's essay "Giving critical care" in the 1992 monograph on the architecture firm of Scogin, Elam and Bray: Scogin, Elam and Bray: Critical architecture/architectural criticism. I quote at length,

"The dearth of contemporary discourse on architecture is rarely critical; architectural criticism will not be found in [the journals] Architecture, Progressive Architecture, or Architectural Record because it is not promotion, information, or documentation. Although we may fashion criticism, criticism is not mere fashion. Neither is criticism gossip, commentary, or journalism. It is not harsh, negative, or unpleasant. Criticism is prospective and promising. Criticism is a project.

Whether architectural criticism builds upon the specifics of a site or uses a particular piece of architecture as its place of departure, actual architecture is the material of criticism, the fabric from which it is cut and towards which it weaves. Criticism spins yarns. Architectural criticism claims a specific complicity with the unraveling of architectural events. It involves writing: (as though) architecture matters, in the sense that we are often compelled to discuss 'family matters' or 'business matters.' Criticism assumes that the matters of architectural fact are its family business. So, in every sense of the word, criticism gets involved."
David Cabianca

And I would like to add Kenneth FitzGerald to the list of critics noted above.
David Cabianca

I for one was thinking David Cabianca as top my list of emerging critics, after his thoughtful contributions to Emigre 65 & 66
Kim Meek

Rick, you're being dishonest when you say none of the members of the panel volunteered the names of significant contemporary design critics. When you asked the question, I immediately volunteered four names.

They all happen to work for icon: myself, Kieran Long, Justin McGuirk and Alex Wiltshire (I should have mentioned Sam Jacob as well - thanks for putting me right).

You then launched into a tirade about "self publicity". But on icon we happen to believe we are blazing a new critical trail that is more in tune with the times. We're young and we make mistakes but we are at least trying to find new ways of being critical without being elitist or pompous.

You and Design Observer's readers may disagree with that statement (although your comments to me after the debate would suggest that in fact you agree), but you can't now pretend it didn't happen.
Marcus Fairs

David, what I actually said about Robin Kinross was that "he has produced some of the best informed and most illuminating writing about typographic design in the last two decades". I gave him as an example of a designer who, for a number of years, put much of his energy into writing. I should have included him in my list of Blueprint writers, which is where I first met him.

I very much doubt that Robin would welcome the designation "design critic". In his collected writings, Unjustified Texts, he notes that "by 1990 I no longer really believed in the activity of graphic design or its critical discussion". His description of himself, on the back of the book, published by his own Hyphen Press, is simply "typographer and editor working in London". Nevertheless, as this 392-page volume shows, Kinross has produced a distinguished body of critical essays for Information Design Journal, Blueprint, Eye (where I commissioned him to write a few pieces) and other publications. If his self-published pamphlet Fellow Readers: Notes on Multiplied Language (1994), which is reprinted in Unjustified Texts, isn't an urgent, impassioned, provocative critical intervention, I don't know what is. Kinross was one of the most outspoken critics of developments in typography in the early 1990s and of the arguments made in its support by people such as Jeffery Keedy. He was misunderstood for this and sometimes mischaracterised by his (American) opponents, but Kinross demonstrated a seriousness and rigour that few participants in these debates could equal.

Yes, he has written design history but he is better seen perhaps as someone whose critical temperament, insights and sense of social commitment are expressed across a range of activities focused on writing. He could be regarded as a model for the more dispersed kinds of critical practice proposed by some contributors to this thread. These days, Kinross works as editor, publisher and designer for Hyphen Press and the books he produces by colleagues whose work and thinking he supports are valuable contributions to typographic discourse and to the culture of the written word and reading. His work over the last 25 years offers a benchmark for critical activity in this field against which we might measure claims made for others whose output is small and whose thematic range is more limited.
Rick Poynor

Marcus, this is quite true. You did answer my question in this way. I know I am not alone in thinking that was a rather odd, if not blatantly self-promotional, way to handle a question that was clearly intended to find out who you, as a commissioning editor, thought was doing good writing.

That's why I omitted to mention it here. But thanks for telling us that you regard yourself, as well as your staff, as significant new design critics.
Rick Poynor

I was fortunate enough to have attended the seminar in London last Friday that kicked-off this debate. It rates among the most stimulating design discussions that I have been party to.

Three bug-bears I'd like to raise in response to the event and some subsequent posts on this site:

1) Why do so few design historians, at least in the UK, deal with contemporary design? Here we are, sitting amongst the most profound changes in design in terms of its scale of production, geographic reach, social meaning and technical processes and yet very few seize this day! The stock answer is, 'Well... the past so much easier to deal with'. What bollocks! I think it might be more to do with: a) a lack of imagination, b) a reticence toward risking it and c) the fact that many are, at heart, social historians who graft design into their accounts. For more relating to this, Viviana Narotzky and I wrote a piece some years back.

