04.25.18
Steven Heller | Opinions

Should Designers Be Design Critics? Why Not?

Is there a rule that designers should not write formal design criticism that triggers public discourse about another designer’s work? I’m not certain from where this taboo derives, though terms like “conflict of interest” and “prejudicial bias” seem to be among the rationales (as if conflicts, prejudices, and human nature always negate critical expression). Practitioners in other creative fields are not restricted. Most of the French Auteur filmmakers wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma about the experimental work being done in the nineteen-fifties and artists of all kinds write for Art in America and Art News, contributing both reportage and commentary. And guess who writes the reviews in The New York Times Book Review? Correct! Writers of books that address similar themes—and yes, sometimes they are biased, but more often they are not. Experts are not always detached observers. There is an expectation that debate and discourse emerge from within a field as well as from without. Of course, peer reviews are common in most professions and rigorous internal criticism is endemic to study. If indeed conflicts exist, usually members of said fields have ways to police this (sometimes the gatekeepers are called editors).

Design has reached a level of maturity where criticism is essential to intellectual conversation. In fact, such writing was more frequent ten and twenty years ago when there were more periodicals devoted to design than there are today. The venues for design criticism have shrunken and so have the number of critics. Meanwhile, in the mainstream press there are very few professional critics assigned to this beat; from time to time a general culture reporter picks up the slack. But the most effective critics are designers themselves—and not just by default. If designers are not empowered to critique their colleagues’ work, we are left with a void.
Criticism is not always an attack on someone or something; it is also analysis that includes history, context, and other relevant factors that result in a specific work.

Before going any further, it is worth noting that there are different degrees of criticism. Criticism is not always an attack on someone or something; it is also analysis that includes history, context, and other relevant factors that result in a specific work. To the argument that through critical commentary one designer may be attacking another, remember that there are personal opinions and there is thoughtfully researched interpretation. As uncomfortable as it may be to have one’s work on the receiving end of critique, the fact it is recognized even for its warts implies that the design or designer is significant enough to make the effort.

By the way, there is a big distinction between the large tent called design criticism and the small service known as reviewing. The former is holistic and demands of the critic knowledge and insight beyond a specific object. A review is often an individual’s opinion of a particular entity or event. Reviews are, more or less, a service that suggests how the user might experience the thing being reviewed. Criticism demands more investment from the writer to address issues that are triggered by the work.
Design criticism should be concerned with untangling the mysteries and intricacies of design for a larger public—to make design understandable and accessible.

Today, years after the graphic design criticism “movement” began, academics have picked up the baton. Discovering and clarifying the meanings and intentions of a work is, after all, one of their roles as scholars. But it is a limitation. Academics tend to address other academics. Design criticism should be concerned with untangling the mysteries and intricacies of design for a larger public—to make design understandable and accessible. And this is where the taboo about designers being design critics gets messy and where the idea of bias is flogged to death. Of course, there is bound to be bias (let’s call it “point of view”) in any criticism (that’s the definition), but it does not have to be detrimental. Of course, it is illuminating to read how non-designers think about design through their functional, formal, or aesthetic lenses and with their political, social, or technological points of view. But the non-designer may not see what the designer sees and comprehends.

There has to be a healthy balance of makers and thinkers—and a combination of both—writing critically about all forms of design. And not only about what design to consume (which is certainly useful), but also about how to develop design literacy so that it is not some rarified or mysterious process. If design is indeed everywhere, then those who critique its virtues and flaws must emerge from everywhere design touches—especially from the designers themselves.



Posted in: Theory + Criticism


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