2) Part of the problem is that I don't think design academics are training design students to be design writers. It might be that design critics or historians of contemporary design will more readily come out of art and design colleges than the few design history courses remaining. Funnily enough, the London seminar coincided on that Friday with a day-long symposium as part of the Writing Purposefully in Art and Design project.

3) With reference to some earlier posts:: Hal Foster (nice bloke though he is) as important critic who writes about design? Surely not! He only displays the most anecdotal and platitudinal insights. Perhaps he is more incisive on individually produced artefacts like paintings or buildings. But I really don't think he has got the hang of serially reproduced things. Grafting architectural criticism onto design is a limited tactic.
Guy Julier

I have been trying to absorb this conversation in light of the recent discussions in architecture schools (surely parrallel but not the same as graphic design discourse) that have struggled over the emerging position of what has been defined as the "post-critical", what George Baird in Harvard Design Magazine has described as "...sharing a committment to an affect-driven, nonpositional, nonresistant, nondissenting, and therefore nonutopian form of architectural production." A further dissenting discussion of this position can be found in Reinhold Martin's essay, "Critical of What?: Toward a Utopian Realism" also published in Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005. Another place to examine these thoughts and positions which seem to be in much opposition to the positions that have been discussed in this thread can be found in the most recent issue of Log (published by Anycorp). Robert Somol, an editor of this issue states in the introduction:

"The critical project opened productive horizons in our discipline, but we now need to explore what those horizons look like and how they work. Exposing the norm and reveling in ambiguity, hybridity, and marginality are no longer enough. For a plan to "work," those in on the job (its subjects) need to be complicit, not detached or merely told what to do. If one were to sketch the discipline's conscription of the subject over the past 25 years or so, Eisenman & Co. replaced a behaviorist, causal relation between the subject and the architectural object with an optical-conceptual model, whereby the subject could be distanced from the object and reflect upon his or her own subjectivity. At the same time, with Jencks, Venturi, & Co. offering a multiple or populist platform, all subjects could find themselves in the object and thereby be consumed by their own subjectivities. While both trajectories led to some classic hold-ups and petty infractions, their straight repetition by the respective Cos. have made them into rote procedures rather than surprising capers: Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron replaying The Italian Job as an elaborate excuse for the product placement of the rereleased Mini Cooper rather than as the productive seizure of a previously unknown urban topography. In an effort to retrieve some of the latter unpredictability, this issue of Log aims at a Doppler-like relationship that does not predicate itself upon distinguishing either subject and object, or program and form, but rather offers an immersion from which new practices may emerge ‚ a dialogic architecture résonnante rather than a monologic architecture parlante, an architecture of accomplices rather than audiences. "

In other words, Somol, who represents a view held by many 40ish and under architects teaching today, thinks that Eisenman, Venturi, et. al. and the whole critical project have reached a critical dead end, at least with regard to its capacity to inspire relevant work that embraces this time, place, and condition (isn't this in fact a critical practice too?). Not everybody agrees with them. Nvertheless, my sense is that many of the people who could be characterized as post-critical in architecture, ironically given the tone of this thread, are in fact attracted to graphic design, typography and even GD theory as it exists; its wrestling with the immediate, its ephemerality, its closeness to popular culture, the fact of its ease of implication in global capital practices, its ability to produce startling images that are quickly forgotten, etc., precisely because graphic designers have a need to embrace a type of cultural practical nimbleness to practice and survive (utopian realism indeed).

For me, the post-critical assumes and celebrates a type of critical awareness of the difference between practice, even critical practice, and criticism. Perhaps much of the questioning re: the role of design criticism expressed in this thread has much to do with our collective inability to clearly define the differences and responsibilities of critical practice versus critical discourses, theory, and writing. In this latter regard I am not sure that it is the role of design schools to produce design critics and design writers as much as it is to explore and engender critical practices.
John Kaliski

John, these are extremely interesting points. They pinpoint the perception and concern that lies behind my original post.

The idea that we are living in "post-critical times" stated here in elaborate theoretical terms is shared, I think, by many people now who know nothing of architectural theory and its debates. The notion is odd - to me, anyway - because we are so clearly in the throes of various kinds of crisis, whether it is a failure of vision and investment that leads to domestic disaster (Katrina), international adventurism that appears to make things worse (Iraq and international terrorism), the continuing devastation of the African continent by AIDS, civil war and poverty, or a way of life based on spiralling levels of consumption that threatens environmental change on a catastrophic scale in coming decades (the news from the arctic icecap and the Siberian peat-bogs is not encouraging).

There is every reason to take a critical position as a citizen, yet many people's response is to embrace the way things are: well, we're all right, at least for now, so better party while it lasts. What we seem to lack is clear political alternatives within the mainstream of politics. This perception has drained off the passion, made politics duller and encouraged the mistaken belief that all politicians are saying the same thing, even when they are not.

A lot seems to turn on the sentence "For me, the post-critical assumes and celebrates a type of critical awareness of the difference between practice, even critical practice, and criticism." But the sentence uses "critical/criticism" so many times that it seems almost tautological. In the interests of clarity, John, could you explain a little more precisely what you mean by this?

We need to separate out the issues of critical practice and critical writing. Speaking in the most general terms, it is clearly desirable for designers to learn how to think critically about design. It is still unclear what the basis of this criticality could possibly be if a designer's fundamental assumption is that everything just is what it is and nothing much can be done about it. Critical thinking requires a sceptical approach to the object under consideration; it implies that something can and should be improved through any intervention; it must involve some degree of resistance to the way things are, however small-scale the design problem happens to be. (It's clear, though, from comments such as Scott's that some designers are asking these questions. That's always great to hear.)

There seems to be a hope in some of the comments in this thread that critical thinking could emerge without critical writing in some unspecified way. In that case, imagine that all the books were removed and there was no Internet to carry any written design discussion. No blogs. No handily available articles online to look up when writing those essays. Imagine there were no essays. What would be the state of critical thinking about design then? It might exist within design schools, delivered by particularly good teachers, though they would still be using words, but in its un-codified, un-transmissible form so much of this would just die on the air. Design culture as we know it would decline with it.

Those who argue that we need more and better writing to foster this culture of critical practice are right. Immersion in critical writing and doing some writing of your own during studies (writing = thinking) should be an essential component of a decent design education and exposure to critical ideas should be there from the outset (as DC1974 says above). If a new kind of practitioner/curator/writer really is emerging - Dot Dot Dot might be an example - then this is in large measure, I would suggest, through exposure to critical writing of all kinds, in the DDD editors' case during the 1990s. However, if this generation doesn't formulate and test the validity of its thinking in writing and present it in forms others can use, learn from and question in turn, then there will be no development.

It might not be the responsibility of design schools to produce design critics, but if they don't emerge from this direction, we might pause to wonder where they are going to come from. It is design criticism's job to explore, explain and critique the issues raised by the designer's critical practice or - as it might be - the designer's lack of a critical mentality.
Rick Poynor

Rick: you are right there being a 'naming' problem. Having skidded across the surface of too many academic disciplines, I can testify that John certainly has a taut and well-written point, but I suspect that unless one immersed themselves in 10 years of architectural criticism, the precision of his point might be lost. The Martin essay he refers to is an excellent summation (and John's article in the same issue, is a good read as well) of much of what is discussed above (and is not exceptionally partisan towards arch theory). The Somol essay, well, he's been writing that argument for ten years now. I'm not sure it resonates for anyone who doesn't have Jennifer Bloomer on speed dial (and I apologize for rampant insider baseball on that one).

But the utility of the cross-disciplinary discussion exposes a couple points: there are more voices on this thread that are conversant in arch theory/crit and seeming to trying to cross pollinate than the reverse. Any takers on why (cause all architects think they are secretly graphic designers -- they are, but they are just bad graphic designers -- and dabbling in it is like slumming? because the pay is better?).

Is it possible to create a unified discourse that is not restrictive but provides a consistent vocabularly (having done enough lit-crit, I'm a little tired of having to learn the proper ways to speak of a Feminist, Marxist, Post-Colonial critique as if I were learning three different languages)? Would this make critical practice more effective because more people might take an interest in having a command of the precepts?

But to take a New Critical approach, I don't think there is enough reflexivity in this discussion (I can imagine some eye-rolling because of that comment). I'm missing what the result of this expanded field of criticism would provide. Lacking that, tactics will also seem unfocused and ineffective.
Miss Representation

To address one of Rick Poyner's points - I did run a 'writing for design' module last year for graphic design students (London College of Communication) with some success - a couple of students had articles published in mainland Europe - I hope I will be able to develop this experiment into a full degree in the distant future BUT I am constantly up against 'graphic designers don't read' rhetoric - I am not helped when one of the panel members at 100% design declared 'people no longer have time to read' - at least not anything longer than a fast sound-bite...
Colin Davies

Links to the articles referred to by John Kaliski are provided below [assuming I have written the html correctly, DO editors, please fix if not--David]. The essays are both available on screen and as PDF downloads.

Harvard Design Magazine:

'Democracy Takes Command: New Community Planning and the Challenge to Urban Design' by John Kaliski

'Critical of What? Toward a Utopian Realism,' by Reinhold Martin
David Cabianca

Thank you Miss Representation for the kind words about my HDM article and to David for posting the link to the site. Please note that my essay is not about the ideas of this thread.

With regard to my sentence, "For me, the post-critical assumes and celebrates a type of critical awareness of the difference between practice, even critical practice, and criticism", I probably did put one too many "criticals" in the sentence. In answer to Rick's inquiry, perhaps it is enough to say that being a designer is different than being a critic, even though it is possible for the roles to overlap. Also, one does not neccessarily have to be critical or a wordsmith to be a good designer; I doubt the same is true if one wants to be a good critic. Design education should recognize this difference and explore its implications.

Rick, you state that, "...(w)e need to separate out the issues of critical practice and critical writing". I agree. But then you go on to say that ".... a designer's fundamental assumption is that everything just is what it is and nothing much can be done about it". This unfairly isolates these words from their context but for the postcriticos this type of thought is seen as being generated by oppositional and critical positions that do not lead, anymore, to relevant design acts.

The definition of criticism as oppositional is being challenged by some in design who feel that critical theory as typically taught and practiced and discussed cripples the act of design. I do not personally subscribe to this idea but have been fascinated that its opposite, the so called post-critical, might be most useful with regard to facilitating conscious making.
John Kaliski

Yup. It seemed that the Friday evening event's debate (where this thread began) ping-ponged between 'criticism as critique' (of design in capitalism) and 'criticism as either design observation or, heaven forbid, design promotion'. Certainly these positions do get confused sometimes. But before criticism can be critique, I think we need criticism as observation. In other words, 'only by understanding the current state of design culture can we then begin to look at routes towards its ethical and practical amelioration,' (to re-quote (and promote, ha!ha!) myself). This is where design historians could have a role in building contemporary design criticism, because they usually have a handle on the empirical facts and are sometimes interested in the wider picture of political economy, sociology, anthropology etc..
Guy Julier

Matt Soar is pretty much the only guy that pops into my head.

i like the idea of a critical esperanto...

Guy, I agree, though it's a little dispiriting to think that this point should still need restating. What you describe is pretty much what I meant by critical journalism: a closely observed, factually-based, historically aware, highly informed probing of every facet of design practice.

I find the sweeping rejection of this kind of writing - as though dimwitted design magazine writers never manage to say anything that isn't purely promotional - to be misinformed and counterproductive. A good example of what can be accomplished by a design historian working in a journalistic context and prepared to get his hands dirty and talk to a readership beyond a small band of fellow academics and graduate students can be found in the latest Eye. David Crowley, mentioned above, has written an article examining the paucity of historical accounts of British advertising (US advertising has been much more thoroughly investigated). His piece is packed full of useful information and observations, deftly citing treatments of the subject from Judith Williamson to Pierre Bourdieu. It manages to open up fresh territory for more intensive scholarly investigation without becoming bogged down in specialised disciplinary concerns or language.

I sometimes suspect that claims that there is no criticism in the smarter design magazines are made by people who aren't actually doing the reading, or who have become so habituated to jargon-encumbered forms of discourse piled high with routine citations of the usual "authorities" that they don't recognise sprightly, intelligent, independent thinking when it pinches them on the butt.
Rick Poynor

So everyone seems to be able to name a few design writers doing interesting things. But, at the same time, there's a noted and high degree of dissatisfaction with the writing that we do have; in particular with the limited roster of graphic design writers. Rick suggests showing support for the stuff in hopes that it improve; we've suggested looking elsewhere. Rick is looking for criticism (by which he means politically orientated oppositional writing); but other people are looking for alternatives to criticism (though one wonders why we need an alternative to something that might not exist; at least in graphic design). Some people are tired of theory; others wish design writing were grounded more firmly in broad aesthetic questions and arguments. The conversation seems to have trouble distinguishing between design criticism and graphic design criticism, and, for that matter, between mere writing (or journalism) and criticism.

Miss Representation wondered what criticism would do for designers. Stuart and I - and Guy Julier just repeated this point very succinctly - suggested that criticism helps designers and non-designers alike talk about and understand what they do. Criticism is the basis for conversation about design. Criticism could be a language spoken by designers, clients and consumers about design; good, bad, political or otherwise. This coherent vocabulary is necessary for the promotion of design in the community-at-large. Not just academic, criticism supports our professional design fees.

Graphic design education has been faulted here for failing to engage with the history of the field and with anything outside the field. Colin Davies and Stuart have mentioned teaching courses that try to fill the gap. But the extent to which this is perceived as a need within the field speaks to the overall problem. And to the overall ambivalence with which graphic designers seem to face the question of criticism (not to mention words themselves.) We can't even seem to agree on a definition of the term..

How can we fix the problem? Lobby design departments to broaden their curriculum. Ask more of design writing. Run columns of genuine criticism in design magazines. Edit an anthology of design criticism (not just design writing)...
vanessa corrêa

Oh, I can think of plenty of benefits from a whole range of critical input, particularly from the journalism end (graphic design faces the same problem architecture does as regards an inability to communicate benefits in a non-visual that resonates across as whole host of value systems -- emotional, cultural, financial -- that might make people more receptive to investing in and actively supporting those professions). When I asked that, it was specifically of the circuit panel folk participating what they think an increase would result in.

I'm plodding along with my rather narrow, and fairly marginal attempt at critcism. Rick asked "Where Are the Design Critics?". Well, I'm over here (can you see me? I'm waving!). I guess what I'd rather know is if I count, and if not, why.

Miss Representation

Did Picasso, Klimt, Paul Rand, write about there work. No. They gave criticism, they taught others. But they didn't write a book about there work. Artist/Designer make art/design. Writers write about it.
Nathan Philpot

But, Nathan, artists like Picasso or Klimt and designers like Paul Rand were active in very different times than today.

Contemporary expectations and practices of art and design are very different than during their modernist days. For numerous reasons, writing has become a more frequent part of practice.

A short anecdote: I remember asking a Swedish designer how he found time to write design criticism. He replied that writing actually saves him time because it frees up ideas and makes him into a sharper designer.
Guy Julier


Mr. Rand's Thoughts on design was released in 1947. While I'm sure someone can find an earlier source, I think many people saw that book as one of the first books written by a designer on design. At least one of the more important releases at the beginning of design writing.
Derrick Schultz

I've waited to enter this discussion in order to not side-track the focus that emerged. Now that things have settled down, I'd like to pose a question: when we speak of design criticism, aren't we perhaps applying a narrow definition to design writing? Criticism suggests something specific, even if it's applications are broad (newspapers to scholarly journals). Yet, isn't enlightening writing possible that would not fall under the genre of criticism?

It seems to me that the issue is not only the lack of design critics (which are also badly needed), but simply writers who are interested in design. Writers. Journalists. Non-ficton writers. Biographers. Essayists. Novelists. Poets. In other words, a range of writers that engage with the metaphysical, cultural and economic implications of design. But on their own terms, through their own means, as writers. We can grow design critics in our graduate programs. But we cannot grow writers. Writers need to come to design on their own terms. Writers come to subjects because they are compelling; because they cannot ignore them; because it is a part of their childhood and their memories; and because, when they sit down in the morning, the prose is forced in that direction.

I do not think of Tom Vanderbilt as a design critic. (Tom, feel free to enter into this discussion). But he often seems to process very topical concerns through a design lens. (One assumes that an essay at Design Observer is filtered through an even more specific lens, just because of the title of the blog, and the subject-orientation suggested by the audience.) The same can be said for other excellent writing here: Lorraine Wild on Decorum, or Michael Bierut on Nabokov, or Rick Poynor on W.G Sebald. I do not think of these are works of criticism, but rather essays about other things in which design is a concern or a point of reference.

In other worlds, we could distinguish between Susan Sontag's critical essays and her many introductions to other writers. These were not so much "critical" essays as they were one writer grappling with another writer — explanatory and observational. What makes them important and memorable is the quality of the writing, and the intelligence behind the prose. (Lawrence Weschler, as a champion of the long-form narrative non-fiction essay, also comes to mind.)

If only a Janet Malcolm would take on Bruce Mau; or Lawrence Weschler on Ed Fella; or Jonathan Miller on contemporary opera graphics. What is missing is not only "critical" writing, but other forms of writing — essays and journalism that explore and narrate in ways that are illuminating — on another plane of quality.

To name names, one piece of design writing stands out to me today: Rob Giampietro's "Part Notes: (ways of seeing 'Frates' by Arvo Pärt) in Dot Dot Dot 9. This is not a perfect piece of writing, but it is the most innovative attempt I have seen recently to weave personal narrative into a design-inspired essay. It's novelistic in form. It's an essay. It merges another media (music) into its observational sphere. (Disclaimer: Rob Giampietro worked for Winterhouse, and he used to play our piano.)

I wonder, in the context of this post, whether we could expand our frame to reference to include other kinds of writing. Design criticism is a worthy goal. But perhaps it should not be the only goal, or point of reference.
William Drenttel

Bill, my original post had a quite specific aim, to highlight the lack of a leftist perspective in design criticism. That said, I completely agree with your observations about design writing as opposed to design criticism. As I say above, "Design needs to become a literary subject matter like any other. That's the only way there will ever be a broader public readership for design writing." Right now I think this is an even more pressing goal than improving design criticism.

I have now had a chance to look at the issue of Log cited by John Kaliski above. It makes interesting reading, starting with the editor's note where she declares that publishing the issue (guest edited by R.E. Somol and Sarah Whiting) is one of the most difficult decisions she has made as an editor in 20 years. "In my reading at least, the idea of the postcritical and the idea of the projective practice ... abandon, rather frivolously, the hard-fought achievements in the field that I most cherish and have worked hard to advance: criticality, theoretical depth, and resistance to the banalities of consumer culture."

There's the issue at stake in a nutshell.

Reading the contributions above by writers with an architectural background, it's clear that the critical interrelationship of architecture and graphic design needs a lot more attention than it has received to date.

Miss Representation asks whether she counts. Your blog is nicely written, but the answer's the same for everyone. Hang in there and build up a readership. It takes time and at this stage in the game print probably still has to be a part of any ambitious would-be writer's strategy.
Rick Poynor

I'll take that as a 'no'.
Miss Representation

Then you took it the wrong way, Miss Rep. All contributions about the topics under discussion are welcome at Design Observer and thanks for your own. It's the quality of comments that makes the discussion.
Rick Poynor

The Limited Language podcasts of the two I.D./RISD panel discussions about design criticism can now be heard at Live Language.
Rick Poynor

Just to be clear, in my post I stated, "I do not personally subscribe to this idea (the postcritical) but have been fascinated that its opposite, the so called post-critical, might be most useful with regard to facilitating conscious making." Consciousness, which for me at least implies criticality, counts.
John Kaliski

see am also an architect who is working hard to know the dialects in which spaces are being intervened in an intellectual way and how certain conceptual things are always out of common people's concern-especially when it comes in urban design . Always there is a hidden form behind every space -whatever the functions associated be when ever we are trying to grow out spaces from the environs we have to follow certain steps to keep us all out of intuitions -to start from an empty head i am inviting your suggestions

Interestingly enough, this week's New Yorker features an article by John Updike on the subject of bookcovers (the article is actually a review of a book on bookcovers, By Its Cover.) The article is quite informed (in an armchair sort of way) about the history, process, and context of graphic designers, citing quotes by Alvin Lustig, and measuring out for the reader the move from an ideological modernism to a non-commital postmodernism within the design of bookcovers. I feel this article answers what William Drentell is talking about, design writing by non-designers. What I liked about the article (and which is typical of most reviews in the New Yorker), is that it takes a specific object to critique (a book or a movie), and is able to expand on it in ways that relate the object to the wider culture.

At the start of the article, Updike writes "Book covers and jackets might seem to hover beneath serious critical notice, but nothing human is alien to the academic discipline called 'cultural studies'." I believe the statement made somewhat tongue in cheek, but i think a 'cultural studies' approach, one that is cross-disciplinary across the humanities and arts and makes use of existing discourse and methods, is a good aproach to graphic design writing and criticism.

The rise of urban studies in and associated with architecture schools is a sign of hope for graphic designers. Urban studies comes from a specific design discipline and is able to make inroads into other academic disciplines like English, Cultural Studies, Art History, and Anthropology. Writing on urbanism, as opposed to structure, within architecture schools is decidedly left-leaning. A class I took at the Yale School of Architecture with Keller Easterling was conceptually framed around the writing of Hardt and Negri's Empire, a hyper-Marxist project, and deCerteau's Practice of Everyday Life, an analysis of the agency of the 'Everyman', neither of which come directly from the discipline of architecture, but do make students critically aware of the context they are working in. This critical awareness, which John mentions above, and the notion of a 'critical practice' (which I take as a practice that is self-conscious enough to realize the meaning and impact of one's work within one's context, and where agency lies in that practice), could incorporate the act of writing alongside the act of designing.

As John also mentioned above, I found more than a few architecture students quite interested in graphic design as a practice, because it is so engaged with culture, as graphic designers have the means of production and distribution at their fingertips, and also perhaps because, after Brown and Venturi and Guy Debord, the sign has become more influential than the thing signified. Unfortunately, most writers on graphic design seem to hermetically focus their writing on design as fetish object, how-to, or the disempowerment of graphic designers, but most fail in terms of opening up the political, geographical, and historic contexts that pieces of design find themselves in. Graphic design is entrenched within the urban experience, and better writing on how design fits into the network of crossings one finds in the globalized metropolis would make design writing more relevant.



Robert Smithson's practice as an artist incorporated both making and writing in an engaged and critical way. At times, as with his and Mel Bochner's writings for varoius magazines in the sixties, writing and making were one and the same art practice (and are exhibited as such in the Whitney exhibit linked above).

The graphic designer, in a much more compromised position than the artist (worrying about client demands, getting paid or paying employees, keeping technologically up to date), is probably in a tougher position to have a similar practice in terms of the number of hours we work. However, one practioner/writer whose work on both sides of that slash I appreciate, is Michael Rock. The transcript for a recent lecture in the Netherlands he gave, and which was later published in the architecture journal Archis, can be found here. The lecture discusses Dutch Design in a sort of fan-based way, but also critiques the state of American design and the context we work in, comments on the rise of privatization in Europe, and the loss of ideology and rise of authourship and subjectivity amongst designers today.

it has been my experience that "design culture" does not react well to criticism. in fact, i might go so far as say that designers do not like critics at all. it is not welcomed in the extreme.

bottom line: when self-appointed 'design critics' start asking for more design criticism, what does that tell you?
art chantry

I am not well versed in Marxist criticism, so I am not the most able person to make the following comment. While Marxist critique is concerned with matters of class and the distribution of capital along lines of determined consumption, it does not answer to issues of race, gender and sexual orientation inequity. Perhaps this is an outgrowth of Europe's entrenched class structure and North America's lack of such rigid class distinctions, ie. "the American Dream of rising from lowly status to one of wealth." I don't know.

I do know, however, that architecture has embraced criticism because architecture is taught as an interpretive activity and not as a study of case study technique. The case-study method is effective for the teaching of formal and compositional skills, but it hinders the development of critical analysis and interpretive value. I was once asked "Why is there no medical criticism or engineering criticism?" Well, Art has interpretation and Science (ie. Medicine) has diagnosis. [A somewhat exception would be Law, which is taught by case study-because words carry the authority of the Law—with the understanding that language is a matter of interpretation—because the authority of words can be redirected.] "Diagnosis" acknowledges a normative state while "interpretation" acknowledges differences in perspective. Criticism relies on interpretation and pace Mark Linder, criticism is prospective.

My hope is that as graphic design develops a sense of itself, it will develop a vocabulary for the use, abuse, and analysis of concepts. Below are two courses I have proposed at the school where I teach. I have included them here not for vanity purposes, but to perhaps foster a momentum to alter the way graphic design is taught in general. The first course introduces graphic design as divided by theme, the second course is in a sense a series of case-studies, but this understanding occurs after a conceptual foundation and a thematic vocabulary has been established.

Building a discipline: Developing a conceptual vocabulary for graphic design
This seminar examines graphic design as a number of themes. It does not use writings on graphic design for study, but rather uses primary sources to enter territories conventionally reserved for literary theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, cultural studies and linguistics. In doing so, it borrows from the techniques of analysis developed by architecture and comparative literature to bridge one discourse to another in the attempt form new comprehensions. The first three classes would probe the question of representation in culture—what it means, how it can be approached, tools for criticism and analysis including conceptual armatures and vocabularies. The second part of the class would investigate graphic design as an expression of
Week 4 the classic and classical
Week 5 the informative and conceptual
Week 6 the functional
Week 7 the technological
Week 8 the historical and nostalgic
Week 9 the decorative
Week 10 the naïve or folk
Week 11 the grotesque
Week 12 the expressive

Individuals and analysis: Determining a voice
This is a companion seminar to the course above. While Building a discipline proposes the construction of a vocabulary using primary sources, this course uses that understanding to determine and evaluate the contributions of a number of significant figures in graphic design. The intent of the course is to examine how their work has shaped the expression and discourse of the discipline. Like the seminar above, the first three classes lay a groundwork for an understanding of representation while the second part of the class would investigate the graphic design works of
Week 4 Jan Tschichold, Massimo Vignelli and Lorraine Wild
Week 5 The Dutch School: Irma Boom & Karel Martens, and Andrew Blauvelt
Week 6 Paul Rand and Tibor Kalman
Week 7 Edward Tufte, April Greiman and Ian Anderson/The Designer's Republic
Week 8 Milton Glaser and Charles S. Anderson
Week 9 Denise Gonzales Crisp, Stephen Farrell and Peter Maybury
Week 10 Ed Fella and House Industries
Week 11 Rudy VanderLans/Emigre and Rick Valicenti/Thirst
Week 12 David Carson and Cranbrook/CalArts
David Cabianca

trust designers to lose their critics :- )
André S C

i would say that the general ignorance of marxist thought amongst educated americans is due more to complete suppression rather than its lack of applicability. when one lives inside the belly of the beast, it is difficult to see more than the stomach lining. but marx himself made comments on the north american slave trade, and how it was one of the worst example of worker exploitation in history. and the USA is within 90 miles of one of the last outposts of communism.

there are probably worse extremes of rich and poor in the rest of the world, but amongst developed nations, the USA is at the top of the list (you only need to take a tour of la or new york, or watch the news on katrina and new orleans to see this). the communist party did have some foothold in the US in the thirties, this manifested in the labor movement, but the more left leaning aspect of it was crushed in the fifties during the mccarthy era.

it is and it isnt the same world as when das kapital came out. in some ways, exploitation is much more globalized, complex, and extreme than before. in other ways, the world is still living under the basic tenets of manifest destiny. but its harder to say exactly who the 'enemy' is, though many acknowledge one exists. is crass consumerism really the enemy? if we just stop buying things or making useless junk, will the world change? is progress really evil? protesters at 'the battle of seattle' felt that starbucks was the enemy, and proceeded to vandalize many of the coffee chain outlets, but is starbucks really the enemy? we might as well say that apple computers is the enemy too. the problem i have with most 'oppositional designers' is that they assume association with a moral high ground where one doesnt really exist. the act of being an oppositional graphic designer is not really oppositional at all as it is completely dependent and implicated within the system it desires to oppose. to be truly oppositional these days, one has to be criminal, which isnt really an option for most of us.

hardt and negri's 'empire' reframes these questions in a lot of ways. empire in the title of the book refers to a nameless (or difficult to name) web of interconnected, globalized relationships that is not tied specifically to a specific leader, nation, political party, or corporation. it takes into account de certeau's notions of 'everyday acts', but contextualizes them in current states. for example, they discard the notion of 'building a movement', a chain-like paradigm of a social, organized movement spreading within the peripheries. rather, they observe that 'everyday acts' (standing in front of a tank in tiannamen square, attempting to fight off la police officers) rise to the center of global attention instantaneously and become images or symbols of a worldwide movement or feeling.

designers are in an interesting position, because their work, like that of architects, is everywhere. for designers more than architects, the stuff we create is more malleable and transferrable across time and space than things built in the environment. of course, we're in completely compromised positions as well, but design is never completely top-down. more articulation for this space and dynamic would be a great contribution writers could make.

Maybe design criticism would become more interesting and vital if it directed itself not at the insider world of the design profession but at the people who see, read, use, discard, ignore, and otherwise interact with what designers do. Rather than assuming that responsible criticism is "oppositional" in the leftist sense, we could start looking at why, how, and if design is a universal human value that should be accessible and understandable to everyone on the planet.

Film criticism is not just for film makers. But then, people from all walks of life actually care about movies. Let's make them care about design.
Ellen Lupton

i think that is a good point about film criticism. it is interesting that it is culturally valid to pursue advanced degree work in the scholarship of film, literature, and art without actually being a practitioner, whereas with design (aside from architecture), that is not so much the case yet. there are still cases of designers (on this blog as well) who believe that writing about design is only most valid by those who actually practice it.

however, with film and literature, there is alway a wrestling with narrative, something that most people can latch on to. art at times is visually stimulating and exciting to look at, and has a history of the 'myth of genius' behind it to support interest in it. it is also the highest paid form of personal authorship. design, however, is details, ephemeral, and anonymous, and people are less likely to be interested in engaging with it on any level besides purchasing it. more analysis of the networks of production, distribution, and culture that design objects proliferate in would be good.

Right on, Ellen and Manuel. This is what I have been saying publicly about the need for a broader design writing (and criticism) -- most recently in Colorado last week -- many times over, for years.
Rick Poynor


Please clarify what is meant by film criticism: Epert & Roper and Gilles Deleuze are both valid interpreters of the medium. Criticism for the masses is a wonderful thing, much like criticism for the connoisseur is a wonderful thing. But I take issue with any attempt to shoehorn a "one-size-fits-all" attitude onto what criticism should be.

The great thing about a discipline is that it can be practiced and enjoyed at any number of levels.
David Cabianca

The results of the Prospect global intellectuals poll mentioned in my post have been announced.

Interestingly, Noam Chomsky, very definitely a figure from the oppositional left, comes first by a considerable margin. Naomi Klein, perhaps a little more surprisingly, given her comparatively recent arrival on the international scene, comes in eleventh position. Rem Koolhaas is at number 51.

Twenty thousand people voted in the poll. In his overview for Prospect, reflecting on the end of the tradition of oppositional intellectuals, David Herman notes that "The overwhelming victory for Noam Chomsky suggests that we still yearn for such figures -- we just don't seem to be able to find any under the age of 70." That's not entirely true -- Klein fits the bill -- but point taken nonetheless.

It's striking, reviewing this long and fascinating thread, how little response there was to the idea of a design criticism informed by leftist thinking. Most recently, Ellen Lupton appears to sidestep the issue of opposition in her call for a more accessible public coverage of design.

At a certain stage threads become repetitious and unwieldy while key earlier points in the argument get overlooked, so I would like to bring the discussion to a close at this point. I hope to return to the theme of "post-criticality" in relation to visual communication in a future post. The idea is explicitly raised in some comments, but there seems to be an implicit assumption of the necessity for a post-critical position in many of the responses above.
Rick Poynor

Nowadays it's not easy to find good designers. This is why I'm pretty convinced of the importance of the role of designer critics: by judging the creative work of designers, they are functional to the creation of quality products, in every field. As an example, I've recently bought a lift top coffee table manufactured under the supervision of a creative designer: it's, without any doubt, one of the best piece of furniture of my entire house!

Jobs | July 23